James Nelson Barker Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Although known chiefly as a dramatist, James Nelson Barker wrote some occasional verse, political poems and orations, and several newspaper essays on contemporary drama. His six biographical essays on notable Americans, including DeWitt Clinton, Robert Fulton, and John Jay, appeared in Delaplaine’s Repository of the Lives and Portraits of Distinguished Americans (1817).

James Nelson Barker Achievements

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

In the first half of the nineteenth century, when many American writers were struggling against a literary inferiority complex, James Nelson Barker was among the earliest of American dramatists to break new ground. His The Indian Princess, which took the story of Pocahontas as its central theme, was the first American Indian play ever to be performed. It began a dramatic tradition, providing a motif for American playwrights for the next fifty years. Not until the eve of the Civil War, when drama turned more toward realism, had the Pocahontas material run its course. Barker’s use of the Indian as a literary motif predates by more than ten years the depiction of the Indian in the novels of James Fenimore Cooper and in the works of his contemporaries. Barker was thus among the first American writers to use native material as a corrective to what was perceived as the American writer’s servile dependence on European, particularly British, literary influence.

Tears and Smiles, Barker’s first play, contributed to the development of the stage Yankee , that bumbling yet shrewd New Englander whose individualism was distinctively American. Only twenty years after Royall Tyler introduced the stage Yankee in The Contrast (pr. 1787), Barker created the character of Nathan Yank, a major link in the chain of Yankee plays that were to remain popular throughout the first half of the nineteenth century.

Barker’s crowning achievement was the last of his five extant plays. First performed in 1824, Superstition is one of the earliest dramas to use colonial history as its source. Dealing primarily with the bigotry and fears of a New England village in the late seventeenth century, the play is a tragedy that anticipates some of the ideas and characters later to be found in the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne. It is the most controlled of Barker’s dramas, and in its fusion of historical material with convincing character motivation, it remains the best American play of its time.

James Nelson Barker Bibliography

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)


Moody, Richard. America Takes the Stage. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1955. Reprint. Milwood, N.Y.: Krause Reprints, 1977. The author particularly notes Barker’s use of native themes and characters. Though his The Indian Princess was the first play in which Pocahontas appeared as a principal figure, Barker relied too closely on the undramatic nature of his source, John Smith’s The Generall Historie of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles (1642), and presented the famous scene too early. Much of the rest of the play is thus anticlimactic.

Musser, Paul. James Nelson Barker, 1784-1858. St. Clair Shores, Mich.: Scholarly Press, 1970. This definitive study, though brief, traces Barker’s life and career from his early education in Philadelphia to his political career as collector of the port during the administration of President James K. Polk. Musser includes the complete text of Tears and Smiles and sees Barker as a writer who, by temperament and training, was a leading advocate of native material in American drama.

Richards, Jeffrey, ed. Early American Drama. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998. This discussion of early American plays contains an analysis of Barker’s The Indian Princess, along with descriptions of other early works.

Scheckel, Susan. “Domesticating the Drama of Conquest: Barker’s Pocahontas on the Popular Stage.” American Transcendental Quarterly 10, no. 3 (September, 1996): 231-243. The author discusses Barker’s The Indian Princess in its historical context.

Vaughn, Jack A. Early American Dramatists from the Beginnings to 1900. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1981. One chapter presents a short study of Barker’s five extant plays. Though noting Barker’s use of melodrama and sentimentality, Vaughan also says that Barker knew how to write effective drama and could be “genuinely moving,” especially in Superstition, probably his best play.