The “American Woodsman”


All too aware of his deficiencies as a writer and a scientific naturalist, he hired William MacGillivray, a Scotch naturalist, to turn his manuscripts into good English and sound descriptive commentary on the birds. With Lucy’s added help, Audubon wrote his son Victor in a fever of excitement, the manuscripts went on “increasing in bulk like the rising of a stream after abundant rains.” It was a prolific flow of words written out by Audubon in his gushing prose; five solid volumes, averaging six hundred printed pages each, were completed—edited, set up in type, proofed, seen through the press, bound, and distributed—in eight years’ time, all in the midst of a full round of other essential activities.

Every moment he could spare from writing, drawing, and sundry other concerns, Audubon spent beating the bushes for new subscribers and checking up on the old ones, often on foot over long distances. When he was in his early forties he thought he could still outwalk and kill down any horse in England in twenty days’ time, and it is likely he could. To a man in a hurry, he later observed, the slowness of the stagecoach could be a great bore. “Good God, if this is not Labour, I Know not what Labour is,” he wrote Lucy one evening after having trudged something over ten miles with his heavy portfolio in a fruitless quest for customers; and he soaked his feet in hot water. The next week he learned that the Marchioness of Hereford, who had discontinued her subscription, had had the whole first volume of plates cut out and pasted on the walls of one of her superb rooms. “If you would think my advice to you worth a jot,” he wrote Bachman, “never set to the writing of any one Book . …”


Yet Audubon capped his performance by adding a technical synopsis of 370 more pages (largely engineered by MacGillivray) to the giant folios of reproductions and the five volumes of biographies. And then, in 1839, he sailed for home for the last time. He had successfully concluded one of the most improbable publishing ventures in history. It had been his unique concept, his risk, and his total accomplishment. He ended up with something over 160 standing subscribers (118 had fallen by the wayside over the years), grossing about two hundred thousand dollars in the total operation. In the process, he pointed out, he had “growed neither fat, rich, nor lazy.” But he had become a legend in his own time. “I have labored like a cart Horse for the last thirty years on a Single Work,” he wrote Bachman, ”… and now am thought a-a-a (I dislike to write it, but here goes) a Great Naturalist!!!” As the learned Baron Cuvier had exclaimed when he saw the first finished plates, this was indeed the most magnificent monument yet raised to ornithology.

No one who knew the man would have taken seriously his admonition about the writing of a book. Those who knew him best, in fact, had years earlier learned that he already planned to reissue The Birds of America , revised and in a smaller format, once the big edition was completed, as well as to compile an entirely new book on North American mammals. By the time he arrived in America, these projects had already been put in train.

The “petite edition” of the Birds book quickly developed into a substantial operation, most of the management being left to John and Victor. By means of a camera lucida John reduced the plates of the original, supplemented and somewhat revised, for lithographic reproduction; and the basic text was systematically rearranged. This octavo version was issued in one hundred separate parts, to be sold for one dollar a part.

Audubon himself spent a considerable amount of his time canvassing the countryside, from Canada to Washington, often in one-night stands, signing up subscribers. During one month he covered more than fifteen hundred miles (he was steam-propelled these latter days, and found the sparks from the locomotives a real hazard), and at the outset he sold subscriptions faster than he could supply the parts. On April 29, 1841, he wrote one of his agents from New York, ”… we have at this moment in this city and at Philadelphia upwards of Seventy persons employed … all these are to be paid regularly each Saturday evening, and when we are out of temper it is not without cause.”

Among the agents he employed to help him drum up trade were Dr. George Parkman, a friendly and influential volunteer who was murdered a few years later in one of Harvard’s most gruesome and spectacular scandals; and—on a professional level—Messrs. Little and Brown, a new team of Boston booksellers, who apparently served him well. In any event, by the time he felt obliged to write the above letter he already had at least 1,475 orders for the plates; and 2,000 for the texts, which could be purchased separately. If in the end he actually was paid one hundred dollars each for these subscriptions, it is easy to understand why he gratefully referred to the little edition as the family’s “Salvator.”