The “American Woodsman”

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Had Audubon continued to prosper, his name would probably have been lost among the countless thousands of immigrants who found their fortunes in the West. But then, in the panic year of 1819, he went flat broke and bankrupt. Released from jail and pressed by necessity, he turned portrait artist, taking profile likenesses of his friends and neighbors for as much as five dollars a head until the local market for such primitive exercises was exhausted. With their two sons, Victor Gifford and John Woodhouse Audubon, he and Lucy moved to Cincinnati, where both parents found hire as teachers; and it was there, in October, 1820, that Audubon became “possessed.” Without a red cent in the pockets of his worn brown breeches, he left his family to fend for themselves and followed the migrating birds down the Ohio in a flatboat.

What compelled the man, midway in life and virtually penniless, to undertake such an “impossible” venture? He had drawn birds all his life, to be sure. But , he could not yet identify a cormorant, as his journal clearly indicates; and he apparently had not yet even spotted such a common bird as the hermit thrush. His understanding of ornithology was nothing but rudimentary; he was ignorant of most of the literature on the subject and had access to only a small part of it. His artistic talent was limited, as his portraits from this period unmistakably reveal, although by constant practice he was developing it.

But quite aside from the basic problem of making anything like a complete and faithful record of the untold variety of North American bird life, to see the operation through to final publication (which became his increasingly firm purpose) would cost a small fortune and call for publishing enterprise on an unprecedented, heroic scale. The day of the professional publisher was yet to come in America. The very few American authors whose work might sell in their own country typically paid for the manufacture of their books, which were slight and inexpensive volumes, usually innocent of illustration because of the prohibitive costs this would have involved. Even the peripatetic Parson Weems, the most active and imaginative bookseller of his day, could not have moved the giant tomes Audubon envisaged.

What publisher today, for that matter, with all the present industry’s elaborate apparatus for promotion and distribution, and with its monetary resources, would dream of underwriting a four-volume set of 435 illustrations by a relatively unknown artist, each volume measuring about forty by thirty inches and weighing as much as a strong man could carry, the whole to sell for roughly a thousand dollars a set? (And there were also to be six stout volumes of text.) It would seem utter folly, the more so since the real value of the thousand dollars of Audubon’s day was many, many times what it is today.

No such miracles could be expected, except in the farthest reaches of his own vision, when Audubon blithely took off toward the South in that autumn of 1820. He could not have taken a better direction to get on with his gigantic task. No river valley on earth provides a broader and more tempting flyway than the Mississippi’s. From the Arctic barrens to the grassy plains of Patagonia, feathered travelers are tunneled through this immense corridor on their seasonal flights, in numbers and varieties beyond calculation. En route Audubon saw sights none of us is privileged to see any more: great white whooping cranes majestically winging their way down the valley from Canada to the Gulf Coast; ivory-billed woodpeckers, the largest and mightiest axemen of their tribe, filling the woods with their clarinet-like calls; flocks of chattering parakeets and swallow-tailed kites.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

For the next six years Audubon made his headquarters in the lush green world of lower Louisiana, where so many of the birds that summered in the North found their winter retreat. By any but his own standards it was, for the most part, a vagrant’s life. To keep himself alive he drew portraits; taught drawing, French, music, dancing, or fencing; painted shop signs and steamship decorations, as need and opportunity dictated. Once in New Orleans he had the titillating experience of being commissioned by a mysterious and toothsome young widow to paint her naked loveliness. (He wrote to Lucy of this ten-day adventure of private sessions with an excitement she must have found difficult to share.)