Americans have been rediscovering John James Audubon with generational regularity since his death in 1851. The first biography, by his widow, was published in 1869, and this year there are three excellent new biographies: William Souder's "Under a Wild Sky," Duff Hart-Davis's "Audubon's Elephant" and, most recently, Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Rhodes's "John James Audubon: The Making of an American." One of those very American figures, like Johnny Appleseed or Daniel Boone, who slip and slide between fact and fable, Audubon was a genuinely great artist, a serious naturalist and, on top of everything else, charming, clever and "movie-star handsome," as Rhodes described him in a brief interview last week. Audubon's talents ranged from dancing skills learned in Europe to very credible Indian war whoops. "He was someone you'd invite to every party you ever gave."
What most fascinated Rhodes--and what he thinks has fascinated students of Audubon for well more than a century--was the artist's altogether American ability to invent and then continually reinvent himself. "Isn't that the American way?" he asks. "Isn't that what Michael Jackson and Madonna and so forth have all done? Don't we think it's kind of cool when someone is able to pull that off?"
The illegitimate son of an upper-middle-class French merchant, the 18-year-old Audubon arrived here in 1803 to oversee his father's American holdings and to escape service in the French Army. After a middling career as a frontier merchant, the self-taught artist threw himself into achieving a gargantuan aim--to paint every kind of bird in North America. Then he turned entrepreneur, spending years to find the money to underwrite the publication of his life's great work. "So, yes, he was mythological," Rhodes says, "because he was able to reinvent himself that way. But he was a very real human being." Small wonder it takes three books to do him justice.