John James Audubonby Published 11 Apr 2006
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John James Audubon came to America as a dapper eighteen-year-old eager to make his fortune. He had a talent for drawing and an interest in birds, and he would spend the next thirty-five years traveling to the remotest regions of his new country–often alone and on foot–to render his avian subjects on paper. The works of art he created gave the world its idea of America. They gave America its idea of itself.
Here Richard Rhodes vividly depicts Audubon’s life and career: his epic wanderings; his quest to portray birds in a lifelike way; his long, anguished separations from his adored wife; his ambivalent witness to the vanishing of the wilderness. John James Audubon: The Making of an American is a magnificent achievement.
"John James Audubon" Reviews
I get caught up in the belief that I am going to enjoy true-adventure stories, but they usually let me down. I get that John James Audubon was an amazing individual who did something that set him apart from other explorers; I just don’t need a five-hundred-page account of where he was when he painted every bird he ever found. The story is lacking something and needs to be sexier.
As a birder, I've always known that we owed a lot to John James Audubon. But until I read this biography, I hadn't realized quite how much American ornithological history owes to one man's quest to document the species of birds found in this country (or at least, once did).
This book was given to me by a friend almost a year ago, and it took me this long to give it the attention it deserved. The biography covers the life - and times - of John James Audubon, author and illustrator of the "Birds of America" book that would define the species that existed in the times that a new country was forming.
Not only does it give us a detailed look at Audubon's life - French ex-patriot, store owner, husband, adventurer, father, writer, ornithologist and artist - but it gives us a good look at the time period in which he lived, framing it in his quest to produce the massive tome of illustrations, but still giving us valuable insight into how the world was - particularly the fledgling United States - in those early years.
Author Richard Rhodes does a remarkable job at giving the reader a solid and thorough accounting of Audubon's remarkable life story, starting with his illegitimate birth to his rise to become the most famous birder in the world. Through a combination of thorough research and remarkable records of letters, journals and thoughts from contemporaries, we get to see into the mind of this artist as he took a remarkable habit and turned it into an art and then into a lifestyle.
Perhaps just as important as the story of Audubon's own life is the story of the world around him at the time, and his views on that world. We learn what it was like in the late 1700s in America, as the populace struggled to define themselves and survive the frontier they were trying to tame; we see the world of the expanding U.S., seeing the territories of Kentucky, Louisiana and the rest through the stories and records of a remarkable man. And interestingly, we get to see what might have been the first conservationist, as Audubon looked upon the 'advancement' of the American peoples at the expense of the natural settings and creatures he loved so much.
No review in this space can truly grasp the enormity of the information captured in this book. Part biography, part natural history and part world history, "JJA: The Making of an American" is a book that will appeal to birders, obviously, but will also find a special place with anyone who loves to learn about where we came from as an American people.
This review ran in the San Jose Mercury News on October 17, 2004:
John James Audubon produced his paintings of the birds of America by killing, skinning and dissecting thousands of them. Those astonishing images of birds full of life -- flying, fighting, mating, preening, feeding their young -- were achieved by mounting dead birds on a contraption of his own devising: ''Sharpened wires embedded in a board onto which he could impale his fresh specimens in lifelike attitudes,'' as Richard Rhodes describes it.
We cringe at facts like that, and I wouldn't be surprised if someone who reads Rhodes' brilliant new book quits the Audubon Society and joins People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals instead. But though it may be a sin to kill a mockingbird, how else are you going to depict a mockingbird accurately if you have no cameras, no color film, no telephoto lenses?
Rhodes' marvelously detailed and readable new biography lets us see anew what an extraordinary achievement Audubon's ''Birds of America'' was. Audubon's contributions to art and science not only earned him recognition as a Fellow of the Royal Society of London -- only the second American (the first was Benjamin Franklin) to achieve that honor -- but also, Rhodes points out, directly influenced Charles Darwin.
One of the revelations provided by history and biography is how the world changes. Rhodes' account of the life and times of Audubon is not only a portrait of an amazing man, it's also a look at untamed America in the early 19th century, a journey into a wilderness that was vanishing before Audubon's own eyes -- so fast that in 1833, 30 years after he first set foot in America, he wrote, ''Nature herself is perishing.''
When the 18-year-old Frenchman came to the United States in 1803, he was only a few years younger than the country itself. He came from a country that had recently experienced the grisly turmoil of the Reign of Terror, and that now threatened to draft him into the army Napoleon was assembling to conquer Europe. France had a population of 27 million; there were only 6 million people in the United States, Rhodes tells us, ''two-thirds of them living within fifty miles of Atlantic tidewater.''
What better place for a man to reinvent himself? And Audubon was already adept at reinvention: He was born out of wedlock to a chambermaid on his father's sugar plantation in what's now Haiti, and until he was 8 years old his name was Jean Rabin. When his father's wife agreed to raise the child, he was renamed Jean-Jacques Fougere Audubon. He later began calling himself John James LaForest Audubon, and throughout his life he made up stuff about himself: that he had studied with the artist Jacques-Louis David, for example, or that he was born in Louisiana.
Audubon's fibs have not endeared him to some people. Rhodes quotes, for example, the art historian-critic Robert Hughes' characterization of Audubon as ''self-inflated, paranoid and a bit of a thug.'' But Rhodes presents us with a very different Audubon, one who was many things: a handsome, charismatic, driven artist; an intrepid woodsman; a meticulous researcher; a perfectionist; an extraordinarily successful self-promoter; and a devoted husband and father.
Audubon's was an epic life. Slipping free of the constraints and bloody conflicts of early 19th-century Europe and the raw new civilization taking hold in the eastern United States, he made his way into the wilderness of the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys. He married a woman nearly as intrepid as he -- Lucy Bakewell, who had emigrated from England with her family. They tried to make a go of it running a mill in the rough little river town of Henderson, Ky., but you sense that Audubon's fascination with birds, which he had already begun to paint, was a distraction that would doom any mundane business he put his hand to.
When the business failed, he supported his family by teaching art and painting portraits -- much in demand in that time before photography -- in Louisville and Cincinnati, while continuing to build up his portfolio of American birds. Eventually, as Rhodes puts it, he ''reimagined himself as a one-man ornithological expeditionary force'' and in 1820 he set out downriver, leaving Lucy behind to raise their two sons. The next decade of the Audubons' married life would be a series of long separations and brief reunions as he assembled his collection of images and sailed to England to try to get it published.
As Rhodes observes, ''Europe was more curious to know America than America was yet curious to know itself.'' Audubon's work caused a sensation in England and France, and the publication of ''Birds of America'' gave this self-made American fame and fortune.
It won't surprise anyone who read Rhodes' Pulitzer Prize-winning ''The Making of the Atomic Bomb'' that his Audubon biography is a masterly piece of storytelling. To be sure, the documentation available to him was generous -- Audubon left a clear paper trail; he was a prolific journal-keeper and letter writer, and the long separation of husband and wife made dutiful, detailed correspondence necessary, even though their letters would sometimes take many months in the delivery. But it falls to Rhodes to give Audubon's story texture and shape and significance, and he succeeds splendidly.
If I had to fault the book, I'd say that Rhodes never quite puts his finger on the source of Audubon's compulsive devotion to painting birds. Following the lead of one of Audubon's autobiographical writings (not always, as we've seen, the most reliable source), he ascribes it to a desire to ''revivify the dead,'' born of the young Audubon's witnessing of cruel death during the Terror. But nothing will ever quite explain the passion that drove Audubon to walk hundreds of miles in uncharted land, to plunge into snake-infested swamps and dense forests and in one instance that Rhodes beautifully re-creates, to climb inside a hollow tree swarming with chimney swallows, all in pursuit of knowledge of bird life.
Rhodes is simply awed by what Audubon accomplished: ''When he set out to create a monumental work of art with his own heart and mind and hands, he succeeded -- a staggering achievement, as if one man had single-handedly financed and built an Egyptian pyramid.'' Rhodes hasn't built any pyramids, but he should be fairly proud of his own achievement: an absorbing, revealing, entertaining biography, the best I've read this year.
I've decided reading biographies is quite strange. How weird it is to experience a person's entire life, from birth to death, griefs and hopes, failures and victories, empathy and apathy. Autobiographies, I think, are much more biased, as people want to present themselves in a certain light. But a biography...a biography doesn't turn away when bankruptcies come, children die, sickness ravishes, and friends turn away. Good biographies flip your emotional state like a child playing with a lightswitch.
As far as a review of the book, I would say it was an average or above average biography. It seemed very well researched, and fairly well presented. (100 pages of notes and citations always impresses me.)
As far as a review of the life it concerns: can anyone really rate someone's life? But it was indeed quite interesting, I learned a lot, and I felt very deeply.
I'd give this six stars if I could. Rhodes knows his stuff. He's a meticulous researcher, but even better, he tells a riveting tale. I had trouble putting this down, and Jeff began to curse Audubon. If you want a true story of love and hardship, adventure and art, perseverance and foresight . . . well, this is it. Rhodes draws on journals as well as personal and business letters to make his tale personal, detailed, and poignant. Loved it.