A Writer’s Journey: Danny Heitman on Researching Audubon in Louisiana

When I began following John James Audubon in 2006, I didn’t realize how long he’d follow me. Eight years later, Audubon continues to be a regular part of my life, thanks to an LSU Press book that I published about the world’s most famous bird artist, A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.

John James Audubon (1785–1851) was depressed, destitute, and down on his luck when he came to Louisiana in 1821 to gather material for The Birds of America, his ambitious pictorial record of the nation’s ornithological bounty. He’d been an artist by avocation and a dry goods merchant by profession, and the failure of his Kentucky store and mill operation in 1819 had persuaded Audubon to pursue his art full-time.

New Orleans, then one of the wealthiest and most cultured cities in America, seemed like a good place to find patrons. Audubon hoped to hire himself out as a portrait painter, but find a little time for his bird project, too. Things didn’t go well at first, and Audubon was about to give up when he was hired as a tutor at Oakley House Plantation in nearby St. Francisville. Audubon’s summer at Oakley changed his art, enabling him to become the genius we now celebrate.

I thought the story of that season might make a book, and LSU Press agreed. I researched the story in 2006, completed a manuscript in 2007, and saw it released in 2008. In my primary work as a journalist, I handle a dozen topics a week, quickly tucking them away before moving on to something else. I assumed that Audubon’s presence in my life would be temporary, too, quickly evaporating after the book was published.

But I’ve been surprised—and delighted—to discover how many people are interested in Audubon. Invitations to speak about him came from all over, including a request that I lecture at a sprawling wildlife refuge outside of Vicksburg, Mississippi. It rained buckets that day, flooding the road into the refuge and forcing me to enter from atop a levee populated by grazing cows. They were in no mood to stop their lunch and allow me passage, and as I honked the horn to nudge them along, it occurred to me that this wasn’t the book tour I expected.

Other adventures ensued. In 2009, Louisiana Public Broadcasting produced a documentary version of my book, and the film featured some historical reenactments, including a scene where Audubon visits the deathbed of an Oakley neighbor. When no actor could be found to play the corpse, I was dressed in period garb and pressed into action—or, I should say, non-action. After a lengthy recline with my eyes closed, I almost started snoring, a problem in convincingly playing a dead man.

LPB’s production, steered to completion by gifted filmmaker Christina Melton, aired statewide and in many other places across the country. It still resurfaces in repeats here and elsewhere, leading to interesting emails from viewers.

A Summer of Birds opened other doors for me. I attended two National Endowment for the Humanities symposiums aimed at teaching elementary and high school teachers how to use Audubon’s writing, art and scientific observations across the school curriculum. At one of the symposium sessions at Indiana University in Bloomington, participants from around the United States watched the Summer of Birds documentary, their jaws dropping in wonder at the beauty of Louisiana. Sitting in the back and watching their reaction, my eyes welled with tears of pride for my home state – a place that Audubon called his favorite state in the nation.

Filmmakers still call and ask me to participate in Audubon projects. Two other documentaries about the artist are in the works.

A Wall Street Journal editor read my book and noticed its mention of Audubon Day at LSU’s Hill Memorial Library, an annual affair in which patrons get to see the library’s vintage Birds of America volume, a priceless treasure, turned page by page. Intrigued, he dispatched a feature writer to cover the event, leading to national attention for Hill.

In the years since A Summer of Birds appeared, I’ve gotten dozens of Audubon-related writing assignments because of my profile as a student of his work. One Thanksgiving, for example, the Wall Street Journal asked me to write an essay on Audubon’s turkey. I’ve written a magazine piece about Audubon’s prose style, a review of a new Library of America edition, and numerous op-eds about what Audubon can teach us about our lives today. As I’ve frequently said, I’ve probably written more about Audubon beyond A Summer of Birds than within its pages.

Audubon belongs to the world, which is why my little book has, happily, found readers beyond Louisiana. But A Summer of Birds came into being because LSU Press believed in it, and local readers helped push it out the nest so that it could fly.

That’s why the LSU Press “Made in Louisiana” campaign is so welcome. The campaign reminds us that the best way to give writers a national—and international—platform is to support them at home.

Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate and a frequent essayist for national publications, is the author of A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.

This summer, LSU Press is “Made in Louisiana”! Through July 4th, read local and you will receive 35% off A Summer of Birds and hundreds of other Louisiana titles. Check them out at our website, and use offer code 04LALOVE at checkout.