Had I the Wings: The Friendship of Bachman & Audubon, by Jay Shuler
Jay Shuler’s Had I the Wings is unusual in that it focuses not on an individual or an event, but on a friendship. Together, with the assistance of their families, John Bachman and John Audubon produced two of the seminal works of nineteenth century American natural history: Ornithological Biography and The Viviparous Quadrapeds of North America. Moreover, since Bachman’s daughters married Audubon’s sons, their friendship produced not just scholarship, but also grandchildren. To tell their story, Shuler relied on the two naturalists’ extant “voluminous and revealing correspondence”. By delicately interweaving portions of this correspondence into his narrative, Shuler has rendered an intimate and revealing portrait of the Bachman-Audubon friendship.
Shuler is to be commended especially for drawing long overdue attention to Bachman, pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church of Charleston, South Carolina, who was once America’s foremost authority on mammals. In Bachman, Shuler provides his readers with a fine example of the conflicted Southern Unionists who finally had to choose loyalty to their states over devotion to the Union and the government in Washington. “I love the Union, but I must go with my people,” he finally decided after the election of Lincoln, seeing South Carolina’s secession as a foregone conclusion. Underscoring the complexity of the sectional crisis, the New York-born Bachman believed in the single creation of the human species, rejecting the multiple creations explanation for racial differences. Yet, Bachman was no believer in human equality. He owned slaves and held Native Americans and lower class whites in contempt. Meanwhile, in the “enlightened Northeast” men of science argued against his teachings on the unity of man.
Had I the Wings will remind readers of the potential of narrative history. Shuler has given us a book that is gracefully written and that should be of interest to students of American natural history, art, and the South.
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