December 1959 | Volume 11, Issue 1
As the frontier moved westward and wildlife declined, the tireless Audubon drove himself to record its wonders
To such ends and others, in the past we Americans managed to wipe out astronomical numbers of birds. In recent times, however, man and bird have achieved a tolerable state of coexistence in our part of the world. Country folk may continue to worry about the nuisance of hawks and crows, and city dwellers about the untidy habits of pigeons and starlings. But we have abandoned the practice of massacring songbirds to decorate our ladies’ hats. Notwithstanding the conflicting interests of our Air Force, we have provided peaceful sanctuary for the whooping crane, and have even granted immunity to the peregrine falcons that occasionally rocket down from the heights of tall buildings for tasty bits of the more domesticated birds that, in a horseless age, still feed as before in the city streets.
On their side, the birds—some of them—have accommodated their habits to the strange ways of man, finding new homes in chimneys and barns, or abandoning their ancestral forest habitat for life among the commuters in our burgeoning suburbs. And everywhere, for the past fifty years or so, the watchful eye of an Audubon society guards their interests.
There is a measure of irony in the fact that if any such organization had existed during the lifetime of John James Audubon, we might never have heard of the man, much less celebrated his memory as a great pioneer naturalist. In the course of compiling his mammoth inventory of the birds of America, Audubon must have killed a formidable number of specimens. He once boasted that it was a poor day’s hunting when he shot fewer than a hundred. Like a number of his tales, this one may be taller than the actual truth. On the other hand, his diary candidly reports the amusement he occasionally took in firing into a flock of birds to test his excellent marksmanship, or simply pour le sport . Once, on December 25, 1810, with a party of Shawnee Indians, he caught a lakeful of swans in a pitiless cross fire, until the surface of the water was “covered with birds floating with their backs downwards, and their heads sunk in the water, and their legs kicking in the air.” After eating a meal of pecannut and bear-fat soup, while the squaws worked into the night, Audubon went to sleep before the campfire “very well satisfied with [his] Christinas sport.”
Which is no stick to beat Audubon with. In his heyday the American wilderness was just about the last place in the world to expect the prevention of cruelty to wild creatures or the preservation of any living thing save the human interloper, perhaps, and his livestock. The forests of the New World and all the game that sought their cover were “inexhaustible.” Yet they would have to give way to man and his works. There would be time enough to regret the wasteful plundering that went with pioneering when the nation finally spread out over and settled down on its three billion acres of virgin land.
Audubon never did become a conservationist as the word is understood these days. Even as he picked oft his huge toll of feathered specimens, he was aware that his beloved frontier world was rapidly vanishing about him. He did not pretend to say whether the changes were for the better or for the worse. He only knew with passionate conviction that no one coming after him would ever have the same opportunity to record the birds of North America in their primeval haunts, and that realization drove him mercilessly to finish his inventory before it was too late.
He needed all manner of variants to complete his studies, and from the beginning he hired hunters when his own gun for some pressing reason was idle. In later years, when he was obliged to remain in England to attend to publication matters, he wrote his naturalist friend, the Reverend John Bachman of Charleston, pleading for more specimens: “Take to your gun … go to the Woods, and go to the shores, or if you cannot at all send some worthy one on whom you can and I also depend … It will save me one year of Shooting and of ransacking the Woods singly. …”
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.
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.)
Occasionally he did well enough to help support his family while he stubbornly proceeded with his essential work. But it was Lucy who remained throughout the next eight years the consistent family breadwinner. She followed her husband south after a separation of fourteen months, and he soon found remunerative employment for her as a tutor and companion and, when that petered out, as a governess. This left him more free to leave home and roam as need be, to hunt and draw until his portfolio bulged with fresh material.
Each drawing was to be the size of life. He vowed never to draw from a stuffed animal, and every day or evening he carefully wired his latest specimen into a lifelike position against squared paper and drew off the likeness on similarly squared paper as rapidly as possible to catch the full color of the plumage before its brilliance faded. The method gave a measure of control to his draftsmanship, but it could have resulted in the most mechanical and artificial constructions. That it rarely did so was because Audubon’s mind’s eye brimmed with keen observations of the creatures in all their winged freedom, as the small-scale sketches of living birds on the margins of his journals make clear enough. In fact, no bird artist until then, and possibly none since, has so perceptively and spiritedly caught the natural likenesses of his models.
On March 25, 1821, Audubon started work on a great white heron. Two days later he was still frantically trying to make the bird come alive on his paper, but the stench of the putrefying carcass had by that time become overpowering. However, he braved nausea to open the bird for clues to its sex and eating habits. He examined the crops and gizzards of the birds he drew to learn how they fed and to help him decide under what circumstances to represent them. Often enough he ate a bird he had shot during the day, sometimes as a normal way of satisfying a healthy appetite, sometimes out of serious curiosity. Starlings and hermit thrushes he found “delicate eating,” although the latter were fatty; herring gulls were too salty for his taste; the flesh of flickers had a disagreeably strong flavor of the ants they fed upon; telltale godwits were “very fatty but very fishy”; and so on.
He was probably one of the most omnivorous of naturalists. Later in life, when he was working on a book about mammals, he found wildcat meat not unlike veal in flavor and alligator flesh “far from bad.” Dog meat was excellent, and although he gagged at the frontier delicacy of raw buffalo brains, still warm after the kill, he admitted they might be delicious.
How keenly Lucy may have felt the abrupt, prolonged, and trying separations of the next ten years can only be guessed. At least occasionally she seems to have questioned her husband’s judgment and values, called him to his better senses, and asked him to consider his family before his feathered friends. “I have a rival in every bird,” she observed to her sister; but there could have been as much pride as bitterness in such a remark. If she did not wholeheartedly believe in his destiny, the loneliness and renunciation of those years must have been great indeed.
It was with seventeen hundred dollars of Lucy’s earnings, in any case, that Audubon set sail alone for England to launch his publication in the spring of 1826. He carried with him 240 drawings, many of them redrawings of earlier efforts, and letters of introduction to Sir Walter Scott, Lafayette, Baron von Humboldt, and other dignitaries. He had learned to a certainty that no one in America would publish his work, but he was still full of his purpose. The conviction that it was worth all the years of dedication was often a desperately lonely one. His field work had been almost without reference to informed scientific or artistic opinion. With little formal training and less professional guidance, he had doggedly and unsparingly set his own criteria.
Audubon made an immediate impression on the Old World. The lithe and handsome “woodsman,” with curly chestnut hair falling in thick clusters to his shoulders, and with his inexhaustible, lyrical stories of life in the wilderness—told with an engaging French accent—walked out of the forests of America into the social and scholarly circles abroad with the freshness and wonder of the New World still upon him. At parlor gatherings he was called upon to imitate the calls of owls and other wild birds, to yell like an Indian, and to sing the songs of the western rivermen. He had some difficulty assuring a curious audience that his worst enemies in the wilderness had not been tigers, bears, and wolves, but ticks and mosquitoes—which, he added with feeling, were “quite enough.”
He was, in fact, all his admiring public wanted him to be, and something more. He had roamed the length and breadth of the American borderland with all the freedom of the wild creatures he knew so well and recorded so faithfully. He had talked with Daniel Boone. He had hunted and camped with Indians along the frontier; he knew their ways and may have spoken their language. He had traveled by ark and keelboat with the rough rivermen of the western waterways, and he could speak their language eloquently. (In spite of repeated resolutions, in later years his profanity was the envy of sailors he shipped with.) He was a Mason, had a hand for chess and billiards, and for good measure he could also knowingly discuss the books, drama, and music of the London season.
He played his part without difficulty. In his letters home he started referring to himself as the “American woodsman,” at first a bit self-consciously, then habitually, ready enough to see himself as others chose to see him. He was not unduly hampered by modesty. “My hairs are now as beautifully long and curly as ever,” he wrote Lucy from Scotland, “and I assure thee do as much for me as my Talent for Painting.”
Yet, he was guided less by vanity than by his towering determination to call attention to his project, and for this his theatrical appearance was good public relations. In responsible intellectual circles the quality and interest of his work were immediately recognized. He was quickly elected to a half-dozen learned societies, whose meetings he was asked to address and to whose journals he was asked to contribute. One critic pointed out, when the drawings were publicly exhibited, that these were more than ornithological studies executed on a brave new scale; they gave old Europe a fresh poetic vision of America that, like the man himself, fired the imagination. “Who would have expected such things from the woods of America?” exclaimed the fashionable Parisian artist François Gérard.
For all the adulation and recognition, no one rushed forward to sponsor publication. Indeed, some of Audubon’s best-qualified counselors advised against any such hopeless undertaking. Yet everything that had been accomplished up to now was only a beginning. All his records—his drawings, his notes, and his storedup observations—were of small value to the world until they were cast in adequately published form. So, with sublime temerity, Audubon commissioned a London engraver to start work and, without a publisher, an agent, or a single subscriber, issued a prospectus committing him to at least twelve years of hard work and roughly one hundred thousand dollars in costs.
Those next twelve years were years of the most extraordinary accomplishment. At the start he needed money desperately to get his enterprise off the ground—in order to subsist, for that matter. “I do anything for money now a days,” he wrote Lucy five months after the prospectus was issued. He drew trifles for the album of a Scotch lady, and he turned out careful copies of his drawings, which he peddled among the picture dealers along the Strand or to such individual customers as he could attract. (Where have all those pictures gone, he later wondered, as indeed do we today.) At one point, when he had borrowed five pounds to keep himself in supplies and the engraver called for sixty more to meet his payroll, Sir Thomas Lawrence brought some friends to Audubon’s studio, and their purchases may well have preserved him at the last moment from the awful reality of the debtors’ prison.
In the meantime, armed with letters of introduction, he scoured the countryside for subscribers. Nine months after issuing the prospectus he had more than a hundred names on his list, and when these started paying upon delivery of the finished reproductions, his financial problems eased somewhat. Soon, at least, he could write Lucy that she need no longer send him money. But only by constant attention could he keep his less dedicated patrons from canceling their expensive subscriptions. At one point Audubon estimated that during the four years it had taken him to produce his first volume, fifty subscribers, representing lost payments of some fifty-six thousand dollars, had reneged.
On the other hand, if he neglected close supervision of the engravings of the plates and the hand coloring of the reproductions, the work might go awry. In April, 1828, he complained of the daubing of one of the colorists, and the whole crew quit on the spot and had to be replaced. Time and again on his travels he came across defective copies and returned them for redoing. In June, 1830, he wrote his engraver, “Should I find the same complaints as I proceed from one large town to another through out England as I am now determined to do—I must candidly tell you that I will abandon the Publication and return to my own Woods until I leave this World for a better one.” However, Robert Havell, the engraver entrusted with most of the work, was on the whole a superb and conscientious craftsman and an artist in his own right. In the end, it is his scrupulously finished aquatints that are generally celebrated as “Audubon originals,” although most of the drawings from which they were derived may still be seen at the New-York Historical Society.
As the work progressed, Audubon’s standards rose, and he became increasingly aware of his limitations as an ornithologist. He realized too that he had barely half enough drawings to cover his subject, and of these many were simply not good enough. Three times before the job was completed he returned to America to replenish his portfolio, in spite of the cost in lost subscriptions while he was away. In passing he would gather subscriptions in his own country (his fame had crossed the Atlantic), and then resell the English delinquents when he returned. “If I could be spared from Drawing Birds and from going to England for 12 months after my next Voyage,” he wrote from America in 1833, “I could procure in that time and in our own Country too, ONE HUNDRED additional Subscribers.” Five months later he left America with sixty-two subscribers and a hundred new drawings.
These American excursions took him from the chill coast of Labrador to the keys of Florida and on to the remote republic of Texas. (While in that independent new nation he drank grog and swapped yarns with Sam Houston in his log house. A few months later he dined en famille with Andy Jackson at what, he reported, was then becoming familiarly and vulgarly known as “the White House,” where he learned that the President did not approve of the annexation of Texas.) In the end, the roster of birds he depicted had grown well beyond the number set forth in the prospectus, and, in a depression year, he was faced with balky subscribers who objected to still more expensive commitments, or with the unthinkable alternative of leaving his work incomplete. He finally squeezed the additional subjects into thirty-five new plates.
The whole operation had long since begun to demand far more energy, skill, and knowledge than Audubon alone could bring to it in his lifetime. Lucy and both their sons, now capable artists in their own right, were put to work. Audubon was ever hopeful that the lads might see the publication through on their own if he couldn’t finish it himself. “There will be no End to my Publications of Birds,” he wrote Havell, “or (which is the same) of my Sons Publications. My Youngest Son draws Well—Can you tell what is his or mine’s work in the last Drawings you saw?” Actually, Audubon himself never did tell. Here, as elsewhere, he was by no means careful about giving credit where it was due. At least one of the birds in the final work is altogether John’s, but there is no acknowledgment given in the text. Another is Lucy’s, although hers is clearly indicated as such. In the press for time, he brought his family and friends into the closest collaboration—into what he called his “Little Alliance.”
“Can we not push the work still faster?” he again wrote Havell from America. “So much travelling ex.posure and fatigue do I undergo, that the Machine me thinks is wearing out; and it would indeed be a pleasure for me to see the last of the present Publication.” He was relying ever more heavily on that competent man to finish his incomplete drawings on the copperas well as for many other services, such as selling skins, shells, and insects to the British Museum for cash to help meet the formidable weekly payroll of one hundred pounds. A scribbled note to Havell on one of the drawings, of a crippled great black-backed gull, reads, “finish this ground better.” “Amend this rascally sky and water,” he wrote on another original; on still another he asked the engraver to supply “an old rotten stick.” The entire setting of the great auk and of several other subjects are Havell’s agreeable inventions. Audubon always had trouble with landscapes—he was not a versatile artist—and, when he used them in his compositions, usually depended upon the efforts of one or another of the youthful artists who traveled with him, or left them for Havell to supply.
To expedite matters further, Audubon not only occasionally copied elements from his own earlier representations to supplement later ones, but a few times he cribbed from the rival ornithological publication of Alexander Wilson. A number of his final efforts were composed in part of pasted cutouts of figures—even individual blades of grass—from other discarded compositions. “Take great care of these Drawings,” he wrote Victor of one lot he sent to England from America, “and shew them to a very few of your Friends … as many Birds have been Pasted .”
Nothing really mattered save that the work be properly presented in the final printing, and that it all be finished before time ran out. Audubon reached in all directions for the help he had to .have. “You must stick a Cricket or a Grass hoper on a thorn before the bill of the Male Shrike on the wing,” he instructed Victor. “—It is their Habit—but could not procure one yesterday and today it rains hard. Have the edges of the little Grous (Young) softened in the Engraving”; and, he added, have the plants properly identified by a member of the Linnaean Society. Drawings of many of the plants, flowers, and some of the insects that were reproduced on the finished plates were supplied by the youngster Joe Mason, who accompanied Audubon down the Ohio in 1820, and in later years, at his urgent request, by Maria Martin, sister-inlaw and then wife of his naturalist friend, John Bachman. To Bachman he turned with ever-mounting insistence for more information to include in the bird biographies that would accompany the plates. “I am almost mad with the desire of publishing my gd VoI this year,” he wrote him in 1835. “I am growing old fast and must work at a double quick time now … Can you send me some good stories for Episodes? Send quickly and often … ‘any sort of things’ for Episodes connected with Natural History.”
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.”
On his tireless rounds Audubon also took subscriptions—with remarkable results—for the work on animals, just under way, at three hundred dollars a complete set. He also tried to unload his very few remaining sets of the big Birds , and dunned laggard subscribers to that work. Of these, the most famous and notorious was without question Daniel Webster, whose subscription Audubon had exultantly reported in his journal of 1836. In October, 1840, the naturalist called upon Webster at his Boston office and reported that the statesman “was greatly surprised that I have not received a Dollar yet on a/c of what he owes us … and said that he would attend to that business at once, and indeed settle it to my satisfaction by Wednesday next. Nous verrons! ”
Three months later Audubon got a payment on account for one hundred dollars only (plus, however, a subscription for the little work with payment guaranteed by Little and Brown!). But he tracked his quarry as remorselessly as ever he chased a bird of the forest. Webster must have come to dread the sight of him. In the heat of the Washington summer two years later, Audubon hunted the “godlike Dan—l” in his office but found him engaged with Lord Ashburton: one of those private conferences, no doubt, by means of which the two finally settled the long disputed northeastern boundary of the United States. (A few days later Audubon distracted Ashburton from his diplomatic mission long enough to sell him a copy of Birds of America for one thousand dollars in gold.) Webster was still “not in” when Audubon returned to his office the next week, but the bird man finally ran him down in the Senate lobby. “He told me that he particularly wished to see me on my return from Richmond I” Audubon entered in his journal. “What for I know not.” A week later he knew. “Mr. W. would give me a fat place was I willing to have one; but I love indepenn and piece more than humbug and money 1” In other words, apparently, he would not be bought off.
Between his wide-ranging business trips Audubon applied himself to the projected book on mammals, a task he had neither the time, the energy, nor the knowledge to complete. “Don’t flatter yourself that this book is child’s play—,” John Bachman warned him at the outset; “the birds are a mere trifle compared with this. I have been at it all my life … we all have much to learn in the matter.” However, Audubon’s determination was fixed on this new goal; as he wrote Bachman, “My spirits are as enthusiastical as ever.” When he was within reach of his drawing papers he worked on them from daylight to bedtime. He dispatched his son John first to the wilds of the Southwest, then to the zoos and museums of Europe to record specimens he himself had no hope of collecting or examining. The indispensable Bachman was commandeered to provide an authoritative text, which he completed under great difficulties and discouragements.
Over the years that followed he got diminishing help from Audubon, whose own time was now really running out. Yet in 1843, with a final burst of his incredible energy, the toothless, grizzled veteran took off on an expedition to gather more material. He went as far as Fort Union at the mouth of the Yellowstone River, farther west than he had ever been but not so far as he had always yearned to go. It was Audubon’s last sortie into the wilderness. There were still birds in abundance to collect, new varieties that he had missed earlier, as well as the animals he went to hunt and record. He made an adequate killing for his purposes.
But the time was also running out for some of the wild life Audubon was determined to put down in his second great book of discovery. The great auk had already disappeared before he had seen a living specimen. Now, as Audubon witnessed the endless slaughter that went on about him near this hunter’s paradise, he was dismayed at the prospect. “Surely,” he concluded as the mounds of beaver, buffalo, and wolves piled up on the Plains, “this should not be permitted.”
It was too late for his concern to matter. His own shooting days were, in any case, just about over. “I am getting an old man,” he lamented to his journal on September 28, 1843, “for this evening I missed my footing on getting into the boat, and bruised my knee and my elbow, but at seventy and over I cannot have the spring of seventeen.” From contemporary descriptions he already looked to be a patriarchal seventy, but he was in fact only fifty-eight and he knew it.
Within two years of his return from the Yellowstone the “old man” completed about one half the drawings that were to be reproduced in the mammals book; then he laid down his brushes. He had done what he could in life and this was an end to it. As if by some deeply felt persuasion, he released himself from further care by slipping into a benign, helpless senescence.
For the few remaining years of his life he was barely aware that the vital industry he had set in motion never faltered. John returned from England and finished the remaining drawings; Bachman worked as hard as Audubon ever had to compile the texts, which a half-dozen others helped to prepare for the printer; and, among other tasks, Victor saw the abundant flow of material through to final publication.
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.