(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Two excellent biographies of John James Audubon appeared in 2004: William Souder's Under a Wild Sky: John James Audubon and the Making of “The Birds of America” and Duff Hart-Davis'sAudubon's Elephant: America's Greatest Naturalist and the Making of “The Birds of America.” It seems necessary to ask, therefore, what Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Rhodes can add to this inspiring, if often-told, story.

Rhodes's publisher promotes his book as the first major biography in forty years, adding: “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.” Certainly Rhodes's book is longer than both Souder's and Hart-Davis's, but Rhodes's portrayal of Audubon himself does not differ markedly from those of his immediate predecessors. Unfortunately, Rhodes himself does not explain how he sees his book in the context of the voluminous literature—biographical and otherwise—about Audubon.

It is not facts but narrative drive that distinguishes Rhodes from Souder and Hart-Davis. Rhodes is adept at rendering the everyday concerns of his subject, the intricate concatenation of events that led to the publication of Audubon's classic book, with (toward the end of the biography) summative passages that convey why Audubon is both a great American and a great artist.

Rhodes begins his biography by being true to his subtitle: “The sharp cries of gulls wheeling above the East River docks welcomed the handsome young Frenchman to America.” Birds, the biographer implies, do not merely become Audubon's subject, they represent the freewheeling America that this emigrant embraces and forges into a new identity.

Perhaps because Souder and Hart-Davis focus like art historians and critics upon Audubon's achievement, their books begin in medias res: In 1826, John James Audubon sailed to Liverpool looking for subscribers to his landmark elephantine volumes, The Birds of America, which the author carried slung across his back in a huge, leather-bound portfolio, weighing perhaps a hundred pounds. He was determined to produce a series of books that would contain life-size paintings. Printers in the United States rejected Audubon's outlandish project, not only because of the expense entailed in engraving and binding a work with such unprecedented dimensions (39.5 by 29.5 inches), but also because he was a nobody, entering the field late—a poor bet, given that Alexander Wilson had already published American Ornithology and had the backing of important American naturalists.

Then Audubon did what other Americans have done after failing to attract renown at home: He made his reputation in England. Hart-Davis emphasizes how the handsome forty-year-old, dressed as an American rustic but speaking a unique kind of French-accented English, wowed the Liverpudlians. He was as exotic as his birds—and he knew it. As Souder puts it, the English have always been enamored of roguish explorer types.

Rhodes does not approach this part of Audubon's life until part 3. Until then, the frenetic, resourceful, yet unsuccessful Audubon is seen schooling himself in the habitats of America, making do with farming and various other businesses, and painting portraits of the prominent, while always remaining faithful to his dream of drawing and writing his epic story of America's birds.

By such a long delaying action (delaying, that is, to those who are eager to discover how Audubon was ultimately able to realize his dream), Rhodes risks trying his readers’ patience. He balances this by quoting copiously from Audubon's letters and other writings. Audubon's gift to all his biographers is the lengthy letters he wrote to his wife, discussing his travels and quarreling with her about his plans but always sharing his confidences with a deeply loving...

(The entire section is 1607 words.)