People love John James Audubon. The enormous double elephant folio of his Birds of America sits open at many institutions that own it. Audubon famously depicted his birds at the “size of life,” in vibrant and sometimes contorted compositions. Turning the books’ enormous pages produces a lot of suspense, a lot of drama. Transylvania University, a small liberal arts college in Lexington, KY, where I grew up, used to keep its double elephant folio on display. They’d show it off on campus tours, which is how people knew it was there to be stolen.
When I started at Lexington Catholic High School, there was a guy on the soccer team named Warren Lipka. He had frosted tips and a narrow face. People loved him and thought he was an asshole, both. A couple of years later, in December 2004, Lipka and three friends (Spencer Reinhard, Eric Borsuk, and Chas Allen), robbed Special Collections at Transy. They tazed the librarian and tried to steal Audubon’s double elephant folios and as much other loot as they could carry.
The double elephant folios didn’t make it out of the building – they’re big and heavy. But Lipka and friends did make off with a first edition of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species and some Audubon sketches. They planned to sell them, but by February they’d been arrested.
When the news story broke, it was the first time I’d ever heard of Special Collections. I knew that Audubon had lived in Kentucky for a while, and that there was a State Park with his name – but it would never have occurred to me that anyone still had the books he made.
Lipka, Reinhard, Borsuk, and Allen went to jail amid a flurry of local newspaper reports. I went away to college, where I worked in Special Collections. Eventually I went to graduate school, where I study American literature and write about Audubon. American Animals (Bart Layton, 2018), a glitzy film about the failed heist, premiered at Sundance in January of this year and was later released nationwide.
American Animals doesn’t want us to think Lipka, Reinhard, Borsuk, and Allen are like Audubon. Instead, they’re the animals. The film suggests that these bored young men were seduced by popular film and drawn into the momentum of a heist movie plot, complete with its inevitable brutality. In suggesting this, the film follows its characters’ own lead: on some level, the whole thing was a genre fantasy – they watched heist films for inspiration, wore elaborate stagey costumes on their first robbery attempt, and used code names from Reservoir Dogs, complete with anxious bickering about who would be Mr. Pink. This was about suits and big plans and pizzazz. A Vanity Fair profile from 2007 took its cue from these cinematic fantasies, calling the botched heist “one part Ocean’s 11, one part Harold and Kumar.”
American Animals builds on this proclivity for linking the heist plot and its aftermath to celebrated popular genres. These men, the film tells us, just wanted to be special and got caught up in a bad thing. Even as it gently critiques its characters, American Animals participates in a popular landscape that routinely glorifies the criminal exploits of white men and in which our heartstrings are routinely pulled over the “ruined lives” of white male perpetrators of violence. As it does this, the film also repeats the celebratory reception of Audubon’s work, cleansed of its own violence and stripped from its historical context.
White male violence so often circulates as though it is something other than violence. Like the men who would steal his work so many years later, Audubon benefitted from this reality. Audubon made beautiful books. He also owned and borrowed enslaved people who hunted for him, so he could have fresh birds to draw.
John James Audubon was born with the name Jean Rabin on April 26, 1785 in the city of Les Cayes in the French colony of Saint Domingue, present-day Haiti. The illegitimate child of a French merchant and his creole mistress, he left Saint Domingue for his father’s estate in France around 1791 to escape the growing unrest that would culminate in the Haitian Revolution. Biographers continue to debate Rabin’s racial identity. Audubon spent his adulthood insisting on his whiteness, obscuring his birth in pre-revolutionary Haiti and his unstable racial identity. Until his death in 1850, he consistently fashioned himself as an American woodsman and master painter.
America bought it, big time. There’s a way that Audubon is everywhere. There are three bars on my street, and two of them are full of Audubon images. There’s an Audubon room in my building at school. A friend gave me a stack of old Audubon prints his grandmother had received as gifts from an insurance company decades ago. Audubon’s watercolors and the engravings made from them are perhaps the most recognizable images of the American nineteenth century. Since the founding of the National Audubon Society in 1905, his name has also become synonymous with bird expertise and conservation efforts.
We are inundated with this uncritical vision of Audubon as a great American artist and bird lover. To be surrounded by Audubon’s ubiquitous but decontextualized images is to be surrounded by the forms of violence in which he participated and to be schooled constantly to accept the forms of abstraction that distance this violence.
Warren Lipka isn’t John James Audubon. And Spencer Reinhard, although he was the artistic type in the group, and although he now apparently sits in his garage in Kentucky painting birds, isn’t either. But I am tired of films about reflective white men who did a bad thing they supposedly couldn’t help doing.
Lipka, Reinhard, Borsuk, and Allen were always trying to sell their story. While they were in prison, Allen wrote a book manuscript that never got off the ground. There must’ve been a screenplay or two out there somewhere. Eventually, I guess, someone bit. Although they apparently did not make money off American Animals, all four appear in interview segments, giving parts of the film an exonerative documentary feel. When the film came out this year, it showed at the Kentucky Theater, a historic venue in downtown Lexington, just a mile or so from Transy.
The film was slicker than I expected, with the credits moving slowly across Audubon’s lush aquatints and a catchy soundtrack. Reinehard comes off as a wayward artist with nothing to do, Lipka is dangerous and pitiful and slightly appealing. In American Animals, we’re supposed to be sympathetic to them – failed masterminds, lost souls. This isn’t, exactly, how Audubon would have asked to be remembered. But like a heist movie protagonist, Audubon survives as a classic American type, a man who loves birds, out there in the woods. These types populate different historical fantasies – but they are fantasies that work together to celebrate and excuse white men and the violence they so often produce.
Julia Dauer is completing her PhD in English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she studies American literature. She grew up in Kentucky.