Magazine article Humanities

Audubon the WRITER

Magazine article Humanities

Audubon the WRITER

Article excerpt

Last year, Sotheby's auction house in London sold a vintage, double-elephant folio copy of John James Audubon's Birds of America for $11.5 million, setting a record for the most expensive printed book in history. The sale affirmed Audubon's stature as the world's most celebrated bird artist, but by at least one standard, the original Birds of America remains an incomplete masterpiece.

First published in England, where he had gone to find the best printer available, Audubon's massive collection of 435 bird illustrations confronted a curious legal provision when it first appeared between 1827 and 1838. British copyright law stipulated that copies of all books containing text be deposited in crown libraries around the country, and the expense of that requirement would have fallen on Audubon. The prospect of producing so many library copies of his book was overwhelming, since the high production values of Birds of America gave each edition a whopping price tag of about $1,000 or roughly $23,000 in today's money.

Faced with economic reality, Audubon devised a resourceful loophole. To avoid the British copyright requirement, he published Birds of America essentially without text, leaving his written bird profiles and ornithological anecdotes for other publishing projects. Over time, Audubon's vivid prose reflections would surface in other books, such as his lively, multivolume Ornithological Biography, published between 1831 and 1839. But that first separation between Audubon's pictures and his words has shaped his legacy for generations. His art gained enduring international fame, while his substantial body of nature writing, detoured into other venues, endures in relative obscurity.

In recent years, though, a small but dedicated community of Audubon admirers has been trying to give Audubon the writer his due. Scott Russell Sanders, one of America's most accomplished living nature writers, counts Audubon's prose as a critical source of inspiration. "We are all familiar with Audubon the painter," Sanders writes. "Reproductions of his vivid birds and beasts hang in our courthouses, lie in slick books on our coffee tables, decorate our bedrooms and greeting cards. Say his name, and in the minds of most listeners a colored print will arise. But Audubon was also a writer, and a remarkable one."

Sanders made an early and important contribution to raising Audubon's profile as a writer by editing Audubon Reader, a 1986 anthology of his best prose. Sanders is also the author of a 1984 novella on Audubon's early years, Wonders Hidden. John James Audubon: Writings and Drawings, a Library of America anthology edited by Audubon scholar Christoph Irmscher, followed in 1999.

Irmscher is also the brainchild behind "Picturing John James Audubon," an NEH-funded summer institute in which teachers from across the country gather to study Audubon's writing as well as his art, gaining insights to bring back to their classrooms. Based at Indiana University in Bloomington, the institute held its first session in 2009, and subsequent funding enabled another summer session earlier this year.

The monthlong institute included sessions in which Irmscher, a professor of English at IU, led students in discussions of Audubon's journals. Sanders, now retired from IU's English faculty and another lecturer at the institute, headed a session provocatively titled "The Raw and the Cooked: Audubon as a Nature Writer."

Slowly, the word about Audubon's literary gifts seems to be reaching a wider audience, thanks in part to recent biographies that chronicle both Audubon's skill with a paintbrush and his genius with a pen. While researching his 2004 biography, John James Audubon: The Making of an American, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Rhodes became so enamored with Audubon's prose that he followed the biography with his own Audubon Reader in 2006.

Rhodes's anthology, like the Sanders and Irmscher collections, reveals a literary artist who wrote letters, journals, and essays as a daring form of autobiography, so that regardless of his ostensible topic, Audubon was usually, on some level, writing about himself. …

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