three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
14-Jan-Feb-2005
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The Making of an American

A-JohnJamesAudubonJohn James Audubon came to America at the age of 18, the bastard son of a Frenchman and his chambermaid, to avoid the draft into Napoleon’s army. Within the context of the Louisiana Purchase, the War of 1812, and decimation of Native Americans and wilderness, Audubon married Lucy Bakewell, trekked to frontier Kentucky, and found his calling as a self-taught avian portraitist. Spurned in America, he presented his detailed watercolor portraits to the salons of Europe. When the monumental Birds of America, the first major book of its kind, became an astounding success, "the American Woodsman" and naturalist, in turn, became the quintessential American icon.
Knopf. 514 pages. $30. ISBN: 0375414126

Denver Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Although a couple of recent Audubon biographies preceded this one, such as William Souder’s Under a Wild Sky, Rhodes has written a much more comprehensive and wide-reaching account of Audubon’s life ..." Dorman T. Shindler

Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel 4 of 5 Stars
"He not only skillfully tells the transformation of the self-taught Audubon from an immigrant into an American icon, but this meticulously researched book offers a fascinating portrait of antebellum America. … This book is also worth reading for the issues that Audubon grappled with: the preservation of nature and the tug between family, fame, and fortune, which continue to resonate in our time." Jack Reardon

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Without reaching for obscure words or overly complex formulations, his prose conveys thorough mastery of the subject, limitless curiosity and an enormous range of knowledge."
Jesse Berrett

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Rhodes has given us the most three-dimensional portrait yet of Audubon the man. … The generalist Rhodes avoids this trap [of too many details], and mostly avoids the opposite pitfall of paying too little attention to natural history, which would have made the artist’s quest seem hollow and absurd." Kenn Kaufman

Cleveland Plain Dealer 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Richard Rhodes tells this story well but without the brilliance one might expect from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb. … Earlier biographers, it would seem, thought Audubon a poor businessman, and Rhodes seems eager to absolve him of the charge." Jean Dubail

San Jose Mercury News 3.5 of 5 Stars
"… a masterly piece of storytelling. … If I had to fault the book, I’d say that Rhodes never quite puts his finger on the source of Audubon’s compulsive devotion to painting birds."
Charles Matthews

New York Times 2 of 5 Stars
"In the end, John James Audubon offers a sober and circumspect account of its subject rather than an impassioned one. … Even when drawing dead subjects, Audubon infused his work with vigor and empathy, with a keen anthropomorphic vision of what these lives were like. … This book shouldn’t be tame." Janet Maslin

Critical Summary

From the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb comes a far different story about the intersection of innovation and death—Audubon had to kill his subjects, after all, to illustrate them. Critics differ in opinion about Rhodes’s newest effort. Rhodes certainly offers a compelling and complex portrait of Audubon’s place in antebellum America and constant desire to reinvent himself. Rhodes also raises timeless issues about the value of nature, family, and fame; he never loses sight of Audubon and his wife’s love and trials, for example. Yet, a few reviewers thought the book too cautious—what, after all, drove Audubon’s genius? While Rhodes holds onto the larger picture, non-ornithologists may find the bird-to-bird lowdown repetitive and tedious. Yet, despite these criticisms, this book’s definitely not for the birds.

Also by the Author

The Making of the Atomic Bomb | Richard Rhodes (1986): Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. The book makes the science clear and the personalities involved in its discovery compelling.