BOOKTHINK: It's interesting that Audubon needed to leave North America to get The Birds of America published.
SOUDER: When Audubon initially went to Philadelphia in 1824, he was advised by a number of people there that he would have an easier time doing this in Europe than he would in America simply because there were more engravers, more publishers, a much larger itinerary, artistic and scientific community in Europe - and more customers. It was going to be a very expensive book for anyone to own, and there were certainly people of means in Europe that could afford to own such a book. Later on he did have quite a bit of success selling subscriptions in America.
Everything fell into place when he got to England. As you read the book, you learn that when he got to Philadelphia people were suspicious of him ... they didn't trust his story about who he was and where he came from. They were already committed to Alexander Wilson's drawings, and they didn't really like Audubon's style; he was kind of a rough figure. All those things that worked against him here really made him this exotic, artistic, fascinating creature in England.
To succeed in life, you have to be lucky. And Audubon was tremendously lucky in getting to Liverpool and having a letter of introduction to the right people, who turned him into an overnight success. Within a few weeks of getting off the boat in England, he had a major exhibit going on. Once people saw his drawings in that context, properly displayed in an exhibition hall, with invitations to all the right people - important and influential citizens - then things just took off for him.
BOOKTHINK: It seems something of a miracle that the book actually came to be, but you are right; it was things falling into place and being in the right place at the right time.
SOUDER: You were talking about how it was interesting to picture America in the early 1800's, but it was a whole different thing when I followed Audubon's trail over to Great Britain. I went to London and then spent time at the Royal Society and the Linnean Society and then went up to Edinburgh for a week or so to follow his tracks there. The first day I arrived I went to the University of Edinburgh, which had a number of papers that I wanted to look at, and I found that they also had a superb map collection there. I asked if by any chance they would have a map of the city of Edinburgh from the year 1826, which was the year Audubon arrived there. And they did - it was actually a postal map, the map a mail carrier would have used to navigate around the city. They made a photocopy of it for me - a small map that I could stick in my pocket. Edinburgh really hadn't changed very much since 1826. So the whole time I was there I used that postal map from 1826 to find my way around the city, and I had no difficulty at all. I was able to find several of the apartments that Audubon stayed in, or at least the locations of those apartments - a few of them were newer buildings, but most of them weren't. So when I was in Edinburgh there were times when I was working on the book that it really felt pretty close; you could almost get a sense of him being around the corner. That was where it was the strongest because you had the cobblestone streets and stone buildings, the fogs at night ... it was just very much like how it must have been in 1826.
BOOKTHINK: That would not work here in the United States. To go to a city - let's say New York City, where he lived later on - that would not work.
SOUDER: If you travel on the Ohio River today, it's this sort of a rust belt, nasty river that winds its way to the heartland. But in Audubon's day it was reputed to be the most beautiful river in the world, with forest crowding right down to the river on both banks, the water clear and beautiful.
BOOKTHINK: Where are his original journals?
SOUDER: There were two original journals that survived. One was the 1820-1821 journal about his trip down the Mississippi River from Ohio to New Orleans. And then there's the 1826 journal which concerns his travel from New Orleans to Liverpool and then on to Edinborough. I think Harvard has the original 1820-21 journal, but I'm not positive. The 1826 journal is, I believe, at the Field Museum in Chicago. He was always having things transcribed in duplicate, so it's possible that there's more than one original copy. I don't think so, but it's possible. In any event, the 1820-21 journal was transcribed and published by a little publishing concern in Boston called The Club of Odd Volumes in 1930 (Journal of John James Audubon Made During His Trip to New Orleans in 1820 - 1821. [with:] Journal of John James Audubon ... 1840 - 1843, Club of Odd Volumes, Boston,1929). They also published about half of his letters, the originals of which are split between Harvard and Yale.
The 1826 journal was transcribed by Alice Ford, who was one of Audubon's biographers, and that was published in book form in the 1960's (The 1826 Journal of John James Audubon, University of Oklahoma Press, 1967). I heard when I was in Chicago a couple of years ago that the Field Museum was contemplating re-transcribing that journal because they think there are a number of errors and mis-interpretations in it. I don't know if that project has gone forward or not.
BOOKTHINK: I did find a terrific University of Pittsburgh website which has a complete set of The Birds of America and his Ornithological Biography- and it's all there, and can be read page by page, and you can view every plate. It's just gorgeous. As far as complete sets of The Birds of America, fewer than 200 of them are known to exist, is that correct?
SOUDER: The Audubons thought that they had made about 175 complete sets. Occasionally, Havell would run off an extra print or two and sell them; so there may have been more of some of the images made, but around 175 complete sets (roughly 80 of which were purchased in the United States). I've had a chance to look at a few of them. The University of Minnesota has a set. Remember the controversy about the Bird of Washington?
BOOKTHINK: That's the Bald Eagle, right? Or not?
SOUDER: Well, that's up for debate. Audubon had made images of the Bald Eagle and the Golden Eagle, and then this additional eagle, which he called The Bird of Washington, which he thought was a separate species.
BOOKTHINK: And it might have been a separate species, do you think?
SOUDER: I thought it was odd that Audubon would have made such a dumb mistake as to confuse the Golden Eagle or the Bald Eagle for some other bird. I just thought he would know. And he also had, in the Ornithological Biography, told a story of shooting this unusually large eagle that was accompanied by some other accounts that he heard. I thought there was a different way to look at this issue. First of all I talked to a bunch of ornithologists, and they said, "No, no way. He just made a mistake; if there was another species, we would have known about it." But I did something different; I went to the University of Minnesota, and they very graciously got out their original copy of The Birds of America for me. Those are not bound, so you can lay the prints out side by side. So I had them lay out the Golden Eagle and the Bald Eagle and The Bird of Washington side by side. I wanted to see if it looked bigger because remember, Audubon's technique was to reproduce everything life size, and he had a very meticulous technique for doing that. He made the drawing of The Bird of Washington ten years before he published The Birds of America, and I just couldn't fathom that he would somehow invent a larger than life bird at that point in his life. So I thought that if the bird on the page was really bigger, then he must have had a bigger bird. I looked at them, and The Bird of Washington was literally half again as big as either of the other eagles. We put down some vellum that we could see through, and we measured wing segments, toe lengths, beak lengths and toe-to-tail lengths. And The Bird of Washington is quite a bit larger than the Bald Eagle. So I think most likely, if this was a separate species, it may have been related to or a member of the species of large melanistic Sea Eagles that are found very rarely in Russia these days. And apparently there is, in a museum somewhere in Russia, a specimen of a very large dark eagle that might have been a counterpart to this. I think it's possible that some of these eagles sort of wandered around back then and were occasionally seen on this continent.
BOOKTHINK: If the entire Passenger Pigeon species can disappear, anything seems possible.
SOUDER: This may have been a species that was in the process of going extinct, and Audubon just happened to see one a handful of remaining individuals. I think that's possible.
I've looked at the set at the University of Minnesota and at a number of bound sets, including one at the Academy of National Sciences in Philadelphia, where they have it on display. They also have it at the Philosophical Society and the New York Public Library.
I was working for several weeks at the Houghton Library at Harvard, where about half of Audubon's letters and correspondence are kept along with some other materials. It's a very elegant library…quiet with big long oak desks with scholars working at them. And if you're there for an extended period of time, you get to know people visually, but nobody talks; you see the same people day after day and you kind of establish your little place in the library. Once they get to know you they start keeping your materials out for you and wheel it over when you get there in the morning. You fill out call slips for what you want to look at and they bring it up.
BOOKTHINK: Sounds like heaven.
SOUDER: It's really lovely. I'd been there for a couple of weeks and I went in to take my usual spot one Friday morning. There, sitting at my place at the table was - no kidding-a very formal looking invitation. It said, "Dear Mr. Souder, Please join the Library Staff and the other Houghton scholars for coffee in the upstairs drawing room at 10:00am this morning if it's convenient." (He laughs). This was great. So I went up there and it was a little coffee and pastries mixer, and all these people I had been seeing for the last couple of weeks were there. It turns out the guy working at the table across from me was there from London working on a Churchill biography. The head librarian was interested in my project and asked how it was going. I told her I was just finishing up, that today was my last day here in the library and I'd be done later in the afternoon. I said, "The one thing I was going to ask you though, before I left, was whether your set of The Birds of America is available - if it's something I could arrange to look at." And she said, "Oh yes, sure, no problem.
Now bear in mind, when I've done this before - like at the New York Public Library - you had security guards there, you have to fill out forms, and you're not allowed to touch things. Most places, it's very restricted access. I asked her what the procedure was and she said, "Let's start by filling out a call slip," (as for any other book in the library). I asked about Wilson's American Ornithology - "Could I also have a look at that?" She replied, "Just fill out a call slip."
So I filled out call slips for The Birds of America and sAmerican Ornithology and dropped them at the front desk, then I went out and had a hamburger and came back an hour later. There at my desk was a big foam cradle, and all five volumes of The Birds of America and all five volumes of American Ornithology just sitting on the table for me to look at. And Cathy, I'll tell you what - when I opened The Birds of America, everybody in the library came over to see them. I ended up giving a little talk on what we were looking at and what it meant. These books are just enormous, and to have them at your disposal for an entire afternoon was just unbelievable. It's a very secure library - there was nothing reckless about them doing it; but it was a very special day for me.
BOOKTHINK: I believe you said that there were as many as 50 colorists working on the printing of The Birds of America in Havell's engraving shop.
SOUDER: There were hurdles for reproducing these drawings, which were watercolors, and in some cases sort of collages, because Audubon would make a drawing of a bird and sometimes he'd cut it out and put it up against a landscape that one of his associates had worked on, or he'd put two different birds together that he'd worked on at different times. The original works are watercolors, but often watercolors assembled piecemeal. The only way you could translate that into a marketable finished color print back in the 19th century was to engrave the image - to make a black and white outline, if you will, and then to have the colors done to match the original, sort of like a paint by number system. So the way Audubon's drawings were reproduced, they used Intaglio, which is engraving the image onto big copper plates. You could also use lithography, which is engraving something into stone. But the state of the art was this sort of aqua-tinting process that involved etching outline and shadings of the image onto a copper plate. That plate was inked, paper was pressed against it, and you would get this black and white outline with all kinds of shadings and muted tones, but simply black and white. Once that was completed, then teams of colorists (and they were usually young women - art students did a lot of this work, although some was done by the engraving staff as well) - would sit in a studio at Havell Engraving Shop with the original close enough to inspect, and they would pass this black and white image among themselves. With each person working on a single color, they would fill it in to make it look like the original watercolor. It sounds as if every one of these would be radically different, but that's not the case; if you look at these images in the different original sets, they are surprisingly consistent. They did have their quality control problems at times. Occasionally some subscriber would complain that the color of the grouse didn't look right, and they would adjust it a little bit. But they were surprisingly consistent. Nonetheless, every single Audubon print, even though it's a print, is an original work of art, because no two are exactly alike. This was such a labor-intensive and time consuming process, which is why it took thirteen years to finish the project.
BOOKTHINK: It's fascinating that he didn't have much formal education for his art or his writing - he had problems writing, really.
SOUDER: He did, and I think that is something interesting about him. He was fortunate that he lived at a time that someone with first-hand experience of the natural world could still be embraced by the scientific community, who had a more sophisticated and educated view of things, as an expert. Even the people that Audubon dealt with in Edinburgh, Philadelphia and Charleston in many cases had much more elaborate and sophisticated educations and scientific or artistic background than Audubon had. He was recognized as an expert in his own right. And certainly he didn't take a back seat to anyone in terms of his artistic talent; he was a seriously talented artist. Not just for his technique, which was unique, but for his vision.
What really sets Audubon apart is that he was the first artist to make natural history studies that tried to put living things in their living context. It's a really important distinction with Audubon, because before Audubon, all these scientific illustrations of birds and fishes and plants and animals were relatively static. They were very draftsman-like, extremely accurate, many, many of them beautiful in their own right. But most of them were kind of dead on the page; they weren't really living functioning organisms in the way the Audubon birds are. That's the most important thing that sets him apart, that along with making everything life size.
BOOKTHINK: He painted them as he saw them in the natural world.
SOUDER: Right. And so it's that vision, which he stuck to doggedly, that sets him apart ... his insistence that the world appears a certain way, and this how you represent it.
BOOKTHINK: A lesser man might have been talked out of that.
SOUDER: A lot of people tried to talk him out of it. It's cheaper and quicker to do it on a smaller scale. He would have met with much less resistance in Philadelphia. I think his drawings would have looked much more like Alexander Wilson's. Wilson's drawings are beautiful, but there is such a quantum difference between the two artists and the way they depict birds - it's really quite dramatic.
BOOKTHINK: I see a little parallel here, where he could have given up because Wilson was already doing the work in the same way you could have given up your biography because someone was already doing one.
SOUDER: I guess I never really thought of that. In Audubon's case, he was clearly inspired by Wilson. They had this chance encounter in Louisville when Audubon was a shopkeeper there and Wilson happened to wander into his dry goods store selling subscriptions to American Ornithology, and it's clear that was one of several really important influences on Audubon and showed him what you could do with those kind of drawings. I don't think Audubon was keenly aware that he was walking into a competitive situation when he went to Philadelphia, although he clearly was. He probably couldn't have known or anticipated exactly how Alexander Wilson fit in to the whole hierarchy there at the Academy of Natural Sciences and in the publishing world in Philadelphia. He found out when he got there, of course. But it was a little bit different situation for him.
BOOKTHINK: It has always intrigued me that you can have six people looking at the same subject and each will see it in a unique and different way, whether they are writing about it, or painting it; each person's perception sheds new light on a subject.
SOUDER: There aren't a lot of new subjects in the world, but there's an endless number of ways to look at and paint and write about all the things we find there.
MEDIA EDITOR'S NOTE: The last time a complete bound set of the double elephant folio edition of The Birds of America was offered at auction, it sold for $8.8 million to Sheik Hamad bin-Khalifa Al Thani of Qatar, setting an auction world's record for the printed book.
Join us again soon for Part II of this interview, when we discuss William Souder's new project, a biography of Rachel Carson. We will also touch on his book, A Plague of Frogs, published in 2000 by Hyperion Press.
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Copyright 2003-2011 by BookThink LLC
Copyright 2003-2011 by BookThink LLC