John James Audubon's The Birds of America stands as an unparalleled achievement in American art, a huge book that puts nature dramatically on the page. With that work, Audubon became one of the most adulated artists of his time, and America's first celebrity scientist.
In this fresh approach to Audubon's art and science, Gregory Nobles shows us that Audubon's greatest creation was himself. A self-made man incessantly striving to secure his place in American society, Audubon made himself into a skilled painter, a successful entrepreneur, and a prolific writer, whose words went well beyond birds and scientific description. He sought status with the "gentlemen of science" on both sides of the Atlantic, but he also embraced the ornithology of ordinary people. In pursuit of popular acclaim in art and science, Audubon crafted an expressive, audacious, and decidedly masculine identity as the "American Woodsman," a larger-than-life symbol of the new nation, a role he perfected in his quest for transatlantic fame. Audubon didn't just live his life; he performed it.
In exploring that performance, Nobles pays special attention to Audubon's stories, some of which—the murky circumstances of his birth, a Kentucky hunting trip with Daniel Boone, an armed encounter with a runaway slave—Audubon embellished with evasions and outright lies. Nobles argues that we cannot take all of Audubon's stories literally, but we must take them seriously. By doing so, we come to terms with the central irony of Audubon's true nature: the man who took so much time and trouble to depict birds so accurately left us a bold but deceptive picture of himself.
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Creating Art, Science, and Self
Kind Reader,—Should you derive from the perusal of the following pages . . . a portion of the pleasure which I have felt in collecting the materials for their composition, my gratitude will be ample, and the compensation for all my labours will be more than, perhaps, I have a right to expect from an individual to whom I am as yet unknown.If anyone had been offering the nineteenth-century version of a MacArthur "genius grant," John James Audubon should have had one. To the extent that genius stems from abundant quantities of imagination, talent, and tenacity, Audubon repeatedly demonstrated all three. He dedicated almost his entire adult life to a remarkably challenging, maybe crazy-seeming commitment to depict, in both paint and print, every bird that flew over and within the United States. He succeeded in that task as no one had done before, and he did so at a great personal sacrifice, with almost no external support. He certainly could have used the MacArthur money.
—John James Audubon, "Introductory Address," in Ornithological Biography
Today, the main source of Audubon's enduring claim to genius remains the remarkable visual record he left as an artist. His major work—his "Great Work," as he liked to call it—was the famous collection of avian art, The Birds of America, which came out in a process of piecemeal publication between 1827 and 1838.
Bound together in four huge, heavy volumes, the 435 plates of bird images in the Double Elephant Folio edition define one of the most dramatic achievements in American art. Audubon's massive work has always been, almost by definition, a rare book, and it has recently become the most costly. In March 2000, a Double Elephant Folio sold at auction for $8,802,500, not only setting a record auction price for a book of natural history, but also surpassing earlier sales of the Gutenberg Bible ($5,390,000 in 1987) and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales ($7,565,396 in 1998) to set a world record amount for a printed book of any sort. Ten years later, in 2010, the price rose even higher, and a complete set of The Birds of America fetched $11.5 million.
But whatever its record-setting size and price, The Birds of America does not stand alone as the sole measure of Audubon's significance. His bird images are only the most visible—and now, of course, the most valuable—aspects of his larger project. In addition to being a skilled painter, he was also a remarkably prolific writer. Audubon wrote consistently, almost incessantly, throughout his adult years, and his outpouring of words, both published and personal, is especially impressive. He confessed at one point that he thought himself "far better fitted to study and delineate in the forests than to arrange phrases with sensible grammarian skill," but his skill with the pen ranks just a bit behind his mastery with the brush.
His major published work, the five-volume, three-thousand-page Ornithological Biography (1831-1839), came out as a companion piece to The Birds of America, and taken together, the two works make an innovative and interactive reading/viewing experience. In the time of Audubon's life, in fact, when newspapers and other publications reproduced any number of chapters and extracts from his writings, probably as many people read Audubon's words as saw his birds.
We still need to pay attention to his writing. In addition to producing the massive Ornithological Biography, Audubon filled thousands more pages as a prodigious journal keeper and letter writer, and those more personal documents provide an immense source of insight into the complicated persona emerging from behind the more famous paintings.
Many of those personal writings may not have been so personal after all. He seldom seemed to be writing for himself alone, in the self-reflective, therapeutic sense that many people keep journals today, but always with the notion that someone else would be reading—his wife, his sons, perhaps some broader audience, but certainly someone.
Audubon's sense of audience became more immediately evident in Ornithological Biography, in which he repeatedly wrote directly to his "Kind Reader"—a phrase that he used in some variation well over three hundred times—reaching out to embrace the reader as a fellow student of nature, sometimes even as a fictive companion in the search for birds.
Audubon sought to create a relationship with the reader—other gentlemen of science, to be sure, but equally important, ordinary people as well—that put himself squarely in the picture as a common man of the American frontier, even as he desperately sought the elevated status of a man of science in the early republic. By looking at Audubon's art and science, his painting and writing, his elite and popular audiences, we can situate his achievements in the larger cultural context of the new nation.
That larger context became a critical element of Audubon's relationship with the reader. His writings went well beyond birds, well beyond scientific description. In the first volume of Ornithological Biography, he generously offered to take his reader out of the "mazes of descriptive ornithology . . . by presenting you with occasional descriptions of the scenery and manners of this land."
Thus after every five chapters about birds, he would insert an "Episode" about something else altogether, typically an action-packed anecdote about his own experiences of tracking, shooting, and painting birds, or often some tale about other people—and quite often a tall tale at that. Audubon seldom let modesty (or, in many cases, accuracy) stand in the way of a good story, particularly about his own exploits. He once admitted in the pages of Ornithological Biography that if he could "with propriety deviate from my proposed method, the present volume would contain less of the habits of birds than of those of the youthful days of an American woodsman."
He stuck to his obligations to birds well enough, but, still, Ornithological Biography contains so many passages about Audubon himself that it could well be called "Ornithologist's Autobiography."
In whatever form, in fact, whether his published works or personal journals, Audubon almost always wrote about his life, and he was almost always writing a "Life," crafting various parts of the Audubon story that would both shape and reinforce the role he would so brashly embrace. Reading Audubon gives us by far the best way to see the way he created an always expressive, sometimes audacious, and certainly self-conscious sense of himself as an artist, as a scientist, and, above all, as a larger-than-life, self-fashioned symbol, the "American Woodsman."
Audubon's America, America's Audubon
In writing about Audubon's life myself, I do not offer this book as a "Life," as a standard biography, at least not in the sense of providing a chronological, cradle-to-grave account. Over a dozen biographies of Audubon have taken that approach, typically putting The Birds of America at the center, even the apex, of the narrative.
But chronology goes only so far in exploring a life as richly textured and culturally expressive as Audubon's. Instead, this book follows a different approach. To be sure, the first chapter explores the murky-seeming circumstances of Audubon's birth, and the last opens with transatlantic notices of his death; in between, the fourth chapter focuses on the most famous achievement of his life, the publication of The Birds of America. But The Birds of America defines only one aspect of Audubon's Great Work. Another was Audubon himself, and his work on that went well beyond his birds.
In its larger trajectory, this book departs from the day-to-day details and offers another way to look at Audubon, exploring more topically, and therefore perhaps more fully, the most meaningful elements of his life. Largely untrained in both art and science, he became one of the most notable men of his era in both, celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic. And in both art and science, it is the process of Audubon's becoming that matters most. Audubon worked for years to make himself a prolific and superb bird artist, and ultimately he succeeded as no one had before or, arguably, since. He also struggled to become a legitimate man of science, doggedly seeking and ultimately taking his place within the transatlantic scientific community. Equally important, though, he also chose to portray himself as an emblematic figure of his era. By devising the guise of the American Woodsman—a highly masculinized amalgam of art and science, but still a friendly denizen of the frontier—he defined a self-promoting notion of national identity that he also perfected in pursuit of transatlantic fame. The American Woodsman wasn't just a catchy nickname; it was a well-chosen role. Audubon didn't just live his life; he performed it.
He seemed perfect for the part. Art and science have many things in common: imagination, creativity, and the attempt to discover and express some fundamental form of information that we commonly call, for want of a more precise term, truth. Today we most commonly find art and science joined together in the modern university, where colleges of arts and sciences give the various academic disciplines an institutional home and a symbolic, if sometimes uneasy, union. In the early American republic, however, universities did not have the depth or diversity they do now. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the University of Pennsylvania's champion of natural history, Benjamin Smith Barton, complained about the intellectual offerings of American colleges, lamenting that "withered and dead" languages still defined the core curriculum, and, "as yet, little attention is paid to the study of nature in the United-States."
The antebellum era defined a time when art and science came together not so much in a complex institution, but more often in a single, albeit exceptional, individual. Audubon was certainly the most prominent of those, a man who stood squarely at the intersection of art and science at a time when natural history was becoming entwined with national history.
Audubon's America was a nation whose ambition seemed boundless. Between the time of the American Revolution and the Civil War, the United States embarked upon a geographically expansive and culturally possessive project, seeking to secure its hold on the continent while spreading over it at the same time. Artists and scientists played almost as much a role in that process as soldiers and settlers. Mapmakers extended the boundaries of the nation on paper, and in the process they helped people imagine the land of the future. Landscape painters depicted the American environment in large-scale, emotion-laden scenes, giving a dramatic, almost daunting power to nature that seemed to require heroic perseverance from its human inhabitants. Naturalists took it as their special mission to give greater emphasis and importance to scientific inquiry that focused on the beauty and abundance of the natural world on the American side of the Atlantic. To do so, they engaged in a massive collective (and quite often competitive) taxonomic attempt to discover, catalog, and classify all the species of America and, in many cases, to define them as distinctly American.
Audubon played his part as well as anyone could. He did not simply paint his birds as stiff specimens for close ornithological examination; he gave them life and location, creating animated images embedded in the American landscape. His unremitting quest to collect and depict hundreds of avian species represented an act of artistic and scientific possession: The Birds of America implicitly meant "The Birds of the United States." No one—not even illustrious landscape artists like Asher B. Durand and Thomas Cole or his fellow artist-naturalist Alexander Wilson—could claim a greater degree of engagement with nature in the new nation than Audubon. In an era when emerging mass communications trumpeted a triumphalist insistence on the unique achievements of the United States, Audubon became one of the most adulated artists of antebellum America, and certainly the new nation's first celebrity scientist.
He also became a businessman, an energetic entrepreneur who not only made a very valuable product, but also marketed it aggressively on both sides of the Atlantic. Audubon typically tried to downplay or disguise the overtly commercial implications of his efforts, preferring instead to portray himself as a man completely committed to his artistic and scientific concerns, too lost in his loftier pursuits to bother having a sharp eye on the bottom line. But in the years before he devoted himself fully to producing The Birds of America, he sought to make a living by investing both his time and money in a variety of business endeavors—a store, a steam-powered mill, a steamboat—that seemed emblematic of the economy of the early American republic. Even though those ventures ultimately failed—or as he would more readily admit, he himself failed—Audubon apparently did not fail to learn about the need for close commitment to one's work. His own Great Work became both profession and obsession, and he essentially ran the entire enterprise himself, keeping careful track of costs, keeping a close eye on labor, keeping good faith with his subscribers, and often dogging them to keep faith with him. As much as Audubon might resist being seen as a merchant or manager, he could hardly hide the business side of his persona.
But hiding became a central part of his persona. In pursuing his overlapping ambitions in art, science, and business, Audubon developed an elusive and elastic identity. He lived behind a translucent curtain of narrative deception, coy evasion, and outright lies. He could be more than a little loose with the truth about his own life, from his origins ("The precise period of my birth is yet an enigma to me"), to his personal associations ("Daniel Boon . . . happened to spend a night with me under the same roof"), to his exploits in the wild ("Snakes, loathsome and venomous, entwined my limbs"), to his entrepreneurial interests ("I . . . only now and then thought of making any money").
The American Woodsman served as a usefully mutable character, shifting from one story to the next to suit the need for a particular narrative effect. Much like Melville's fictional "Confidence Man," the "real" Audubon became a master of personal deception and reinvention.
With that in mind, this book proceeds from the notion that Audubon's frequent address to his "Dear Reader" now applies to us, and it invites us to read Audubon not only with considerable admiration for his literary skill, but also with a measure of skepticism about his meaning. Audubon's writing, exuberant and overblown as it could often be, offers a fascinating entrée into the intersection of American scientific and literary traditions in the first half of the nineteenth century. Many of the stories he told about himself, about other naturalists, or about ordinary Americans cannot be read as factual accounts that might yield a single, demonstrable "truth" about the events in Audubon's life. Quite often, his portrayals of other people create a contrast in character that cast Audubon in struggle against his competitors and detractors, mean-spirited men who would vilify and victimize him but would, in the end, serve as narrative foils for underscoring his eventual success. In other cases, though, some of Audubon's stories—including some of the more unsettling episodes about violence, race, and slavery—put him in a much less flattering light. It does no good to ignore or quickly dismiss these issues, as most earlier Audubon biographies have, or simply give Audubon a polite pass as being "a man of his time." Disturbing though they may certainly be, the unsavory aspects of Audubon's views of society are as important as his views of ornithology, and they have much to tell us about his time, even in ways that Audubon himself might not have intended or even fully understood. In the end, even if we are wise not to take all of Audubon's stories literally, we still need to take them seriously.
Doing so will ultimately be the best way to take Audubon himself seriously. Rather than trying to discern fact from fiction, it makes better sense to accept the various ambiguities and apparent contradictions in Audubon's life as a valuable avenue of approach to understanding his place in antebellum American culture. In the end, as much as we might celebrate Audubon's unmistakable impact in art and science, we must also appreciate the importance of personal ambiguity as a critical element of his identity as the American Woodsman. Taking the full measure of Audubon's "genius" begins with a fundamental point: One of his greatest creations was himself.
Table of Contents
Introduction. Creating Art, Science, and Self
Chapter 1. Becoming Audubon, Becoming American
Chapter 2. Hearing Birds, Heeding Their Call
Chapter 3. Making an Odyssey for Art and Ornithology
Chapter 4. Going into Business with The Birds of America
Chapter 5. Struggling for Status in Science
Chapter 6. Suffering for Science as the "American Woodsman"
Chapter 7. Putting People into the Picture
Chapter 8. Exploring the Ornithology of Ordinary People
Chapter 9. Forging a Legacy, Finding a Discipline
Chapter 10. Bringing Audubon Back to Life