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Larger than Life

The Original Water-color Paintings by John James Audubon for “The Birds of America”

From the Collection of the New-York Historical Society, Introduction by Marshall B. Davidson
American Heritage (Distributed by Houghton, Mifflin), 2 vols. pp., $75.00

John James Audubon: A Biography

by Alexander B. Adams
Putnam’s, 510 pp., $7.95

The life of John James Audubon was full of ambiguities, contradictions, frustrations, alienations. with such attributes, his biography could easily meet the fashionable specifications of our own period. But he was also a man of heroic mold, and heroes for the moment are not fashionable. What is worse for his present fame, he was, within his strict avian limits, a skilled draughtsman, indeed a consummate artist; and that is a severe disqualification in an age populated by solemn popcorny jokesters who transfer nothingness to a canvas and sell it as art, or who crown such vacuous achievements by erasing nothingness and coyly signing their names to that double nonentity.

In order to characterize either the new edition of Audubon’s Birds of America or the latest biography I find it necessary to outline Audubon’s life, for I have fallen in love with the man and his work all over again, as Melville fell in love with Hawthorne’s enchanting mind. The most charitable thing one can say about Mr. Alexander Adams’s biography is that he found Audubon’s character so disenchanting and his whole career so distasteful, that only the most severe moral discipline could have kept him at his self-imposed task. In retelling Audubon’s story I shall do justice to both Audubon and his new biographer; for I shall show that each is—in quite contrasting ways—strictly for the birds.

Jean Jacques Fougère Rabin Audubon, also nicknamed La Forêt, was born it now seems clear in 1785. But every attempt to unravel the mystery of his parentage only makes a greater mystery of equally valid documents and reported events, including some of Audubon’s own letters to his wife. His childhood memories, curiously, did not go back farther than when he was eight, as a boy in Nantes, supposedly brought to France at four by his sea-going merchant father, Jean Audubon. Whether Audubon’s early memories were erased by shock or deliberately suppressed or confusedly interwoven with an improbable past, which he was bound under oath to his father to conceal, we shall never know. Supposing he was indeed, as rumor long hinted, the lost Dauphin of France, whisked out of prison during the revolution in 1793, certain princely traits in Audubon’s character would be easier to explain. If on the other hand, Audubon was actually the illegitimate son of the sea-captain and a Santo Domingan Creole woman, this would hardly account for his uncertainty about dates and birthplaces and his sometimes imperfect sense of reality. But if his life was actually based on a fiction, that might well be responsible for his free and loose way of dealing with other parts of it, as it were a fictitious incident in the same improbable fairy story of a stolen prince condemned to obscurity.

At all events the verifiable story of Audubon’s life begins only at the late age of eleven. From then on it can be followed with confidence till he died, old before his time, his mind crumbling away during the last four years, in 1851.

FROM THE OUTSET, Audubon bore the unmistakable brand of his own genius for even as a child he was a passionate lover of birds, and soon became an indefatigable egg-snatcher, hunter, collector, and limner of birds. Behind that impulse was a traumatic incident in his childhood, which he recognized as having an influence on his later life. He had witnessed a pet monkey cold-bloodedly attack and kill a favorite talking parrot, himself agonized because his outraged screams did not move a servant to intervene. Though his own love for birds did not prevent him from killing them for closer observation or for food, even as the equally humane Alfred Russel Wallace did later, one may interpret his pictures, in the light of this early event, as so many zealous efforts to restore dead birds to life. That desire dominated his existence, and as far as art may ever truly preserve life, he marvelously succeeded.

Handsome, headstrong, volatile, foolhardy, as bored with book learning as was young Darwin, Audubon was cut out for life on the American frontier. This, as much as his father’s wish to save him from becoming a Napoleonic conscript, perhaps led his watchful parent to ship the lad at eighteen off to the New World, to look after Mill Grove, a farm with a lead mine he had acquired in Pennsylvania. Audubon, brought up luxuriously by a doting stepmother, ever ready to spoil him, arrived in the United States in 1803, full of highfallutin airs and pretensions. He later laughed at himself for having gone hunting in silk stockings and the finest ruffled shirt he could buy in Philadelphia. He played the flute and the violin, was a daring skater, a famous dancer, an expert fencer, and a crack shot with the rifle. In short, the perfect old-style aristocrat, proud, hot-tempered, careless of danger, and even more gaily careless of money—the precise opposite of the canny, methodical, money-making philistine that his new biographer tirelessly reproaches him for not being.

With this heady combination of qualities, Audubon might easily have been slain in a duel or have turned into a good-for-nothing Don Juan, frittering away his life in aimless erotic adventures. But he was saved by his two lifelong loves: his love of birds and his love of Lucy Bakewell, a girl on a neighboring estate, Fatland Ford, whom he courted in a cave, where they watched the peewees that fascinated him. At the end of five years, the reserved girl and the exuberant French coxcomb married and started their lives afresh as pioneers in the newly settled land beyond the Alleghenies. Almost overnight, Audubon changed his silks for leather hunting clothes and let his hair grow down to his shoulders: and in the course of his life, he gradually turned into an archetypal American, who astonishingly combined in equal measure the virtues of George Washington, Daniel Boone, and Benjamin Franklin.

In the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys, from Cincinnati and Louisville to New Orleans, Audubon found a mode of life that fulfilled his deepest need, as deep as his love for Lucy: direct contact with nature in every aspect and above all with the teeming animal and bird life of river, swamp, and woodland, at a time when the passenger pigeons periodically blackened the skies, and many species of bird, now extinct, were still thriving. Years later, in recollection. Audubon still thrilled over this life, though he had encountered his share of the frontier’s rapscallions, bullies, thieves, and cutthroats. “I shot, I drew, I looked on nature only; my days were happy beyond human conception…. The simplicity and whole-heartedness of those days I cannot describe: man was man, and each, one to another, a brother.” So he remembered that early period; and even at the end of his career he sought to recover the wild gamey taste of this frontier existence in his last Missouri River expedition. He shared, too, the pioneer’s love for tall stories, wild humor, practical jokes; and sometimes, as in the gulling of the visiting naturalist, Raffinesque, with drawings of wild creatures that existed only in his fantasy, he got himself into hot water as a reliable naturalist by forgetting how these backwoods jokes might look in print.

ONLY ONE PART of this existence was repulsive to Audubon, though his obligations as a family man made him go erratically through the motions: the necessity of making a living by trade. His career as a business man was a most extravagant practical joke that he played on himself: a predestined but and victim through his own impulsive, generous nature. His own words tell everything. “Merchants crowded to Louisville…None of them were, as I was, intent on the study of birds, but all were deeply impressed by the value of dollars. I could not bear to give the attention required by my business.” On more than one journey, he confessed, he would thoughtlessly leave his horses unguarded, though laden with goods and dollars, to watch the motions of a warbler.

While Audubon’s knowledge of birds became steadily richer, his business ventures, culminating in a crazy investment in a steam mill, made him poorer. Finally, in 1819, a time of general economic crisis, everything went to smash. He was jailed for debt and was declared bankrupt. Audubon always blamed his own bad judgment for what happened; but the misery of finding himself down and out was intensified by the deaths of his two sickly little daughters; and he had to start life again from scratch, at thirty-four, with only his clothes, his drawing outfit, and his gun. But from that low point on, though one would hardly guess it from Mr. Adams’s biography, the curve of his life went upward for the next quarter of a century.

Until Audubon made the decision that launched his four-volume work on The Birds of America, he and his Lucy went through half-a-dozen grim years that might have broken and permanently embittered a less stable couple. Driven to turn his attention partly from birds to human faces, in order to make a living as a limner of quick portraits, Audubon lived a penurious, vagrant life, as drawing teacher, dancing master, taxidermist. Meanwhile Lucy was left to fend largely for herself, as governess and teacher, while rearing their two sons, Victor and John Woodhouse. These were bitter years for both Audubon and his wife: years of recurrent poverty, frequent separation, partial alienation, blank despair. Even after Audubon’s fortunes began to mend, Lucy seems to have distrusted his buoyant faith in their future, and to have openly doubted his ability to support his family and make their marriage again become a reality. But, determined both to establish his work and salvage his marriage, Audubon drew from his love for his wife and his sons the strength he needed to overcome his recurrent depressions and to go on. The phrenologists who described Audubon as a strong and constant lover and an affectionate father guessed right about his nature.

None of Audubon’s biographers is able to give a full account of this marriage: Who for that matter has ever given an even half-way full account of any marriage? But enough letters have been preserved, in addition to some of Audubon’s journals, to indicate that this couple furnish a classic example of the opposed temperamental types that Freud first defined as oral and anal: let us call them, on a less infantile level, the spenders and the hoarders. Lucy, her letters show, was a downright, matter-of-fact soul; and from the meager evidence that remains one suspects that there must have been reservations, tensions, dissatisfactions almost from the beginning; for Lucy, brought up in comfort, could not share the hunter’s unfettered outdoor pleasures, and worse, she did not have any birds to fall back on.

Lucy, in her tight, watchful, realistic, “practical,” anxious way was the kind of woman who so often, once the first glamor of sexual intimacy has faded, leads a man to seek the carefree sympathy or the more relaxed erotic play of another woman. Fortunately, as far as negative evidence may indicate, Audubon’s mistresses were all birds; and whatever Lucy’s doubts and inhibitions, he never lost faith in their common destiny. “If I were jealous,” Lucy once remarked. “I should have a bitter time of it, for every bird is my rival.” Not that this dashing, warmhearted man was ever insensitive to the charms of women, whether they were his seventeen-year-old pupil, Eliza Pirrie, or the unidentifiable New Orleans woman who raised an erotic storm in his bosom by commissioning him to do a portrait of her, naked, or even a neat plump serving maid, “tripping as briskly as a killdeer.”

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