Richard Rhodes
John James Audubon:
The Making of an American.
Knopf, 516 pages, $30

The threads of John James Audubon’s achievement—scientific, commercial, and artistic—are coiled so tightly that they can scarcely be separated. Nor should they be, for once disentangled, Audubon’s talents unravel into nothingness. The scientist was a precocious amateur with a knack for field work—no more; the businessman was a bungler, the perpetual victim of his own negligence; and even the artist was at best a fluent draftsman, who wisely learned to work within his fairly narrow limits. But once Audubon brought these three diffident personae into alignment, he became a prodigy, and the creator of America’s greatest work of graphic art, The Birds of America (1827–1838).

The scope of Audubon’s book was staggering: 435 plates were drawn and executed, which...

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