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A Life Evolved in Tandem with America

A review by Elizabeth J. Rosenthal

John James Audubon: The Nature of the American Woodsman, by Gregory Nobles

University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017

352 pages, hardcover

ABA Sales / Buteo Books 14844

When 18-year-old John James Audubon arrived in America from Napoleonic France in August 1803, he was accomplished in the youthful pursuits of the privileged. His father, Captain Jean Audubon, had made a fortune from slave labor on a sugar plantation in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti). According to the biographer Richard Rhodes, young Audubon “could sing, dance, play the flute, the violin, and the recorder-like flageolet, fence, hunt, shoot, and ride and draw.” By the time of his death in 1851, Audubon’s occupations had dramatically expanded. He was a bird artist, writer, naturalist, and explorer, and, less glamorously, a door-to-door salesman, quality-control specialist, and debt collector. Audubon was one of America’s first celebrities, renowned at home and abroad for his ornithological achievements and rugged frontier persona. Being handsome and charismatic didn’t hurt. At the height of his fame, newspapers reported on his comings and goings.

Audubon’s life has been well chronicled over the past century-plus by over a dozen biographers, with two particularly well-received volumes published since 2000: Rhodes’s John James Audubon: The Making of An American (Knopf, 2004) and Under a Wild Sky by William Souder (North Point Press–Farrar, 2004), the latter a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize. Now, from the University of Pennsylvania Press, comes John James Audubon: The Nature of the American Woodsman by Gregory Nobles, Professor Emeritus of History at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Another Audubon biography? Haven’t his life’s details been thoroughly mined? Nobles aims to understand Audubon anew. In his introduction, Nobles writes, “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.” Nobles thus gives us thematic chapters like “Struggling for Status in Science,” “Suffering for Science as the ‘American Woodsman’,” and the cleverly titled “Putting People Into the Picture.” He suggests that Audubon’s life evolved in tandem with America’s. Adventurers, soldiers, settlers, artists, and scientists all played important parts in America’s growth. Says Nobles: “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.”

Before the American Revolution, Nobles tells us, the French naturalist the Comte de Buffon antagonized his New World counterparts by arguing in his Histoire Naturelle that nature in the Americas was degenerate.Working from some curious assumptions, Buffon posited that, due to a “comparatively cool, humid climate,” life forms in the New World were smaller than Europe’s, less robust, less diverse, and less interesting. Thomas Jefferson’s rebuttal appeared in 1785 in his Notes on the State of Virginia.

Well into the 1800s, Buffon’s caricature still hurt. An incensed Scottish immigrant, Alexander Wilson, the author–artist of American Ornithology, refuted Buffon’s claims that American songbirds had originally migrated from Europe to become less beautiful and less melodious versions of themselves. Nobles points out that while Buffon had described the Wood Thrush as a “migrant from Europe whose song in America had degenerated into a harsh and unpleasant cry…Wilson countered that the ‘fanciful theory which this writer has formed to account for its want of song, vanishes into empty air’.”

As Nobles shows, Audubon was obsessed with overshadowing Wilson’s celebrated career in bird art and study, and in the numbers of species discovered, described, and drawn. In the effort to be accepted by scientists and laypersons alike, Audubon tweaked his biography—for example, the circumstances surrounding his birth and upbringing. Audubon was born on his father’s Saint-Domingue plantation to a Creole mistress, Jeanne Rabin, who died weeks later. When unrest among slaves and free blacks threatened the safety of the white population, Captain Audubon brought his son and Rose, a mixed-race half-sister, also born out of wedlock, home to Madame Audubon in Nantes, France. Audubon would later speak and write vaguely about his family background to his wife, sons, and members of the public, blaming the lack of precision on his father. When he did mention details, he claimed a white mother of Spanish extraction; people assumed that he had been born in the Louisiana territory during his father’s New World travels.

Nobles suggests that Audubon was, like his half-sister Rose, of mixed race: “[L]ike other powerful European inhabitants of Saint-Domingue, a ‘country almost totally devoid of morals’, Jean Audubon also took sexual advantage of the dependent women in Saint-Domingue, a highly sexualized society that one scholar has described as a ‘libertine colony’.” On the manifest of the ship taking the children to France, their father changed the racial identity of Audubon’s half-sister to “white” and the last name of her mother to that of Audubon’s, Rabin. Referring to an African American tradition that Audubon was of “African descent,”Nobles asks, “If one child of Captain Audubon could be given a new racial identity by assigning her to a different mother and calling her ‘white,’ could not another?”

The young United States had a strict caste system founded on race. In free states, race often dictated legal rights and social status. In slave states, where Audubon and his family spent most of their time (in Kentucky, Louisiana, or traveling in between), the enslavement of hundreds of thousands of African Americans was supported by a reading of the Bible requiring black people’s subjugation. The South’s authoritarian legal and social structures meant that no one, black or white, could challenge slavery’s legitimacy. During the years of Audubon’s business success, he owned slaves himself.

Audubon’s business ventures as a young husband and father of two boys ranged from storekeeping to the operation of a steam-powered gristmill to trading in New Orleans. Nobles says that Audubon “reveled in the delightful diversions of his business trips, which gave him ample opportunities to track down birds while he should have been looking after his merchandise.” The failures of his various enterprises and the financial panic of 1819 put an end to further commercial aspirations. Now he was free to seek birds and record them in words and life-size pictures. He hoped to eventually sell his art through subscription. A wealthy person or institution, if subscribing to all of the exceedingly expensive bird portraits engraved on double-elephant sheets, would eventually own what may be the largest, heaviest, and most cumbersome book ever published, The Birds of America.

The life of Audubon the artist has been covered repeatedly in other biographies. We know how he posed a dead bird using wires so that he could create a lifelike image. He faced roadblocks in realizing his dream; the Philadelphia intelligentsia, loyal to the late Alexander Wilson, initially rejected Audubon, who had to sail to England to jumpstart interest in his work. It’s worth focusing instead on some of Nobles’s more interesting Audubon-centered themes.

Audubon’s era was one of avian abundance, even of soon-to-be-extinct species such as the Passenger Pigeon and the Carolina Parakeet. Hunters unhesitatingly killed as many birds as possible, whether for sport or for science. Nobles says that Audubon participated in the depredations, but somewhat regretfully noted the massive tolls taken: “[H]e described being on a hunt for golden-plovers with French gunners near New Orleans…Estimating some two hundred hunters in the field, and ‘supposing each to have shot twenty dozen,’ he calculated that ‘forty-eight thousand golden-plovers would have fallen that day’.”

In “Putting People into the Picture,” Nobles reports Audubon’s writing about the “amusements” that ordinary folk of his day enjoyed: farm children ensnaring a “good number” of snipe, entrepreneurs trapping Painted Buntings to sell as “ornamental birds” in a New Orleans market, Maine woodcutters baiting and killing jays. Audubon, Nobles says, “never took an absolutist stance against the many destructive human practices he found in his search for birds. He could be critical on some occasions, but more often he remained indulgently neutral, seldom subjecting ordinary people to socially superior judgments…even when their behavior toward birds sometimes bordered on meaningless violence.” Nobles concludes that Audubon appreciated the “place of ordinary people in that picture…Audubon sometimes took birds altogether out of it.”

He loved birds, but he was a man of the people. Otherwise, in writing his five-volume Ornithological Biography, the textual companion to the plates of Birds of America, Audubon would not have inserted his famous “episodes,” anecdotes about American people and American places, among the more scientific species profiles.

Nobles criticizes Audubon’s insensitivity toward indigenous Americans and his tolerance of American slavery. Audubon wrote of the Indians’ ways and their relationship to wildlife, he offered no sympathy for their plight of Indians; he expressed only disgust at the Mandan people on the Missouri River, who had been devastated by smallpox, leaving an impoverished remnant population. Reading Audubon’s “episode” about runaway slaves, Nobles finds Audubon crafting a “sense of identity” there that is “separate from, and certainly superior to, the unfortunate fugitive.”

In “Suffering for Science,” Nobles describes Audubon’s efforts to have “perfected his persona as the wilderness naturalist, the long-haired, buckskin-clad, gun-toting man of the woods.” In his prose, “Audubon conjures up many of the menacing images that recurred in the long-standard literary descriptions of the American wilderness—dark forests, deadly quicksand, howling Indians, murderous backwoodsmen, loathsome snakes, ravenous vultures, with even a shark thrown in for special effect—that modern readers might now consider to be clichés.” Those images were also often imaginary, exaggerations or even fabrications. In Nobles’s view, Audubon “listed the rigors of the naturalist’s life to impress upon the reader that there could be no other scientifically legitimate way to know nature.” He worked with many of the early nineteenth century’s “who’s who” of ornithology. Some were amateurs like him, some academics, but none were merely closet naturalists: Bonaparte, MacGillivray, Swainson, Baird, Sprague, Harris, Bachman, Townsend, and Bell all worked for or with Audubon, and all have avian namesakes.

Unsurprisingly, Nobles identifies Audubon as a man of contradictions. Despite his admiration for a species’ beauty or “courage,” he had few qualms about annihilating as many birds as he could for science. The Golden Eagle? To paint the species, Audubon tried to painlessly dispatch one by confining it to close quarters and suffocating it using smoke from charcoal and then sulfur. When, after more than a day, this didn’t work, he “thrust a long pointed piece of steel through his heart, when my proud prisoner instantly fell dead.” The Chimney Swift? To determine how many of these birds roosted in their favorite hollow tree, he decided to kill about 100, compare this number with the precisely measured space they occupied in the tree, and extrapolate from those calculations the total number of swifts in the tree. “We then caught and killed with as much care as possible more than a hundred, stowing them away in our pockets and bosoms.” As Roger Tory Peterson reflected in his foreword to The Audubon Society Baby Elephant Folio (1981), Audubon was “in blood up to his elbows,” adding that he “once said that it was not a really good day unless he shot a hundred birds.”

Gregory Nobles illuminates different sides of the indefatigable explorer’s personality, actions, and life. As Audubon joined his adopted country in some of the shameful aspects of its history, he also embodied much of its good: hope, perseverance, and democratic values—for whites, anyway. Despite Audubon’s contradictions, we can still admire him for his relentless quest to document the feathered residents of North America.

Elizabeth J. Rosenthal (elizabethjrosenthal.com) lives in New Jersey with her husband of 31 years. Her most recent book is the critically acclaimed Birdwatcher: The Life of Roger Tory Peterson (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015). Rosenthal has written for Bird Watcher’s Digest, New Jersey Audubon, and Snowy Egret.

Recommended citation:

Rosenthal, E. 2018. A life evolved in tandem with America [a review of John James Audubon, by Gregory Nobles]. Birding 50(2): 65–66.

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