In the tradition of Charles Brockden Brown’s Edgar Huntly (1799) and James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales (1823-1841), Robert Montgomery Bird’s Nick of the Woods serves as an early milepost in the distinctively American genre of frontier literature. As a number of critics have asserted, Bird reinforces the narrative pattern established by his two literary predecessors: A group of white people ventures into a wilderness setting occupied by Indian antagonists; the virtue of at least one white woman is threatened by some Indian predator or villainous white man; and ultimate tragedy is averted by the intervention of a frontier hero, savvy in the ways of the woods.
During a period of time when Indian warfare was far from a distant memory, Bird used as the subject of his adventure the turning point in the Western colonization of what would eventually become the state of Kentucky: the invasion of Shawnee territory by a citizen army led by George Rogers Clark. Thus, the author’s fictional narrative is set against a historical event with which Bird was familiar both as an amateur historian and as a traveler who himself visited the scenes of his novel four years before its publication.
In addition to its place in the canon of wilderness novels, Nick of the Woods can be appreciated for its dramatic mode. Much of the novel’s exciting, propulsive plot is essentially a direct consequence of Bird’s earlier experience as a dramatist. His play, The Gladiator (1831), for instance, was one of the most popular dramas in nineteenth century America, and Nick of the Woods itself was successfully adapted for the stage at various times by a number of authors in both America and Britain.
As is characteristic of melodrama, the plot of the novel is developed by circumstance and not by character motivation. After seeking shelter in the ruined cabin of a settler family slaughtered by Indians, for example, the Forresters and their companions discover that their Indian foes are also using the spot as a camp. Vigorously besieged and at the point of desperation, the group is offered an escape route by the sudden appearance of Roaring Ralph Stackpole in a canoe. Thus, narrative respites are complicated and difficult situations are temporarily resolved by unexpected and improbable plot twists.
Setting is also used for dramatic effect. As Captain Roland Forrester, for instance,...
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