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Losing Audubon (A Glorious Enterprise, part 3)

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 3, 2012

Wild turkey by Wilson

Another early member of the Academy, the Scottish immigrant Alexander Wilson, launched the scientific study of birds in America with his American Ornithology, the ninth and final volume being published in 1814, a year after his death.

Ironically, though, that connection also caused the Academy to reject John James Audubon when he showed up at a meeting 10 years later seeking support for what would become the most celebrated work of American natural history ever published.

Audubon was a colorful frontier character and no diplomat.  Otherwise, he would have known that George Ord, president of the Academy, had been Wilson’s closest friend and had functioned as his literary executor.  Instead, Audubon seems to have clumsily disparaged Wilson, as a way of promoting the superiority of his own work.

Ord

Ord, who came from a prosperous rope manufacturing family, was a quarrelsome, condescending figure.  He made life difficult for everyone associated with the Academy in those years, and particularly for Audubon.

“Incensed by the newcomer’s brash and tactless remarks, he rose to Wilson’s defense, challenging Audubon’s scientific credentials and integrity,” Peck and Stroud write, in A Glorious Enterprise. “By the end of the meeting, it was clear that any possibility of the Academy supporting Audubon’s project had vanished.”

Thus Audubon had to turn to Europe for the triumphant publication of his Birds of America.

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