John James Audubon's The Birds of America stands as an unparalleled achievement in American art, a huge book that puts nature dramatically on the page. With that work, Audubon became one of the most adulated artists of his time, and America's first celebrity scientist.
In this fresh approach to Audubon's art and science, Gregory Nobles shows us that Audubon's greatest creation was himself. A self-made man incessantly striving to secure his place in American society, Audubon made himself into a skilled painter, a successful entrepreneur, and a prolific writer, whose words went well beyond birds and scientific description. He sought status with the "gentlemen of science" on both sides of the Atlantic, but he also embraced the ornithology of ordinary people. In pursuit of popular acclaim in art and science, Audubon crafted an expressive, audacious, and decidedly masculine identity as the "American Woodsman", a larger-than-life symbol of the new nation, a role he perfected in his quest for transatlantic fame. Audubon didn't just live his life; he performed it.
In exploring that performance, Nobles pays special attention to Audubon's stories, some of which – the murky circumstances of his birth, a Kentucky hunting trip with Daniel Boone, an armed encounter with a runaway slave – Audubon embellished with evasions and outright lies. Nobles argues that we cannot take all of Audubon's stories literally, but we must take them seriously. By doing so, we come to terms with the central irony of Audubon's true nature: the man who took so much time and trouble to depict birds so accurately left us a bold but deceptive picture of himself.
"More than a century and a half after his death, John James Audubon – flamboyant, intense, garrulous, insecure, and yet gifted beyond measure – remains one of the most compelling figures in American history. In this fine new biography, Gregory Nobles brings 'the American Woodsman' back to full, vivid life, capturing the artist's many facets as Audubon himself captured the essence of his beloved birds."
– Scott Weidensaul, author of Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding
"Compulsively readable and fascinating. Gregory Nobles's bottom-to-top assessment of the entire tableau of Audubon lore is terrific."
– Daniel Lewis, author of The Feathery Tribe: Robert Ridgway and the Modern Study of Birds
"An elegant book that adroitly weaves together a portrait of a man of genius and an account of the cultural and economic worlds in which he worked."
– Ann Fabian, author of The Skull Collectors: Race, Science, and America's Unburied Dead
Introduction. Creating Art, Science, and Self
Chapter 1. Becoming Audubon, Becoming American
Chapter 2. Hearing Birds, Heeding Their Call
Chapter 3. Making an Odyssey for Art and Ornithology
Chapter 4. Going into Business with The Birds of America
Chapter 5. Struggling for Status in Science
Chapter 6. Suffering for Science as the "American Woodsman"
Chapter 7. Putting People into the Picture
Chapter 8. Exploring the Ornithology of Ordinary People
Chapter 9. Forging a Legacy, Finding a Discipline
Chapter 10. Bringing Audubon Back to Life
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Gregory Nobles is Professor of History Emeritus at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Among his previous books are American Frontiers: Cultural Encounters and Continental Conquest and, with Alfred F. Young, Whose American Revolution Was It? Historians Interpret the Founding.