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John James Audubon - Preface Post by :kippstips Category :Nonfictions Author :John Burroughs Date :May 2012 Read :3315

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John James Audubon - Preface

The pioneer in American ornithology was Alexander Wilson, a Scotch weaver and poet, who emigrated to this country in 1794, and began the publication of his great work upon our birds in 1808. He figured and described three hundred and twenty species, fifty-six of them new to science. His death occurred in 1813, before the publication of his work had been completed.

But the chief of American ornithologists was John James Audubon. Audubon did not begin where Wilson left off. He was also a pioneer, beginning his studies and drawings of the birds probably as early as Wilson did his, but he planned larger and lived longer. He spent the greater part of his long life in the pursuit of ornithology, and was of a more versatile, flexible, and artistic nature than was Wilson. He was collecting the material for his work at the same time that Wilson was collecting his, but he did not begin the publication of it till fourteen years after Wilson's death. Both men went directly to Nature and underwent incredible hardships in exploring the woods and marshes in quest of their material. Audubon's rambles were much wider, and extended over a much longer period of time. Wilson, too, contemplated a work upon our quadrupeds, but did not live to begin it. Audubon was blessed with good health, length of years, a devoted and self-sacrificing wife, and a buoyant, sanguine, and elastic disposition. He had the heavenly gift of enthusiasm--a passionate love for the work he set out to do. He was a natural hunter, roamer, woodsman; as unworldly as a child, and as simple and transparent. We have had better trained and more scientific ornithologists since his day, but none with his abandon and poetic fervour in the study of our birds.

Both men were famous pedestrians and often walked hundreds of miles at a stretch. They were natural explorers and voyagers. They loved Nature at first hand, and not merely as she appears in books and pictures. They both kept extensive journals of their wanderings and observations. Several of Audubon's (recording his European experiences) seem to have been lost or destroyed, but what remain make up the greater part of two large volumes recently edited by his grand-daughter, Maria R. Audubon.

I wish here to express my gratitude both to Miss Audubon, and to Messrs. Charles Scribner's Sons, for permitting me to draw freely from the "Life and Journals" just mentioned. The temptation is strong to let Audubon's graphic and glowing descriptions of American scenery, and of his tireless wanderings, speak for themselves.

It is from these volumes, and from the life by his widow, published in 1868, that I have gathered the material for this brief biography.

Audubon's life naturally divides itself into three periods: his youth, which was on the whole a gay and happy one, and which lasted till the time of his marriage at the age of twenty-eight; his business career which followed, lasting ten or more years, and consisting mainly in getting rid of the fortune his father had left him; and his career as an ornithologist which, though attended with great hardships and privations, brought him much happiness and, long before the end, substantial pecuniary rewards.

His ornithological tastes and studies really formed the main current of his life from his teens onward. During his business ventures in Kentucky and elsewhere this current came to the surface more and more, absorbed more and more of his time and energies, and carried him further and further from the conditions of a successful business career.

J. B.

WEST PARK, NEW YORK, January, 1902.




_May 4_. John James La Forest Audubon was born at Mandeville, Louisiana.

(Paucity of dates and conflicting statements make it impossible to insert dates to show when the family moved to St. Domingo, and thence to France.)

1797 (?)

Returned to America from France. Here followed life at Mill Grove Farm, near Philadelphia.

1805 or 6

Again in France for about two years. Studied under David, the artist. Then returned to America.


_April 8. Married Lucy Bakewell, and journeyed to Louisville, Kentucky, to engage in business with one Rozier.


_March_. First met Wilson, the ornithologist.


Dissolved partnership with Rozier.


Various business ventures in Louisville, Hendersonville, and St. Genevieve, Kentucky, again at Hendersonville, thence again to Louisville.


Abandoned business career. Became taxidermist in Cincinnati.


Left Cincinnati. Began to form definite plans for the publication of his drawings. Returned to New Orleans.


Went to Natchez by steamer. Gunpowder ruined two hundred of his drawings on this trip. Obtained position of Drawing-master in the college at Washington, Mississippi. At the close of this year took his first lessons in oils.


Went to Philadelphia to get his drawings published. Thwarted. There met Sully, and Prince Canino.


Sailed for Europe to introduce his drawings.


Issued prospectus of his "Birds."


Went to Paris to canvass. Visited Cuvier.


Returned to the United States, scoured the woods for more material for his biographies.


Returned to London with his family.


Elephant folio, _The Birds of North America_, published.


_American Ornithological Biography published in Edinburgh.


Again in America for nearly three years.


In Florida, South Carolina, and the Northern States, Labrador, and Canada.


Completion of second volume of "Birds," also second volume of _American Ornithological Biography_.


In Edinburgh.


To New York again--more exploring; found books, papers and drawings had been destroyed by fire, the previous year.


Went to London.


Published fourth volume of _American Ornithological Biography_.


Published fifth volume of "Biography."


Left England for the last time.


Built house in New York on "Minnie's Land," now Audubon Park.


Yellowstone River Expedition.


Published the reduced edition of his "Bird Biographies."


Published first volume of "Quadrupeds."


Completed _Quadrupeds and Biography of American Quadrupeds_. (The last volume was not published till 1854, after his death.)


_January 27_. John James Audubon died in New York.

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