The Magazine

A Way to See the Birds

Is it possible to improve upon Audubon?

Mar 17, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 26 • By CHRISTOPH IRMSCHER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Such substitutions are, of course, inevitable whenever we try to make a faithful copy of anything. A picture of a bird is not a bird, just as a son is not his father, however much he might resemble him. John Woodhouse Audubon knew this, and it seems touching that he nevertheless tried to continue what his father had done—in a style that was, if not quite like his father’s, at least not unlike it—for as long as he could. On February 21, 1862, he succumbed to what had begun as a heavy cold. Aged only 49, he died, as his daughter noted, almost at the same hour as his father had, a little more than a decade earlier.  

Julius Bien, by contrast, had many years left to live, although he was never to undertake a project of similar artistic importance. Oppenheimer’s gorgeous edition is a welcome tribute to the talents of both men; but I can’t help but wonder if it might not be worth taking another look at John Woodhouse Audubon’s own work. For, once you have seen his images of American quadrupeds, it is (as Edmund Wilson realized) hard to forget them. The experience of loss is inscribed into the hard little eyes of his emaciated minks and squirrels as they cower next to their burrows or cling to dead tree limbs, occasionally against a background of distant log cabins, fences, and other markers of an encroaching human civilization. 

These are humans who will not think twice about killing animals, but who also know, in their better moments, how to turn them into beautiful books. 

Christoph Irmscher, provost professor of English at Indiana University, is the author, most recently, of Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science.