Finding ‘Tenacity’ in Text

English professor Russell co-writes book on early American naturalists

Alma College English professor Eric Russell Alma College English professor Eric RussellALMA — The history of early American nature writing was marked by a philosophical divergence between those who thought of the great outdoors in a sentimental, romanticized way, and others, who looked at nature as a resource which should be explored, sometimes to a cruel effect.

Exploration of these fascinating conflicts is the subject of a new book by Daniel Patterson and Alma College English professor Eric Russell, “Tenacious of Life: The Quadruped Essays of John James Audubon and John Bachman,” published in June by the University of Nebraska Press. In their book, Patterson and Russell tell the story of Audubon and Bachman in essays marked by beauty, humor, pain and bombast.

“Many people, when they think of the nature writing from the 19th century, their minds go to people like Thoreau, Cooper and Fuller, who wrote about nature in this very romantic way. People like Audubon and Bachman were writing about nature in a more popular view, as this resource that should be explored,” Russell said. “It’s an interesting way to see nature from the time period, and the legacy of that conflict is something we continue to carry with us in our everyday lives.”

Audubon is a well-known figure in American natural history, who combined his interests in art and ornithology to create “The Birds of America,” a seminal work in the field. According to Russell, Audubon is acknowledged less as a writer, for reasons that have nothing to do with talent.

“Audubon was a prolific writer: an avid letter writer and journal keeper, as well as a skilled essayist. He never wanted to be an author because he was self-conscious about French being his first language, as well as his relative lack of formal education. But he is a great writer — someone who can weave his own life into stories from the American Frontier in a way that is really captivating, and in my opinion, overlooked,” Russell said.

A less well-known figure in the field is Audubon’s co-author, Bachman. A Lutheran pastor in Charleston, South Carolina, Bachman found time to conduct natural history studies that caught the attention of Audubon, as well as other famous scientists. Bachman’s work with mammals, in particular, helped inspire Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection.

Russell said that shining a light on Bachman’s contributions to the field was one major motivation to writing his book.

“It was just a fact that in 1846, if you were a book publisher for these two, whose name did you want in big letters on the cover? The national celebrity, Audubon, or his less well-known co-author? What we found in writing our book is that Bachman was actually the primary writer of these essays. We hope to show others how important Bachman was,” Russell said.

When put together, Russell said, Bachman and Audubon wrote some of the most compelling works of their time — writings that deserve to be critiqued as literature, as well as science. Their work is simultaneously awe-inspiring and grotesque, presenting nature as something that is both alluring and harsh, in a way that continues to provoke thought to this day.

“Audubon professes his love of animals and has made many ethical arguments about them. But at the same time, in order to do his studies, he killed hundreds of thousands of them himself. A lot of people in historical circles say that this is a contradiction, but I think it reminds us a bit of ourselves,” Russell said.

“If you watch hunting programs on TV, the hunter is usually the one who talks up the beauty of the animal before it is shot to death. I think that legacy can be traced back to people like Audubon and Bachman.”

“Tenacious of Life” is Russell’s first book. Patterson is a professor emeritus of English at Central Michigan University who is an established expert on Audubon.

“(Writing this book) was an amazing learning opportunity for me, but it was also the chance to get an extra insight on what it must have been like for Bachman and Audubon to be co-writers. Thankfully, (Patterson and I) did not get into fights like Bachman and Audubon did — in fact, we’re great friends,” Russell said.

“Tenacious of Life” is available through the University of Nebraska Press.

Story published on July 20, 2021