Friday, June 18, 2010

Great Men: John James Audubon (by Suzie)

Yesterday, I came back from a vacation in Key West, where I visited the Audubon House, among other historic sites. My photos are from the home's tropical gardens.

There are times when I cannot bear to visit one more monument to a Great Man, but I'm thankful that I went to this one. Once again, I was reminded of the women who made it possible for the man to achieve.

I find little to like about John James Audubon as a person. Like a lot of people who achieve fame, he seemed focused and ambitious to the point of selfishness. But I understand his importance, and I enjoy his drawings. I have two small, hand-colored 19th-century prints, handed down from my grandparents. I learned that the larger birds were often drawn in poses that I find gothic so that they could fit onto a page.

For a while, I was intrigued that Audubon might have had African ancestry, but reputable sources suggest that his mother was a white French chambermaid. He would have been considered Creole, but not in the sense of mixed-race, as the word is often used today. (I'm taking most of my information from a book by Richard Rhodes, linked above; our tour guide at the Audubon House; and Wikipedia.)

His mother died a few months after he was born, and his father's biracial housekeeper cared for the boy. She also had three children by the father, a French naval officer and slave trader. (When I hear accounts like this, I can't help but wonder what choice the women had.) The father brought Audubon back to France, where his stepmother cared for him.

When he was 18, his father sent him to New York so that he didn't have to fight in the Napoleonic Wars. "A draft-dodger," the tour guide noted. Since he had a fake passport, it appears that he also was an undocumented immigrant. (History keeps repeating.) He got yellow fever, but Quaker women gave him boarding, nursed him back to health and taught him English.

He married Lucy Bakewell, who cared for their children and home as he traveled. Both came from wealthy families, but they lost money and struggled for years. Lucy Audubon outlived her husband and their children, but not her family's debts. She ended up selling most of his original copper plates for scrap metal. From the Berman Museum of Art:
During periods of their marriage, particularly during Audubon's prolonged absences, it was Lucy Audubon who supported the family financially, for years at a time, by teaching. And yet it was also Lucy Audubon who, in 1830, joined her husband in traveling back to England and along with her sons played the role of her husband's most active helpmeet in realizing his dream of The Birds of America. Lucy wrote to her cousin in July 1831 that "our great Book demands all our funds, time, and attention, and since I came to England we have not indulged in anything that did not appertain to the advancement and publication of the 'Birds of America'."
As more prints were sold, women often did the hand-coloring, our tour guide said. I'm guessing this was part of the trend toward women working outside the home in urban areas.

Of course, it wasn't just women who made it possible for John James Audubon to do his life's work. Many prominent men helped. He and Lucy also owned slaves, both men and women, for six years, while they still had money.

Back to the Audubon House: He never lived there, but he did draw birds on the property. The three-story house and its antiques show daily life for the prosperous owners. The website says:
Slated for demolition in 1958, the house was saved by the Mitchell Wolfson Family Foundation. The Foundation is a nonprofit educational institution. This was the first restoration project in Key West, and is still considered the gem of the island's restoration movement.
The late Jessie Porter was a leader in historic preservation on the island, including the preservation of the Audubon House. I was sad to learn that her own home, which was turned into the Heritage House Museum, closed a couple of months ago. (Women have been the prime movers in historic preservation, by the way.)

My thanks to the kind women at the Audubon House who helped me even after closing time.

Key West, which was hotter than hell this week, bills itself as "The Only Frost Free City in The Continental United States." Not so. Robert Frost spent 16 consecutive winters in a cottage behind the Heritage House. (Sorry for the joke, but this trivia did seem to fit the post.)
Take-away lesson: Historic sites may carry the names of great men, but well-run ones will give you a glimpse into the lives of the legions who helped make and preserve history.