- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 2, 2004

It’s not easy to write a good biography of an American Indian woman who died at about age 20 and can be glimpsed only through the writings of the long-dead white males around her, plus a single engraving, based on a sketch taken from life in London in 1616.

No wonder so many myths have grown up around Pocahontas: Did she really save John Smith’s life? (No — she was only 10 at the time of the alleged incident, and Smith tended to exaggerate in his later writings.) Was she really welcomed in England as a princess? (Not exactly.)

What Camilla Townsend does in Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma (Hill & Wang, $23, 215 pages, illus.) is to sift with care through all the written records she could find — her bibliography is impressive — and skillfully piece together a plausible picture of a brave, intelligent young woman and her eventful, if brief, life.

The author, who is an associate professor of history at Colgate University, enjoys tackling opposing interpretations: “It was once commonplace to assert that the Indian girl had adored white men, English culture, and the Christian God. She turned away from her supposedly violent, backward, and narrow-minded people, hoping to become a bridge of peace as she herself embraced a better way of life and helped Jamestown to flourish.”

But, she says, “This view of events sheds more light on the people who advanced and embraced it than it does on Pocahontas.”

At the same time, the author debunks the corrective to this misrepresentation, which took hold in the 1970s and 1980s as some writers focused almost entirely on the fact that Pocahontas had been held captive and concluded that “rather than running forward to accept all that white culture had to offer, she had been forced — virtually at gunpoint — to convert to Christianity and marry a white man.”

The author believes that Pocahontas had lived among the English long enough to appreciate the resources they had at their disposal and to understand that “if her people were to survive, they needed the English as allies, not as enemies.” She does not romanticize how the Indians’ future might have been different if Pocahontas had lived to advocate for them (she died in England, as she was about to sail for Virginia).

“The destruction of Virginia’s Indian tribes was not a question of miscommunication and missed opportunities,” she writes. “White settlers wanted the Indians’ land and had the strength to take it; the Indians could not live without their land.”

The book is filled with sociological asides, as in this analysis of the urban pollution that made Pocahontas ill in London: “Blue dye, for example, not yet made from Virginia indigo, was still produced by mixing the English plant woad with household urine and letting it ferment for nine weeks, creating an odor so vile that the usually rational Queen Elizabeth had once forbidden woad processing within a five-mile radius of her person.”

Pocahontas had survived kidnapping by the English, been baptized as a Christian, married Englishman John Rolfe, given birth to their son, and crossed the ocean safely, but she could not withstand the germs of London. Her two-year-old son, Thomas, however, was left behind in England and as a young man returned to America to spawn all those claims by Virginians to be descended from Pocahontas.

“American” seems to be the new catchword for subtitles, right up there with “change.” In John James Audubon: The Making of an American (Knopf, $30, 503 pages, illus.), Richard Rhodes portrays the artist-naturalist’s life as an immigrant’s triumph over adversity. The tale is extraordinary enough to be fiction, and indeed, Audubon was not above embroidering it when he chose to. But the mind boggles at the artistry, persistence, and sheer stamina that Audubon demonstrated throughout his fascinating life.

The illegitimate son of a French sea captain and a chambermaid, born on a Haitian plantation in 1785 and adopted by the captain’s wife in France, young Audubon barely escaped execution during the Terror. At age 18 he was sent to Pennsylvania to escape conscription into Napoleon’s forces.

“He could sing, dance, play the flute, the violin and the recorder-like flageolet, fence, hunt, shoot and ride and draw,” says the author, and all these accomplishments would come in handy as he indulged his real passion: observing, mounting, drawing, and describing the habits of birds in the publications that made him famous.

Mr. Rhodes, a prolific author with a Pulitzer Prize to his credit, does full justice to Audubon’s struggle to make a living in a new country. First he had to learn English — which he did in a Quaker boardinghouse. (“He thee’d and thou’d his intimates ever after.”) Then his business venture in Kentucky failed during the bank panic of 1819; the resulting bankruptcy was to plague him for the rest of his life. Only Audubon’s adventurous spirit kept him trying new enterprises until he could at last turn his hobby into his new business, “The Birds of America.”

Audubon was particularly fortunate in his wife, Lucy, a talented English immigrant who bore him four children (the two girls died in infancy) and supported the family through teaching when he left for England to pursue publication of his drawings and drum up subscriptions. The letters the couple exchanged during their three-year separation, while he was riding herd on various engravers and “colorers” in Edinburgh and London and eventually hobnobbing with nabobs and royalty, are poignant.

In addition, Audubon’s voluminous journals — he kept them throughout his intrepid pursuit of birds in the wilderness, as well as in Europe — have been mined to give the text a sense of immediacy and suspense that only a trove of written records, and a skillful biographer, can provide. Despite near-death experiences and countless setbacks (for example, when rats ate one collection of drawings, he just did them again, better), Audubon always remained optimistic.

Lucy, too, never quit. When their two daughters-in-law died of consumption in their early twenties, she reared their children. Audubon made his final collecting journey to the West in 1843, declined into dementia in 1847, and died in early 1851. The two sons, who had helped their father in the continuing production of various editions of his work, died within the decade, Victor at 50 and John at 49. In 1865, to meet the family’s debts, Lucy sold Audubon’s original drawings for $2,000; most of the copper engraving plates were sold for scrap.

Mr. Rhodes is not squeamish in describing what especially distinguished Audubon’s work from traditional wildlife painting: It was “graphic and precisely rendered violence” in nature. Audubon himself killed a lot of wildlife in the process of obtaining specimens to paint for posterity, but he was ahead of his time in decrying wanton destruction of animals — not to mention Indians — on the frontier.

John M. and Priscilla S. Taylor are writers in McLean, Va.

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