The Pulitzer-winning historian and biographer finds a pleasing subject in an American original: the traveler, chronicler, scientist, painter, and entrepreneur whose name remains legend.
Jean Rabin—his name until he was eight—was born out of wedlock, and though his father and his wife welcomed him into their home in Nantes, all were aware that “in France bastard children were denied inheritance.” Not so in America, to which the renamed, 18-year-old John James Audubon came in 1803, “lean and athletic, unselfconsciously vain . . . his beak of a nose most certifiably French.” He was charged with tending to his father’s business interests, but, Rhodes writes, he had little talent for the work—and besides, he wanted nothing more than “to complete a collection [of ornithological illustrations] not only valuable to the scientific class, but pleasing to every person.” He was single-minded in this devotion, driven, Rhodes suggests in a moment of psychologizing, by a desire “literally to revivify the dead.” Luckily, he found time to wed a singularly patient young English woman, Lucy Bakewell, who traveled with him across the Appalachians to establish a general store, scarcely complaining about the hardships of the journey, even if she did lament that in frontier Louisville, “there is no library here or bookstore . . . and as Mr. Audubon is constantly at the store I should often enjoy a book very much whilst I am alone.” The great virtue here is not so much in giving a thorough, modern life of Audubon, which Shirley Streshinsky did with her Audubon: Life and Art in the American Wilderness (1993); it is in making Lucy Audubon a full partner in the enterprise, if neglected to the point of near abandonment while her husband cultivated his art and his fame, consciously crafting an image as definitively American—at least as far as his European patrons were concerned—as Daniel Boone’s.
That makes for an absorbing story, too, and Rhodes (Masters of Death, 2002, etc.) tells it surpassingly well. Outstanding.