Friday, June 21, 2019

Audubon visits Scott

Whooping Crane eating baby alligators

In winter 1826-1827 John James Audubon was in Edinburgh, trying to drum up interest in the gargantuan publishing venture that would produce The Birds of America, by hugely expensive subscription. (The book still breaks records in the auction houses.)

He put on a successful exhibition, which Sir Walter Scott declined to attend, though he later regretted it. "I wish I had gone to see his drawings; but I had heard so much about them that I resolved not to see them..." I recognize the feeling and I sympathise. Maybe, too, Scott had sensed Audubon's questionable honesty from a distance; if so, he was soon re-deceived. (I'm taking this information from John Chancellor's 1978 biography of Audubon, which makes no bones about its subject's unsympathetic character traits; indeed reading it, you end up feeling that maybe Audubon wasn't quite so bad after all, which was perhaps the intention. Incidentally, Audubon's Wikipedia entries contain no hint of such critical views.)

Anyway, in January 1827 Audubon visited Scott.
My eyes feasted on his countenance. I watched his movements as I would those of a celestial being..... [H]e had been at work writing on the 'life of Napoleon'. He writes close lines, rather curved as they go from left to right, and puts an immense deal on very little paper....
Scott evidently succumbed to the Audubon myth. This man had studied ornithology, he wrote,

by many a long wandering in the American forests. He is an American by naturalization, a Frenchman by birth; but less of a Frenchman than I have ever seen -- no dash, or glimmer, or shine about him, but great simplicity of manners and behaviour; slight in person, and plainly dressed; wears long hair, which time has not yet tinged; his countenance acute, handsome and interesting, but still simplicity is the predominant characteristic!

After a second visit a couple of days later, Scott added:

This sojourner in the desert has been in the woods for months together. He preferred associating with the Indians to the company of the Black Settlers; very justly, I daresay, for a civilized man of the lower order -- that is, the dregs of civilization -- when thrust back on the savage state becomes worse than a savage...

(quotations taken from John Chancellor, Audubon: A Biography (1978), pp. 133-134.)

This is quite uncomfortable for me to quote: I would much rather be showing Scott in a more sympathetic light.

As to the truth, Audubon (keen to make Europeans believe he was a true pioneer, which he wasn't) naturally played up his contacts with Native Americans, such as they were. And with Scott's ignorant assent he evidently disparaged the "Black Settlers".

Both men, no doubt, were racists to some degree; it was impossible they should be anything else at the time. (In Scott's voluminous fictions I can only think of one black character, the dumb and devoted Nubian slave of Richard the Lionheart in The Talisman -- who turns out, naturally, to be Prince Kenneth of Scotland in black-face.)

What Scott says here is confused and probably incoherent. It might appear to have no racist aspect:  merely, that is, a generalization about civilized dregs, the ethnicity of the settlers being neither here nor there -- but I think that interpretation would be wrong. For would Scott say exactly this about, for example, the white convicts who were being shipped to Australia? -- I doubt it. I think he was disturbed by black people and wilderness coming together, and this provokes the inappropriate word "savage": for after all to be a settler is not at all the same thing as to be "thrust back on the savage state". The black settlers were part of Euro-American civilization, not savagery.

(Of course I'm leaving aside the question whether "savage" and "civilized" are coherent descriptions: I don't believe they are. I believe all cultures, and all individuals, try to get by in the circumstances they find themselves in.)

But then this brings in another anxiety alongside the racist one: a class anxiety. The settlers were a part of the lowest of civilisation's lower orders, the "dregs" (in Scott's view). As former slaves they had not so much been honoured with Euro-American civilization as consumed and spat out by it. (I should think that any good qualities they possessed they acquired rather in spite of than because of that civilization's doubtful mercies.)

Scott and his huge audience were imaginatively drawn to the "true" savage, the aboriginal, whether in the form of Native Americans or "unspoiled" Highlanders: because these exotics lie outside the class system of our own civilization. A gentleman need not be ashamed of such company. In fact, the savages are a positive relief from the constant anxieties of playing the gentlemanly role.

But poor settlers, black or white, were the kind of person whom one wished to avoid. For class consciousness, the mutual consciousness of a structural injustice in which the gentleman profits at the expense of the dregs, makes such relations uncomfortable. It was, of course, a large part of Scott's mission as novelist to portray this relation in its least uncomfortable aspects (e.g. in mutually respectful master-servant relationships; or at least in disrespect that is strictly limited; in "irrepressible" commentary from the lower orders; in Jenny Dennison and Andrew Fairservice and Flibbertygibbet...).

Scott wasn't all wrong, far from it. He knew his society, and the variety of its relations, in quite a lot of depth; his legal experience (like Fielding's) was invaluable. He would also have seen plentiful criminality, and sometimes savagery, among the under-classes. He didn't account for it the way that I would probably do, i.e. as an indictment of our civilizations. He understood it, I suppose, as an innate potential for evil within the human breast against which civilization must be perpetually on its guard.


There was no other way: before photography, a book of accurate pictures of wild birds could only be made by killing wild birds. Audubon killed a huge number, all he could bag. Sometimes he drew them while still wounded but alive; he knew how quickly the colours faded after death. He used wiring to put his dead models into "life-like" postures: not infrequently the result betrays the ghastliness of the method. Audubon's great work was a commoditization of nature on a grand scale. (But even so, Audubon sometimes reflected presciently on the implications of such huge slaughters of his time as the American bison and the passenger pigeon.)

In Florida...(I'm quoting this from Chancellor, pp. 178-179):

He set out at sunrise one morning with four Negro servants 'in search of birds and adventures'. He wanted to kill twenty-five brown pelicans in order to draw a single male bird. Why he should have needed so many birds for a single drawing is curious. It was partly the fun of killing them at a time when people's thoughts had not turned towards conservation and partly for the sake of giving accurate anatomical descriptions of the species and their individual variations. His friends in England, MacGillivray in particular, were clamouring for as many specimens as possible.

In a thick shrubbery of mangrove, Audubon came across several hundred pelicans,

seated in comfortable harmony, as near each other as the strength of the boughs would allow. . . . I waded to the shore under cover of the rushes along it, saw the pelicans fast asleep, examined their countenances and deportment well and leisurely, and after all, levelled, fired my piece, and dropped two of the finest specimens I ever saw. I really believe I would have shot one hundred of there reverend sirs, had not a mistake taken place in the reloading of my gun.

On another occasion the pelicans were less fortunate: 'A discharge of artillery seldom produced more effect; the dead, the dying and the wounded, fell from the trees upon the water, while those unscathed flew screaming through the air in terror and dismay.' For Audubon birds were few in number if he shot less than a hundred per day.

He was particularly fascinated by the alligators and blazed away at them from the deck of the schooner for want of anything much better to shoot at ....  the brains of one leaped out of its head and exploded in mid-air.

John James Audubon, and Great White Heron

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