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.