Collecting Delaware Books

Delaware's Pioneer Playwright
Robert Montgomery Bird 1806-1854


Robert Montgomery Bird portrait

Delaware-born Robert Montgomery Bird was one of America's first successful play wrights. Thomas Godfrey and Royall Tyler had their plays produced before 1800. William Dunlap wrote more than fifty plays between 1789 and 1824, but failed as a theater producer. Not until Bird began writing in the 1820's were an American's plays widely performed in this country and in Europe.

Bird was born of landed gentry February 5, 1806, in a house at 216 Delaware Street in New Castle. His father's ancestors went back to 1700 in Christiana Hundred. His mother's Van Leuvenenigh ancestors were from Holland and settled in Appoquinimink Hundred at about the same time.

Bird's father, several times a state senator and representative, suffered business reversals and went bankrupt in 1810. He died a few months later, leaving a widow, six sons, and a daughter. The family had to break up, and four-year-old Robert went to live with his mother's sister's husband, Nicholas Van Dyke, Jr., at Delaware and Orange (now 3rd) Streets. Van Dyke was one on New Castle's most distinguished citizens. He served several times as a United States congressman and senator.

His guardian's daughter was Dorcas Van Dyke, a girl about Bird's age, who became his lifelong confidante. She later married Charles Irenee Du Pont in a wedding attended by Lafayette.

Except for a brief period at New Castle Academy (which still stands) under a brutal teacher, Bird's education was informal. He certainly made use of the New Castle Library Company, founded in 1812. As early as nine or ten he was writing stories and a long epic poem. He was known as Montgomery or simply Monte at this time.

He went to live with his mother in 1820. She had remarried, been widowed again, and moved to Philadelphia. He attended school there as well as a drawing academy. Some of his sketches still exist. In 1821, Bird was back in New Castle attending the academy, where he wrote extensively. These manuscripts also exist. He returned to his mother in 1824 to attend Germantown Academy, where he studied the classics. His graduation certificate notes his literary skills.

Bird took rooms in Philadelphia in 1824 so he could attend the Medical School of the University of Pennsylvania. His class records and thesis have been preserved. After graduating in 1827, he established a thriving medical practice in Philadelphia. However, it only lasted for a year. His wife said he could not bear to charge the patients.

Literary Works

Even while in medical school, Bird was writing plays with the hope of selling them. Making a living as a writer was difficult in those days. There were no effective copyright laws, and most publishers, editors, and theater managers were ruthless. Longfellow, Emerson, and Thoreau all had other professions that supported them. In addition, Americans had a snobbish preference for books and plays written in England or Europe.

His first dated play was 'Twas All for the Best, written in May 1827. Next came The Cowled Lover in June 1827. There are several unfinished manuscripts. It was followed by News of the Night or, a Trip to Niagara. The City Looking Glass, a comedy about life in Philadelphia, was written in 1828. Few if any of these plays were professionally produced in Bird's lifetime.

Edwin Forrest was already a rich and successful actor and producer, though he was in his twenties like Bird. He is remembered today in the names of theaters around the country. He offered nine prizes of $500 to $3000 to encourage American playwrights. Bird won four of these with Pelopidas, The Gladiators, Oralloossa, and The Broker of Bogota. All but the first, which was never produced, earned Forrest a fortune here and in Europe. Bird got nothing beyond the initial prize money.

In 1834, Bird gave up writing plays and became a novelist, both to give him more scope and to reap surer financial rewards. On his first novel, Calavar, he negotiated a contract giving him half the profit after all publishing expenses. He wrote six more novels, all successful. His first attempts to sell his works on a trip to England were not fruitful. English publishers expected an author's first book to be free. However, later, all his books were printed in both England and America. One was even translated to German.

His novel's include Calavar, The Infidel, The Hawks of Hawk Hollow, Sheppard Lee, Nick of the Woods, Peter Pilgrim, and The Adventures of Robin Day. The Hawks of Hawk Hallow includes a brief mention of the Brandywine. Robin Day includes some biographical material, and the schoolmaster is said to have been modeled after Bird's first New Castle Acade my teacher.

Bird was also an accomplished artist. He might have attained fame for this alone. Working in watercolor, he painted landscapes and people with great charm and in fine detail. He even did pictures of Native Americans. His paintings of New Castle, Trenton, Philadelphia, the Ohio and Tennessee Rivers, and Europe are both attractive and informative.

Back to the Soil

In 1837, Bird's health was failing and the country was in a depression which made book publishing unprofitable. He bought a farm on Bohemia Neck, just south of Elkton, Maryland. The property was called, at various times, Cabin Cove, Bending Cove, Bendico, and Bird's Nest. He spent a year in New Castle before moving to the farm, and somehow learned a great deal about agriculture. The farmhouse was old, ugly, and run down. By his own efforts, it was rebuilt and the farm restored to productivity. Bird's health improved greatly, and he pronounced himself restored in 1840.


He took a teaching position with the short-lived Pennsylvania Medical School in 1841, leaving his family in New Castle. Political friends urged him to run for Congress from Delaware in 1842. He chose not to but did help the Whig party by writing booklets extolling its candidates. His 1844 28-page sketch of the Life of Major Thomas Stockton would make a nice collectible. 1844 found Bird back in New Castle in a variety of activities, including experiments in chemical engineering.

It has recently been discovered that Bird also experimented with and wrote about photography. More than a hundred of his prints, made by Gustave Le Gray's paper negative positive method still exist. (I am thankful to Tom Doherty for this information.)

He returned to Philadelphia and accepted editorial and management responsibilities with several publications and invested in one of them. This was a turbulent and unpleasant period. Bird was overworked and his associates were unskilled and untrustworthy. One even invested in mining stocks with the magazine's funds.

Bird died in 1854, probably from a stroke.

Learning More

Much of the information in this article is based on The Life and Dramatic Works of Robert Montgomery Bird by Clement E. Foust, published in 1919 by the Knickerbocker Press, New York. Foust's original work was done as a thesis at the University of Pennsylvania. He was aided by Bird's grandson, who possessed all the playwright's manuscripts, diaries, and papers. The grandson was persuaded to give the material to the University of Pennsylvania, where it is available today in the Special Collections, Van Pelt Library.

A bibliography, a list of Bird's books and articles, and the text of the four prize-winning plays are included in the Foust book.

Foust draws from a short manuscript by Bird's wife, which provides much personal information about his early life in New Castle. This was finally published in 1945 as The Life of Robert Montgomery Bird by Mary Mayer Bird.

The Library Company of Philadelphia recently raised over $13,000 to purchase the photographs and photographic writings of Bird. The Winter 1993 edition of the newsletter Occasional Miscellany of the Library Company of Philadelphia includes a short article on the acquisition and a copy of one print, a picture of a woman, taken around Christmas 1852.

A 1933 printing of The City Looking Glass, described below, includes an introduction with details of Bird's life. However, the material contains careless errors, and there is little except literary criticism that is not covered by Foust.

Curtis Dahl's Robert Montgomery Bird provides additional information. Probably the best scholarship is to be found in the Bird listing in Jacob Blanck's Bibliography of American Literature.

New Sources

Since the Collecting Delaware Books article was published, new information has become available. The University of Pennsylvania library has mounted a major Web exhibition on Bird at Besides biographical and literary comment, there is a large collection of Bird's watercolor paintings of landscapes and people, including a selfpotrait. It is clear he was a gifted artist. A few of his photographs are shown as well. There is also a link to the manuscripts and transcriptions of The City Looking Glass.

The literary magazine Dreamstreets (Dreamstreets Press, PO Box 4593, Newark DE 19715) had an excellent and well referenced article about Bird by Dr. Nancy Buffington in issue no. 42, Spring 2002.

Reading Bird

Bird does not read easily today. The style is antique and the plots are melodramatic. However a serious student can fall into the rhythms of these works and find them interesting. Pelopidas is set in ancient Greece and The Gladiators in Rome, but Oralloossa and The Broker of Bogota take place in South America at the time of the conquistadors. Such Americanized themes were unusual in plays of that day. Quite a few of Bird's novels deal with American pioneers.

'Twas All for the Best was produced experimentally in 1929 and held up well to a modem audience. It is said his plays play better than they read.

Though the writing seems old-fashioned to us, it is generally conceded to have literary merit. Arthur Hobson Quinn said, "… he had, before he was twenty-nine years old, written the finest tragedies composed since Congreve had ceased to write. His power to derive inspiration from history and to create lofty characters, through whom his own love of liberty shines, was little short of genius. Like Payne, Hugo, Dumas, and other great romantic playwrights of that day, he preferred noble souls to petty ones, and he did not share the literary heresy which believes that it makes no difference what one writes about."

Collecting Bird

There is at least one large private collection of Bird material in Delaware, and the major libraries have substantial collections.

If you wish to build a representative collection of Robert Montgomery Bird novels, it will help to have money. You should also have a good relationship with an antiquarian book dealer. This author is a major figure in American letters and is collected well beyond the bounds of Delaware. Many of his novels were published as two volume sets in cloth-covered boards, as was common in that day. Selling price of these in collectible condition is usually several hundred dollars. They do not appear on the market often.

None of Bird's plays appeared in book form in Bird's lifetime, as the rights were owned by Edwin Forrest. The first publication of a play was in 1917 when Arthur Hobson Quinn included The Broker of Bogota in his anthology Representative American Plays. As mentioned above, Foust published four of the plays in his biography of Bird.

The Cowled Lover & Other Plays, edited by Edward Hayes O'Neill, was published by the Princeton University Press in 1941. It includes the plays The Cowled Lover, Caridorf, News of the Night, and 'Twas All for the Best. This book is volume 12 in America's Lost Plays.

The City Looking Glass was issued in an edition of 465 "Printed for the Colophon in New York" and "made by Pynson Printers of New York" in 1933.

Finally, here is one you might just stumble on. In 1941, the Vanguard Press published Bird's Nick of the Woods in what would appear to be a boys' edition with a gaudy dust jacket. By today's standards, the book is too violent and racially bigoted toward native Americans to give to any boy. But you might find it in a bin between the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. A. L. Burt, the publisher of Westerns, also printed editions of this book in 1904 and 1905. Collecting Robert Montgomery Bird would be a difficult but rewarding hobby. There are few Delaware literary figures more deserving of our admiration. - JPR

A Bird Sample

(Best read aloud.)

Oralloossa, Act V, Scene VIII

Interior of a cavern where the mortally wounded ORALLOOSSA, son of Atahualpa and nephew of the Inca, has found the body of his slain sister, Ooallie. He prepares for a final confrontation with the men of the conquistador Pizarro.

Ah! gloom, black gloom— Among the world of spirits.
But solitary .— Yet the curses ring.
And the long yells, as on the maddening earth
And the pang quivers in my flesh, and darkness
Covers my brain, as all were mortal still.—
Again? Again? And where be those that shriek?
Ah! but I dreamed her corpse was at my side,
And her cold cheek upon my breast.— An Inca,
Shut in that funeral cave— Again? Approach,
If ye be fiends, and look upon a man
Worn with more miseries than yourselves!— Oho!
(Enter ALMAGRO. Shouts.)
They come, they come! and this one hath an aspect
Of a thrice damned demoniac!—

      Ah, they follow!
Yet am I safe.—

Ha, ha!

      O Saints, a voice,
Howling with laughter, in this pit!— A Man!—
What art though? Speak!

      Ha, ha! the sun, the sun!
He will not have his child go darkling down!
Thou beast Almagro! ho! Almagro!

And thou?

The miserable.— Look, thou man,
That turn'dst this day to darkness, and from thrones,
Com'st to the den where Ooallie doth lie.—

Oh Christ, her grave, her grave!

      Yea, in her grave,
The fiend that filled thee with her blood, have left thee
He gives thee to me, gives to Oralloossa!—
Lo, buried Incas! he that broke your sceptre,
is in my hand! Look up, dead Ooallie,—
The slayer perishes!

      O, mine arm is nerveless!
(ORALLOOSSA strikes him down.)

My uncle chained me,— it was thou that taught him
My people left me,— it was thou corrupted
My sister perished,— it was thou that doomed her
The Inca wept— but is I that smite thee!
(Enter DE CASTRO, and the rest.)

This way he fled— What! tear them asunder!

(He kills ALMAGRO.)
Thy blood is mixed with mine.—

      Raise up his head.—

Hard by the victim— Look— it is accomplished.
Grind them to dust!— I give them for thy slaves—
The maid!— the murderer!— To the grave— The Inca.—
(He dies. Tableau.)


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