Birdman of America
In 1819, John James Audubon, the founding father of North American ornithology, declared bankruptcy. Debt had swallowed up the general stores he owned, and Audubon was briefly thrown in jail. He worked for a bit in a museum in Cincinnati, stuffing and mounting birds. He sold the occasional portrait, and gave the occasional drawing lesson. His wife, Lucy, tutored children in their home, took care of their two sons, and generally kept the family afloat.
Meanwhile Audubon, never one short on energy, conceived an audacious, fanatical project. He would paint all of North America’s birds, one a day, and find someone to publish them in full-color, life-size volumes.
His subjects rarely stood still, and neither binoculars nor photography existed yet. So month after month Audubon traveled the American frontier on both sides of the Mississippi, perfecting his technique. He’d watch birds, shoot them, string them up in lifelike positions, draw them, dissect them, and often eat them. Eventually, after years in the woods, he carried a sheaf of his best paintings to Philadelphia only to find no one wanted to publish them.
So in 1826, at the age of 41, with 250 “watter coloured Drawings’’ in a portfolio, and the blessings of his wife, and with all their fortunes at stake, he sailed from New Orleans to England to see whether his dream might be realized overseas.
His diary of that year, which reads like a sometimes bombastic, sometimes deeply humble book-length letter to Lucy in Louisiana, has been reissued in an authoritative edition by the University of Nebraska Press. It’s called “John James Audubon’s Journal of 1826: The Voyage to The Birds of America,’’ and it is a meticulously rendered transcription of the original document, as close an experience to reading Audubon’s dash-laden, exclamation point-littered cursive as most can get.
The journal opens with his 65-day voyage across the Atlantic, and the entries oscillate between complaints about the tedium (“My Time is really dull, not a Book on Board that I have not read Twice since here’’) and characteristically sharp observations (“these Birds skim very low over the Sea in search of the Bunches of Floating sea weeds that abound over this Gulph’’). Audubon sees whales, eats porpoise, sketches sailors, and writes hilariously about the hazards of inhaling the air directly beneath the captain’s hammock.
In July a seasick and “disconsolated’’ Audubon finally reaches Liverpool, pays a two-pence duty on each of his drawings, and starts trying to show the rich and powerful his portfolio.
He puts on a hat and gloves, meets Lord Stanley, and exhibits an endearing insecurity about his lack of “a regular Classical education.’’ Over the course of the next 200 pages, a reader travels Audubon’s highs and lows as “persons of wealth’’ peel back the tissue paper and examine his stylized, dramatic, and palpable images, each in its own way a window onto the New World.
“See me leaning against a window from the Inside of a Handsome Dining Room,’’ he writes in a typically overblown passage, “ - Melancholy - thoughts after thoughts rolling (like a Tormented Stream over rocks all sharply angular) from my Head downwards untill I felt positively feverish over all my Body - .’’ He imitates turkey calls and owl hoots at parties; he disappoints questioners when he admits that in American forests he has “not been devoured at least 6 times by tigers, Bears, Woolf, Foxes or - a rat.’’
In Europe, Audubon becomes an overnight success. Within 10 days of arriving in Liverpool, he is opening the doors on an exhibition of his work at the Royal Institution; by December, he has found a publisher in Edinburgh.
When “Birds of America’’ was finally published, it included 435 hand-colored prints and was one of the most lavish and expensive books ever produced. As such, the “Journal of 1826’’ is routinely understood, first and foremost, as an American success story.
But it contains many other narratives, too. It is a record of a lovesick, grandiloquent woodsman who feels both exhilarated and stifled by England’s domestication (“here where there are no Trees larger than Common sapplings in Louisiana,’’ he notes), and who routinely wakes up before 4 a.m. to walk off his excess energy.
It’s also, for the modern reader, a profound reminder of how the speed of communications technology has changed just about everything. If my second-grade son wants to see Audubon’s painting of ivory-billed woodpeckers for a school report, he can bring it up on my computer in about three seconds.
In Audubon’s day, space and time were much less permeable. By Dec. 11, 1826, Audubon had heard from Lucy only four times, and the most recent letter was dated Aug. 27. Watching petrels during his voyage across the Atlantic, he writes, “how much I envied their power of Flight to enable me to be here, there and all over the Globe, comparatively speaking, in a moment.’’
Now, nearly 200 years later, Audubon is in fact “here, there and all over the Globe.’’ And we are very lucky indeed to have a definitive transcription of the document that describes how that happened.
Anthony Doerr, author of the story collection “Memory Wall’’ can be reached at adoerr@ cableone.net.