Thursday, July 12, 2012

  A letter exists, written and posted during the horrible days after the wreck and addressed to an associate in the Apennines, wherein he reports having identified new species of fish and plants while swimming away from the doomed ship. It is the first of his strange unnecessary lies. The part about swimming away, that is. He had in fact identified a new fish, but it took place on the pier where the lifeboat docked.
  The easiest way to fathom what all this did to his mind is to observe the change in his appearance. In the portrait that serves as frontispiece to his Analyse de la Nature (1815, the year of the wreck), he is physically shrewlike to a degree that fascinates, with a small nose and a thin, set mouth, his bangs combed forward in oily fronds. He's a French leprechaun with what are remembered as "delicate and refined hands," also "small feet." Women noticed his eyelashes.
  Look at him three years on, when he steps away from the ark. He's in Hendersonville, Kentucky, now, hunting for the artist of birds John James Audubon. In Louisville he'd asked for the great man, but they told him Audubon had gone deeper, into the forest, where he'd opened a general store. Rafinesque longed to see Audubon's new paintings of western species, not yet published but already circulating by reputation among the learned. He knew Audubon liked to incorporate local flora into his pictures and he was sure he'd find new species of plants in the pictures, hidden, as it were, even from Audubon himself.
  Audubon was walking when he noticed the boatmen staring at something by the landing. It's through Audubon's eyes, which so little escaped, that we can see Rafinesque again, almost wearing

    a long loose coat of yellow nankeen, much the worse of the
    many rubs it had got in its time and stained all over with
    the juice of plants...[it] hung loosely about him like a
    sack. A waistcoat of the same, with enormous pockets, and
    buttoned up to the chin, reached below over a pair of tigh
    pantaloons...His beard was as long as I have known my own
    to be during...peregrinations, and his lank black hair hung
    loosely over his shoulder. His forehead...broad and prominent.

  Their meeting was a potentially ghastly slow-motion pileup of awkwardness from which they emerged smiling together in perfect good humor. Rafinesque stooped like a peddler under the bundle of dried plants strapped to his back. He walked up to Audubon "with a rapid step" and asked where one could find Audubon, to which Audubon replied, "I am the man." Rafinesque did a little dance and rubbed his hands. He gave Audubon a letter of introduction from some heavyweight back east, probably John Torrey. Audubon read it and said, "Well, may I see the fish?"
  "What fish?"
  "This says I'm being sent an odd fish."
  "It seems I am the fish!"
  Audubon stammered. Rafinesque only laughed. After that they never quarreled. Indeed, Audubon is the only person on record as ever having actually liked Rafinesque.

-John Jeremiah Sullivan
"LA•HWI•NE•SKI: Career of an Eccentric Naturalist"
from Pulphead

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