A weighty, prodigiously researched biography of John James Audubon.
Logan makes his debut with an expansive account of the naturalist’s summer expedition to Labrador in 1833, an adventure that he believes hasn’t been fully covered by earlier biographers. Still, readers who haven’t previously studied this 19th-century artist/ornithologist aren’t dropped into the tale midstream. The author devotes more than a third of the narrative to Audubon’s early years, from his birth to an unwed mother in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) in 1785, through his years of business failures in the American South, until his successful, herculean accomplishment: the publication of the first volumes of The Birds of America. He personally sold his costly prints by subscription, which were delivered as each volume was completed. In 1833, he still needed some final specimens in order to produce drawings and engravings to complete the four-volume masterpiece. At the time, he was facing production problems in England, subscribers who complained that they weren’t receiving prints in a timely fashion, and the effects of a stroke. Logan believes that the Labrador expedition afforded Audubon the opportunity to reclaim his physical stamina and rebuild his self-confidence. It also marked the dawn of Audubon’s awareness of man’s impact on the environment; he wrote: “When the fish are destroyed as according to present appearances they soon will be and the birds too, what will then be in Labrador. The destruction…is too wicked.” Logan uses copious primary and secondary source materials, including meticulously documented newspaper articles, personal letters, and journal entries written by Audubon and his legion of acquaintances, as well as hundreds of pages of endnotes—some referential, others featuring heavy annotations. He draws a vivid image of a charismatic personality who was, by turns, ebullient, melancholy, obsessed, and inquisitive. Overall, the book is scholarly in tone yet generally accessible. The text becomes a bit wearying at times, loaded as it is with biographical tidbits on just about everyone Audubon met. But the extensive descriptions of the naturalist’s slog through Labrador, the ordeals of ordinary travel, and the nature of 19th-century social networking illuminate the era. The book also includes maps as well as illustrations (not seen).
A slow but informative read that is likely to appeal to history and art buffs.