I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2017.
Audubon - Constance Rourke
This biography of the American bird artist was written for young adults. It won the Newbery Honor Award in 1937. It is not a formal biography because it gives the facts of his life in novelistic form. Written in plain language, it is extremely readable and will help the reader appreciate Audubon’s contribution to American art. There are no distracting footnotes but the afterward persuades us that Rourke, a folklorist, was assiduous in doing the research with primary sources.
Rourke narrates her subject's journey from his native France to America in 1803, across Pennsylvania and down the Ohio to Kentucky, where he lived for a time after 1808. She gives beautiful descriptions of his trips up and down the Mississippi; to Louisiana, where he lived a few years; various trips to the North and to England, Scotland, and France; to Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, and to New York where he died in northern Manhattan. I read this book in the original 1936 edition (I got it from a library) which has a dozen colored plates from original Audubon prints and numerous woodcuts.
Rourke depicts Audubon as a man ready to adapt himself to any challenge of frontier travel in a day when travel involved much travail. His companions were backwoodsmen, loggers, and other roughnecks, but he got along with them just fine because he talked to everybody, wanting to know their story. And people are usually gratified that somebody is interested in their story. Though reserved at first due to his lack of formal education, he learned to get along with the intellectuals and royal types he met in Edinburgh and London. Like Franklin, he was not above using the folksy image for marketing purposes.
The author makes clear that her subject was at his happiest in primeval forests birding and botanizing and before his easel painting. Also interesting are stories of Audubon’s money problems, the vicious criticism of scurrilous newspaper writers, and his struggles to get subscribers to his first massive work Birds of America. He was also inspired by his family, consisting of two sons and his strong patient wife Lucy, whose pay from a teaching job assisted the family through hard financial times.
Rourke’s tone throughout is quiet and calm, but her style is readable and pleasant. It’s a relaxing book to read, perhaps because of the plain language for the YA target audience. It’s an old-timey biography in the sense that the faults of the subject are only hinted at. Rourke was a folklorist and historian of the American frontier so her information on the social life and culture of Audubon’s time is credible and interesting.