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The “American Woodsman”
As the frontier moved westward and wildlife declined, the tireless Audubon drove himself to record its wonders
December 1959 | Volume 11, Issue 1
Time was everything, and from the moment he started in active pursuit of his “great idea” until the waning years of his life, he felt he never had a moment to lose. “I am growing old too fast,” he complained to his journal one evening when he was in his late forties; “… may God grant me life to see the last plate of my mammoth work finished.” As usual, on this trip he had been up at three in the morning and had been at his drawing for seventeen hours before making the entry. He had been working under the main hatch of the schooner he had hired to take him to the bleak coast of Labrador so that he could witness the breeding habits and see the plumage of the waterfowl that summered in that “wonderful dreariness.” The chill fog might collect and fall in large drops from the ship’s rigging onto his drawing table, and occasionally the heavy rain would oblige him to close the skylight; but he worked on, in wet clothes and in seniidarkness, if need be. If there was daylight left when he finished his stint, he went ashore “for exercise.”
This single episode is typical of the almost maniacal fixedness with which, once the vision came to him, Audubon drained all his prodigious energies into the publication of The Birds of America . It was the task, as he saw it with almost mystical reverence, “allotted him by nature,” and driven by that obsession he reached his main goal in about twenty years’ time. In the course of doing so, he forced his plodding talent to such extreme, if narrow, limits that it took on the aspect of genius.
But to label Audubon a genius is to rob the man he was to pay the legend he has become. His name has long since become a household word, revered by Boy Scouts everywhere and taken by conservationists as a rallying cry for their cause. He has been critically acclaimed as one of the greatest nature artists of all time. He has been cast in the image of a folk hero, somewhat bigger than life. But genius is inexplicable, and Audubon’s accomplishment can be told in terms of the very human, workaday uphill struggle by which he shaped his own destiny.
He arrived in America in 1803, an insouciant youth, somewhat dandified in a continental manner, with a passion for dancing and an off-beat compulsion to observe and draw the likenesses of birds. This bastard son of an adventuring French sea captain and one of his Creole mistresses had been born in San Domingo in 1785. His father had taken the child home to his lawful (and understanding) wife at just about the moment that France burst into the (lames of revolution. There, in good time, he was legally adopted and properly baptized, given the name of Jean Jacques Fougère Audubon. (Or, if you prefer a long outside chance, he was the lost Dauphin, somehow spirited out of captivity into the protective custody of the Audubon menage in Nantes; although the Revue historique de la question Louis XVII published early in this century to penetrate this mystery, does not list him among the many nominees for that unhappy distinction.)
At eighteen, the lad was ripe for conscription in Napoleon’s swarming armies and, apparently to avoid any stich interruption of his career, the captain dispatched his son to the New World estate near Philadelphia that he had acquired during his residence in the western hemisphere. Thus young Audubon followed in a long line of distinguished émigré , including Louis Philippe, the future Citizen King of France, and his brothers; Talleyrand; Brillat-Savarin; Moreau de Saint-Méry; and others who for one reason or another sought haven in the United States while France was in turmoil.
But unlike so many of those political exiles, Audubon stayed on to live out his years in America. For a while it seemed altogether likely that he might become a moderately successful New World merchant, as his lather, between times, had briefly been before him. Within a few years he had married his English-born neighbor, Lucy Bakewell, and moved to Kentucky, where, in spite of the constant and commanding distraction of his interest in birds, in time he made enough money by trade to speculate in land and slaves, and bring himself to fairly comfortable circumstances. Lucy had her piano, Audubon his own various musical instruments. There were a collection of books, a decent complement of silver, china, and other household furnishings, and slaves to lighten the drudgery in the house and in the barnyard and orchard. Certainly Abe Lincoln’s father, struggling to provide for his own little family farther east in the state, would have considered this luxury.