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AUDUBON AT SEA

Christoph Irmscher lives in Bloomington, Indiana, with his wife, the composer Lauren Bernofsky, his daughter Julia, Sasha the dog, and the cats Milly and Abby. Christoph teaches at Indiana University, where he also  directs the Wells Scholars Program. He is represented by Andrew Stuart of the Stuart Agency in New York. Christoph manages the website dedicated to the work and legacy of the Harvard Americanist Daniel Aaron, whose literary executor he is. Christoph was a finalist of the 2021 National Book Critics Circle Balakian Prize for Excellence in Reviewing. 

Published by the University of Chicago Press, August 2022

This one-of-a-kind, lavishly illustrated anthology celebrates Audubon's connection to the sea through both his words and art.

 

"Audubon at Sea shines a bright light on, and makes visible, three overlooked but significant aspects of Audubon's work and legacy: his writings on waterbirds as they evolved from imperfect to polished and lyrical prose; his seabird drawings, like the unforgettable 'Gannet'; and a new focus especially on the seabirds that are now in peril even if they remain out of our sight. The book adds a significant new chapter in our understanding and appreciation of Audubon as an imperfect and troubled nineteenth-century polymath—an artist, ornithologist, writer. Audubon's work will live on in new debates and conversations, in which Audubon at Sea will play an important role." -- Subhankar Banerjee, from the foreword


The American naturalist John James Audubon (1785–1851) is widely remembered for his iconic paintings of American birdlife. But as this anthology makes clear, Audubon was also a brilliant writer—and his keen gaze took in far more than creatures of the sky. Culled from his published and unpublished writings, Audubon at Sea explores Audubon's diverse observations of the ocean, the coast, and their human and animal inhabitants. With Audubon expert Christoph Irmscher and scholar of the sea Richard J. King as our guides, we set sail from the humid expanses of the American South to the shores of England and the chilly landscapes of the Canadian North. We learn not only about the diversity of sea life Audubon documented—birds, sharks, fish, and whales—but also about life aboard ship, travel in early America, Audubon's work habits, and the origins of beloved paintings. As we face an unfathomable loss of seabirds today, Audubon's warnings about the fragility of birdlife in his time are prescient and newly relevant.

 

Charting the course of Audubon's life and work, from his birth in Haiti to his death in New York City, Irmscher and King's sweeping introduction and carefully drawn commentary confront the challenges Audubon's legacy poses for us today, including his participation in American slavery and the thousands of birds he killed for his art. Rounded out by hundreds of historical and ornithological notes and beautiful illustrations, and with a foreword by distinguished photographer and conservationist Subhankar Banerjee, Audubon at Sea is the most comprehensively annotated collection of Audubon's work ever published.

Audubon's Haiti

An entrepreneur, hunter, woodsman, scientist, and artist—John James Audubon, famous for his epic The Birds of America, is a figure intimately associated with a certain idea of what it means to be American. And like many of the country's icons, he was also an immigrant. In an essay published by the Public Domain Review, Christoph Irmscher reflects on Audubon's complex relationship to his Haitian roots. Read the full text here.

 

"Wipe Thyself": Audubon's Mysterious Ledger

In the spring of 2016, the Lilly Library acquired a handsome ledger bound in sturdy marble-covered boards. Dubbed the "Audubon Ledger" by bookseller Donald Heald, volume had been in the possession of Audubon's great-granddaughter, Margaret Audubon McCormick until it was sold at Sotheby's on January 26, 1983. The earliest entry in the book dates from December 10, 1842; the latest was made on February 14, 1844.

 

The Audubon Ledger is a treasure trove for the scholar: it is chock-full with lists documenting Audubon's income and expenditures as he was finishing work on the Royal Octavo edition of Birds of America (1840-1844) and beginning to launch his new venture, The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America. Eight pages of draft letters, all in the handwriting of Audubon's son Victor Gifford, add to the documentary value of the collection. But the Ledger has something else to offer too, something more unexpected. Among the 70-plus pages of lists we find an example of a different kind of bookkeeping, a mysterious page-long aside, in Audubon's own handwriting, consisting of nothing but a stream of words, slathered on the page in no apparent order and, it seems, with near-complete disregard to meaning. Complete sentences are the exception rather than the rule.

 

Transcription

p. 219:
Second Course

Acquisition and use of Words in little sentences
Wipe Pocket to wash
Fish, Wipe, Table, deceits Smoke Pad Bush–
Tables, Indian Ink Pocket Ashes Ashes
Towels to wipe, to wash, to catch to pilfer dainties
to extinguish, to listen, to smoke to draw with water color
to wipe wiped mixed washed pilfered between
already beautiful, Shine shrine rail sight
The table is high, The pocket is wide, Pilfer
not that is not nice Wipe thy self.
Bath Thread Needle
Wheel Bath Oath envy harm song
Songs box, calf, (maggot, mite) fashion tired
waste booth both Silk (Willow pasture) boundary
Box boxes thread hurt to separate to avoid
(Willows to pasture) neither again Songs leather feather
(cart load, a tan) mould vein quarrel noble
herd, poodle, nudel, needles, skull, there,
there that the to the the thine one no mine his
(clear pure) Wine by shine flax stone.
The wheel is on the wagon The mite
is in the cheese The Willow is a tree.
Roof week to travel (to range to string)
Book Brook Roof partition ah I me self
thee (yet, however) (still, yet) high hole leek
Stomach breath smoke, rich soft proud cloth
Book beech (search to sack) (matter thing affair)
revenge (guard watch) week cook kitchen oak
corpse (pool laughter) to laugh—to make to pilfer
throat to rake to reach rays to cook cake
The book is new The brook is deep The beech is a
tree The smoke comes out of the chimney.

 

The page that precedes this strange jumble of words (p. 214) is as ordinary as they come: a list of monies the Audubons had collected in New York City on July 14, 1844, from subscribers to the Royal Octavo edition. It is, as is most everything else in the volume, in Victor Gifford Audubon's handwriting. Subsequent pages seem to have been cut out, and the number at the top of our strange meditation has been corrected to read "219."

 

It's difficult at first to discern some kind of principle behind this profusion of words. Some come from the same semantic field ("wipe," "wash," "bath" "clear," "pure"), some are repeated a number of times ("wipe" occurs, in somewhat different form six times; "pilfer" and "smoke" three times; "wash" twice). Sometimes Audubon's words acquire an incantatory quality and sound displaces meaning: "to rake to reach rays to cook cake." Other passages—especially the few fully formed sentences—are almost embarrassingly simple, as if they had been lifted from a children's picture book: "The wheel is on the wagon The mite is in the cheese The Willow is a tree." "The smoke comes out of the chimney."

 

As we read on, elements of a landscape begin to emerge—willows, beech trees, a brook, a pasture, a house with a roof and a kitchen, smoke coming from the chimney. (I am immediately reminded of the "inscrutable house" in Elizabeth Bishop's wonderful poem "Sestina.") Then there is the feel of things, the soft, rich cloth of a dress (made of silk?) worn, perhaps, by a mother. "Pilfer not," she might have said to her child, "that is not nice." And: "Wipe thyself." We have, indeed, entered a child's world, as the novelist Katherine Govier pointed out to me when I showed her a copy of that page. But Audubon was a child not in England or America, where mothers or maids would have said such things. He grew up in Napoleon's blood-drenched France, raised by his stepmother. The sounds made in this text—"Wheel Bath Oath," "waste booth both," "nudel, needles, skull," "book Brook Roof""—are entirely English, as is the landscape it evokes, however confusedly. Sing willow, willow, willow.

 

This page, then, evokes a childhood Audubon never really had, at least not in that form, a childhood he therefore couldn't have outgrown. Hence, too, the sense of loss that pervades this page, a loss of purity and perhaps of life—the mite in the cheese, the maggot, the ashes, the skull, the corpse. Pilfer not, the mother once said, and yet Audubon did, his entire adult life, when he entered into, and took away, the lives of birds. And the need to "wipe thyself" would have been immediately clear to someone who spent his days wading through dirt and blood. Birds weren't "nice" in their habits, Audubon once said (in his essay about the Shoveler Duck; Ornithological Biography 241). But neither was he. "To draw with watercolor," Audubon writes, close to the beginning of our page: an apparent reference to the work he did. And he goes on to define what he did: "to wipe wiped mixed washed pilfered between already beautiful." All watercolors on the world could not wash out the damn'd spots each killing of a bird—of a living thing that was "already beautiful," something that didn't need the artist to make it so—left in him.

 

This is all speculation, oyu might say, a fantasy. The title of the page ("Second Course") and dry-and-dust subtitle ("Acquisition and use….") might just mean that Audubon was reading a grammar textbook at the time and taking notes. But for whom? Or had the insecurities he had felt as a non-native speaker finally caught up with him? In a journal he kept in England in 1826, he referred to himself as a man who "never Lookd into an English grammar" (Writings 186). But by the mid-1840s, he was widely respected as writer, even by other writers: Longfellow, for example, based his Evangeline partly on the descriptions of Louisiana he had found in Audubon's essays. But maybe he was collecting words because he was getting ready to teach his grandchildren about homonyms and synonyms and the like? Thomas Brewer, who visited Audubon on July 4, 1846, did attest to Audubon's fondness for the "rising generation" (Herrick 2: 288).

 

However, the sheer difficulty of the fragment casts doubt on these more pedestrian readings. What good are notes that make no sense? And speaking of non-sense, perhaps this text is a clinical document more than anything else. Audubon's dementia became an established fact in May 1848, when his friend John Bachman visited him on his estate and found the naturalist's "noble mind all in ruins" (Herrick 2: 289). But this change had not happened overnight—as early as July 1847, Spencer Fullerton Baird found his former mentor "much changed" (Herrick 2:288). Did the first signs of his illness announce themselves even earlier? We now know for sure what Alzheimer patients have perhaps always known intuitively, namely that language dysfunction is one of the first indications of the disease. And we also know, and some of us have probably experienced it when taking are of a family member, that dementia patients still retain a measure of control over "a lexical phonological system that is used to repeat both known and novel words and that processes linguistic information independent of its meaning" (Glosser et al.).

 

But what if the last part of that statement—that there is no meaning in these repetitions—isn't true after all? What if all we needed to do is listen? What if meaning—if of a different, more fantastical, speculative kind—still resides somewhere even in the lexicon of the troubled mind, waiting for the right person to unlock it? "The brook is deep." John James continues to baffle and trouble us.


References

 

Audubon, John James. Ornithological Biography, or An Account of the Habits of the Birds of the United States of America: Accompanied by Descriptions of the Objects Represented in the Work entitled The Birds of America, and Interspersed with Delineations of American Scenery and Manners. Vol. 4. Edinburgh: Judah Dobson, 1839.

 

—. Writings and Drawings. Ed. Christoph Irmscher. New York: Library of America, 1999.

 

Glosser, Guila and Susan E. Kohn, Rhonda B. Friedman, Laura Sands, Patrick Grugan, "Repetition of Single Words and Nonwords in Alzheimer's Disease." Cortex, 33. 4 (1997): 653-666.

 

Herrick, Francis Hobart. Audubon the Naturalist: A History of His Life and Time. 2 vols. New York: Appleton, 1917.

 

(republished and adapted from the blog of the Lilly Library.Ⓒ Christoph Irmscher, 2022).