Audubon and Wilson


(This column was first published in the June 13, 2004 issue of The Buffalo Sunday News.)


Tomorrow evening, June 14th at 7 p.m. in WBFO's theater in Allen Hall on the University at Buffalo South Campus William Souder will read from his new book Under a Wild Sky: John James Audubon and the Making of the Birds of America. A reception and book signing will follow. Souder's host will be WBFO music director Bert Gambini. The event is free and open to the public.


On my bookshelves are three other very good and quite recent Audubon commentaries: Alice Ford's 1988 John James Audubon: A Biography, Shirley Streshinsky's 1993 Audubon: Life and Art in the American Wilderness and the Library of America 1999 John James Audubon: Writings & Drawings.


Why then do we need another Audubon biography?


I for one am quite happy to have this new volume about this remarkable ornithologist and artist. Aside from the fact that millions of bird watchers - and in particular Audubon Society members - will always enjoy another book about their patron saint, Souder approaches Audubon quite differently.


Of most interest to me is his focus on Audubon's relationships with another important early American ornithologist, his contemporary, Alexander Wilson.


Here is what Elsa Allen has to say about Wilson in her authoritative History of American Ornithology before Audubon:


"With Alexander Wilson (1766-1813) a new era in American ornithology opens. He has given us 320 figures of American birds, representing 262 species. Of these, 39 were new to science, and 23 others were sufficiently described to differentiate them from European species with which they had been confused.


"How is it, then, that the name of Alexander Wilson is so unfamiliar? There are two principal reasons for this: one, his untimely death at forty-seven, before he finished his proposed ten-volume work; and two, his close juxtaposition in point of time to the great bird artist, John James Audubon (1785-1851). The brilliance of the Audubon fame, with the inordinate commercialization which it has undergone, has blinded us to the hard-working Scot who came to America in 1794 without a friend or a farthing to aid him. A man of meager ability we are told, of unattractive personality his biographer says, with a quixotic scheme of writing and illustrating a great work on American birds; surely such a man, though a fund of genius lay hidden in his work, was no match for the talented Audubon.


"It would he vain to attempt to remold the judgment of a century, but it should be pointed out that Wilson never took the position to which he was entitled both by priority and by certain scientific powers. Instead, Audubon, riding on the wave of bird interest that swept the late nineteenth century, has been lavished with praise, to the almost complete exclusion of a very able ornithologist."


Of course, Souder sees the inevitable comparison of the two from Audubon's side but he is, I believe, quite fair in his consideration of their very different talents.


Of special interest is the first meeting of Wilson and Audubon because it seems to me such a shocking event for Wilson.


Think of yourself in Wilson's role. The year is 1810 and you are developing a reputation as an ornithologist with publication of the second volume of your American Ornithology. As an artist, however, you are self-trained and the drawings you have produced appear today flat and lifeless.


You are now on an extended tour of this young country to sell subscriptions to your work and to collect more information about birds - mainly by shooting them. You've ridden horseback and boated from Philadelphia all the way through the wilderness to Cincinnati and now you stop at a local store to try to talk one of the managers into purchasing your series.


The manager declines but he shows you his own bird paintings. They put your meager art to shame for the man you have approached is Audubon himself.


That experience must have been like a hard blow to the stomach.


And their reaction? Audubon later bragged about this confrontation. Wilson, on the other hand, seemed to hide it. Here are his journal entries: "March 19 Rambling round the town with my gun; examined Mr. ---'s drawings in crayons - very good." March 20: "Went out shooting this afternoon with Mr. A." But finally on March 22: "Science or literature has not one friend in this place."


The two were very different, both touchy, each to make major contributions to North American ornithology. Today Audubon is best remembered for his paintings, Wilson for his natural history, but there is significant overlap. Both deserve our recognition and esteem.-- Gerry Rising


A wonderful French and English website about Audubon that includes a brief biographical sketch and all of his 435 bird paintings is mounted by the French Musee de la civilization.