John James Audubon:
The Making of an American.
Knopf, 516 pages, $30
The threads of John James Audubons achievementscientific, commercial, and artisticare coiled so tightly that they can scarcely be separated. Nor should they be, for once disentangled, Audubons talents unravel into nothingness. The scientist was a precocious amateur with a knack for field workno 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 Americas greatest work of graphic art, The Birds of America (18271838).
The scope of Audubons book was staggering: 435 plates were drawn and executed, which...