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Tucson Weekly Artist Of The Frontier

A New Audubon Biography Reveals Not Only Its Subject, But Our Evolution In Conservationist Ethics.

By Gregory McNamee

JULY 27, 1998: 

Audubon: Life and Art in the American Wilderness, by Shirley Streshinsky (University of Georgia Press). Paper, $17.95.

JOHN JAMES AUDUBON is better known today for the conservation society that
bears his name than for his singular contributions to American science. Even when he is remembered, it's as something of a backwoods nobleman rather than, in many of his ventures, as a nearly destitute failure who somehow managed to beat the odds and survive--and even prosper--in the New World.

In her account of the much-documented artist, historian and novelist Shirley Streshinsky aims to layer blood and flesh on a man wrapped in romantic mystery--much of it supplied by Audubon himself. She is particularly successful in gathering some of the lesser-known facts about the young Audubon, the well-traveled but somewhat wild son of a French career naval officer who found his calling in the pages of the scientist George Louis Leclerc's Natural History, and in life studies by the painter Jean-Baptiste Oudry. Until his 11th year, John James--or, rather, Jean Rabin, the name under which his birth was recorded--had the freedom of the woods and fields, until his father, sensing that the boy needed discipline, impressed him into service as a cabin boy.

The younger Audubon had little talent for the military, and he failed the entrance exam for admission to the regular navy. His obliging father, who must have been a rarity, allowed him to return to a state of nature, so to speak, until he reached the age of 17, whereupon Jean Rabin was sent to America to attend to the elder Audubon's business interests. His departure was made all the more hasty by Napoleon's rise to power and the new imperial army's need for conscripts to make the long trek to Moscow, and he soon found himself not far from New York City, managing a lead mine--a job he did badly, to the point of ruining his father's company.

That would be the first time John James, as he now called himself, failed financially in the New World. It would not be the last. His naiveté was matched by an unscrupulous business partner, and in any event the young man gave his waking hours only to wandering abroad with gun and easel, shooting and then painting the great American aviary that lay before him.

When the United States declared war on Great Britain in 1812, the newly wed Audubon traveled to Philadelphia to swear allegiance to his new country, then quit the seaboard on the other side of the Appalachians, founding a trading post and small farm with a new wife. Audubon enjoyed married life, Streshinsky writes, but he yearned to head for the deeper woods. Streshinsky does not make quite enough of his strange wanderlust, which seems unusually pronounced even for so footloose a society as the one in which he lived.

In early middle age, John James elected to divide his time between a townhouse in New Orleans--where he could paint likenesses of society ladies and tutor youngsters in art and French--and the bayous of the Mississippi delta. The arrangement seems to have worked well enough, for although the Audubons were in constant danger of pennilessness, he was still able somehow to complete the work for and see to the publication of his monumental Birds of America. Just how much time he was now spending in the field is anyone's guess, although his famous study of a mockingbird imperiled by a tree-climbing rattlesnake suggests that he was not above inventing incidents.

Birds of America, Streshinsky writes, brought Audubon European fame, and he sailed off to England to enjoy it. He must have been quite a sight: a tall, long-haired, angular man dressed in buckskins and moccasins on High Street, could not help but excite attention. He might have been forgiven for falling into indolence--yet another frontier celebrity--but Audubon soon grew impatient with the company of fellow hunters like Sir Walter Scott and returned to America, noting to himself, "I must put myself in a train of doing...and thereby keep the machine in motion." For the rest of his days (he lived to the age of 68), John James Audubon worked to revise Birds of America and to complete its ongoing companion, Ornithological Biography.

In Audubon: Life and Art in the American Wilderness, a fine and balanced biography now available in paperback, Streshinsky doesn't shy away from criticizing Audubon--notably for his having slaughtered thousands of birds to serve as subjects for his palette. She reminds her readers, however, that it does us little good to judge past actions by contemporary morals, and that Audubon came to note the error of his ways when the birds came fewer and fewer. For all his faults, John James Audubon looms large over the American frontier. His brilliance as an artist and naturalist merits him a permanent place in the national memory, and Streshinsky's book is worthy testimony.

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