From the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Richard Rhodes, the first major biography of John James Audubon in forty years, and the first to illuminate fully the private and family life of the master illustrator of the natural world. Rhodes shows us young Audubon arriving in New York from France in 1803, his illegitimacy a painful secret, speaking no English but already drawing and observing birds. We see him falling in love, marrying the wellborn English girl next door, crossing the Appalachians to frontier Kentucky to start a new life, fashioning himself into an American just as his adopted country was finding its identity.
- New York Times Notable Books of the Year
Audubon's epic life (1785-1851) as artist, devoted husband, writer, adventurer, hunter, and his own best publicist is entertainingly set forth here in full detail, drawing heavily on the Audubon family's copious writings as well as those of his many significant contemporaries, be they friends, enemies, or other naturalist-colleagues. Rhodes author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Making of the Atomic Bomb brings to life the intense, charming artist best known for his dramatic, life-sized bird paintings but who also excelled at fencing, dancing, tutoring, skating, and befriending wealthy patrons. While there have been two other recent biographies William Souder's Under a Wild Sky concerned itself primarily with Audubon's life in America, and Duff Hart-Davis's Audubon's Elephant focused heavily on his experiences in Europe Rhodes's thorough and well-documented book is the most complete record since Alice Ford's 1964 John James Audubon. Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 6/1/04.] Henry T. Armistead, Free Lib. of Philadelphia Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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October 04, 2004
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Excerpt from John James Audubon by Richard Rhodes
The sharp cries of gulls wheeling above the East River docks welcomed the handsome young Frenchman to America. Crossing from Nantes in late summer, he had been a month and a half at sea and he was grateful for the solidity of New York cobblestones. That August 1803 he was four months past his eighteenth birthday, barely fledged, but the United States was hardly older: Lewis and Clark were just preparing to depart for the West. His father owned a plantation called Mill Grove on Perkiomen Creek near its junction with the Schuylkill River northwest of Philadelphia, close above Valley Forge, and that was where he was going. His father was a former sea captain and retired French Navy officer who had commanded a corvette in the final battle of the American Revolution. Jean Audubon had sent his cherished only son to America to escape conscription into the forces Napoleon was mustering for his war with England, joined the previous May.
Wherever the young man went he watched the birds. Birds moved through the human world at will. In their large freedom they lived rich lives in parallel with people and people hardly knew. On his passage from Nantes, at the Grand Banks off Newfoundland where his ancestors had fished for cod, far out at sea, he had scattered ship's biscuit on the deck and drawn migrating brown titlarks (American pipits)* down from the heavens to feed. "They came on board wearied," he would remember and write thirty years later, "and so hungry that the crumbs of biscuit thrown to them were picked up with the greatest activity."
He studied birds for the fables they enacted-he carried La Fontaine's Fables with him as a guide-and beyond fable he studied them to learn their habits, the patterns and systems of their lives. Studying birds was how he mastered the world, and himself. Leaving his friends, his father and his country had disheartened him. The long hours of sailing brought "deep sorrow or melancholy musing. . . . My affections were with those I had left behind, and the world seemed to me a great wilderness." Then the New World rolled across the horizon, a real and physical wilderness beyond its settled rim. He had begun drawing birds in France. Now, "prompted by an innate desire to acquire a thorough knowledge of the birds of this happy country, I formed the resolution, immediately on my landing, to spend, if not all my time in that study, at least all that portion generally called leisure, and to draw each individual of its natural size and coloring." This is retrospect, of course, but it catches the eighteen-year-old's excitement and bravado.