John James Audubon: The Making of an American
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John James Audubon came to America as a dapper eighteen-year-old eager to make his fortune. He had a talent for drawing and an interest in birds, and he would spend the next thirty-five years traveling to the remotest regions of his new country–often alone and on foot–to render his avian subjects on paper. The works of art he created gave the world its idea of America. They gave America its idea of itself.
Here Richard Rhodes vividly depicts Audubon’s life and career: his epic wanderings; his quest to portray birds in a lifelike way; his long, anguished separations from his adored wife; his ambivalent witness to the vanishing of the wilderness. John James Audubon: The Making of an American is a magnificent achievement.
their beak’s ends and with cruel delight in the glance of their daring eyes, he stopped mute for perhaps an instant. His arms fell [and] then he said, ‘I will engrave and publish this.’ ” Audubon had found his engraver at last—or so he thought. That evening over wine and “let me see, one, two, yes three glasses of warm Scotch whisky toddy” at Lizars’s studio Audubon told the enthusiastic engraver about his Liverpool and Manchester exhibitions and showed him his many letters of recommendation.
with regret that there are on record no satisfactory accounts of the state of that portion of the country, from the time when our people first settled in it. Lucy had hoped to receive in her far-traveled husband “a most polished and fashionable gentleman amongst us who have been rusticating and vegetating in the woods.” Audubon noticed the reversing season as the steamboat wheeled down the Mississippi. “The foliage had nearly left the trees” in the north, “. . . the swallows had long since
of March to collect waterbirds. The slow crossing from England of the ship by which Victor had sent funds needed for the expedition delayed their departure. In any case the artist was exhausted. Six days after he finished the Golden Eagle, on March 16, a month away from his forty-eighth birthday, Audubon had a stroke. He was sufficiently recovered four days later to spin the tale for Richard Harlan: The hand which now drives my pen was paralyzed on Saturday last for about one hour. The
Louisville at the beginning of November. Tom went on to Philadelphia to purchase stock for the stores; Audubon delivered the young people to Henderson. Pears collected his family as well, his wife grudgingly agreeing that she would “prepare myself for a wilderness and half savages except Mr. Audubon’s family and a few others.” David Prentice floated down from Pittsburgh with his wife, Margaret, and their children; he planned to devote the winter to building a steam engine for his keelboat as a
cut, my appearance altered beyond my expectations,” he was ready to begin looking for pupils but chagrined at his shortened hair, “fully as much as a handsome bird is when robbed of all its feathering. . . . Good God that 40 dollars should thus be enough to make a gentleman—ah, my beloved country, when will thy sons value more intrinsically each brother’s worth?” From wounding experience he answered his own question emphatically: “Never!!” Yet an inventory of his production since he left