In the century and a half since John James Audubon's death, his name has become synonymous with wildlife conservation and natural history. But few people know what a complicated figure he was-or the dramatic story behind The Birds of America.
Before Audubon, ornithological illustration depicted scaled-down birds perched in static poses. Wheeling beneath storm-racked skies or ripping flesh from newly killed prey, Audubon's life-sized birds looked as if they might fly screeching off the page. The wildness in the images matched the untamed spirit in Audubon - a self-taught painter and self-anointed aristocrat who, with his buckskins and long hair, wanted to be seen as both a hardened frontiersman and a cultured man of science.
In truth, neither his friends nor his detractors ever knew exactly who Audubon was or where he came from. Tormented by the ambiguities surrounding his birth, he reinvented himself ceaselessly, creating a life as dramatic as his fictionalization of it. But when he came east at thirty-eight - broke and desperate to find a publisher for his birds - he ran squarely into a scientific establishment still wedded to convention and suspicious of the brash newcomer and his grandiose claims.
It took Audubon fifteen years to prevail in both his project and his vision. How he triumphed and what drove him are the subjects of this gripping narrative.