Authors: Robert Montgomery Bird

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

American playwright and novelist.

February 5, 1806

New Castle, Delaware

January 23, 1854

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Biography

Robert Montgomery Bird earned an M.D. degree from the University of Pennsylvania Medical School in 1827 and practiced briefly before he was drawn to the theater. His first great stage success was The Gladiator, which he wrote for the celebrated actor Edwin Forrest. The story concerns a Thracian captive in Rome, and the play’s themes are family love and personal honor. Bird’s soundest play, and the most successful, was The Broker of Bogotá, which was first performed in New York in 1834; this is a domestic tragedy about a moneylender whose heart is broken by a faithless son. Like other early plays, it reflects Bird’s sustained interest in Latin America.

Robert Montgomery Bird.

By A. Newsam, M.A. Root, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Throughout his career as a playwright, Bird had a working arrangement with Forrest that did not sufficiently protect his own interests. The actor made a fortune from the plays, but Bird earned very little. As a result, he broke with Forrest and turned to writing novels. Two early books dealt with the adventures of Hernán Cortez in Mexico. Then in 1835, with The Hawks of Hawk-Hollow, Bird began to use frontier materials. Two years later, he married Mary Mayer, whom he had known since 1830. That same year, he published his most enduring literary achievement, Nick of the Woods, the story of an outwardly peaceful Quaker who leads a secret double life roaming the Kentucky woods killing American Indians to avenge the massacre of his wife and child. In this novel, Bird portrayed American Indians as barbarians, rejecting the conception of them as noble savages that was being presented by such novelists of the frontier as James Fenimore Cooper.

In 1841, Bird became a professor at the new Pennsylvania Medical College, but he continued to be involved with journalism and politics until his health deteriorated. He became a part owner and the editor of literature for the North American in Philadelphia from 1847 until he died in 1854.

Author Works Drama: The Cowled Lover, wr. 1827, pb. 1941 Caridorf: Or, The Avenger, wr. 1827, pb. 1941 ’Twas All for the Best, wr. 1827, pb. 1941 The City Looking Glass: A Philadelphia Comedy, wr. 1829, pr., pb. 1933 Pelopidas: Or, The Fall of Polemarchs, wr. 1830, pb. 1919 The Gladiator, pr. 1831 Oralloossa: Son of the Incas, pr. 1832 The Broker of Bogotá, pr. 1834 The Life and Dramatic Works, pb. 1919 (includes Pelopidas, The Gladiator, and Oralloossa) News of the Night: Or, A Trip to Niagara, pr. 1929 The Cowled Lover and Other Plays, pb. 1941 (includes Caridorf, ’Twas All for the Best, and News of the Night) Long Fiction: Calavar: Or, The Knight of the Conquest, 1834 The Infidel: Or, The Fall of Mexico, 1835 The Hawks of Hawk-Hollow: A Tradition of Pennsylvania, 1835 Sheppard Lee, 1836 Nick of the Woods: Or, The Jibbenainosay, a Tale of Kentucky, 1837 The Adventures of Robin Day, 1839 Short Fiction: Peter Pilgrim: Or, A Rambler’s Recollections, 1838 Nonfiction: Sketch of the Life, Public Services, and Character of Major Thomas Stockton of New-Castle, the Candidate for the Whig Party for the Office of Governor of Delaware, 1844 A Brief Review of the Career, Character, and Campaigns of Zachary Taylor, 1848 Bibliography Bird, Mary Mayer. Life of Robert Montgomery Bird. Edited by C. Seymour Thompson. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Library, 1945. An incomplete biography by Bird’s wife that ends two years before his death. The fragments of her manuscript have been pieced together and augmented by letters and documents. A straightforward, modest account. Dahl, Curtis. Robert Montgomery Bird. New York: Twayne, 1963. Places Bird’s work in context. Dahl concludes that although Bird was successful in writing for the theater, he never produced any drama of lasting literary value. Includes a chronology, an annotated bibliography, and an index. Foust, Clement E. The Life and Dramatic Works of Robert Montgomery Bird. New York: Knickerbocker Press, 1919. The standard biography. The majority of the book discusses Bird’s life and works after the dispute with Edwin Forrest that drove him from the theater. Includes a genealogy, a bibliography, and the complete texts of four major plays. 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 (1992). A provocative reading of Bird’s most enduring literary achievement. Richards, Jeffrey H. Early American Drama. New York: Penguin Books, 1997. Richards presents and discusses eight pre-Civil War plays, including Bird’s The Gladiator. Samuels, Shirley. Romances of the Republic: Women, the Family, and Violence in the Literature of the Early American Nation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. An examination of early American literature that examines Bird’s works as well as those of many others. Stewart, Margaret E. "Nick of the Woods and Gone with the Wind: Racism, Literature, and the American Chivalric Myth." Markham Review 12 (Fall, 1982). Another provocative reading. Wert, Justin R. "Robert Montgomery Bird." In Nineteenth Century American Fiction Writers, edited by Kent P. Ljungquist. Vol. 202 in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit, Mich.: The Gale Group, 1999. Wilson, Garff B. Three Hundred Years of American Drama. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1973. Briefly recounts Bird’s life and the association of his plays with Edwin Forrest. Describes Bird’s five major plays, with primary consideration given to The Broker of Bogotá. Contains a photograph of Forrest portraying Febro. Winston, Robert P. "Bird’s Bloody Romance: Nick of the Woods." Southern Studies 23, no. 1 (1984). Provides another provocative reading.

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