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John James Audubon: The Making of an American Paperback – April 11, 2006
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“Rhodes has managed to do for Audubon what Audubon did for birds. . . in this splendid biography Rhodes has produced nothing less than a portrait of the United States in its formative years.”
–The New York Times Book Review
“Panoramic yet intensely detailed. . . .[Rhodes] has conveyed the thrust of his subject’s imagination and the force of his movement as if painting Audubon from life.”
– San Francisco Chronicle
“Rhodes has given us the most three-dimensional portrait yet of Audubon the man.”
—The Washington Post Book World
“More than a mere biography: it is a comprehensive history of a man and his era. . . . Rhodes breathes life again into the world in which Audubon lived.”
–Los Angeles Times Book Review
From the Inside Flap
From the Pulitzer Prize--winning historian Richard Rhodes, the first major biography of John James Audubon in forty years, and the first to illuminate fully the private and family life of the master illustrator of the natural world.
Rhodes shows us young Audubon arriving in New York from France in 1803, his illegitimacy a painful secret, speaking no English but already drawing and observing birds. We see him falling in love, marrying the wellborn English girl next door, crossing the Appalachians to frontier Kentucky to start a new life, fashioning himself into an American just as his adopted country was finding its identity.
Here is Audubon exploring the wilderness of birds-pelicans wading the shallows of interior rivers, songbirds flocking, passenger pigeons darkening the skies-and teaching himself to revivify them in glorious life-size images. Now he finds his calling: to take his hundreds of watercolor drawings to England to be engraved in a great multivolume work called "The Birds of America. Within weeks of his arrival there in 1826, he achieves remarkable celebrity as "the American Woodsman." He publishes his major work as well as five volumes of bird biographies enhanced by his authentic descriptions of pioneer American life.
Audubon's story is an artist's story but also a moving love story. In his day, communications by letter across the ocean were so slow and uncertain that John James and his wife, Lucy, almost lost each other in the three years when the Atlantic separated them-until he crossed the Atlantic and half the American continent to claim her. Their letters during this time are intimate, moving, and painful, and they attest to an enduring love.
Weexamine Audubon's legacy of inspired observation-the sonorities of a wilderness now lost, the brash life of a new nation just inventing itself-precisely, truthfully, lyrically captured. And we see Audubon in the fullness of his years, made rich by his magnificent work, winning public honor: embraced by writers and scientists, feted by presidents and royalty.
Here is a revelation of Audubon as the major American artist he is. And here he emerges for the first time in his full humanity-handsome, charming, volatile, ambitious, loving, canny, immensely energetic. Richard Rhodes has given us an indispensable portrait of a true American icon.
"From the Hardcover edition.
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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.