John James Audubon by Gregory Nobles

Book Review presents reviews of recent publications on Pennsylvania subjects by noted scholars, historians and journalists.

John James Audubon
The Nature of the American Woodsman
by Gregory Nobles
University of Pennsylvania Press, 330 pp., cloth $34.95,

The 10 chapters of this excellent book review the life and times of John James Audubon (1785–1851) in a refreshingly honest manner, detailing Audubon’s development as a brilliant bird artist and scientist and, most importantly, his careful creation of an image of himself as an “American woodsman.” There have been many biographies of Audubon, but this one is unique in its in-depth discussion of Audubon’s character and his lifelong attempt to become a greater national figure and bird artist than his predecessor, Alexander Wilson (1766–1813), the acknowledged “father of American ornithology.” Nobles states, “And no matter what he did or where he went, Audubon always had an invisible companion in his mind: Alexander Wilson.” Audubon was largely rejected by the influential Philadelphia scientific community due to the hostility of Wilson supporters. Throughout the book, Nobles provides enough information about the social, cultural and economic setting of the first half of the 19th century that the reader can put Audubon’s problems, behavior and exploits into a meaningful context.

In Nobles’ assessment of his subject he pulls no punches, emphasizing Audubon’s consistent attempt to portray himself in a favorable manner. For example, “In all of Audubon’s writings, his most significant subject is almost always himself, and even in his most successful written work, Ornithological Biography, he puts himself in the picture, right beside the birds.” In yet another assessment, Nobles states, “His exceedingly well-developed sense of self consistently came through in his paintings and writings, and he never let the viewer/reader ignore or forget the great man who created them.” Despite this seemingly negative tone, Nobles’ overall treatment of Audubon is balanced, and he acknowledges that Audubon’s dynamic art in The Birds of North America ultimately propelled him to greatness in both America and Europe. I found the book very informative and a delightful read. I highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in art, nature or American history.

William E. Davis Jr.
Boston University