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John James Audubon: The Making of an American Hardcover – Deckle Edge, October 12, 2004
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From Publishers Weekly
Born in 1785 in Saint Domingue (now Haiti), the bastard son of a French naval officer and a chambermaid, Audubon was taken to France by his father and then sent to America in 1803 to escape conscription into Napoleon's army. He began drawing birds as a child, and in America this passion grew into an obsession. His business ventures failed, and he was often short of money, but for him, birds overshadowed everything except his devotion to his wife, Lucy, who encouraged him in all his endeavors and supported the family when he went on quests for new birds to paint. Traveling into the American wilderness, Audubon, completely at home on the frontier, observed birds endlessly, and in 1826 set off for Europe to spend years promoting his multi-volume Birds of America. His life makes an engaging story, and Pulitzer Prize winner Rhodes (The Making of the Atomic Bomb) chronicles every aspect of it, the commonplace as well as the audacious, in this thoroughly researched biography. Rhodes's prose style is subtle, enlivened by passages from Audubon's own letters and journals, and he presents an agreeable picture of a man who charmed almost everyone he met, remained devoted to his wife even though he abandoned her for years at a time and was not above lying about his birth and other details of his life. Perhaps most important, Rhodes succeeds in shedding light on how Audubon perfected his ability to capture in his depictions of birds so much life and emotion that they transcend traditional wildlife painting. Illus. throughout; 16 pages of photos not seen by PW.
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From Scientific American
"The sharp cries of gulls wheeling above the East River docks welcomed the handsome young Frenchman to America." Born in 1785 the illegitimate son of a French planter on Saint Domingue (now Haiti) and raised in France, the handsome young man transformed himself into the consummate American. Rhodes, Pulitzer Prizewinning author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb, traces this journey with insight ("studying birds was how he mastered the world, and himself") and vivid language. In particular, Audubon's wife, Lucy--a beautiful, adventurous Englishwoman whom he met shortly after arriving in America--emerges as a full, and patient, partner in Audubon's single-minded enterprise to develop a technique that would breathe life back into the birds he drew and to catalogue the birds of North America in a "collection not only valuable to the scientific class, but pleasing to every person." The book includes several color reproductions to remind us just how well Audubon succeeded. If this biography inspires you to read more about birds, two other recent books stand out: The Race to Save the Lord God Bird, by Phillip Hoose (Melanie Kroupa Books, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004), and On the Wing: To the Edge of the Earth with the Peregrine Falcon, by Alan Tennant (Alfred A. Knopf, 2004).
Editors of Scientific American
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Top Customer Reviews
There is another Audobon book that came out the same year, Under a Wild Sky by Souder, and I own that book, too. The Souder book was a finalist for the Pulitzer, but I really don't know how it could have been selected over this book by Richard Rhodes. For example, this book goes into all the details of Audubon's personal life right up to his last days on earth, whereas the Souder book covers most of it in a few paragraphs at the end of his book.
I LOVED this book! I had a couple of bird books next to my chair as I was reading (one, a condensed version of Audubon's Birds of America), and referred to them throughout reading, which was fun and very enlightening and educational. Audubon knew and loved his birds so well that he even wrote biographies of individual species, and indeed individual birds themselves! What could be more amazing than that?
This is a truly delicious book that I wish more people would read. Right now there are only 18 individual reviews, which is much less than this book should have. I always blame the publishers for not doing justice to the fabulous books they are entrusted with. Do yourself a favor and read this special book! It is about a great man, yes, but also covers so much more. In these days of being green, Audubon predicted (and saw the beginnings of) the sad ruination and ultimate demise of nature in all its forms, and that was in the early 1800s. He was a pioneer as well as a bright man, and a funny man, and a driven man who loved and adored his family and his birds.
A biographer or historian may lack a novelist's eye for the kinds of background details that make the past come alive to the reader. But Richard Rhodes has immersed himself in his subject's world. He's read everything, not only what Audubon himself wrote, but also what his family, acquaintances, and others who experienced the same things wrote. Suppose you'd been in New York City on 9/11 but hadn't written much about your experience. A future historian might use the descriptions by others who were there too to fill in the gaps. That's what Rhodes has done for Audubon.
Before this book, Rhodes was known for his Pulitzer-winning history of the development of the atomic bomb. Now he's known as Audubon's biographer, having edited the Everyman's Library edition of The Audubon Reader and contributed an introduction to the forthcoming Audubon: Early Drawings. This is a remarkable book by someone who really knows his subject, his period, and his craft as writer and historian.