Held at: University of Pennsylvania: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts [Contact Us]3420 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104-6206
This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the University of Pennsylvania: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in their reading room, and not digitally available through the web.
Overview and metadata sections
Robert Montgomery Bird (1806-1854) was a Philadelphia author of the early nineteenth century. With such works as The Gladiator and Nick of the Woods he earned literary acclaim in Philadelphia, Boston, and New York, as well as abroad. Truly a man of letters, Bird complemented his literary career with his drawing and painting, photography, musical composition. He was also a professor of medicine, an editor, a farmer, and a politician. Once well known for his role in American dramatic, political, and academic circles, Bird is today seldom recognized for his significant contributions to nineteenth century American literary culture.
Robert Montgomery Bird was born in New Castle Delaware in 1806, the sixth of the seven children of John and Elizabeth (Van Leuvenigh) Bird. Following the family's financial ruin and his father's subsequent death, Robert M. Bird was sent to Philadelphia to live with his uncle and guardian, Nicholas Van Dyke. Having completed his secondary school education at Germantown Academy, Bird studied medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. It was during this period that he composed poetry and completed the early works 'Twas all for the Best, and News of the Night. Upon his graduation from Penn in 1827, he briefly set up a medical practice before leaving the field of medicine to pursue his career as an author.
In 1837 Robert Montgomery Bird married Mary E. Mayer (1809-1868), daughter of Philip F. Mayer, a Lutheran clergyman of Philadelphia. Their son, Frederic Mayer Bird (1838-1908), was born in the following year. He attended the University of Pennsylvania and Union Theological seminary. He was chaplain and professor at Lehigh University, as well as editor of Lippincott's Magazine.
Significant to Bird's literary career was his encounter with the enterprising tragedian, Edwin Forrest (1806-1872). In 1828 Forrest announced his plan to cultivate an American dramatic culture by offering monetary prizes for the plays of promising American playwrights, on the condition that Forrest would stage the winning plays himself. Bird wrote four of the nine plays awarded prizes by Forrest and his judging committee: Pelopidas (1830), The Gladiator (1831), Oraloosa (1832), and The Broker of Bogota (1834). The Gladiator,first staged by Forrest in 1831, enjoyed resounding success in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. The following production of Oraloosa disappointed many audiences, and could not duplicate Bird's initial success. After the debut of Bird's 1934 play, The Broker of Bogota, Edwin Forrest wrote: "I have just left the theater‥your tragedy was performed and crowned with entire success. The Broker of Bogota will live when our vile trunks are rotten." With these plays and the growing popularity of their starring actor, Edwin Forrest, Bird's name gained renown as a young and promising American playwright. In 1836 Bird was elected an Honorary Member of the Dramatic Author's Society of London.
Bird's dramatic career was not all fame and fortune, however. Whether as a result of misunderstanding, or financial exploitation, after the initial prize money, Bird never received any of the great profit reaped by Forrest from The Gladiator and other of Bird's works. In 1837 when the financial dispute between the two men reached a climax, Bird broke his ties with Forrest, still believing that the actor owed him more than $12,000. Due to the lack of copyright regulation in American theater, Bird could not legally prevent Forrest from preforming the plays throughout his career. These works were not published until the early twentieth century, when they were edited by University of Pennsylvania professor Aurthur H. Quinn.
Disillusioned by the world of theater, and needing to earn more for his literary endeavors, Bird turned his efforts to the novel. Among Bird's best known novels are: Calavar (1834), and The Infidel (1835), both historical novels set in Mexico; Nick of the Woods (1837); and Adventures of Robin Day (1839). In this genre his works follow the tradition of the historical romances of English novelist Walter Scott. Contemporary author and literary critic Edgar Allen Poe called Calavar,"beyond doubt one of the best American novels." Even while he recognized moments of genius in Bird's novels, however, Poe did not refrain from criticizing, stating that the works lacked consistently strong structure and style.
Poor health brought Bird's career as a novelist to a close, and in 1840 Bird retired to the country for much needed recuperation. Having purchased a farm in Maryland, which he named Cabin Cove, Bird spent the next year collecting agricultural lore and working on his farm. Throughout this time and up until the end of his life, Bird tried out a variety of careers, always turned away by financial problems and ill health. In 1837, Charles Fenno Hoffman offered Bird a position as the Philadelphia edition of the American Monthly. Health problems forced Bird to resign the position after only a few months. From 1841 to 1844 Bird was a professor of medicine at Pennsylvania Medical College.
An active member of the Whig party, Bird always had an interest in politics, and in 1842 he ran for Congress, but withdrew late in the race. Throughout his later life he corresponded with prominent politicians on issues of government. Delaware Senator John M. Clayton was a close friend of Bird's and gave him the financial support he needed to undertake various literary and journalistic projects. Bird wrote a memoir of Clayton's life, and consistently supported his political campaigns. Clayton was the U. S. Secretary of State under Taylor.
In 1847, with the financial backing of John M. Clayton, Bird purchased a one-third share of The North American and U. S. Gazette,and became a joint editor with George Rex Graham and Morton McMichael, a Whig politician who would later be mayor of Philadelphia. The publication suffered financial problems, and Bird once again was plagued with bad health. He died in 1854 of "effusion on the brain", owing John M. Clayton 20,000 dollars.
- Bird, Robert Montgomery, 1806-1854Bird, Frederic Mayer, 1838-1908 Bird, Mary E., 1809-1868 Foust, Clement Edgar
The University of Pennsylvania is the primary repository for the papers of Robert Montgomery Bird (1806-1854), including personal, business, literary, and family papers. In addition to Bird's own papers, this collection also includes papers of his wife, Mary E. Bird, his son Frederic Mayer Bird, and his biographer, Clement Edgar Foust. The earliest papers (1822) date from Bird's school days at Germantown Academy, and the very latest papers (1946) relate to C. Seymour Thompson's publication of Mary E. Bird's biography of her husband. The bulk of the papers, however, date from the 1820s until Bird's death in 1854.
The University of Pennsylvania is an appropriate home for this collection, as both Robert M. Bird and his son Frederic attended this University; University of Pennsylvania professor Clement Foust wrote a biography of Bird, The Life and Dramatic Works of Robert Montgomery Bird,and professor Arthur Hobson Quinn edited several of Bird's dramatic works for publication early in this century. Not included in this collection is the material relating to Bird's photographic experiments and writings on photography, purchased from the family by the Library Company of Philadelphia in 1992.
The letters in this collection shed light on Bird's family life, his literary ambitions, and his political beliefs. The diverse range of topics covered in these letters reflect the breadth of Bird's interests and talents.
From his early studies of medicine and his brief career as a doctor, Bird earned a place in the scientific community of Philadelphia. His correspondents include several prominent Philadelphia physicians, many associated with the University of Pennsylvania: John Redman Coxe, John S. Dorsey, Richard Harlan, George McClellan, and Samuel George Morton.
Bird's literary correspondents include authors Edward Bulwer Lytton, Willis Gaylord Clark, Harriet Martineau, William Gilmore Simms, Rufus W. Griswold, and Caroline Lee Hentz. While Bird was involved in dramatic literature, he made the acquaintance of Edwin Forrest. Included in this collection is the correspondence of these two men, as well as documentation of the ensuing legal battle over copyrights and profits. Though Bird withdrew from the world of theater after his falling out with Forrest, he continued his interest in drama, corresponding with dramatist Robert Taylor Conrad, and writing on the Dramatic Author's Bill, proposed by George Boker. In other branches of the arts, Bird corresponded with painter Oliver Frazer, engraver James Barton Longacre, and sculptor Hiram Powers.
Bird was a staunch supporter of the Delaware Whig Party, and even ran for Congress himself in 1842. Over the years he corresponded with many of the most important figures in the nineteenth-century political scene of Pennsylvania and Delaware. These political correspondents include Delaware congressmen George P. Fisher and John W. Houston and Pennsylvania congressmen Joseph R. Chandler, Edward Joy Morris, and Job R. Tyson. In addition, Bird corresponded with Delaware senators Thomas Clayton, Joseph P. Comegys, and John M. Clayton. Other noteworthy political figures among Bird's correspondents are Reverdy Johnson (U. S. Atty. Gen.); Leslie Comb (State Legislator, Kentucky); S. G. Howe (reformer); J. Y. Mason (U. S. cabinet member); and Robert Dale Owen (Rep., Indiana). Morton McMichael, co-editor of The North American with Bird, was a prominent Whig politician and served as mayor of Philadelphia from 1866 to 1869. Also included is a letter of introduction written by U. S. President Martin Van Buren, and a letter by President Zachary Taylor to John M. Clayton. Bird also corresponded with several prominent military men, including Samuel F. Du Pont, Elisha Kent Kane, Alexander Mackenzie, Scott Winfield, and Lorenzo Thomas.
Always an active contributor to journals and newspapers and an editor himself, Bird maintained a correspondence with the world of publishing and journalism. He exchanged letters with editors Cephas Grier Childs, George Rex Graham, Charles Fenno Hoffman, James Lawson, and Ephraim George Squier, as well as the publisher Justus Starr Redfield and journalists William Leggett, George P. Morris, James Watson, and Nathaniel Parker Willis.
Writings and Compositions
This collection provides a rich resource for scholars of Bird's literary works, comprising plays, poems, songs, stories, and novels. The literary material ranges from notes on a plot never realized to bound volumes of the last drafts of a manuscript before publication. Included in this collection are multiple drafts of works that Bird went on to publish, including bound manuscripts of the following dramatic works: The Broker of Bogota, Caridorf,The City Looking Glass, The Cowled Lover, The Fanatick, Giannone, The Gladiator, The Man without Money, Oraloosa, Pelopidas, The Three Dukes,and 'Twas all for the Best. Bound manuscripts of the following prose works are also included: Calavar, Hawks of Hawk Hollow, Nick of the Woods,and Robin Day. In addition to these are volumes of poetry and fragments of numerous other literary works, some only in the planning stages.
Bird also had a talent for music and drawing. Included in this collection are folders of musical compositions, plans for political songs, patriotic songs, and operas. Watercolor and pen and ink sketches depict theatrical scenes, landscapes, and architectural designs.
Research Notes and Non-fiction
In addition to his career as a fiction writer, Bird also devoted much of his time to nonfiction research and writing, from history to politics, agriculture, and science. Among these research notes is material on Mexico and South America, later used in his historical novels, The Infidel and Calavar. His research on U. S. History and geography may have provided the backdrop for some of Bird's other novels and was intended for eventual publication as a work on American history. In 1839 Bird purchased a farm in Maryland, which he called "Cabin Cove." During the period Bird lived on this farm, he collected information on farming, primarily compiled in a series of notebooks on agriculture and farming projects.
Frederic Mayer Bird Papers
This collection also comprises the papers of Bird's son, Frederic Mayer Bird (1838-1908), and of his wife, Mary E. Bird (1809-1868). Among the latter are drafts of Mary Bird's biography of her husband, never completed. In 1945 University of Pennsylvania librarian C. Seymour Thompson edited these fragments of manuscripts and published them under the title, Life of Robert Montgomery Bird. His correspondence relating to the publication and distribution of this volume is also included in this series. At the end of this collection are the research notes compiled by Clement Foust for his biography of Bird, The Life and Dramatic Works of Robert Montgomery Bird (New York: The Knickerbocker Press, 1919).
Two copies of a lithograph portrait of Bird, based on a daguerreotype by M. A. Root, are in the oversize box at the end of this collection.
Gift, before 1947 and through 1965.
Donor: Robert M. Bird (Robert Montgomery Bird manuscripts)
Donor: Theodocia Bird (correspondence with Mary Bird)
Donor: Robert M. Bird, Jr. (remaining Bird correspondence)
- University of Pennsylvania: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts
- Finding Aid Author
- Rebecca C. Smith
- Finding Aid Date
- Access Restrictions
This collection is open for research use.
- Use Restrictions
Copyright restrictions may exist. For most library holdings, the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania do not hold copyright. It is the responsibility of the requester to seek permission from the holder of the copyright to reproduce material from the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts.