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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
John James Audubon (1785–1851)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
THE FAME of this celebrated naturalist rests on one magnificent book, ‘The Birds of America,’ for which all his life may be said to have been a preparation, and which certainly surpasses in interest every other ornithological publication. For fifteen years before he thought of making use of his collections in this way, he annually went alone with his gun and his drawing materials into deep and unexplored forests and through wild regions of country, making long journeys on foot and counting nothing a hardship that added to his specimens. This passion had controlled him from early childhood. His father, a Frenchman, was living in New Orleans at the time of Audubon’s birth in 1780, and with the view of helping him in his studies, sent him to Paris when he was fifteen years old, where he entered the drawing-class of David the painter. He remained there two years; and it was after his return that he made his memorable excursions, his home being then a farm at Mill Grove, near Philadelphia.  1
  In 1808 he removed with his family to the West, still continuing his researches. Several years later he returned to Philadelphia with a portfolio of nearly a thousand colored drawings of birds. What befell them—a parallel to so many like incidents, as through Warburton’s cook, Newton’s dog, Carlyle’s friend, and Edward Livingston’s fire, that they seem one of the appointed tests of moral fibre—is best told in Audubon’s own language:—
          “An accident,” he says, “which happened to two hundred of my original drawings, nearly put a stop to my researches in ornithology. I shall relate it, merely to show how far enthusiasm—for by no other name can I call my perseverance—may enable the preserver of nature to surmount the most disheartening difficulties. I left the village of Henderson, in Kentucky, situated on the banks of the Ohio, where I resided for several years, to proceed to Philadelphia on business. I looked to my drawings before my departure, placed them carefully in a wooden box, and gave them in charge of a relative, with injunctions to see that no injury should happen to them. My absence was of several months; and when I returned, after having enjoyed the pleasures of home for a few days, I inquired after my box, and what I was pleased to call my treasure. The box was produced and opened; but, reader, feel for me,—a pair of Norway rats had taken possession of the whole, and reared a young family among the gnawed bits of paper, which, but a month previous, represented nearly a thousand inhabitants of air! The burning heat which instantly rushed through my brain was too great to be endured without affecting my whole nervous system. I slept not for several nights, and the days passed like days of oblivion;—until, the animal powers being recalled into action through the strength of my constitution, I took up my gun, my note-book, and my pencils, and went forth to the woods as gayly as if nothing had happened. I felt pleased that I might now make better drawings than before; and ere a period not exceeding three years had elapsed, my portfolio was again filled.”
  2
  In 1826 he sailed for Europe to exhibit his newly collected treasures to foreign ornithologists. He succeeded in obtaining pecuniary aid in publishing the work, and plates were made in England. The book was published in New York in four volumes (elephant folio) in 1830–39. The birds are life-size. ‘The American Ornithological Biography,’ which is the text for the plates, was published in Edinburgh, 1831–39, in five octavo volumes. Accompanied by his two sons he started on new excursions, which resulted in ‘The Quadrupeds of America,’ with a ‘Biography of American Quadrupeds,’ both published at Philadelphia, beginning in 1840. During that year he built a house for himself in the upper part of New York, in what is now called Audubon Park, and died there January 27th, 1851.  3
  Audubon’s descriptive text is not unworthy of his plates: his works are far from being mere tenders to picture-books. He is full of enthusiasm, his descriptions of birds and animals are vivid and realizing, and his adventures are told with much spirit and considerable literary skill, though some carelessness of syntax.  4
 
 
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