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Bil Gilbert
December 23, 1985
In the bicentennial year of his birth, John Audubon and his art still exert a powerful influence on how we view our links with nature
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December 23, 1985

Audubon: Mystery, Passion, Beauty

In the bicentennial year of his birth, John Audubon and his art still exert a powerful influence on how we view our links with nature

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During the years of the American Revolution, Audubon's father had acquired for speculative reasons an interest in a parcel of farm-and woodland on the western outskirts of Philadelphia. His associate in this enterprise was a Quaker businessman by the name of Miers Fisher. In 1803 Jean sent his restless son, then 18 years old, to America to learn English and to become involved in the management of the real estate.

With his French charm and accent—along with skills as fiddler, flutist, dancer, artist, marksman and all-around sport—Audubon cut a considerable swath through that society of plain Pennsylvania people. Among those captivated was Lucy Bakewell, the primmish daughter of a well-to-do Quaker. The feeling was mutual, and shortly after meeting her, Audubon said that this was the girl he was going to marry—which he did in 1808.

His father's business acquaintances were less impressed with the young Frenchman. They found him vain, self-indulgent and quick to take offense. Even so, with their help he tried to develop a lead mine on the Pennsylvania property. That was not successful. He then joined a company of international traders, but did not do well at that either. Finally, Audubon determined to seek his fortune in the West as a storekeeper in partnership with Ferdinand Rozier, the son of one of his father's friends in Nantes. The two first set up shop in Louisville. They lost money there and moved their operation farther down the Ohio River to the primitive log village of Henderson, Ky., which Audubon was later to describe as "undoubtedly one of the poorest Spots in the Western Country."

The two young partners lost more money in Henderson. Audubon moved on in 1811, leaving Lucy behind in a cabin with an infant son, Victor. He went to Ste. Genevieve, a community on the Mississippi, some 50 miles south of St. Louis, and there his partnership with Rozier was dissolved. Audubon returned to Henderson, where he opened another store. This one also did poorly.

In all of these enterprises Audubon displayed only one commercial talent: the ability to find and charm investors for his schemes. An improbable associate was George Keats, an Englishman who had come to America with his own money and that of his brother, the poet John, in hopes of making a killing. John was hoping that the American investment would enable him to publish odes without having to grub for money. Eventually he met Audubon, was charmed, and entrusted him with most of his capital. Therefore, when the Audubon enterprises went bust, the poet, understandably, had some harsh things to say about the Naturalist and his family. In one particularly vehement letter to his sister-in-law, John Keats wrote, "Tell Mrs. Audubon I cannot think her either good-looking or honest. Tell Mr. Audubon he is a fool."

Audubon's commercial career ended badly but, according to his version of events, dramatically. Using what was left of his and others' money, he bought a decrepit steamboat and resold it to a combine headed by one William Bowen. The transaction would have been profitable had not Bowen written a bad check and then steamed away for New Orleans. Furious, Audubon claimed he leaped into a skiff and with two slave oarsmen pursued the culprits at a great rate of speed all the way down the Mississippi. He got no satisfaction in New Orleans and upon returning to Henderson was astonished to find that Bowen was in the village making dreadful threats against him. Audubon wrote, "I observed Mr. B—marching towards me with a heavy club in his hand. I stood still, and he soon reached me..., suddenly raising his bludgeon laid it about me.... I neither spoke nor moved till he have [sic] given me twelve severe blows, then, drawing my dagger with my left hand (unfortunately my right was disabled and in a sling, having been caught and much injured in the wheels of [a] steam engine) I stabbed him and he instantly fell."

Thereupon Audubon was taken to court, where a frontier judge said—according to Audubon—"Mr. Audubon, you committed an exceedingly serious offense, Sir—in failing to kill the damned rascal."

There was obviously more to the case. Audubon was later arrested and thrown into prison as a debtor. He was released only after he declared bankruptcy and agreed to leave Henderson, much to the relief of the local business community, it is to be assumed.

As an entrepreneur, Audubon was an outstanding romantic, i.e., he had grand visions about getting rich quick, but he possessed neither the head nor the patience for accumulating a fortune. Particularly, Audubon did not like standing behind the counter of a store. He consistently left Rozier and others to mind those shops in which he held an interest. What suited him much better was roaming the woodlots, hunting. Even by the high standards of backwoods Kentucky he was regarded as a good marksman, and he hunted on a grand scale. He later described outings where he and cooperating gunners took 144,000 golden plovers in one shoot. And the truly bloody sports of that time and place—bearbaitings, gander pullings and such-afforded the naturalist much entertainment.

Generally, the only substantive criticism of Audubon by contemporary admirers focuses on this sort of thing—that he hunted and sometimes did not treat wild animals the way sensitive people these days think they should be treated. This is a complaint on the order of faulting George Washington for not establishing the Environmental Protection Agency. Audubon lived in a time of almost unimaginable animal abundance. Desirable beasts were consumed wantonly and the undesirables were either ignored or grubbed out like zoological weeds.

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