Places: Nick of the Woods

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1837

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Adventure

Time of work: 1782

Places DiscussedBruce’s Station

Bruce’s Nick of the WoodsStation. Large Kentucky fort in which the novel opens. The fort is protected by a blockhouse at each corner of its walls. In addition to serving as a barometer of settler-Indian relations, the station stands in stark symbolic opposition to the forest itself, with its Shawnee threat, since the fort’s occupants have destroyed the forest near it to plant fields of corn, although still “all beyond and around was a dark and solemn wilderness.” The settlement’s attempt to push back that wilderness by girdling, or cutting broad swaths of bark away from the trunks of the trees to slowly kill them, leaving them “girdled and leafless, but not yet fallen,” is evocative of their hatred for the lurking Shawnee, as well as symbolic of the supposedly doomed status of the American Indians themselves.

Beech grove

Beech grove. As Captain Roland and his cousin Edith leave the station, they begin to journey toward the river ford through the forests. As strange cries begin to echo through the forest, the result of Ralph Stackpole’s attempt to summon someone to free him from his lynching, the author deliberately builds suspense in a decidedly theatrical and overtly gothic fashion, as the forests grow even darker, an effect “peculiarly fitted to add double effect to sights and sounds of a melancholy or fearful character.”

Ashburn cabin

Ashburn cabin. Small family fort on a cliff overlooking a river where Captain Roland’s party takes refuge while fleeing from a Shawnee war party. The cabin is a smaller, shoddily built version of Bruce’s Station, “carelessly and feebly constructed,” and almost worthless for defense. The gothic mood emphasized at the thick grove of beeches is heightened even more here, with the “truly cheerless and forbidding” ruined cabin and the “hoarse and dismal rush of the river below” adding “double horror to its appearance.” The setting thus establishes a mood of despair to foreshadow the desperate siege yet to come. After Bloody Nathan is sent to find help, the Shawnee set fire to the cabin, and Captain Roland’s party tries to ford the raging river rapids on their horses, with mixed success.

Hollow vale

Hollow vale. Valley surrounded by stunted shrubs and parched grasses where Roland’s party is finally captured by the Shawnee. The vale exhibits a physical desolation that mirrors the mood of the captives themselves. The river Roland and the others have been trying to cross glimmers tauntingly in the distance. The Shawnees’ separation of their captives in the vale sets up later attempts to rescue Edith.

Forest glade

Forest glade. Clearing whose “spring of sweet water” bubbling up through the grass contrasts with the hollow vale and its mockingly distant river. The refreshment that the glade offers to the captured Captain Roland foreshadows his eventual rescue and contrasts with the whiskey-drunkenness of Piankeshaw. The edenic description of the “wild but beautiful little valley,” in which Bloody Nathan and Captain Roland next rescue Ralph Stackpole from Shawnee torturers, likewise echoes and reinforces the jubilant mood of Stackpole upon his release.

Wenonga’s village

Wenonga’s village. Settlement of the Shawnee leader Wenonga, who is also known as the Black-Vulture. The novel returns to an overtly ironic use of setting here, as Captain Roland goes in search of the kidnapped Edith, describing the Shawnee village as sitting in a river valley with “an air of tender beauty” ill-suited to “the wild and warlike children of the wilderness.”

Wenonga’s wigwam in the village is a busy setting, offering a quick succession of scenes. Telie Doe begs Edith’s forgiveness here, after which it becomes a site for potential miscegenation via sexual threats, as Braxley tells Edith she will only emerge from it as his wife or that of a Shawnee. Finally, the wigwam serves as the backdrop for Bloody Nathan’s intensely bloody revenge, as he hacks apart Wenonga.

BibliographyBryant, James C. “The Fallen World in Nick of the Woods.” American Literature 38 (November, 1966): 352-364. Analyzes the novel’s plot as being a struggle between demonic barbarians and civilized Christians with an emphasis on the fact that, in an imperfect world, even the “children of light” are flawed. Discusses three major interpretations for Nathan Slaughter’s dual personality.Cowie, Alexander. The Rise of the American Novel. New York: American Book Company, 1948. A good introductory appraisal of Bird’s career. Discusses the author’s fictional works in the context of other significant contemporaries and followers of James Fenimore Cooper.Dahl, Curtis. Robert Montgomery Bird. New York: Twayne, 1963. The only comprehensive book-length study of Bird’s literary canon–poetry, plays, novels, and prose works. Discusses Nick of the Woods in the context of the author’s other “novels of outlaws and Indians.” Features a selective bibliography.Hall, Joan Joffe. “Nick of the Woods: An Interpretation of the American Wilderness.” American Literature 35 (May, 1963): 173-182. Focuses on the character of Nathan Slaughter and his internal moral conflict. Places Nick of the Woods in the context of wilderness novels by James Fenimore Cooper and Herman Melville.Hoppenstand, Gary. “Justified Bloodshed: Robert Montgomery Bird’s Nick of the Woods and the Origins of the Vigilante Hero in American Literature and Culture.” Journal of American Culture 15, no. 2 (Summer, 1992): 51-61. Traces the evolution of the American vigilante hero from Bird’s Nathan Slaughter to Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry. Argues that Bird’s negative depiction of the American Indian can be justified in literary terms since a revenge narrative requires that there be villainy to sanction retributive violence.
Categories: Places