Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Audubon: Images of the Artist in Eudora Welty and Robert Penn Warren

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Audubon: Images of the Artist in Eudora Welty and Robert Penn Warren

Article excerpt

John James Audubon, artist and natural historian, has intrigued artists, writers, environmentalists, and conservationists since the eighteenth century. A paradoxical figure, he has become a symbol for those who wish to preserve nature, yet, as his latest biographer reveals, "Audubon was not a latter-day St. Francis of Assisi and he indulged in what appears to us today to be revolting and wantonly indiscriminate slaughter of birds; he would sometimes kill up to a hundred birds of a certain species to use them as models for a single drawing," (1) Still, "Audubon, although addicted to blood sports, saw clearly the outcome of orgies of senseless killing, whether of buffaloes or of passenger pigeons." (2) Audubon's origins are as clouded as his reputation; legend has it that he was a child of the Dauphin, son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, but records indicate that he was the illegitimate child of Lieutenant Jean Audubon and a West Indian woman. As a young boy, he returned to France with his father and was raised by Jean Audubon's legitimate wife. If the circumstances of his birth are ambiguous, and his symbol as a conservationist paradoxical, his work as an artist has also provoked controversy. Some critics contend that his drawings are too realistic, more nearly anatomy lessons than `aesthetic expressions.' Other critics fault him for his sentimentality; his birds, they say, exhibit human characteristics, displaying facial expressions of sorrow or happiness which defy normal constraints of decorum.

Perhaps the enigmatic qualities of Audubon account in part for his appeal to twentieth-century southern writers, particularly Eudora Welty and Robert Penn Warren. Providing the focal point for Welty's "A Still Moment" (3) and Warren's Audubon: A Vision, (4) the image of Audubon the artist allows each author to explore ways of seeing, the nature of the artist and the art work, and most importantly, the relationship between the artist and the art work. In their techniques for developing these themes, Warren and Welty reveal similar aesthetic strategies. Both writers explore the nature of vision as it arises from dream and observation; both manipulate time, first by destroying normal human time and then recreating it as aesthetic time; both use fantastic or mythical elements to fashion aesthetic space; both deal with the limitations of their medium, words and speech; and both are concerned with the nature of love in the conception and completion of the art work. While the Welty short story and the Warren poem differ in significant ways, their views of Audubon disclose many similarities which exemplify the affinity between their own aesthetic perceptions.

In his article, "Audubon: A Vision: Robert Penn Warren's Response to Eudora Welty's `A Still Moment,'" Max A. Webb outlines many thematic parallels. He identifies four points which, he says, Warren found important in Welty's story: "the notion that a man is his passion; the climactic narrative of the second poem; the theme of the inter-relatedness of love and knowledge; and Warren's transformation of Welty's ironic sense of man's limitations." (5) From these topics and techniques, according to Webb, Warren constructs a companion piece to Welty's short story. The points are well taken and Webb's essay provides a valid reading of the two works. He does not, however, concern himself with the image of Audubon the artist or with the writers' modes for developing that theme.

The central element for both Welty and Warren is vision. Warren subtitles his poem "A Vision" and employs the technique of the snapshot to convey the peculiar qualities of Audubon's imagination. Frank Graziano explains that "the narrative proper would be avoided by structuring the piece in these `snapshots'; the narrativity would be essentially dismantled, and yet the still-shots or flashes, like those in the hand-cranked, nickel-fed picture show of the past, would fall on and into one another to deliver a unified and smooth-flowing story line. …

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