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John James Audubon

John James Audubon

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Written by Richard RhodesAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Richard Rhodes

  • Format: Hardcover, 528 pages
  •  
  • Publisher: Knopf
  • On Sale: October 12, 2004
  • Price: $30.00
  • ISBN: 978-0-375-41412-1 (0-375-41412-6)
Also available as an eBook and a trade paperback.
about this book

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.

Here is Audubon exploring the wilderness of birds—pelicans wading the shallows of interior rivers, songbirds flocking, passenger pigeons darkening the skies—and teaching himself to revivify them in glorious life-size images. Now he finds his calling: to take his hundreds of watercolor drawings to England to be engraved in a great multivolume work called The Birds of America. Within weeks of his arrival there in 1826, he achieves remarkable celebrity as “the American Woodsman.” He publishes his major work as well as five volumes of bird biographies enhanced by his authentic descriptions of pioneer American life.

Audubon’s story is an artist’s story but also a moving love story. In his day, communications by letter across the ocean were so slow and uncertain that John James and his wife, Lucy, almost lost each other in the three years when the Atlantic separated them—until he crossed the Atlantic and half the American continent to claim her. Their letters during this time are intimate, moving, and painful, and they attest to an enduring love.

We examine Audubon’s legacy of inspired observation—the sonorities of a wilderness now lost, the brash life of a new nation just inventing itself—precisely, truthfully, lyrically captured. And we see Audubon in the fullness of his years, made rich by his magnificent work, winning public honor: embraced by writers and scientists, fêted by presidents and royalty.

Here is a revelation of Audubon as the major American artist he is. And here he emerges for the first time in his full humanity—handsome, charming, volatile, ambitious, loving, canny, immensely energetic. Richard Rhodes has given us an indispensable portrait of a true American icon.


“Rhodes has managed to do for Audubon what Audubon did for birds. And like Audubon, who insisted on life-size paintings and prints, and who saw his Birds of America as a kind of grand rendering of the entire country, in this splendid biography Rhodes has produced nothing less than a portrait of the United States in its formative years . . . Although Rhodes is in no way an apologist, the Romanticism in his book echoes the mythic nature of its subject. Rhodes possesses tremendous technological and historical mastery, but it is his novelistic evocation, based on what feels a near complete identification with his subject, that gives his book its uplifting energy.” —Jonathan Rosen, The New York Times Book Review

“ . . . Richard Rhodes’ panoramic yet intensely detailed biography . . . tracks Audubon’s every move . . . the opening vignette hints at Rhodes’ governing intent to place this young man on the make in the kind of densely described universe that French realists like Balzac and Stendhal chose as their canvas . . . This device highlights the dauntless energy and ferocious curiosity that makeAudubon’s story a prototypical tale of New World self-invention . . . The cumulative power of all this detail is undeniable, [his sentences] flowing with an unhurried and irresistible majesty toward their goal . . . By withholding sharp judgment—much of the story is told in Audubon’s own voice, through diaries, letters, and memoirs—Rhodes lets a more complex cumulative pattern become visible . . . He has conveyed the thrust of his subject’s imagination and the force of his movement as if painting Audubon from life.” —Jesse Berrett; San Francisco Chronicle

“Great talents have deep roots. Richard Rhodes illustrates this with his John James Audubon: The Making of an American, an unpretentiously titled book that is more than a mere biography: it is a comprehensive history of a man and his era. Through the circuitous paths Audubon’s life took from the moment of his birth until the publication of Birds of America, Rhodes breathes life again into the world in which Audubon lived.” —Avedis Hadjian, Los Angeles Times Book Review

“Rhodes has given us the most three-dimensional portrait yet of Audubon the man.” —Kenn Kaufman, Washington Post Book World

“ . . . more than a scrupulously researched portrait of a self-actualized genius: through an understanding of the life and times of this flawed but likeable character, we can trace the beginnings of our own complex national identity.” —Wook Kim, Entertainment Weekly