John James Audubon's indelible portraits of American birds have long since cemented his reputation as one of our truly magical realists. Yet the artist, who was born in Haiti in 1785 and died 66 years later on his 30-acre estate in upper Manhattan, was not only a sublime featherhead but a trailblazing nature writer and diarist. Doubters should take a gander at the Library of America's splendid Writings and Drawings. This new compendium features 64 full-color plates, most of them from the Ornithological Biography, which demonstrate the compositional and dramatic brilliance that Audubon brought to his work: seldom has the black vulture, or Coragyps atratus, looked so elegant or sleekly satisfied, and his colloquium of ruby-throated hummingbirds (a.k.a. Archilochus colubris) is an almost comical study in group dynamics. Yet it's the texts--journals, letters, diaries, a brief memoir, and a pair of essays on artistic technique--that are the true revelation here.
Audubon was not, for the record, a kind of starry-eyed precursor to the Sierra Club, leaving nature untouched by human hands. It's telling that in his self-portrait, the artist is gripping neither palette nor paintbrush but a flintlock rifle. Gunning down his ornithological subjects was a necessary prelude to portraying them. Still, Audubon had quite a few of what we moderns would call conflicted moments, during which his admiration for, say, the Mississippi kite would temporarily halt the killing spree. Here the sight of a mother attempting to rescue its chick manages to stay his itchy trigger finger--for a millisecond, anyway:
My feelings at that moment I cannot express. I wished I had not discovered the poor bird; for who could have witnessed, without emotion, so striking an example of that affection which none but a mother can feel; so daring an act, performed in the midst of smoke, in the presence of a dreaded and dangerous enemy. I followed, however, and brought both to the ground at one shot, so keen is the desire of possession! The aesthetic and taxidermal impulses have torn apart many a naturalist since then (although, to be sure, the stricken diarist was later annoyed to discover that another animal had cut in on his action: "What was my mortification, when I found that some quadruped had devoured both!") Elsewhere, Audubon records the topography of the Mississippi Valley in vivid detail, or grumbles about the tight job market: "Visited several Public Institutions where I cannot say that I Was very politely received; in one or Two Notable ones (Not Willing to Mention Names) I was invitd to Walk in and then out in very quick order." Audubon's early-19-century orthography, which the editors have meticulously retained, may take some Getting Used To. And the sheer piling up of avian corpses can seem almost comical to a modern reader. Still, Audubon worshipped pretty thoroughly, and very productively, at the shrine of the natural world. And let's recall his verdict on Liverpool's industrial landscape, which he observed during a 1826 visit: "Naked streets look dull." If only there'd been a long-billed curlew on hand! --James Marcus