Robert Montgomery Bird’s father died in 1810, when Robert was only four years old. Because the elder Bird was bankrupt at the time of his death, his young son went to live in the home of his kindly uncle, Nicholas Van Dyke, who had been a member of the Council for Safety in 1776, a framer of the constitution of the state of Delaware, and president of the state of Delaware from 1783 until 1786. Bird remained in his uncle’s house for ten years. The young boy led a relatively happy life with his uncle and with his uncle’s family, although he was not overly happy in school and was subjected to frequent beatings. When his uncle discovered this, he withdrew Robert from the New Castle Academy, which the boy had been attending. Bird had a passion for books and for reading, and he drew heavily on the resources of the New Castle Library Company during these early years of his life. He became interested in music and in writing during this period, and by the time he moved to Philadelphia in 1820 to live with his mother and to attend a school run by Mr. Pardon Davis, he had written considerable verse. In Philadelphia, he became interested in drawing, an avocation that he continued to pursue in his later years.
Bird returned to New Castle in 1821 and enrolled in the same New Castle Academy from which his uncle had earlier withdrawn him. While there, he wrote some of his earliest descriptive pieces. He remained at New Castle Academy until 1823, when he entered Germantown Academy to pursue courses preparatory to his entering the University of Pennsylvania as a medical student. In the summer between leaving Germantown Academy and entering the university, Bird studied medicine, as was the custom in his day, with a practicing physician, Dr. Joseph Parrish.
Bird attended the university from 1824 until 1827, receiving an M.D. degree on completion of his studies. By that time, he had published a great deal of poetry in Philadelphia Monthly Magazine and had begun to write plays, although they all remained fragmentary at that point. He had also laid specific plans for his literary career and had begun reading widely in classical literature, in Shakespearean and Jacobean drama, and in Latin American history, archaeology, and literature as a means of implementing his literary plans.
Life as a physician did not appeal to Bird, although in 1827 he established himself as a doctor in Philadelphia and had a substantial number of patients. After a year in medical practice, during which time he completed a comedy, ’Twas All for the Best, and two tragedies, The Cowled Lover and Caridorf, he left the medical profession to support himself by writing.
In 1828, Bird began work on three more plays, “King Philip,” “The Three Dukes,” and “Giannone.” He also began work on his long poem, “The Cave,” and on a novel, “The Volunteers.” Although none of these works was ever produced or published, within a short time Bird had also finished The City Looking Glass, a comedy that would finally be staged in 1933, some hundred years after it was written.
Bird was working so unrelentingly that his health began to be adversely affected, and in 1829, he sought diversion in painting as a means of regaining his health. At the end of that summer, he began a long journey to what was then considered frontier territory, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. He spent the winter in Cincinnati with John Grimes, an artist, and his circle. During that trip, Bird visited Kentucky and imbibed some of the local color that later was to appear in his most successful novel, Nick of the Woods.
On returning to Philadelphia in 1830, Bird learned that Forrest was again offering an annual prize, which he had instituted in 1828, for the best play written by an American author. The prize was one thousand dollars, and Forrest, who was to act in the prize play, was to own the property in return for awarding the prize. Bird entered the contest with Pelopidas, a classical tragedy set in Thebes, and this play won the prize quite handily. Forrest ultimately decided against producing the play, because it did not have the sort of clearly defined central character that he required in any play that was to be a vehicle for his talent. This being the case,...
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