Book Review

Audubon’s Predatory Eye

Audubon at Sea is a beautiful book to look at, with its dramatic dust-jacket image of a Dusky Petrel, or Audubon’s Shearwater, its brilliant black and pure white form afloat in pellucid aquamarine wavelets, its webbed feet convincingly at work below, all against a distant horizon of dark gray rocks and pale gray clouds.[1] Inside the book the same aesthetic prevails—a palette of coastal New England or Nova Scotia, perhaps, or the wintry North Atlantic. Look for example at Audubon’s Black Skimmer or Shearwater, for a similar aquatint engraving in the famous Double-Elephant sized folio of The Birds of America, showing the bird outstretched in flight, its lower mandible in stark orange and black, skimming the waves at the extreme lower left corner, its majestic black wings reaching back, almost touching the paper’s upper right edge, the low horizon a strict horizontal line against which the down-thrusting bird races past us. These are breathtakingly powerful pictures. We know that Audubon employed an expert engraving firm in London, Robert Havell & Son, to produce these and almost all of the other 435 images in the series (issued from 1827 to 1838), but Havell’s name, père or fils, is always followed by the words “after John James Audubon.” Whoever the engraver was, he worked from Audubon’s original watercolors and drawings. Virtually everything in them—their immense scale, their compositional dramas, nuances of color and texture, their precision of detail—came from him. Even when he invited botanical artists or landscape painters to supply additional details for his pictures, and he often did, the credit has always gone—and still goes—to Audubon himself.


Robert Havell Jr. after John James Audubon, “Black Skimmer or Shearwater” (black skimmer), 1836. Aquatint engraving. The Birds of America, plate 323. Courtesy of the Lilly Library.


The focus of Audubon at Sea is indicated by its subtitle: The Coastal and Transatlantic Adventures of John James Audubon. It argues that he was never so comfortable at sea as he was on land when “collecting”—i.e., shooting—his specimens. Seabirds were harder to see up close, we are told; they are more elusive and maddening to approach, hence more enigmatic than land birds, at home in environments life-threatening to us. They were also uniquely disturbing to Audubon, the book’s editors Christoph Irmscher and Richard J. King argue, in their sheer abundance. They claim Audubon had no previous experience of such massive flocks, darkening the sky and crowding every inch of their breeding grounds, their guano heaped up like snow, filling the air with their deafening cries and vile stench. So there is a wry twist in the title’s phrase “at sea” (i.e., lost or confused) and in the subtitle’s “Adventures” (as if they were light-hearted!), which turn out to be—especially toward the end—when the story ventures into arctic waters and the terra incognita of Labrador—stories of seasickness, horrific gales, desolate wilderness, relentless rain and cold, with everything made worse by the depredations of men.

Irmscher and King are well positioned to make such claims.[2] King was the author of Ahab’s Rolling Sea, a richly detailed study of natural species in Moby Dick, and Irmscher was the editor of John James Audubon: Writings and Drawings for the Library of America in 1999, which emphasized Audubon on land, venturing into better known American landscapes. It included Mississippi River Journal (1820–21), excerpts from Audubon’s 1826 Journal, his Missouri River Journals (1843), and 45 color plates from The Birds of America, each accompanied by its “bird biography,” a concise essay about the species that Audubon wrote to supplement his folio pictures, a first volume of these appearing in 1831 and called Ornithological Biography, or An Account of the Habits of the Birds of the United States of America. It is fair to say that Audubon’s stature in history as America’s greatest ornithologist—if not its greatest naturalist period—rests on these “biographies.” They outstrip anything that had previously been attempted, both in fullness of detail and in encyclopedic coverage and are written with sweeping, often poetic, vigor unmatched by any other naturalist of his century.
In selecting the texts for Audubon at Sea, Irmscher and King follow what seems at first a format similar to his 1999 anthology: they begin with the entire journal of his voyage from New Orleans to Liverpool in 1826, then provide a generous selection of water-bird biographies (ranging from “Southern Waters” to “New England and Atlantic Canada”) and conclude with the grimmest “adventure” of all, Journal of a Collecting Voyage from Eastport [Maine] to Labrador Aboard the Ripley (1833). But where Irmscher in the Library of America volume kept his editorial self unobtrusive, his annotations minimal, and his own views unvoiced, he and King do the opposite in Audubon at Sea. Everything is prefaced and introduced. Even their Introduction has a Foreword, written by a photographer-ecologist (Subhankar Banerjee) who explains their thesis—and justifies it—before we’ve had a chance to read it for ourselves, and long before we read any work written by Audubon that might, or might not, support their arguments. No such problem affects the book’s highly detailed and often very rewarding footnotes, which follow each section of the book—again totally unlike Irmscher’s 1999 text, which had almost no annotation at all.[3]
What actually drives Irmscher and King’s “plot” in Audubon at Sea is their concern for the extinction of species, claiming that Audubon is our contemporary in this, equally anxious about the survival of Passenger Pigeons and Ivory-billed Woodpeckers as we are today about Red Knots, Puffins, and Guillemots—not to mention every species on the planet. But the story they begin with is designed to make your blood boil. It is not about Audubon. It occurred on a rocky island off the coast of Iceland in 1844 which was inhabited by “a pair of great auks, likely the last in the world, who had made their home there.” (Italics mine.) Three Icelandic fishermen arrived, pursued the large, ungainly, flightless birds—one of them “walked like a man,” it was said—and strangled them. No motive is ascribed, apparently, for this gratuitous act. Audubon enters the story, as Irmscher and King tell it, “ten years earlier” (actually closer to 14) when he purchased in London the skin of a great auk, and made a painting of two such birds, relying purely on close analysis of the skin and his own imagination (Plate 341 in The Birds of America). Here is Irmscher and King’s take on these now-famous images of a species Audubon had never seen alive:


Audubon’s auks are silent sentinels in this empty world, one drifting on the water, while the other stands stock-still on a slab of rock. . . . Here the birds, not us, are the real residents. Except that they are not. Audubon already knew that these birds, killed first for their meat, then for down and pin feathers, and finally simply because they were rare, didn’t stand a chance. Frozen in timelessness, great auks were, for all he knew, gone from nature; even in Audubon’s fertile artistic imagination, they are little more than monuments to their own demise.


Note how phrases like “empty world” and “frozen in timelessness” are projections, not facts. Note how Audubon supposedly “already knew” in 1836 that auks “didn’t stand a chance” and were killed “simply because they were rare.” As if Audubon knew what happened in 1844 and why. But did he? Irmscher and King cannot possibly know. Audubon might have wanted to depict auks because he saw them as part of natural history. And because he was ambitious to include every species he could lay his hands on. Or because the auk’s oddities—flightless, gigantic, with a huge white circular patch in front of its small dark eye, giving it a blank eye-like stare (ominous to predators, no doubt)—were interesting. But no, Irmscher and King want to say that Audubon was like us, protesting what he foresaw, and making auks “little more than a monument to their own demise.”
What I’ve called projections here—and the book’s “Introduction” is full of them—might also be called begging the question, i.e., assuming a thing is so and arguing from that assumption (why were the multitudinous flocks of seabirds more disturbing to Audubon than land birds?) rather than answering the prior question, is it true? The editors seem to have forgotten Audubon’s nightmarish account of passenger pigeons in his Ornithological Biography, showing these land birds flying for many hours overhead by the millions and breaking the branches of the trees they roosted in, killing those perched below, and inundating the region with their offal. Nothing in Audubon at Sea is nearly as long or relentlessly disturbing as this. So the distinction between land and seabirds fails to convince. Even if we set aside these questions about editorial method, there remains a more fundamental problem. Consider the following passage from a modern naturalist who also begins his book, Wildlife in America, with the auk story.


The great auk, slaughtered indiscriminately across the centuries for its flesh, feathers, and oil, was vanishing, and the last birds, appearing now and then on lonely shores, were granted no protection. On the contrary, they were pursued more intensively than ever for their value as scientific specimens.


The date is 1844, the island is Icelandic; three fishermen manage to land on it, hunting for specimens. Two of them kill the auks, and the third discovers “a solitary egg, found a crack in it, and smashed it.” Almost the same story as told by Irmscher and King. The writer continues,


The great auk is one of the few creatures whose final hours can be documented with such certainty. Ordinarily, the last members of a species die in solitude, the time and place of their passage from the earth unknown. One year they are present, striving instinctively to maintain an existence many thousands of years old. The next year they are gone. Perhaps stray auks persisted a few years longer, to die at last through accident or age, but we must assume that the ultimate pair fell victim to this needless act of man.


The author, whose empathy for the auks is palpable, is Peter Matthiessen, writing in 1959.[4] Note the quality of mourning in Matthiessen’s voice and his clarity about what we can be certain about—man alone was the agent of this “needless act,” driven by the value of auks “as scientific specimens,” and now—since they are scarce—“pursued more intensively than ever.” Where Irmscher and King try to enlist Audubon as our contemporary, a compassionate witness to the sad extinction of auks, Matthiessen identifies man as the unambiguous source of their extinction.
What particular sort of man, we might ask, pursues a disappearing species “more intensively than ever”? The answer, it might be argued, is Audubon himself. During his 1826 voyage from New Orleans to Liverpool, Audubon met a guide who, he felt, understood him completely. He was “a first-rate shot” with his “wonderful gun” always at hand, and he “positively knew” every cranny and channel in the Florida Keys. “He had conquered hundreds of [Manatees] ‘merely,’ as he said, because the flesh and hide bring ‘a fair price’ at Havannah.” As for “attacking” and netting turtles, Audubon says, “I doubt if his equal ever lived on the Florida coast.” Conquering manatees? Attacking turtles? What comes next is even more revealing:


No sooner was he made acquainted with my errand, than he freely offered his best services, and from that moment until I left Key West he was seldom out of my hearing.


My errand! How easily he aligns himself with the archetypal American puritan’s Errand in the Wilderness, and how quickly he identifies a conscript. Audubon’s main purpose in crossing the North Atlantic was not collecting species but promoting the publication of his magnum-opus-in-the-making, The Birds of America. It was a business trip; he needed investors, scientific endorsement, subscribers, and above all advertising. He displayed his huge drawings, to instant acclaim, in Liverpool, Manchester, London, and Edinburgh. And he dressed in the costume of an “American Woodsman,” wearing a wolfskin coat, wide open collar, leather-stockings, and long dark hair falling to his shoulders. An oil painting of him in this garb, with his trusty shotgun held across his chest, now hangs in the White House. He was introduced to Sir Walter Scott, as if they were both Romantic visionaries. In fact his persona came from Natty Bumppo in James Fenimore Cooper’s recent popular novel of 1823, The Pioneers.
The parallel is instructive. Natty, a.k.a. Hawkeye or Leather-stocking, has lived in the woods among the Mohegan Indians and learned his respect for nature from them. While others go berserk in a pointless massacre of passenger pigeons (Ch. XXII), Natty remains an “uneasy spectator,” critical of his compatriots.


“This comes of settling a country!” he said—“here have I known the pigeons to fly for forty long years, and, till you made your clearings, there was nobody to skear or to hurt them. I loved to see them come into the woods, for they were company to a body, hurting nothing.”


To shame the settlers’ “wasty ways,” Natty demonstrates his own ethic. With a single perfect shot, he brings down one bird, “without touching a feather of another.” Audubon had a very similar encounter—actual of course, not fictional—with hordes of passenger pigeons in Green River, Kentucky, described at length in his Ornithological Biography (as mentioned above), but he is an uneasy spectator of the birds, not those shooting them. First he conveys mind-boggling awe at their numbers, darkening the sky for hours; then he’s staggered by their roosting weight, crushing branches and whole trees, suffocating many hundreds of themselves; and finally he’s appalled by the inundation of their guano. Only after that does the massacre of birds begin, and it continues most of the night. Nature’s fecundity, seen on such a scale, not human greed or bloodlust, is what repels Audubon most. He claims that for all the horrific killing of passenger pigeons that day in Kentucky, exceeding anything Cooper described in The Pioneers, the species became extinct because of gradual habitat destruction. He writes, “Persons unacquainted with these birds might naturally conclude that such havock [sic] would soon put an end to the species.” But in fact, “they not infrequently quadruple their number yearly, and always at least double it.” In 1959 Peter Matthiessen exposed these assertions as pure fiction: “Actually, the pigeons produced but one young a year per pair, and in any case could not have borne the degree of persecution [Audubon] describes.”[5] So why did Audubon, normally such a scrupulous and exacting observer, make up such a story? Perhaps he was too impressed by the staggering numbers of birds he saw and thought them invulnerable. Perhaps he wanted to excuse the wanton killing of birds, excusing his own participation, perhaps—no harm done if the species flourished as if nothing had happened. But Natty Bumppo knew better, and Audubon was no Natty.
What mattered most to Audubon in 1826 was publicity for his errand, leading him to think only about nurturing his career, which had grown from an obsession into a full-blown mania. He left his wife and children at home for months, even years, at a time. He quarreled with other ornithologists, especially the mild-mannered Scottish-American Alexander Wilson, who was neither the brilliant artist nor the elegant rhetorician that he was but still made original discoveries and wrote the first major treatise in the field, American Ornithology (1808–1814). But Audubon saw him only as a rival and threat to his own ambitions. He meant to soar higher, and did. He won the praise of Baron Cuvier, the world-famous French zoologist, who called The Birds of America “the greatest monument yet erected by Art to Nature.” He was honored by President Andrew Jackson in the White House and posed for the portrait to be hung there. In letters home he bragged to his wife Lucy about all the wealthy British socialites who had subscribed to his works, but his letters home never asked about her or their three children. These facts are readily available, but Irmscher and King choose not to provide Audubon at Sea with any brief chronology of Audubon’s career, sometimes leaving the reader puzzled about why the man deserved to be called “paradoxical” or “quixotic.” What are the editors not saying by using such terms? They do offer a full discussion of Audubon’s notoriously ruthless father—a ship captain from Nantes who profited from the slave trade and ran a plantation in Santo Domingo—and go into the likely illegitimacy of Audubon and his half-sister Rose. The editors make it abundantly clear that Audubon routinely lied about his origins, referred to America as his “native land,” and often claimed he was born in Louisiana. But in the book’s “Coda,” they try to defuse all questions about Audubon’s character, calling him “an ambiguous hero at best,” and, “Whatever you assert about him, you can, with almost equal authority and assuredness, state the exact opposite.”
I think we can do better than that. For example, the Library of America edition of Audubon’s Writings includes a useful “Chronology,” written by Irmscher, which tells us that in 1818, while running a general store and boarding house in Henderson, Kentucky, Audubon persuaded one of his tenants, a young Englishman named George Keats, to invest his life’s savings in a Mississippi steamboat enterprise. Both men, it is said, “lose their entire stakes.” George was the younger brother of John Keats, so I looked up the relevant letter concerning this event, written in September 1819. Penniless himself and not far from death, Keats offers every consolation he can think of, knowing how vulnerable his brother is:


Your present situation I will not suffer myself to dwell upon—when misfortunes are so real we are glad enough to escape them. . . . I cannot help thinking Mr. Audubon a dishonest man—Why did he make you believe that he was a Man of Property? How is it his circumstances have altered so suddenly? In truth I do not believe you fit to deal with the world; or at least the [A]merican world—[6]


Note that Keats, only 24 at the time, instantly recognized Audubon as dishonest, a confidence man perfectly willing to destroy others for his own gain—an all-too-familiar American species. Note the empathy and compassion for his brother as well. You would never know from this how Keats was suffering himself.
What difference does all this make? I think it provides a needful skepticism about Audubon’s motives, especially in his more pictorial prose, where we can follow his eye and his emotions as he describes species after species, always tirelessly observant: “I paid all imaginable attention to them,” he says of Razor-billed Shearwaters, and you know that was true no matter what the species. But “imaginable” is an interesting qualifier: what ways of seeing did Audubon not imagine? Look for example at his description of catching a dolphin in the 1826 Journal: The crew is “in despair” for lack of wind,


and I would probably have become despondent also, had not my spirits been excited by finding a very large Dolphin on my hook. When I hauled it on board, I found it to be the largest I had ever caught. It was a magnificent creature. See how it quivers in the agonies of death! Its tail flaps the hard deck, producing a sound like the rapid roll of a drum. How beautiful the changes of its colours! Now it is blue, now green, silvery, golden, and burnished copper; now it presents a blaze of all the hues of a rainbow intermingled, but alack! It is dead, and the play of its colours is no longer seen. It has settled into the deep calm that has paralyzed the energies of the blustering winds, and smoothed down the proud waves of the ocean.


I think the word-painting here is brilliant, Audubon’s rhetoric at its most exuberant. But note the fact that what elicits all the exclamation points and painterly color—as well as the stagey shift into present tense—is Audubon’s excitement in watching the animal die. He is perfectly frank about it. And that suggests a way of looking, or re-looking, at all the famous Audubon pictures that dramatize Nature’s violence, its struggles for survival, its pervasive suffering, or—if not its destructive “Nature red in tooth and claw” battles—at least its intense predatory force. He finds more beauty in that, more “magnificence,” than in animals not “quivering in the agonies of death.” And that in turn reminds you that Audubon was always, relentlessly, a predator himself. He caught three more dolphins that day in 1826: why wasn’t one enough? His every foray into the collection of bird specimens began with a weapon, a shotgun of some sort, capturing his prey and killing it, in order to preserve and—if he could—immortalize it as Art.
The passage above is not about the dolphin itself, but about Audubon’s own emotions, rising out of despondency into sudden elation, then his triumph (a drum roll), climaxed by ecstasy (a sublime rainbow), followed by a descent or subsidence into “deep calm,” all turbulent passions “paralyzed” and “smoothed down”—which sounds a lot like gratified lust to me. In any case, Audubon frequently reveals his own darker impulses when encountering Nature’s strongest forces. Sometimes he calls them “Wonderful!” And with increasing frequency, as Audubon at Sea takes us farther and farther northward toward Labrador in 1833, he calls these forces “horrible” and “dismal.” He was utterly unprepared for the landscape he saw:


From the top of a high rock I obtained a good view of the most extensive and dreary wilderness I ever beheld. It chilled the heart to gaze on these barrens of Labrador. Indeed I now dread every change of harbor, so horridly rugged and dangerous is the whole coast and country to the eye, and to the experienced man either of the sea or the land.


Speaking with a group of British naval officers camped on shore, Audubon writes, “We talked of the wild country around us, and of the enormous destruction of everything which is going on here.” They discuss the aborigines, who are “melting away before the encroachments of a stronger race, as the wild animals are disappearing before them.” Note how clear-eyed Audubon is here—more like Natty Bumppo or Peter Matthiessen (or our contemporary) than he ever was before.


Some one said, It is rum which is destroying the poor Indians. I replied, I think not; they are disappearing here from insufficiency of food and physical comforts, and the loss of all hope; as he loses sight of all that was abundant before the white man came, intruded on his land, and his herds of wild animals, and deprived him of the furs with which he clothed himself. Nature herself is perishing. Labrador must shortly be depopulated, not only of her aboriginal men, but of every thing and animal which has life, and attracts the cupidity of men.


That may be Audubon’s most prescient summation ever, as applicable today as it was in 1833. It is surely one the wisest things he ever wrote.
But one still must wonder whether Audubon sees himself as complicit, i.e., one of those predators blind to the destruction he causes. He often blames the obvious “ruffians,” the Florida “Wreckers” or the greedy “Eggers of Labrador,” who destroy multitudes of birds without a qualm, while he and his crew go ashore the next day armed with guns and clubs to kill every “specimen” they can find. Does he ever see how merciless his methods are, justifying the means by their noble ends, Science and Art? Irmscher and King think he does, claiming in the book’s “Coda” that “The provocation of Audubon’s work is that he does not exempt himself.” Irmscher and King insist on the point: “what he gradually came to accept . . . [i]s an insight we are still grappling to understand today: that our destructiveness might end the world as we know it.” Cleverly and plausibly put. But I do not find its truth anywhere but in the Labrador Journal, and there inconsistently in moments only. What the editors try to dismiss as merely “personal failings” are ingrained in the way Audubon sees the world—sometimes consciously, sometimes not—as a predator himself. Worse still, most of the time he knew he was right.


[1] AUDUBON AT SEA: The Coastal and Transatlantic Adventures of John James Audubon, ed. by Christoph Irmscher and Richard J. King. University of Chicago Press. $30.00.
[2] For a much more extended discussion of Audubon’s achievements, see Irmscher’s first book about him, The Poetics of Natural History, Second Edition (New Brunswick, N.J., 2019).
[3] To give just one example: the footnotes inform us that Charles Darwin was an attentive reader of Audubon’s Bird Biographies and quoted Audubon in The Origin of Species and with increasing frequency in The Descent of Man and his many other books. See Gerald Weissmann’s essay, “Darwin’s Audubon,” in his Darwin’s Audubon: Science and the Liberal Imagination (New York, 1998).
[4] Peter Matthiessen, Wildlife in America (New York, 1959), pp. 19–20.
[5] Wildlife in America, p. 121.
[6] John Keats, Selected Letters, ed. by John Barnard (New York, 2014), p. 415.