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The Boston Phoenix Nurturing Nature

Never before have we had such an opportunity to consider Audubon's writings alongside his landmark images

By Franklin Burroughs

JANUARY 10, 2000: 

John James Audubon: Writings and Drawings, edited by Christoph Irmscher. Library of America, 928 pages, $40.

We normally think of illustrations as being ancillary to texts. But in the case of John James Audubon (1785-1851), it is clearly the other way around. The great images of his "Double Elephant Folio" were engraved by Robert Havell and published serially in London between 1829 and 1838. The text intended to accompany them was published serially in Edinburgh between 1831 and 1839. The images were in every sense primary -- they came first in point of composition; they remain first in importance; they are the focus of our sense of who Audubon was and why he matters.

Audubon is, of course, as firmly established in national legend as Daniel Boone or Abraham Lincoln. We never seem to tire of his life -- at least nine biographies of him have appeared in this century, and sentimentalized versions intended for young readers continue to be published and to find their way into school libraries all over the country. He is the protagonist of Eudora Welty's fine story "A Still Moment," and of book-length poetic sequences by Robert Penn Warren and Pamela Alexander. But his writings have never been widely read, and I think it is safe to say that there has never been either an informed consensus or an edifying debate about their merit. Given Audubon's enormous prestige and popularity, this is surprising; but given the nature of the writings themselves, it is less so.

The Ornithological Biography was the only work Audubon actually intended for publication, and it has never been republished in its original form. Even in its original form, it owes much to Audubon's wife, Lucy, and to his Scottish collaborator William MacGillivray, who between them made his highly idiosyncratic use of English more literate and more literary. His journals, which he tended to keep when away from his family, were published, in a drastically bowdlerized form, by his granddaughter, Maria Audubon, 46 years after his death; when the job was done, she destroyed all but two of the original manuscripts.

Those two manuscripts, fortunately, record the two pivotal episodes of Audubon's career. The first journal, which is the first one he kept, begins on October 12, 1820, just after he boarded a flatboat bound from Cincinnati to New Orleans. He left Lucy and his sons behind, and seems originally to have intended the journal as a sort of running letter to them. He was a 35-year-old failure, recently imprisoned for debt, and was now determined to turn birds, his lifelong avocation, into his vocation. That journal runs through the end of 1821, by which time his family had joined him in Louisiana and he had transformed himself from a limner of birds into a great American artist. The other journal manuscript that survived is the one he kept from 1826 until 1829. It describes his leaving Lucy and the boys behind again, this time in Louisiana, and sailing to England, where he was determined to find an engraver for his work and to establish himself as a naturalist.

Between these two journal manuscripts, and between either of them and some of his earliest letters, we can see distinct improvements in Audubon's command of English (his first language was French, and he seems to have learned English as he learned painting, ornithology, and almost everything else in his life -- by more or less rushing in where angels fear to tread). But both journals retain a combination of awkwardness, inventiveness, self-consciousness, and immediacy that is irresistible. This is, one feels, pure Audubon, the mercurial, manic, melancholy, sententious, self-dramatizing protagonist of his own story. But is it literature? Conversely, the more polished versions of his prose that we find in the Ornithological Biography and the edited journals are nothing if not literary. But are they Audubon?

The Library of America offers definitive, uniform, and exceptionally handsome editions of canonical American literature. Its publication of John James Audubon: Writings and Drawings, with extensive selections from the Ornithological Biography and from Audubon's journals, letters, and miscellaneous pieces, is therefore something of a departure. This is tacitly acknowledged by the inclusion of 64 plates. The quality of reproduction is superb -- although the plates are only about a sixth the size of the originals, they convey much of their beauty and power. The editor, Christoph Irmscher, has matched selections from the Ornithological Biography to the plates, so that we may, for example, compare Audubon's rendering of two grackles stripping an ear of corn with his account of the bird, which particularly emphasizes the running warfare between grackles and farmers. Irmscher has also included earlier and later illustrations of such species as the Carolina parakeet, the bald eagle, the Eastern phoebe, and the wood thrush. This allows us to see how radically and rapidly Audubon's whole conception of what he was doing changed after he reached Louisiana. Thus the volume invites us to consider the evolution of the artist and the author, and to ponder the relation between the two.

Irmscher wisely reprints the whole of the journal of 1820-'21, and roughly a fifth of the journal of 1826-'29. From the Ornithological Biography, he includes 45 of the "biographies" of individual species, and seven of the 60 "Delineations of American Scenery and Manners" that Audubon scattered through the work. He reprints the whole of Maria Audubon's version of the Missouri journal, which is an account of Audubon's last great undertaking, a steamboat trip up the Missouri River in search of specimens for the Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America. Finally, Irmscher includes a sampling of letters and two short pieces, one an autobiographical sketch and the other Audubon's description of his method of drawing birds.

The Library of America aims at timelessness. For that reason, its format does not allow for any extended introductory essay by the editor, presumably on the grounds that such things are quickly dated, as one generation's critical and political preoccupations give way to another's. As a general policy, that is perfectly defensible, but in this case, it is a loss. Irmscher is able to provide only a chronology of Audubon's life, a brief account of the provenance of texts and plates, and explanatory notes that clarify historical, geographical, and ornithological references. A reader coming upon Audubon's odd and problematic opus for the first time would, I think, find an introductory overview especially helpful. Whether in his unrevised journals or in the Ornithological Biography, Audubon is a very different kind of writer from, for example, Thoreau, John Muir, or John Burroughs, and, as an ornithologist, he is a long way from what dedicated members of the National Audubon Society are likely to expect. Irmscher himself has written perceptively about Audubon as writer and naturalist in his book The Poetics of Natural History (Rutgers University Press), and one wishes he'd had the opportunity to do the same thing here.

Audubon was an extraordinarily complex character, one who generally seems to be speaking to us in one of several roles: man of the world, babe in the woods, backwoodsman, name dropper, self-promoting careerist. The masks were to some extent expedient, but one feels that he seldom was cynical or hypocritical in wearing them -- chameleons change their color, but are not exactly insincere. The image of Audubon the backwoodsman and naturalist has always been more popular than that of Audubon the artist. It implies innocence and ingenuousness, as opposed to sophistication and artifice. He himself understood the advantages of the role and probably also was attracted to it for psychological reasons -- it both disguised and expressed the senses of inferiority, insecurity, and acute singularity that bedeviled him. In Britain, seeking the patronage of prominent people, he played the part to the hilt. He was very conscious of the sensation his long, curling hair and his buckskins made in the drawing rooms and exhibition halls of Liverpool, Manchester, Edinburgh, and London. And when he presented papers to learned societies, his appearance was an integral part of his claim to authority. He was not a trained naturalist but an experienced outdoorsman; he was not motivated by professional rivalry and hunger for recognition, but by the amateur's pure and passionate love for his subject.

His authority, then, was nature, not art or science. He proudly and repeatedly insisted that he did not draw his birds from skins or stuffed specimens in a museum, as other illustrators did. His magnificent bald eagle poised over a catfish is inscribed characteristically: "Drawn from Nature by John J. Audubon, Little Prairie, Mississippi River." The Library of America edition provides us with an earlier version of the same painting, which has the same inscription, and with texts that, seen in conjunction with the plates, give us a clearer understanding of what "drawn from Nature" means.

In his Mississippi journal entry for November 23, 1820, Audubon describes killing a fine male eagle and immediately setting about drawing it, a process that would occupy him for the next four days. He worked outdoors, on the roof of the flatboat's cabin, and as he worked observed many more eagles along the river. They hunted in pairs, and, with the fall migration at its height, preyed largely on the ducks and geese that were moving south. He describes how the eagles would drive a goose to the water, forcing it to dive repeatedly until exhausted. The painting that he produced as the boat drifted onward toward New Orleans accordingly shows an eagle standing over a rather crudely drawn Canada goose on a muddy riverbank. The background is a murky, flat, and featureless expanse of water and sky, meant to represent the Mississippi River a bit downstream from the current Arkansas-Missouri state line. Here, then, text and painting are fully consistent with Audubon's claim. They are taken from nature, on the spot, in a somewhat rough-and-ready fashion; to the extent that such authenticity is a virtue, they can claim it.

Audubon reworked that painting in 1826, in London. He traced the original eagle, substituted the catfish for the goose, and provided a highly dramatic backdrop -- the bird is on a rocky outcropping, with a range of mountains and a smoky, stormy sky behind it. The effect of these changes is much greater than their mere itemization can suggest -- there is the implication of power and terror that Edmund Burke declared to be the sine qua non of sublimity in the arts. But catfish, although a staple in the diet of eagles along the Mississippi, do not occur at high altitudes, and the Mississippi River near Little Prairie offers nothing resembling a mountainous terrain. At this point in his life, Audubon had in fact never been in the sort of alpine, treeless country he represents here -- the landscape comes not from nature but from art.

Insofar as I know, even the most literal-minded of Audubon's many detractors never pointed out the inappropriateness of this landscape, and that, I think, is a testimony to the peculiar authority of art. When Audubon wrote his account of the bald eagle in the Ornithological Biography, he clearly went back to his Mississippi journal, and described the eagles along the river as they preyed upon migratory waterfowl. But now the victim, instead of being a goose, is a trumpeter swan. There is no evidence in any of Audubon's journals (or, to my knowledge, in the writings of any other ornithologist, unless you count Virgil in the first book of the Aeneid) that eagles ever attack swans, formidable creatures that are easily double the weight of eagles. So it seems that Audubon the writer, like Audubon the painter, wished to augment the prowess of the bird. This produced one of the most stunning of the many stunning raptors in The Birds of America. In the Ornithological Biography, it produced a vignette in which we see a pair of eagles disdaining whole flocks of passing ducks, and screaming in anticipation when at last they hear the distant trumpeting of an approaching swan. When the swan appears, the male eagle "glides through the air like a falling star" and overtakes his quarry "like a flash of lightning." The scene ends with the eagle astride its victim, shrieking in delight and sinking its talons in more deeply, "to render death as painfully felt as it can possibly be." This is as artful and implausible as the mountainous landscape of the revised painting of 1826. What Audubon was expressing was not something he had seen, but something he had felt -- that the dead bird he drew on the flatboat had a sort of mythic grandeur. If it were necessary to rearrange geography and natural history to conform the specimen to what it evoked in him, then he would do it.

In our culture, Audubon himself has achieved something of his eagle's mythic grandeur. His writings are not the primary source of it, but they enable us to see further into it. Never before have we had in one volume so wide and so revealing a selection of them as the Library of America now affords us, or so convenient an opportunity to set them against the magnificent paintings.

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