“A Beautifull young lady called here a Miss is at my side and asks with the volubility of Interesting youth and enthusiasms many many questions about America — but they all appear very much surprised that I have no wonderfull Tales to relate—that for Instance, I so much in the woods have not been devoured at least 6 times by tigers, Bears, Woolf, Foxes or—a rat—No—I was never troubled in the woods by any larger animals than Ticks and Musquitoes and that is quite enough.”—John James Audubon, John James Audubon’s Journal of 1826: The Voyage to The Birds of America
Audubon wrote this sentence (if that’s what it is) in Liverpool, after leaving his wife and two sons back in Louisiana, and banking all the money they had in the world on a ridiculous, audacious project—to sail to England to try to convince someone to publish his as-yet-unpublished Birds of America on giant plates in full color.
He had spent decades watching birds, shooting them, stringing them up in lifelike positions, painting them, dissecting them, and often eating them. And now he was 41, broke, newly-arrived in the Old World with only a few letters of introduction and 250 “watter coloured Drawings” in a portfolio. And he had to entertain rooms full of people who expected him to be a certain way, to be a smoky, gunslinging woodsman in moccasins, to fit their romantic notions about the mystery that was the New World.
I love the passage because it is so unmistakably Audubon’s: full of energy and humor, ringing with a certain humility, and also a certain savviness too. He knows it is a game. He knows both what they want to hear (tigers and bears) and what is true (ticks and mosquitoes), and finds himself operating in the space between the too.
As someone who lives in Idaho, and who routinely encounters folks who assume we Idahoans regularly ride horses to saloons and fistfight mountain lions while digging ourselves out of 9-foot snowdrifts, I can certainly relate.
Anthony Doerr is the author of four books, The Shell Collector, About Grace, Four Seasons in Rome, and, most recently, Memory Wall.
We are excited to announce that he will be teaching at the Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop this July!