Penn Library Exhibitions

Robert Montgomery Bird: Writer and Artist

Nick of the Woods
Bird was a novelist as well as a playwright. Nick of the Woods (1837), his best-known novel, is still in print. With it, Bird entered a literary arena, romantic historical fiction, defined for his period in the English-speaking world by the works of Sir Walter Scott. The American James Fenimore Cooper had, in the previous decade, already entered this arena with his Leatherstocking series. Bird's friend and literary correspondent, the South Carolina novelist William Gilmore Simms, was another of its denizens.

Nick of the Woods concerns the settlement of Kentucky in the 1780s. Looking back at that period from a distance of nearly sixty years, Dr. Bird depicts early settlers in conflict with Native Americans. "Nick," the mysteriously devilish "Jibbenainosay"--that is, the Philadelphia Quaker Nathan Slaughter turned "Injun" killer--is Bird's reply to Cooper. Cooper saw Native Americans as "noble savages." Bird disagreed with that view. "The North American savage has never appeared to us the gallant and heroic personage he seems to others," he wrote in 1837. Sixteen years later (1853), his view of Indians--"ignorant, violent, debased, brutal"--had, if anything, hardened.

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"Nick of the Woods, or The Jibbenainosay: A Tale of Kentucky"
Volume 2

Manuscript

Robert Montgomery Bird Papers
Department of Special Collections
Van Pelt Library

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Nick of the Woods, or The Jibbenainosay: A Tale of Kentucky
2 vols.
Philadelphia: Carey, Lea & Blanchard, 1837

Department of Special Collections
Van Pelt Library

In his "Preface" to the first (1837) edition of Nick of the Woods, Dr. Bird wrote:
We owe, perhaps, some apology for the hues we have thrown around the Indian portraits in our picture,--hues darker than are usually employed by the painters of such pictures. But, we confess, the North American savage has never appeared to us the gallant and heroic personage he seems to others. The single fact that he wages war--systematic war--upon beings incapable of resistance or defence,--upon women and children, whom all other races in the world, no matter how barbarous, consent to spare,--has hitherto been, and we suppose, to the end of our days will remain, a stumbling-block to our imagination: we look into the woods for the mighty warrior, 'the feather-cinctured chief,' rushing to meet his foe, and behold him retiring, laden with the scalps of miserable squaws and their babes.--Heroical? Hoc verbum quid valeat, non vident.

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[Anonymous review]
"Nick of the Woods . . . ,"
Southern Literary Messenger
Richmond, Virginia: Volume 3, number 4 (April 1837), pp. 254-257

Department of Special Collections
Van Pelt Library

In June of 1836, little less than a year before the appearance of this lengthy review, the then editor of the Southern Literary Messenger had asked Bird for a contribution to the magazine. That editor was a person of some literary judgment: Edgar Allan Poe. The present generally favorable notice of Nick confirmed the journal's earlier opinion of his merits.

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Nick of the Woods: A Story of Kentucky
Ed. W[illiam] Harrison Ainsworth
3 vols.
London: Richard Bentley, 1837

Department of Special Collections, Van Pelt Library.

William Harrison Ainsworth, a well-known English novelist, introduced Nick of the Woods to an English audience in its 1837 appearance there. He comments on Bird's depiction of Native Americans and raises an issue to which Bird's own 1837 "Preface" indicates he was already sensitive.
"Dr. BIRD exhibits to us the Aborigines of North America [Ainsworth says] not as men possessing the heroic virtues ascribed to them by Heckewelder and others, but as wretches stained by every vice, and having no one redeeming quality. According to our author, they are crafty, perfidious, cruel, and dastardly; and are guilty, moreover, of making war upon women and children. If Dr. BIRD's views on this subject are coloured by national antipathy, and by a desire to justify the encroachments of his countrymen upon the persecuted natives, rather than by a reasonable estimate of the subject, it cannot be denied that the scenes and incidents by which he has illustrated his opinion are, in the highest degree, original and interesting.

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Nick of the Woods, or The Jibbenainosay: A Tale of Kentucky
New edition, revised by the author
2 vols.
New York: Redfield, 1853

This copy, inscribed to "Frederick Mayer Bird, with the compliments of his friend, the Author. Philadelphia, March 26, 1853," is Dr. Bird's presentation copy to his son.

Bird replied to Ainsworth and other critics of his portrayal of Native Americans in the 1853 revision of Nick of the Woods. Referring to himself (in the new "Preface" he composed for this edition) in the third person, Bird remarked: "If he drew his Indian portraits with Indian ink, rejecting the brighter pigments which might have yielded more brilliant effects, and added an 'Indian-hater' to the group, it was because he aimed to give, not the appearance of truth, but truth itself--or what he held to be truth--to the picture." He criticized the "poetical illusion" of Cooper's Indian depictions and cited Ainsworth's criticisms directly. "The Indian is doubtless a gentleman," he wrote, "but he is a gentleman who wears a very dirty shirt."

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[IMAGE]
"Alabama Creek Boys"
Painting, dated ca. 1830
Courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Montgomery Bird

Perhaps Dr. Bird found criticism of his antipathy to Indians as depicted in his writings unjust because he knew his artistic depictions of Native Americans--of which this painting is representative--to be sympathetic. His figures have clearly attracted his close observation and he presents them with neither condescension nor disgust. For all Bird's attention to details of their costumes, they are not mere specimens of anthropological interest, in the manner of Lewis's portrait of Brewett. They are people worthy of an artist's careful representation. Bird's paintings and drawings generally mitigate the negative views of Native Americans that his writings convey. Quite apart from their artistic merits, this is one of the most important "literary" reasons for delighting in the recovery of this body of his work.

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