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.
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
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.
Gregory Nobles illuminates different sides of the indefatigable explorer’s personality, actions, and life. As Audubon joined his adopted country in some of the shameful aspects of its history, he also embodied much of its good: hope, perseverance, and democratic values—for whites, anyway. Despite Audubon’s contradictions, we can still admire him for his relentless quest to document the feathered residents of North America.
~American Birding Association
Historian Gregory Nobles explicates the man in all his complexity. . . . Deftly dissecting the multifaceted life of the Frenchman who came to embody the American pioneer more than any natural-born citizen, Nobles balances fresh anecdotes with skepticism [and] delivers a captivating portrait of a self-taught, self-made man who out of passion to paint America's birds illustrated a country ripe with possibilities.
Nobles’s John James Audubon, beautifully produced by the University of Pennsylvania Press . . . delivers, competently and fluently, what its subtitle promises—an investigation of Audubon’s personal brand, the ‘American Woodsman.'
~American Historical Review
Nobles . . . skillfully provides a readable account of this self-proclaimed ‘American woodsman.’ The author deems Audubon ‘America’s first celebrity scientist,’ who went to great lengths to promote himself as an artist, an entrepreneur, and a ‘gentleman of science.’
This welcome new contribution to Audubon studies moves us several steps forward. . . . Nobles’s thorough contextualization and discussion of the evidence render his argument persuasive and original in its depth and thoroughness.
~Early American Literature
The ten chapters of this excellent book review the life and times of John James Audubon in a refreshingly honest manner, detailing Audubon’s development as a brilliant bird artist and scientist and, most importantly, his careful creation of an image of himself as an ‘American woodsman.’ There have ben many biographies of Audubon, but this one is unique in its in-depth discussion of Audubon’s character and his lifelong attempt to become a greater national figure and bird artist than his predecessor, Alexander Wilson…A very informative and delightful read. [Recommended] to anyone with an interest in art, nature, or American history.
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