Penn Library Exhibitions

Robert Montgomery Bird: Writer and Artist

Bird Contemporaries Look at Native Americans
Bird's written depictions of Native Americans were typical of his era. "The Indian question" was not then a literary issue only. Proposals to remove indigenous Indian populations from their traditional eastern grounds to "the West"--where they would, or so it was thought, remain undisturbed and undisturbing "in perpetuity"--would be implemented under the administration of President Andrew Jackson. Many writers drew Native Americans in ways intended to affect these proposals, whether they agreed with them or not.

One was James Fenimore Cooper. The Last of the Mohicans portrays Indians as noble exemplars of a doomed race, ending on a note of high romantic nostalgia as Chingachcook laments the death of his son and the passing of his era:

The pale-faces are masters of the earth, and the time of the red-men has not yet come again. . . . [I have] lived to see the last warrior of the wise race of the Mohicans!
Now that the Indians's time had passed and they were clearly doomed, Cooper celebrated their capacity for nobility.

Catherine Maria Sedgwick's Hope Leslie was in part a "reply" to Cooper. Her Native Americans have lives with value--and, specifically, moral and spiritual validity--whether or not they are "white" or Christian. Her Native heroine, Magawisca, is a worthy heroine by almost every criterion, although the author's aversion to "miscegenation" makes her an unsuitable bride (as the white Hope herself is not) for the novel's hero.

William Gilmore Simms, with whom Dr. Bird had a literary friendship, was a South Carolinian whose fictions juggled three rather than two "races." The climax of Volume 1 of The Yemassee, one of the great setpieces in early American literature, is a scene of seduction in an Edenic garden whose sexual overtones Simms barely bothers to conceal. In this American Eden, Simms's heroine is rescued from a literal serpent by the Indian Occonestoga. Otherwise alcoholic and treacherous, however, Occonestoga is no "noble savage." In Simms's racialized cosmos, he is a bare step up from the black slaves who happily serve their white masters. The real difference between them, Simms believed, is that the blacks know their proper place. The Indians do not--which makes them dangerous.

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James Fenimore Cooper
The Last of the Mohicans; A Narrative of 1757
2 vols.
Philadelphia: H. C. Carey and I. Lea, 1826

Department of Special Collections
Van Pelt Library

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Catherine Maria Sedgwick
Hope Leslie; or Early Times in the Massachusetts
2 vols.
New-York: White, Gallaher, and White, 1827

Department of Special Collections
Van Pelt Library

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William Gilmore Simms
The Yemassee: A Romance of Carolina
2 vols.
New-York: Harper & Brothers, 1835

Department of Special Collections
Van Pelt Library

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J. O. Lewis
"Brewett; A Celebrated Miami Chief"
From The Aboriginal Port-Folio. No 3.
Philadelphia: Lehman & Duval, July 1835

Lithograph

The Robert Dechert Collection
Department of Special Collections
Van Pelt Library

[IMAGE]
Lewis's lithograph of Brewett exemplifies the "anthropological" Native American portrait typical of this period. Lewis's "aborigines," depicted as portrait busts, are physically disembodied by this genre. By dehumanizing them and removing them from scenes in which they might have been drawn as actors and agents, the genre reduces them to "specimen" status. Dr. Bird's "Alabama Creek Boys," by comparison, and his other finished portraits of Native Americans--although he pays attention to his figures's exotic "costumes," as Lewis also does --show Indians full-bodied and living their lives. Dr. Bird portrays real people, not anthropological data.

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