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Audubon: The Last Days of Nature

The Audubon Folio

text by George Dock Jr.
Abrams, 32, 30 plates pp., $25.00

Audubon’s Wildlife

by Edwin Way Teale, with selections from the writings of John James Audubon
Viking, 264 pp., $15.00

John James Audubon

by Alice Ford
Oklahoma, 488 pp., $7.95

To take a fresh look at the whole phenomenon of Audubon just now is almost as difficult as it is painful. A single print, even in the best of modern reproductions, as in the lovely folio brought out now by Harry N. Abrams (a selection of thirty from the 435 engravings in the original Birds of America) is hard enough to see straight. The female Broad-winged Hawk spreads one wing to expose the barred and speckled underside, of such a pattern as Cavallini gave to angels’ wings balanced by the somber brown mass of the male, wings closed in a point that crosses the spectacular black-on-white stripes of his tail-feathers, and both forms are superbly part of a diagonal composition of which the basic line, upper left to lower right, is from the branch of pig-nut hickory. How has haute couture resisted these designs? The most demure, the pair of Cat Birds, for instance, with their subtle swatch of brick-red at the tail against a sprinkling of ripe and unripe blackberries and as nearly always with the land birds such an elegance of greens in the leaves would make the hit of a Paris season. Not to mention the somewhat operatic Flamingo, or that total wonder of composition, the Carolina Parrots, in a spray of cockleburr: brown sticks, sea-green feathers and heads with the plastic value of seven little nectarines. The question is whether we can really see them, or even remotely get at the man and the world that created them.

The human stature in this case is nearly incredible, but so have others been; and it is only a minor difficulty that in this century Audubon has been honored and institutionalized into a dim negative of the original, a nothing and everything, from the national conservation movement through the Saturday group scamper with notebook and binoculars; bird-addiction is one of our contemporary diseases, like alcoholism, and it bears his name. You can get through all that, even without giving up feeding the birds. The real trouble is that this mighty figure strikes at a point neuralgique of our present condition—the twin squeeze and sense of shrinkage that we live in, both in the physical spaces around us and inwardly. He is glorious where it hurts most. Not just in the reminder of what a horrid little schoolish and museum word Nature has become, or even the hideous dream of a place we have made and continue to make for ourselves out of the wonderful country he knew. Plenty of other pieces of Americana recall those losses. The special pain of thinking about Audubon these days, squashed as we are between the bull-dozer and the “identity crisis,” derives from the bizarre luck of his having had the combinations of genius exactly suited to the wild freshness and grandeur of the land in his time, and on the same scale, the physique and the moral guts equally necessary to his undertaking. As a monument to hardships of various kinds, and poverty, and humiliation, and despair, and resilience of spirit through it all, The Birds of America is a work of art as nearly unique as it is otherwise.

I suffered some mortification this morning in a house where I showed my birds.” “I am in despair…Daily the hope of completing my work seems less clear.” Even in 1838 when the four volumes of the Elephant Folio were finally completed, after twelve years of a new kind of Herculean labor drumming up subscriptions in England (fewer than 200 sets of the engravings were made, and some eminent subscribers including King George IV never paid) his troubles were not over, in spite of fame and friendships and recognition from many of the great in three countries. “A few will patronize poor Audubon in America,” said his one-time friend, the naturalist Charles Bonaparte, nephew of the Emperor. George Ord of Philadelphia, a partisan of Alexander Wilson but even more a representative of the eternal forces of spite, wrote and spoke everywhere about “the impudent pretender and his stupid book.” Not that Audubon cared about that. He called Ord and his English cohort in enmity, Waterton, two “beetles of darkness,” and went on about his business, but he still had no money. It was not until the small, cheaper edition of the Birds came out in America that he could afford to buy a house.

This crisis was always, nearly every day of his life from boyhood, when he struggled over his first bad drawings of birds in France, to the end when in spite of his fabulous strength he would die of premature exhaustion, aged not quite sixty-six. His identity was where it usually is if it is worth discovering, for an artist at any rate—in his work. He seems also to have been a man of great heart, gay, witty, a teller of tall tales in frontier style and certain fancy tidbits in another style, a good fencer and dancer and flutist, in his youth a superb ice-skater, and always a top marksman. He was perhaps Boone’s equal at finding his way in the wilderness, and after a few years’ experience is said to have been as good as any Indian at judging the distance of sounds in the forest. Necessarily absent a good deal of the time, and a pitifully poor provider until late in life, he managed nevertheless to hang on to a lasting structure of family love. But through and over everything was the fierce double drive of his mission, part art, part ornithology, and as immense and exacting in one respect as the other. It was the ruling principle long before his failures at everything else gave him the nerve to acknowledge it. “If I live to complete it, I will offer to my country-men a beautiful monument to the varied splendor of American nature.” “I am growing old fast, and must work at doublequick time to assure completion of my work.” The result, the only great art ever created out of this country’s natural materials, has of course powers beyond those of any mere record, and if the wreckers of the country, in their various guises according to the fashion of the decade, had a little more sense and authority it would be suppressed. With all of Audubon burned there would be far less danger of our taking in the full horror and nastiness of the “visual pollution,” “visual mayhem”—current newspaper phrases—and the other mayhems and pollutions being perpetrated on our land and therefore on our lives.

Yet in spite of the bird clubs, etc., and quite a spate of writing about him in the last twenty-five years, Audubon has remained a good deal more honored, one could say more familiar, than known. There are difficulties of several kinds. The plates are of course expensive to reproduce propertly; most versions one sees might as well be wallpaper, and those in the beautiful and complete one-volume Birds published by the Macmillan Company twenty-odd years ago have faded badly. That Audubon was nearly as remarkable a writer as painter has been a rather well-kept secret. The few efforts made to expose it, including a bad edition of the Journals and selections by Alice Ford from the three-thousand page Ornithological Biography, seem to have missed general currency. You won’t find Audubon as writer among the American “classics” in the bookstores or in most private libraries, or in the textbooks, although he unquestionably belongs there. Certain items of his biography were obscure—enough so that the myth of his being the lost Dauphin hung on here and there until rather recently. And furthermore he is a very complicated article, in the manner of Renaissance genius and with the American frontier thrown in, so the tendency has been to present one aspect or another at the expense of the rest. In some urban circles the “American Woodsman” tag, as much as his having been over-popularized in the wrong ways, may even have made for a touch of knowing condescension.

The full picture of Audubon—man, artist, writer, naturalist, frontiersman—has had to be pieced together as best one could, and still has to be. The three current contributions taken together add up to an exciting and valuable dose of the subject, but are likely to appeal to three very different categories of readers, or rather buyers. Separately none quite fills the bill or aims to, although the Abrams Folio, with its text by George Dock Jr. under separate matching cover, is so splendid in both parts, one only wishes there could be a lot more of both at half the price. Edwin Way Teale, the popular naturalist, has written his notes and made his selections from Audubon’s writing with no thought of art and in liaison with a quite horrible corruption of it. Alice Ford, whose previous Audubon work also includes editions of his moths and butterflies and of the quadrupeds, is here the painstaking academic biographer, to be read strictly for the facts—and fascinating they are.

The least satisfactory of the three is the Teale-Viking Press job, Audubon’s Wildlife. This is the real Christmas item, chock full of reproductions of which it is hard to decide which are the more deplorable, the black-and-white or the color; probably the latter, with their garish hues and slick paper; the black-and-white come out more mercifully with little character at all, which is not true of the discreet little black-and-whites in the Ford biography. There are about as many animals as birds, without attribution to the painter’s son, John Woodhouse Audubon, who did many of the quadrupeds. Although it is an oversized book the pictures have been brutally trimmed and shorn, among other things, of their legends, which in the originals lend their further dignity to Audubon’s exquisite use of plant life in conjunction with the birds. But of design in his sense very little could survive this kind of printing. What is there in its place is thoroughly Madison Avenue and very Christmasy indeed, e.g., bent around the jacket, the tortured version of Audubon’s Redheaded Woodpecker with a cherry in its mouth, straight off the crockery shelf in the gift shop. As to Mr. Teale’s very competent notes to the plates, one might only object, mildly, to the birdbook style and the absence of Audubon’s voice, which comes in so pleasantly through Mr. Dock’s similar notes. Probably the pieces from Audubon’s writings that appear in distinction to the notes were thought sufficient, and they are indeed what saves the book, in spite of the hodge-podge organization and the nuisance of five separate prefaces, all worthy though they are, by Mr. Teale.

Actually the jacket of this book is rather a cheat. It promises a gaudy gift package and delivers all right, but what Mr. Teale is really presenting above all is Audubon-as-conservationist. That can be done, and we certainly need all the conservationists dead or alive that we can get, so it is perhaps inevitable. It distorts the focus a little, though. Towards the end of his life Audubon did see that what had seemed an inexhaustible abundance of wildlife would not survive the despoiling of streams and forests and the kind of commercial slaughter that had set in, and he wrote some fine and passionate passages to that point, among them the great piece on the eggers of Labrador and the more famous one on the buffalo hunts that he took part in during his Missouri expedition, both included here. The buffalo pages, repetitive and overlong for so limited an anthology, are far from the best of Audubon; what they help to clarify, more polgnantly than the slaughter in question, is his unwillingness to show the Missouri Journal to his old friend John Bachman, his scientific collaborator on the Quadrupeds. The laborious trip, which brought to a sad end his long dream of reaching the Rockies, had been undertaken for that work, and Bachman was in despair at how little Audubon had brought back, not understanding that the artist’s almost superhuman vigor of body and mind was at last giving out.

The piece on beavers, a second-hand account, is an even poorer choice, made presumably for the same reason—to build up the case for conservation. Ditto but more properly, since it is very fine writing, the account of the killing of millions of Passenger Pigeons in a single night, perhaps the most vivid pages ever written on man’s ravages vis-à-vis the natural world. As Mr. Teale puts it, Audubon underestimated the consequences, thinking the flocks too enormous and too prolific to be done in even by the methods he was describing; whereas in fact the last Passenger Pigeon on earth died in the Cincinnati zoo in 1914. What Audubon actually wrote was: “Persons unacquainted with these birds might naturally conclude that such dreadful havoc would soon put an end to the species. But I have satisfied myself, by long observation, that nothing but the gradual diminution of our forest can accomplish their decrease, as they not infrequently quadruple their number yearly, and always at least double it.” As our forests have been brought down at least as insanely as the birds were, and we still barely manage with the most bitter wrangling to protect an occasional grove, the editor might have done better to question which of the two causes had been more lethal.

One trouble with this version of Audubon, drawn though it is from his own words, is that it tends to underplay the hunter and a certain depth of sympathy with birds and animals that was basic to the character of the old-fashioned hunter when he happened to be a decent fellow. It used to be an obvious fact about that now vanishing breed of Americans, not the boozed-up weekend killer, but the man truly at home in the woods and who would sooner be without his pants than his gun, that they were apt to care infinitely more about wild creatures than the usual run of meat-eating sentimentallists then or now. To such a hunter, it could be a matter of intense suffering not to be able to despatch a wounded bird or animal, a sentiment very often expressed by Audubon, along with others like it, as in his description of the Arctic Tern repeatedly trying to caress and revive its dead mate on the water. Yet for years he considered it a poor day when he had not bagged a hundred birds. It was from that order of rapport with nature—the easy fitting in with “the solitude of our noble forests” and their largesse, the exactness of observation, the intimate knowledge of a million zoological and botanical details not even thought of as things to know (not the self-conscious one that Mr. Teale must plead for and that we are all in some measure driven to now)—that Audubon drew the impulse of his art; and it is as an artist not a cause-monger that he compels. It is quite irrelevant to that impulse, and historically not coincident with it—unless the first inkling of a tragedy is to be lumped together with its dénouement—that part of what he compels us to is nausea at our present surroundings. The Wild Turkey in the canebreak, the Painted Finches on a sprig of chickasaw plum, the description of the Winter Wren’s eggs, “of a delicate blush color, somewhat resembling the paler leaves of a partially decayed rose,” could do more for the conservation and anti-uglification cause than all the accounts of killings and pollutions. For an extinct species it is easy not to grieve.

However, this ungainly volume, does include some of the finer bits of Audubon’s writings, and forgetting the art side, they are enough to be grateful for. Why the piece on the Phoebe and a dozen others are not required reading in our schools, even without regard to the place of Nature these days in the curriculum, baffles the imagination, but they are not only for children by any means. The extent and near ferocity of exact observation of nature that they record is beyond almost anything in literature, including Pliny, who worked out of libraries, and Aristotle, who had a staff working for him; Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle is a fair parallel in that one respect. The range of mood and matter is enormous; a living personality of great scale is present all the way through—Audubon was so unbookish, he seems not to have been aware of the extraordinary fashion in which he was blending the personal and the objective. Frontier life comes through at its most vivid, not only in the deliberate “Episodes” that he scattered through the bird commentaries. But the point is simply that he was a natural-born writer and could have been a great one if he hadn’t satisfied his deepest drives in another art. Of course he bogs down at times; he wrote as an amateur, and at a furious pace, the opposite of his approach to painting. The opening of the Whooping Crane section is straight out of Thomson’s “Seasons,” which in fact he had just been reading on the six-weeks voyage to Liverpool, going to hawk his wares of over twenty years. But there are not many lapses. His hen flying overboard at sea, done in a few lines, is a hen hard to forget, and way up from that in the scale of virtuosity, a sheer luminous power with words, are any number of flights of the pen as on the opossum climbing a tree with a half-dead squirrel in its mouth, or the Bald Eagle in its terrible attack on a swan. In veins as typical and in a way moving, though with a slight barrier of the old-fashioned for us now, are his joy in the song of the Woodthrush, and the lyrical drift with his wife Lucy down what it was still possible to call “the beautiful Ohio.”

All three of these commentators go into his errors in ornithology, which were astonishingly few considering the time and the circumstances. Mainly it was a question of mistaking the young of a species for a new species. On some so-called errors that made for rabid controversy at the time he was vindicated, notably in his contention that the vulture was guided by sight rather than smell, and in the notorious rattlesnake question, brought on by his charmingly lurid painting of the Mockingbirds defending nest from snake. As against those who claimed otherwise and quite venemously, it was eventually borne out that rattlesnakes do climb trees and that one species does have a re-curved fang as he had shown it. That he was guilty in one instance of reversing and claiming as his own an engraving by Alexander Wilson, his only predecessor as American painter-ornithologist, whom he knew slightly, seems to be true, but is left rather obscure in these present accounts.

Not much else is on the factual level. He was born in 1875 in San Domingo, now part of Haiti, the son of a French sea-captain from Nantes and a young woman from the same province, who had traveled on the captain’s ship as a servant and who died soon after his birth. Evidently the reason for his own fanciful versions of the matter, which gave rise to the Dauphin legend, was the combination of his mother’s having highly respectable relatives in Brittany and his father’s having several other illegitimate children, all mulatto, in Haiti, plus a childless and much older wife in France. The wife was very nice about it all, loved the child when he was brought to France to escape the imminent Negro uprisings on the island (in which his eldest half-sister was murdered), and joined with the wayward husband in adopting the boy at the time of the Terror. In 1803 he was sent to Pennsylvania to look after a property belonging to his father; married into a well-born family of English settlers there, which must have been another reason for not publicizing his true origin; and proceeded to Kentucky, where he failed in one business after another to the point of being jailed for debt. His two infant daughters died around that time; he painted riverboat saloons and five-dollar portraits up and down the Mississippi; had his whole folio of bird paintings ruined once by rats and once by gunpowder; and in those “darkest days” reached the resolution, so buoyant it is hard to avoid the dangerous word ecstasy for it, of carrying out the vast project of the Birds.

Alice Ford, unlike other biographers including Mr. Dock, makes a big point of denying that he ever studied with the painter David in Paris. She may be right, but her only stated evidence, aside from some unscholarly innuendoes of her own (“He had every intention of mentioning Jacques-Louis David…” “He wished them to absorb his illusions to ‘his old Master David’…”) is the rather shaky say-so of Charles Bonaparte. She also holds back whatever evidence she may have for dismissing as “fanciful” one of the most famous of the Audubon “Episodes,” about the night in a cabin where he and a wounded Indian were nearly murdered by their crone hostess and her two evil sons. As often in this type of biography, the strain of so many names and documents makes for an occasional breakdown into such writing as, “Not once did his eyes leave Lucy’s face,” and “In his mind’s eye he could see…” However, anyone versed in previous Audubon literature, especially Constance Rourke’s biography published in 1936, will want to check in here for certain corrections. For the generally civilized reader, if not the specialist, Mr. Dock’s lucid and beautifully controlled exposition of many aspects of the subject, a rare feat in so short an essay, would be more profitable; and besides any civilized American with twenty-five dollars will be buying the Abrams Folio anyway. It is a necessity.

Of its thirty prints, six are Audubon at his most dramatic, excluding the Mocking-Birds, which was evidently thought too storyish for modern taste; all of these, the Arctic Tern, the Great Blue Heron, the Trumpeter Swan with its neck looped back toward a butterfly on a gauze of water, etc., have been cheapened by over-familiarity, but are actually brilliant tours-de-force and also crucial for the variety of moods and manners of composition in which Audubon was unique. A few, e.g., the Louisiana Heron, the Belted Kingfisher, have the conventional period backgrounds associated with the artist Lehman, who came in as assistant in the final years of publication. The master’s hand kept them from doing too much harm, but it is delightful to turn from these to the prints without background, whether predominantly birds on white, or greater still, as with the wonderful Florida Jay, the Meadow Lark, or the Baltimore Oriole, birds and plant life in one weirdly masculine triumph of design. To be sure these are not quite the original Havell Folio. To experience one of those four-volume sets, and there are some in this country, is to come out walking in majesty, robed in birdsong. But this is probably as close to perfection as modern art printing could have come. Among the many well-known but still pertinent items supplied by Mr. Dock are the following: fifty colorists worked twelve years on the engravings, a total of around 82,000 sheets, which were done entirely at Audubon’s expense; the Havell copper plates were all destroyed in a fire in Manhattan, but most of the original paintings are held by the New York Historical Society; many sets were broken up and sold over the counter; the Wild Turkey is considered the most valuable single print, with the Wood Duck not far behind.

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