by Constance Rourke
[Harcourt, Brace, $3.00]
SOONER or later America gets round to discovering her geniuses. In the case of John James Audubon it has been for the most part later. Too beautiful for science, too literal for art, his work eluded the smug little categories of professional criticism. His many-sided character was equally equivocal. Though rescued from oblivion during his lifetime, and treated to no small amount of the adulation and abuse which constitute fame, Audubon died an enigma to most of his contemporaries. Stewing in the solvent of its own contradictions, his reputation grew increasingly hazy with time. Practically all that remained of it in t he early years of the twentieth century was a name for a federation of bird clubs.
Things are different to-day. In 1917, Professor Francis Hobart Herrick’s scholarly Audubon, the Naturalist crystallized the truth from much of the error and uncertainty in the Audubon legend, and set up a tangible chronology of events in the life of the man. In 1935, Donald Cudross Peattie’s Singing in the Wilderness ecstatically cried the praises of that man and his ideal. Now comes Miss Rourke’s book, with the thoroughness but not the heaviness of the one and the enthusiasm but not the exaggeration of the other, synthesized by an art and understanding peculiarly its own. In it Audubon comes to life as a real person struggling in a real world. If it attracts the readers it deserves to attract, Americans will know a great frontier genius as he deserves to be known.
The story of Audubon is the story of a life that failed and a life that succeeded. The Audubon who failed was born of uncertain parentage amid the uncertainties of the French Revolution. After a short adopted boyhood in France, he was thrown into the different uncertainties of America. Handsome, imaginative, and energetic, he might have done well in business had he not been also gullible, restless, and distracted. Wandering widely through Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Missouri, Virginia, and Louisiana, he left an unbroken wake of commercial disaster behind him.
The Audubon who succeeded abandoned both the security of business and the tranquillity of home for one grand passion and one colossal ideal. The love of birds and the ambition to depict perfectly each species of bird in the American wilderness was the polestar of this Audubon’s life. It was the light that led him deviously and dangerously, but in the end triumphantly, through all the unhappy compromises of the other Audubon’s life.
Coming to her subject through an interest in American frontiers, Miss Rourke achieves a felicitous blend of history, folklore, and drama. Endowed with a good historian’s honesty as well as a good novelist’s intuition, she yet avoids both dullness and caprice. By forgoing the full indulgence of an ample erudition, she prevents the scenery from stealing the show. By not speaking for people who are unable through their own writings to speak for themselves, she escapes the errors and inanities of a more romantic approach.
Some readers, no doubt, will feel that the dramatic episodes in Audubon’s life are served a trifle cool; that the character of Lucy, his long-suffering wife, emerges a trifle vague. Others will welcome Miss Rourke’s restraint as a relief from the fatuity of Actionized biography. Almost anyone should find her Audubon an illuminating account of that entertaining and inspiring genius. This reader considers it the best he has ever read.