In the pantheon of American cultural heroes, John James Audubon is located below the tiptop where the Washingtons, Lincolns, Boones and Ruths reside. But not too far below. He is somewhere on the second-highest plateau along with the Andrew Jacksons, the Henry Fords, the Lewises and Clarks. He is considered as important as they are for two reasons.
First, Audubon remains one of the most famous American artists. Second, he has come to serve as a patron saint for individuals who have a devotional interest in nature appreciation and protection, specifically for the most puissant of our conservation organizations, the National Audubon Society.
In this, the bicentennial year of Audubon's birth—about that, more later—his renown is a fact. Why and how he came to be thus regarded is a matter that is overlaid with paradox and enigma. Audubon was by no means the first American artist to specialize in native wildlife. It is also generally conceded that he was not technically the best of the lot. As a naturalist he did not investigate previously unknown places and things. He was not as knowledgeable, insightful or even energetic as scholars who preceded and followed him. He was not a prophetic philosopher, and he did not lay the intellectual foundations of the 20th-century conservation-preservation-environmental movement. He was unabashedly a user of nature who, without pious rationalizations, exploited it to further his self-interest. In many instances his views and behavior were contrary to the values and sensibilities extolled by modern nature lovers.
Taken individually, Audubon's tangible abilities and accomplishments never seem to add up to the great sum he represents for us. Clearly there must be other, covert elements of personality that account for the enormous impact he has had on the American mind, imagination and behavior. And, in fact, the puzzling over—the trying to identify—the X factor that makes him so renowned in itself helps explain why so many have been so greatly fascinated by the life and works of the man.
An instructive and—in this particular year—timely Audubon puzzle has to do with his birthday. It is now generally agreed that he was born in 1785 in Haiti. He was the illegitimate child of the daughter of a respectable Creole family—one Mile. Rabin, who died a few months after his birth—and Jean Audubon, a French naval lieutenant and New World real estate speculator. Jean Audubon seems also to have had a great way with the ladies. In Haiti he begat at least one other child, Rosa, with another Creole woman.
Confirmation of these facts has been established by 20th-century scholars ferreting out documents in Haiti and France. However, Audubon never directly testified that this was the truth. In fact, though he was more than ordinarily obsessed with his natal circumstances and was a great one for autobiographical confessions, he spun, according to his mood and his audience, a lot of wildly conflicting yarns on the subject. So many, and so disparate, that no scholar can be dead certain as to exactly when or where he actually did come into the world.
Quite often, especially while traveling in the South, Audubon led interested parties to believe that he had been born on a magnificent Louisiana estate and that shortly thereafter Jean Audubon had taken his baby and his beautiful, lawful wife to Haiti on a business trip. There, his story went, the family had been caught in a slave insurrection during which John's mother was killed. Jean Audubon then fled to France with his young son and was forced to abandon his extensive Caribbean properties.
At other times Audubon suggested that he had been born in Haiti, France or Pennsylvania. He sometimes claimed to have spent part of his infancy near Lake Winnipeg in Upper Canada as a member of the Selkirk Colony, a planned community organized by the Scottish Earl of Selkirk.
Audubon also could be fast and loose about his age. In the 1840s, after he had become a celebrity, he apparently decided that he should be the Grand Old Man of the British-American natural history and art establishment. He began telling people he was 70 years old, though, according to his own previous testimony, he was actually in his mid-50s. Usually Audubon admitted that Jean Audubon was his true father-but not always. At times he hinted that his father had been Louis XVI and his mother Marie Antoinette, and that he was therefore actually Louis XVII, the rightful king of France, i.e., the Lost Dauphin.
Throughout the 19th century the Lost Dauphin titillated gossips and energized squads of conspiracy buffs. The premise was that in 1793, after Louis XVI was beheaded, his son had been whisked out of prison and hidden by royalist sympathizers. Within five years after this patently fictitious happening (it has been copiously documented that the boy died in prison in 1795), half a dozen Lost Dauphin claimants surfaced. Before the racket subsided, there were at least 40 would-be princes running about the world—including Germans, Russians and an American claimant, one Eleazar Williams.