Sunday, October 24, 1993 Section: Arts Page: 21


AUDUBON: Life and Art in the American Wilderness

By Shirley Streshinsky

Villard Books, 405 pp., $25

MORE than anyone other than Abraham Lincoln, John James Audubon has become an archetype of the 19th-century American. His masterpiece, "Birds of America" has been reprinted in an amazing variety of formats, from facsimile editions to the pocket-size "Audubon Society Baby Elephant Folio," and even a CD-ROM version with recorded bird sounds. An original double-elephant folio of "Birds" recently sold for nearly $4 million, and Audubon's name has been synonymous with the conservation movement in the United States for generations.
Yet, unlike Lincoln, who has been the subject of more biographies and the inspiration for more national monuments than any American, Audubon's biography has been comparatively neglected. Shirley Streshinsky's "Audubon: Life and Art in the American Wilderness" should go a long way toward correcting that.

Not that Audubon has not had his biographers. Streshinsky cites nearly a dozen Audubon biographies among the more than 50 books and journals she consulted in her research. But for 140 years biographers have had to contend with a great mass of information on their subject, much of it generated by the artist himself, and a great deal of it (especially the autobiography) untrue.
Among the legends about himself which Audubon helped to create were that he was the Lost Dauphin (Louis XVII of France) and that he had studied with Jacques Louis David. But he lied about almost everything. He claimed Louisiana as his birthplace in order to facilitate gaining American citizenship when he was really born (to one of his married father's mistresses) in Haiti. He presented all of "Birds" as "Drawn from Nature by J.J. Audubon" when he relied on skins and specimens sent to him by others when he could not travel while completing his great work, and he hired others to paint backgrounds and even some details of the birds.

Although he lived from 1785 to 1851, Audubon enjoyed the world's attention only for about 15 years and only through the most intense and unrelenting effort. After his death, his wife, Lucy, who survived him by more than 20 years, published a biography that left out anything she felt would reflect unfavorably on the woodsman/artist/naturalist image that he had constructed and she had tended. By 1897, when his granddaughter Maria published "Audubon and His Journals," his family had destroyed the originals of much of his writing, and even most of the copper plates of the engravings for the first edition of "Birds." By the centennial of his death, he had become a national icon and the subject of the authoritative, nearly always described as "exhaustive," biography by Alice Ford, which was reissued in 1988.

Streshinsky does not attempt to be exhaustive or to "break any new ground." She accomplishes the purpose outlined in the foreword of "Audubon": "simply to tell the full, fascinating story of an extraordinary life against the background of a young, vibrant America" by applying the skills of a novelist to the material provided by history. Among Streshinsky's skills is a devotion to detail. She read everything she could find "by and about Audubon," and her research paid off in a book with anecdotes and even some photographs (of the Audubon daughters-in-law, early chalk drawings, a life mask) I had never seen before.

The forgotten frontier

She shows us the American frontier and what it was like to live and try to make a living there. Writing at a time when "Audubon" means the preservation of nature, especially wild birds, she shows us the naturalist "in blood up to his elbows," shooting birds and other animals to put food on the table, to provide specimens from which to draw, to provide amusement for his companions, and even, on long sea voyages, shooting birds he knew he could not retrieve just to break up his boredom. She does not apologize or attempt to justify his actions, but puts Audubon into the context of his times, showing us both how extraordinary he proved himself to be and how much he was a part of the generation following Lewis and Clark.

Their great expedition started the year Audubon arrived in the United States, sent by his father to avoid being drafted into Napoleon's army and to attempt to make his fortune from developing land the senior Audubon had acquired in Pennsylvania.

The Audubon legend has him failing at one enterprise after another, distracted by the birds and the call of the wilderness. Streshinsky shows him struggling to attain and maintain on his own the bourgeois status to which his father (a French sea captain, colonial plantation owner, some-time slave trader and devoted friend to his only son) had raised him.

Audubon was well educated in the skills of a gentleman of his time: dancing, fencing, playing the violin and drawing. He was less successful in integrating the skills of seamanship and mathematics his father hoped would help him make his way in the world, but Streshinsky refutes the fallacy that it was some lack of business sense that drove Audubon to art. Depressions, recessions and the impacts of government policy on commerce in Audubon's time dwarf the problems that dominate today's news, yet the young married Audubons applied their talents to succeed.

Two lives, two futures

Just over 40 miles from John and Lucy Audubon's home in Kentucky was the cabin of Thomas and Nancy Hanks Lincoln, whose son Abraham was born the same year as the Audubons' son Victor. Streshinsky's description of Audubon's 25- year career as an artist and naturalist has much in common with Lincoln's as a politician. Both men tried to advance themselves through commerce and failed, like thousands of their contemporaries. Even Lincoln's success through hard work and trial and error in the law and politics is comparable to Audubon's in art: They were the right men in the right professions in the right place and time, but they made nearly superhuman efforts and suffered personal tragedies in leaving their marks on history.

The American wilderness had just begun to open when Audubon came to it, and Americans and Europeans who appreciated art were fascinated by the lifelike birds Audubon showed them and the ornithological stories he told them as his work was published in the 1830s and 1840s. Ten years after his death, the frontier was disappearing, the market for his last work on American mammals had been largely destroyed by the Civil War, and the impacts of careless exploitation that Audubon warned of in his later writing were beginning to cause concern.

A young nation

If, as the Bible suggests, a generation is 40 years, then we are already in the fourth generation after Audubon. And yet the country is young. This year, on Vashon Island, Wash., my friend Julia Coryell celebrated her 100th birthday. When she was a little girl, she knew an old lady who used to see Aaron Burr walking the streets of New York City when she was a little girl. Streshinsky connects Burr's life, and Lincoln's and John Keats', to Audubon's, weaving us and what we know into Audubon's era.

Shirley Streshinsky's first book, "And I Alone Survived" was a non- fiction account of the experience of Lauren Elder, who survived the crash of a small plane on the crest of the Sierra, April 26, 1976, and walked down the next day into the Owens Valley. The San Francisco author's fourth novel, "The Shores of Paradise" is a complex chronicle of the lives of settlers and natives in Hawaii at the turn of the 20th century. These books, written 15 years apart, show the sensitivity to the environment, interest in the motivations of character and just plain good writing that are evident in "Audubon."

This may not be the most detailed or "exhaustive" biography of Audubon available, but it is likely to be, and deserves to be, the most widely read. (box)

PICTURE: Photo, Drawings (5)