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 …

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