The “American Woodsman”

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When Audubon died in 1851, full of honors, the first edition of the animals book was not yet finished, and a whole series of reprintings of both titles was on the calendar for the future. But this “créole de SaintDomingue,” as he was referred to in his father’s will, this inept Kentucky merchant—a one-time bankrupt, this man who cared for nothing more than to explain the ways of the birds and beasts, had built his idiosyncrasy into an organized institution of international stature; and into a business with its own momentum, which, astonishingly, grossed very large sums of money. At a guess, the figure could have been in the neighborhood of half a million dollars even before Audubon died. After his death, while Victor and John still lived, the books proliferated in numerous reprintings.

From all this no family fortune was founded, for various reasons, including—among other things—the continuing high cost of production. At the age of seventy-five, indeed, Lucy, “burdened with the cares occasioned by the death of their two sons, and the heavy losses they had previously sustained,” was obliged to sell the original drawings to alleviate her “absolute need.” (The New-York Historical Society consummated the purchase by raising four thousand dollars through public subscription.) The “Alliance’s” greatest asset had always been that unwavering conviction of the self-made “woodsman” that these aspects of the vanishing American wilderness must be put on record, whatever it cost, faithfully and for all to see, while it could still be done. Certainly no naturalist had ever won such a popular audience. For all the carnage it may have involved, in the end and under the circumstances, this was conservation in its most realistic and empirical form.