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Audubon The Writer
by Christoph Irmscher

Christoph Irmscher is a professor of English at Indiana University in Bloomington. He has long been interested in American nature writing, and he is a noted authority on Audubon writings. He is also the editor of John James Audubon: Writings and Drawings (Library of America, 1999), the first and only critical edition of Audubon’s literary output. In addition, Irmscher was a consultant for, and appears in, the new documentary film featured at this conference, John James Audubon: Drawn from Nature. He is also a recipient of several fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and Houghton Library at Harvard, and the author of several other books, including The Poetics of Natural History: From John Bartram to William James and Longfellow Redux. His current project is a new biography of Louis Agassiz. He is on the board of Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal and is a member of the advisory board of NEW-CUE, a non-profit environmental education organization.

He lives in Bloomington, Indiana, with his wife, Lauren Bernofsky (a composer and violinist), their son Nicholas (“Nicky”), daughter Julia, and two cats, Jeremy and Oliver.

"Permission is granted by Houghton Library, Harvard University for the use of MacGillivray's unpublished data."

Audubon The Writer

First of all, I do need to thank Roswell for having gotten this event together. It’s absolutely marvelous and it’s a great privilege to be here. I’ll probably miss Roswell’s phone calls which seem to come around 10 p.m. [laughter from audience] and a lot of time after 10 p.m. We’ve covered a lot of ground, actually he did; I was mostly a listener. [Laughter from audience]. He had all these ideas that I really was privileged to hear when they were sort of in embryonic form. To see them generate this conference is just really amazing and I really would like to thank you personally. It’s become part of my life.

And I’d like to thank Laura Carter for this privileged presentation and to thank Larry and Diane for their movie which is a very tough act to follow, especially since I won’t have any images at all. All you get is the image of me standing here and my handouts. There is a reason for that, it’s very personal. Because it’s been a part of a crusade of mine to rehabilitate Audubon as a writer and it’s very, very hard.

As Dr. Chalmers was saying, there would really be no need for Audubon to feel despondent about his ability as a writer.

He is not just a great American artist, he is also a great American writer and one of America’s greatest nature writers, one of the very best. A great nature writer, in my admittedly idiosyncratic definition, is someone whose vision or handling of the language has the power of changing the way in which we are used to seeing nature and our own place in it. Audubon does exactly that, and then some, and he deserves to be mentioned in the same breath with writers more securely anchored in the canon of American nature writing such as Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Rachel Carson.

This is not, I know, a widely accepted reading of Audubon. Even the last wave of biographies—books that have added more detail and nuance to what we already know about him as an artist—has done little to improve his reputation as a writer. When someone sets out to talk about Audubon, it’s understood that he or she will talk about the pictures. Perhaps a sentence or two from a letter or a passage from one of the bird essays gets quoted. Generally, however, whatever writing Audubon did is seen as subsidiary to his art, a bonus thrown in later to enhance the marketability of those magnificent illustrations. It is my intention today to dispute that view. To that end, my talk will not be accompanied by images.

Any attempt to rehabilitate Audubon as a writer faces formidable obstacles, and in the following 30 minutes I would like to connect a review of these obstacles with an explanation—which can only be tentative—of what makes Audubon a writer to be reckoned with. In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention here that I have edited Audubon’s writings to the best of my capacity. But what my edition, published by the Library of America in 1999, offers is only a beginning. As a literary figure he is still waiting to be discovered.

Let me begin with a comment about the obstacles. Editors for more than a century have messed with Audubon’s prose, fixed his grammar and punctuation, enhanced his style, and eliminated his extravagant metaphors. Of all of Audubon’s editors, his granddaughter Maria, who died in 1925 at age 83, did the most damage. She actively destroyed a fair amount of material, notably all the journals except those Audubon kept when he was traveling. What was left she edited, and edited, and edited. In his 1826 journal, written during his stay in England, Audubon has some wonderful passages, sentences that really tell us much about the kind of man he was—passionate, salty, outrageous, vain, despondent, drunk, coarse, self-ironical. None of this is left once Maria is done with the journal. Here is a good example, which you’ll also find discussed by Mary Durant in the wonderful book she co-wrote with Michael Harwood, On the Road with John James Audubon. Audubon has been in England only for a few days, but he has already met the Rathbones, and they—wonder of wonders!—like his work. He’s excited. He’s so full with this incredible news that, as he is getting ready to write in his journal at night, he can’t find the right words to express how he feels: “Burst my brains, burst my coarse skull,” he exclaims. Maria knows just what to do with this: “The day has passed quickly.” [Audience laughter.] Now take another revealing moment, described in Audubon’s journal on 9 December 1826, when he is in Edinburgh: “Went to Dr. Lizars’ lecture on anatomy and saw him operate on a beautiful dead body of a female, quite fresh. But afterward I went to the dissecting rooms where such horrible stench existed that I thought I would suffocate. I soon made my escape, I assure thee, and went home.” After Maria’s scrubbing, the naked female is gone, of course, and so is Audubon’s inappropriate interest in her: “Then to Dr. Lizars’ lecture on anatomy, and with him to the dissecting-rooms, but one glance was enough for me, and I hastily, and I hope forever, made my escape.”

Now Maria’s bleaching of Audubon’s colorful excesses as a writer might seem just quaint today, were it not for the fact that others have followed in her footsteps. In 1969, Alice Ford, who has done much for Audubon scholarship (including writing a biography that a lot of us consider decisive), published a selection of Audubon’s bird biographies. Right at the beginning she admitted that she didn’t care much for Audubon’s style. She said she hated “the cascading redundancies, non sequiturs, misleading allusions, indefinite antecedents of his prose.” So she went ahead and removed all those chatty appeals to the “kind reader” and whittled down such wonderfully cadenced sentences as the following: “Winter once more had come, dreary, sad, cold, dark and forbidding” to the unremarkable “Winter had set in, cold, dark, and forbidding.” This is, she concluded, “how Audubon would have written if English had been his native tongue.” But it wasn’t, was it?

Strangely enough, Ford refrained from doing any such editing in her edition of the famous diary Audubon kept in England, the 1826 Journal, where she claimed she had been “scrupulously faithful to the original manuscript.” Or so she said. All biographers, recent ones included, have not questioned Ford’s transcription. But let’s take a look at the passage in which Audubon claims his brain is about to burst. Here is Ford’s edition:

Burst my brains, burst my coarse skull, and give the whole of your slender powers to enable me to describe my feelings this day! I must begin slowly, gradually warm my powers, and—oh, poor head, never can I express through thee the extent of all I saw in the beautiful picture surveyed.

“Stop,” [thou sayest], take time, consider and proceed gradually. No rashness. Recollect thou art now going to attempt a very difficult task. I advise thee, wait.”

My beloved friend, I will follow thee [accordingly]—yes, through future worlds as well—and receive thy affectionate advice with loyal pleasure!!!

(July 25, 1826; The 1826 Journal of John James Audubon, ed. Alice Ford [1967], p. 92)

This seems to be one of the imaginary dialogues Audubon conducts with Lucy throughout the diary—a moment when his rawness and rashness is up against the civilizing power that she represents. As often, Audubon is talking with a forked tongue here—though the passage ends in fake submission (“with loyal pleasure”), the exclamation marks at the end indicate that his excitement is far from over. Wouldn’t it be nice, then, to read the passage without those annoying parentheses, in which Ford attempts to help out Audubon?  If we look at what Audubon actually wrote that day, other important differences emerge:

Burst My coarse scull, and give the whole of Your slender powers to enable me to describe My feelings this day? –I must begin slow gradually Warm my powers, and—poor head; never can I Express threw thee the extent of all I saw in the Beautifull Picture surveyed during an—“Stop,—take time—consider and proceed gradually. No rashness—recollect thou art now going to attempt a very dificult Task—I advise thee waite”.—

My Beloved Friend I will follow thee. yes, threw Worlds of Futurity, as well and receive thy affectionate advises with Loyal pleasure!!!—

(Audubon, Writings and Drawings [Library of America, 1999], p. 164).

Several things are very different here. Even a simple modification such as rearranging the entire passage into orderly paragraphs (which is what Ford does) changes Audubon’s text. As he wrote the passage, the beloved friend’s advice comes less in the form of a response than as a sharp interruption (you can see that Ford cut the “during an”). And “future worlds” is not a scrupulously faithful transcription of the much grander “worlds of futurity” which Audubon used, a phrase whose very extravagance casts doubt on how calm Audubon really feels by the time he has reached the end of this passage.

One can think of many justifications as to why a procedure like Ford’s wouldn’t be too objectionable. Audubon was not American, he himself felt he needed help with his English (and received it both from MacGillivray and Lucy during his lifetime). And sometimes Audubon’s prose is confusing to the modern reader. This is, I believe, the premise behind the editing of the most recent collection of his writing, The Audubon Reader, hailed, on the dust jacket, as an “unprecedented” anthology of Audubon’s writing. I’ll give the publisher the benefit of the doubt and assume that they probably didn’t know that, two decades ago, Scott Russell Sanders, a great nature writer in his own right, published a terrific collection with exactly that title. On the jacket, the publisher also makes a claim with which I happen to agree, namely that Audubon is an “exceptional American writer, a predecessor to Thoreau, Emerson, and Melville.” Strangely enough, this claim isn’t repeated in the editor’s introduction. Instead, we read the following admission: “I have modernized Audubon’s somewhat eccentric spelling, capitalization and punctuation and deleted material of only specialized interest.”  This sounds innocent enough, especially when we remember that this is a collection for that mythical being, “the general reader.” But here’s my problem: would we do the same thing to Thoreau, Melville, Emerson? We wouldn’t and we shouldn’t, and perhaps we shouldn’t do it to Audubon either.

Let me give you one more example, from one of the most important early texts written by Audubon, a text which is actually in the movie, a story known as the “The Fair Incognito.” It appears in a taunting letter he sent to his wife from New Orleans on or around May 23, 1821, a letter that he did not want to be published. Audubon claimed that he had taken the pages straight out of his journal (where indeed the episode doesn’t appear) and said that she couldn’t show it to anyone but her brother William and to him only he if would promise to “Keep it snugg.” Miraculously, meddlesome Maria left that letter alone. Did she think that if she burnt such a devilish item she’d be devoured by flames, too? Maria did attach her own caveat to the file in which the manuscript is now kept at the American Philosophical Society: “Odd leaves of Grandfather’s Journal 1822 [sic] Not used + not for general reading as decided. MRA.”

Audubon had arrived in New Orleans on January 7, 1821, leaving behind, in Kentucky, his wife of 12 years, Lucy, and two sons, aged 11 and eight. He had decided that it was high time indeed to pursue his dream to “Compleat a collection of the Birds of our Country, from Nature all of Natural Size.” He doesn’t really like New Orleans; the birds there were either desperately hungry or dead, lying in heaps on the tables of the public market, “the Dirtiest place in all the Cities of the United States.” He couldn’t find any interesting birds to draw and the people who wanted to sit for portraits proved to be equally disappointing. So it was a big deal that one day he was asked by a lady on the street to paint her portrait. As he was walking on the streets, he was stopped by a veiled lady who asked him in French if he was the French artist that everyone was talking about. She gives him an address where he is to call on her in half an hour. Audubon shows up, and this is what happens then, in his own words:

I arrived, and as I walkd upstairs I Saw her Apparently waiting  “I am glad you have come, walk in quickly.” my feeling became so agitated, that I trembled like a Leaf—this She perceived, Shut the door with a double lock and throwing her veil back Shewed me one of the most beautifull face, I ever saw “have You been or are you Married” yes, madam  “Long” 12 Years “is your Wife in this City” no Madam  “Your name Audubon”  yes madam “Set down and be easy” and with the smile of an Angel “I will not hurt you” I felt such a blush and such Deathness through me I could not answer. She raised and handed Me a Glass of cordial, so strange was all this to me that I drank it for I needed it, but awkwardly gave her the glass to take back—

(Audubon to Lucy Audubon, 24 May 1821, Audubon Papers [B/Au25], reprinted also in Writings and Drawings, pp. 886-889)
But here is what the new Audubon Reader gives us:

I arrived, and as I walked upstairs I saw her apparently waiting. “I am glad you have come, walk in quickly.” My feeling became so agitated that I trembled like a leaf.  This she perceived, shut the door with a double lock and, throwing her veil back, shewed  me one of the most beautiful faces I ever saw. “Have you been or are you married?”
                        Yes, madam.
                        Twelve years.
                        “Is your wife in this city?”
                        No, madam.
                        “Your name Audubon?”
                        Yes, madam.
                        “Set down and be easy,” and with the smile of an angel, “I will not hurt you.”
I felt such a blush and such deathness through me I could not answer. She raised and handed me a glass of cordial; so strange was all this to me that I drank it— for I needed it—but awkwardly gave her the glass to take back.
             (The Audubon Reader, ed. Richard Rhodes [2006], p. 121)

Not much of a difference, you might say. Indeed, most of the re-arrangements seem to be typographical. But I’d be willing to argue that the difference is indeed huge. “The Fair Incognito” is not just a salacious little tidbit thrown in to make the wife in Kentucky jealous. It is Audubon’s ars poetica, the first text in which he coherently outlines a rationale for his art—as a medium in which the object that is depicted will always win out. In his story, Audubon fails at drawing the lady’s portrait, especially when it turns out that she wants to be depicted in the nude. The lady finally takes the chalk from him and finishes the picture for him; as a reward, she gives him a gun, as if to restore, symbolically, his impaired masculinity. [Audience laughter.] This clever short story is, in fact, almost a master narrative for Audubon’s later encounters with birds in which the object—the bird, that is--more often than not resists his attempts to control it.
If we look at the passage again we see that in Audubon’s manuscript his own breathless responses are framed, smothered even, by the lady’s ceaseless questions. It is important that she, not he, is in control here. Separating his answers, as if they were fragments of reported speech, from the lady’s questions, and laying the whole exchange out as if it were part of a particularly laconic Hemingway story does violence to the original text as well as to Audubon’s original intention. So does replacing the French word “femelle” with “female” later in the text. Part of the attractiveness of Audubon is, indeed, that he is not American, that he doesn’t seem, like most everybody else at that time, “New Englandly” (in Emily Dickinson’s wonderful phrase). Besides, the word “femelle” catches some of the craziness of New Orleans. It’s really important, this hot, hybrid, challenging, multilingual city in which Audubon jumpstarted his career as an artist. It’s very important.

Let me summarize what I have been saying so far. The less we mess with the original Audubon the better. There is no use in pretending that he was American or that he remade himself fully into an American. In his last weeks, he enjoyed listening to a French song from his childhood. He is an unconventional, energetic, eccentric writer, who derives at least some of his power precisely from the fact that he is not a native speaker of English. Literary history is full of such bilingual writers of English (Joseph Conrad, Joseph Brodsky, Vladimir Nabokov come to mind--or, if you want a scientist, take Louis Agassiz, the father of popular science writing in the United States). It is high time that we add Audubon to that roster instead of fixing up his prose or repeating half-truths about his lack of education (as if everybody else around him at the time would have enjoyed such fantastic educational opportunities; we do not hold Melville’s lack of college degree against him, do we?).

But even if we were to go back to the manuscripts and start editing him as scrupulously as possible—and I mean, really scrupulously— we have to contend with the fact that his most substantial piece of writing, the 3,000 page Ornithological Biography, was already edited by someone else, at Audubon’s request. In the “Introductory Address” to Ornithological Biography, Audubon cheerfully admits that the Scottish ornithologist William McGillivray smoothed the “asperities” of his style. So let’s see what happened here. As an example I’ll take the essay on the smallest bird in Audubon’s big book, the hummingbird. This is how Audubon began his piece in his manuscript:

Where is the person who on seeing, this lovely feathered miniature, moving humming, passing through, or suspended as if by magic in the air, with motions as easy, as they are light & airy weaving ranging flitting from one flower to another & from blossom to blossom, eagerly pursuing its course over & across our large extensive continent, impelled by nature’s laws affording new pleasures to mankind when ever it is seen, within where is that person I ask of you Kind Reader who on observing wel this richlly clad diminutive Seraph of the feathery Tribes, will not pause, not admire & not feel reverence instantaneously feel the reverence or awe to the Almighty Creator who with for the whose bounties we at every Step constantly discover and at every movement of our own superior organization cannot but f feel how divinely sublime & manifold his own wonderful System of arrangement through our Nature the whole of creation exists?
he Such a one does not live—so kindly were we all blessed with that innate & noble feeling—admiration!

(Houghton Library, Harvard University, Audubon Papers, bMS Am 1483 [179], by
permission of Houghton Library, Harvard University.)

Now take a quick look at what the text looked like after McGillivray was done with it:
Where is the person who, on seeing this lovely little creature moving on humming winglets through the air, suspended as if by magic in it, flitting from one flower to another, with motions as graceful as they are light and airy, pursuing its course over our extensive continent, and yielding new delights wherever it is seen;—where is the, I ask of you, kind reader, who, on observing this glittering fragment of the rainbow, would not pause, admire, and instantly turn his mind with reverence toward the Almighty Creator, the wonders of whose hand we at every step discover, and of whose sublime conceptions we everywhere observe the manifestations in his admirable system of creation? —There breathes not such a person; so kindly have we all been blessed with that intuitive and noble feeling—admiration!

(Audubon, Writings and Drawings, p. 248)

This is an obviously overwritten, over-orchestrated passage, intended as a grand overture for what is to follow. Audubon likes such powerful beginnings, indulging in them frequently: “Kind Reader, you now see before you my greatest favourite of the feathered tribes of our woods” (about the Wood Thrush) or, my personal favorite, the beginning of “The Mississippi Kite”: “When, after many a severe conflict, the southern breezes, in alliance with sun, have, as if through a generous effort, driven back for a season to their desolate abode the chill blasts of the north; when warmth and plenty are insured for a while to our happy lands, when clouds of anxious Swallows, returning from the far south, are guiding millions of Warblers to their summer residence…” You get the idea. [Audience laughter.] Audubon can do the plain beginning, too, Alexander-Wilson-style, so to speak:  “I am now about to present you with an account of the habits of the largest species of the Heron tribe hitherto found in the United States….” (“The Great White Heron”). But I like him better when he is as extravagant as here, crazy, drunk with the power of words as well as with everything he has seen, immersing himself in a language he can handle with impunity since it’s not really his own.
The hummingbird passage is a great example of the no-holds-barred nature writer Audubon. And if we compare the published passage with the manuscript, we see how much of the original Audubon is still there, despite the editorial interventions.  MacGillivray did not mess with Audubon’s syntax, he did not mess with his extensive use of anticipatory clauses which delay the conclusion of the sentence ad infinitum, and he did not mess with his repetitions (“where is the person”….. “where is that person”).  He did not separate Audubon’s exuberant text into neat little paragraphs. He also left in place some of the more felicitous moments in Audubon’s essay—the description of the hummingbird’s flight as “flitting”; the “magic” that seems to be keeping it airborne; the direct address to the reader which makes him or her a participant in a scene that is, at least at this point, only an imagined one. There are some inevitable disappointments: Audubon’s “lovely feathered miniature” is inevitably better, because more evocative, than MacGillivray’s bland phrase, “lovely little creature,” and it is a shame that the oxymoron “richly clad diminutive Seraph of the feathery Tribes”—a phrase as rich as the bird it describes—had to fall victim to the unremarkable “glittering fragment of a rainbow.”  The guiding idea behind Audubon’s passage is pretty unremarkable—some homespun natural theology that he probably inserted for promotional purposes. What is important about it is that the majestic sweep of his syntax—which is precisely what MacGillivray left intact—which enfolds us as readers and whirls us away to the point where the world of the constantly moving little hummingbird seems no longer all that weird to us. Let’s look at another passage from the same essay, again both in Audubon’s manuscript and its published form:

Could you Kind Reader cast a momentary glance on the nest of a pai the humming bird & see as I have the newly hatched pair of young, scarcely larger than a humble bees, naked, weak blind & so weak as scarcely able to raise their little bill to receive food from the parents, and to see those latter parents full anxie anxiety & fear passing & repassing within a few inches of your face, alighting on a twig not more than a yard from your body waiting the result of the unwelcome visit with utmost apparent despair it could not fail to produce the lo all these deepest pangs occasioned on parental affection at the unexpected loss of a child; but how pleasing to the Mind when on leaving the nest you might see observe the returning hope of the parents which when after examining the nest they find all its contents in a state of Safety—you would judge how pleasing it is to a mother of another kind to hear the Phisician who has attending her sick child, that the crisis was the crisis is over & her Infant is saved!—

(Audubon Papers, Houghton Library, bMS Am 1483 [179])

Here is the edited version:

Could you, kind reader, cast a momentary glance on the nest of the Humming Bird, and see, as I have seen, the newly hatched pair of young, little larger than humble-bees, naked, blind, and so feeble as scarcely to be able to raise their little bill to receive food from the parents; and could you see those parents, full of anxiety and fear, passing and repassing within a few inches of your face, alighting on a twig not more than a yard from your body, waiting the result of your unwelcome visit in a state of the utmost despair,—you could not fail to be impressed with the deepest pangs which parental affection feels on the unexpected death of a cherished child. Then how pleasing it is, on your leaving the spot, to see the returning hope of the parents, when, after examining the nest, they find their nurslings untouched! You might then judge how pleasing it is to a mother of another kind, to hear the physician who has attended her sick child assure her that the crisis is over, and that her babe is saved.

(Audubon, Writings and Drawings, p. 250).

This is one of the passages that, in my mind, gets Audubon a free pass to the temple of the great nature writers, right next to Darwin, who liked and quoted his work. It is so good because it shifts the emphasis (and Audubon does that time and again) from the bird that is being observed and on whose privacy we are intruding here to the process of observation, allowing the eyes of the author and the reader to meet in shared wonderment and mutual recognition. Notice here how a hypothetical proposition (the wish that the reader could see as the author has already seen) becomes reality in the course of the passage. Suddenly the reader does find herself paying a visit, however “unwelcome,” to the hummingbird’s nest, where she inspects their young, while the worried parents are “passing and repassing within a few inches of your face, alighting on a twig not more than a yard from your body.”

The second-person pronoun, the rhetorical form of address so often employed by Audubon, creates a terrific sense of intimacy, and the measurements included in the sentence (“a few inches”; “not more than a yard”), with their suggestion of closeness, further reduce the distance between the actual observer (the author) and the potential observers (the readers). When, our observations finished, we “leave the spot,” we have really been there; the could has changed to did.  In the space of a few lines, the difference between the author who has seen what he is writing about and the reader who hasn’t yet seen it (and might never see it) is erased.

All of this is already present in Audubon’s manuscript, and MacGillivray makes no attempt to change it. Some words he exchanges, with mixed results. “Nurslings” and “babe” reinforce the latent anthropomorphism of the passage and are less value-free than Audubon’s “Infant” (which Audubon might have preferred because it reminded him of the French “l’enfant”). Audubon himself lost two daughters, Lucy at age two, and Rose when she was still a baby, and of course he must have been thinking about his own experiences here. But anthropomorphism with Audubon doesn’t serve the purpose of making nature more comfortably familiar to us human beings. If we read the passage carefully, the point of comparing the human-inflicted pain of the hummingbird parents to the “pangs” felt by a mother who has lost, or might lose, her child is not to make us understand the birds better. It is, quite bluntly, to make us leave a place where we shouldn’t be. There is one further oddity that I must point out here. It is only after we have witnessed the humanlike pain felt by an animal mother that we will be able to understand better the relief felt by a human mother in a similar situation (“a mother of another kind”—the clever MacGillivray didn’t mess with this wonderful phrase either). Audubon used anthropomorphism—a tool intended to reduce the distance between animals and humans—to tell us humans to go mind our own business. Now that is a great nature writer in my book—and the more we let him mind his own business (and stop second-guessing him) the more we’ll be able to enjoy him, too. MacGillivray is the Havell of Audubon’s prose (Maria Audubon et al. are not).  We need to recognize MacGillivray’s achievement, but just as we are delighted that Audubon’s original watercolors have survived, so should we also celebrate the fact that in his manuscripts his original voice—in all its transatlantic rawness—still lives on.