Magazine article The American Conservative

Strange Bird: John James Audubon Was a Terrible Writer and a Cruel Conservationist, but His Vision Still Took Flight

Magazine article The American Conservative

Strange Bird: John James Audubon Was a Terrible Writer and a Cruel Conservationist, but His Vision Still Took Flight

Article excerpt

JOHN JAMES AUDUBON, author of The Birds of America and patron saint of American wildlife, was, to tell the truth, an awful writer. His spoken English was strongly accented with the French of Haiti, where he was born in 1785 to a Spanish Creole mother and a father who ran a sugar plantation. By his own admission, his written English was a lot worse than his written French, which was pretty bad, too.

It's best to take a few indigestion tablets when you tackle the raw text of his prose, before it was edited by William MacGillivray, his Scottish collaborator. Here he is on the Ruby-throated Hummingbird:

   No sooner has the vivifying orb
   began to warn of spring once more
   the season, and caused millions of
   plants to spread the beauties of its
   benefiting rays, than the little hummingbird
   is seen advancing on fairy
   wings, visiting carefully every
   opening calix and like an anxious
   florist, remove from each of them
   the injurious Insects...

Even though he gave his name to America's leading wildlife preservation charity, the National Audubon Society, he could hardly be called much of a wildlife campaigner, either. He was disappointed if he shot fewer than 100 birds a day. When he went in search of the Brown Pelicans of the Florida Keys in 1832, he wanted to kill 25 in order to draw a single male bird. He said of the trip, "I really believe I would have shot one hundred of these reverend sirs, had not a mistake taken place in the reloading of my gun."

Later, on the same trip, bored of killing birds, he took to spraying the alligators with gunshot, noting how the brains of one leapt out of its head and exploded in midair. Audubon was rarely painted without a gun nestling in his hands, often with gundog at his side. So how did this semiliterate, bloodthirsty man end up producing The Birds of America, one of the great American wildlife books?

The answer is, of course, his 435 pictures, published in 87 sections between 1827 and 1838. It was their beauty, yes, but, most originally, their size--life size--that did it. Audubon insisted on printing in the punishingly expensive Double Elephant folio format, with its 39 x 26 inch pages. Original subscribers paid an elephantine $1,000 for The Birds of America, the equivalent of about $17,000 now. A later miniature edition was a bestseller, too, but it was still drawing on the success of its mammoth predecessor. The full-size book was perhaps the finest picture book ever made--a copy in good condition was sold at Christie's in 2000 for $8,802,500, a world record for any printed book.

Surpassingly beautiful as Audubon's bird pictures are, his skills as an artist were limited. His human portraits--his principal source of income after he went bankrupt and was sent to prison in Louisville, Kentucky for debt in 1819--are awkward and ill-proportioned. His birds, though, are far more accomplished and much more lifelike than the cold, stuffed still lifes--or still deaths--painted by earlier artists, including his chief rival, Alexander Wilson, the Scot who compiled the nine-volume American Ornithology between 1808 and 1814.

It's easy to see why Audubon was better with birds than people. He was obsessed with their behavior before they flitted into his crosshairs. In 1804, he carried out the first known bird banding, on some peewees in Pennsylvania, tying "a light, silver thread on the leg of each, loose enough not to hurt the part, but so fastened that no exertion of theirs could remove it."

His desperation to record the birds in pencil and watercolor was all-consuming, too. On his trip to Labrador in 1833 to capture (in both senses of the word) puffins, auks, guillemots, and Blackheaded Gulls, he developed a kind of paralysis in his shoulders, neck, and fingers from all the drawing.

On top of his close observation of birds, Audubon insisted on painting his subjects almost immediately after death. …

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