The Making of an American

By Richard Rhodes. Knopf. 514 pp. $30

The illegitimate son of a French sea captain, sent to America as a young adult, John James Audubon failed at business on the frontier before redeeming himself as a painter of birds. Spurned by scholars in America, he found fame for his art by presenting himself as "the American woodsman" in the salons of Europe. Flamboyant, insanely hard-working, gifted at reinventing himself, he became the quintessential American -- as is suggested by the subtitle of this fine new biography.

Audubon's colorful life story has been told from many perspectives, but Richard Rhodes, a skilled researcher and historian, proves there is still fresh ground to be worked. He illuminates the American frontier of the early 1800s with a deft use of precise details. Literally hundreds of quotes, short and long, bring to life the voice of that era. Rhodes has given us the most three-dimensional portrait yet of Audubon the man.

The story gets off to a fast start with the 18-year-old Audubon stepping off the ship from France in 1803. He is actively watching birds by the second paragraph, and by page 9 he has met the other passion of his life, Lucy Bakewell. She seldom goes unmentioned for more than a page or two throughout the rest of the book. This is above all a human story, and the complex relationship between Audubon and Lucy is one of its main themes.

Naturalists who write about Audubon often get hung up in details about the creatures he portrayed. The generalist Rhodes avoids this trap, and mostly avoids the opposite pitfall of paying too little attention to natural history, which would have made the artist's quest seem hollow and absurd. Rhodes uses the names for birds and animals that Audubon used, and often gives the modern nomenclature when it differs, although not always; bird-savvy readers will have to go back to original sources to decipher "green-crested flycatcher," "sedge sparrow," or other names unknown today. A few birders, I suspect, will obsess on such details and will miss the point of the book. For everyone else, the descriptions of birds and animals and their habitats will help clarify Audubon's passion for wild America.

Audubon's influence on ornithology, art and conservation extended long after his death. Tracing that influence is not a part of this book's intent, but there is some foreshadowing here. Especially compelling are the quotes that show Audubon's dawning awareness of conservation issues, as he notes the wholesale slaughter of seals and nesting birds in Labrador, for example, or the passing of the eastern wilderness within just a few years. In defending his subject's talent as an ornithologist and artist, Rhodes sometimes overreaches. Audubon's supposed sighting of scarlet ibises in Louisiana, for example, was undoubtedly incorrect, despite the fact that he "knew his silhouettes." And to say that "No one has ever drawn birds better" is a matter of opinion; most who know the field would agree that several modern masters, such as Lars Jonsson, have surpassed Audubon's best. Still, Rhodes clearly conveys how little was known of birds, and how deadly dull most illustrations of them were, until Audubon arrived to shake up the field.

Popular myth has held that Audubon's early business ventures failed because he neglected his work to go birding. Rhodes dismantles this notion. The naturalist actually did well as a merchant for several years, relegating bird work to his spare time, until his ambitious project of building a modern steam mill at Henderson, Ky., was driven to bankruptcy by a widespread financial panic in 1819. Suddenly in poverty, he fell back on his artistic ability, drawing portraits to support his family. Only during this period did his bird paintings mature and morph from hobby and pipe-dream to serious plan. Later, when he undertook to self-publish his colossal Birds of America, he raised what would have been millions of today's dollars and managed the flow of capital and production for a dozen years to bring the project to successful completion. It was, as Rhodes says, "as if one man had single-handedly financed and built an Egyptian pyramid." Failed businessman, indeed.

Rhodes also brings a more nuanced view to the popular image of a long-suffering Lucy Audubon standing by her husband through thick and thin. Long-suffering she was, and stand by him she did, but not without doubts and reservations. The bankruptcy at Henderson and the subsequent years of struggle were hard on her. During this time she worked as a tutor to support her two sons, and often confided in them more than in her husband. Their marriage was most strained, understandably, when Audubon went off to England in 1826 to seek the means of publishing his masterwork. Excerpts from their letters reveal the depths of their anguish and doubt. The challenges of long-distance romance were extreme in the 1820s, when letters might take months to cross the Atlantic. Their misunderstandings multiplied. When he wrote to her of his growing success, of his acceptance by the leading intellectuals of Europe and of his launching and publication of his work, she seems not to have taken him seriously at first. There were periods of months when he persevered in his work without knowing whether he had her moral support or not. Suffice it to say that he was as constant to her as she to him, that his desire to support her apparently was part of what drove him, and that both of them were remarkable individuals by any measure.

Although the biography mentions and dismisses many of Audubon's inventions about himself, one is conspicuously missing: the fiction (cherished for decades by his descendants) that he was born Louis XVII, the mysterious Lost Dauphin. Rhodes doesn't bother with this one. He doesn't have to. His subject is astonishing enough without it, and besides, such a backward glance at monarchy would have added nothing to the story of this self-made American. *

Kenn Kaufman is the author of eight books on nature, including "Kingbird Highway" and field guides to North American birds, butterflies and mammals.

Long-billed curlewJohn James AudubonBrown pelican