In important ways, John James Audubon (1785-1851) represents a biographer’s delight. Something of a charlatan, a showman endowed with a theatrical personality, he possessed vision, undeniable genius, and dynamic energy. While his efforts to create legends about himself were largely failures, his achievement in conceiving, planning, and completing THE BIRDS OF AMERICA brought him lasting fame and a measure of prosperity.
As Streshinsky explains, Audubon had to accomplish feats that no other naturalist of his time had attempted. He became his own researcher, discoverer, artist, businessman, publicity agent, and salesman. Failure in any one of these roles would have doomed his project. In pursuit of his dream he traveled constantly throughout the United States and back and forth to England.
Streshinsky depicts Audubon as a frontiersman, downplaying his well-known weaknesses. Drawing heavily upon unpublished correspondence, she places emphasis upon his domestic life, stressing the contributions of his wife Lucy and their two sons to his achievement. Family letters reveal the tensions brought by long separations, yet they show the family cohering as a unit around Audubon’s great visionary effort. In addition, she introduces motifs that enliven the account and add further insights. She finds recurring symbolic significance in a traumatic childhood experience involving the death of Audubon’s pet parrot. She draws analogies to the family of Abraham Lincoln, who lived for a time not far from the Audubons. Placing Audubon within his nineteenth-century American frontier context, she provides a balanced assessment of the issues of the time. Streshinsky’s biography represents a welcome updating of a classic American figure.