Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Philadelphia, Philadelphia County
A physician and playwright, Robert Montgomery Bird became a Philadelphia literary institution in the early 19th century.
Born on February 5, 1806, in New Castle, Delaware, Robert Montgomery Bird grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He graduated from medical school at the University of Pennsylvania in 1824. After practicing medicine for only a year, Bird turned his attention to a career in literature. Beginning his literary career at the Monthly Magazine of Philadelphia, Bird's best known work, 1831's The Gladiator, was produced on the stage by his good friend Edwin Forrest. Bird married Mary Mayer in 1837 and had a son, Frederick, just a year later. After writing other plays such as Orralloosa and The Broker of Bogota, Bird turned to writing novels, some of his better known works being Cavalar and Nick of the Woods. In the 1840s, Bird returned to medicine as a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. He later tried his hand in photography, yet another creative side, in the 1850s before dying on January 23, 1854.
Born on February 5, 1806, Robert Montgomery Bird was an American dramatist and novelist of pure talent. Born in New Castle, Delaware, and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Bird's father died while bankrupt when Bird was only four-years-old. He then went to live with his uncle. In preparing to attend a university, Bird studied at the New Castle Academy as well as the Germantown Academy. Then, in 1824, Bird went on to medical school at the University of Pennsylvania. During his years in school, Bird was quite active in the literary societies and was an amateur playwright. He graduated in 1827 but only practiced medicine for a year, as he had no real interest in medicine, but rather wanted writing.
Beginning his literary career with contributions to the Monthly Magazine of Philadelphia, Bird knew he would be happy with this profession. The City Looking Glass , first written in 1828, is known as one of Bird's "prentice" works. Its first printed edition did not appear until a century later when the "city comedy" drew on traditions of "Philadelphia Politeness" that developed during the intervening century. In 1830, one of the greatest American tragic actors of the impresario era, Edwin Forrest, accepted one of Bird's plays and thus began a seven year partnership of writing and producing. The first of Bird's tragedies to hit the stage was The Gladiator in 1831, perhaps Bird's most successful work, running over 1,000 performances during his lifetime. It was about a slave revolt in Rome in 73 B.C. It not only attacked the institution of slavery in the U.S., but also was a reproach against Britain's relationship with the U.S. during the colonial period because of its reflection of Rome's imperial power. The team then collaborated on writing and producing other tragedies, including Orralloosa, a romantic tragedy which takes place in Peru during the Spanish conquest, and The Broker of Bogota, a domestic drama taking place during the eighteenth-century, considered by many critics to be his best work, both done in 1834. Bird also published many pieces of poetry, fiction and essay. In 1837, Bird and Forrest broke their close friendship because of Bird's feeling that he was being paid too little for his dramas.
After Bird's break from Forrest, he soon became the editor of the American Monthly Magazine and married a woman by the name of Mary Mayer. The two had their first child, Frederick Mayer Bird, within the next year. Frederick went on to the University of Pennsylvania in 1857 and by 1860 was ordained a Lutheran minister, with which he served during the civil war as a chaplain in the army.
Now into the 1840s, Bird, uncertain what his future held for him, suffered briefly from mental illness. During that decade he attempted a variety of professions such as farming on Maryland's Eastern Shore and returning to medical school as a professor of the Institutes of Medicine, at which institution he was greatly admired and successful. He also had considered a possible political career. Bird wrote a campaign biography for Zachary Taylor, became a bank director, and assumed an interest in the North American Review, with which he stayed with while revising works for new editions. Some of his most popular novels include Calavar in 1834, The Infidel in 1835, Nick of the Woods in 1837 and Sheppard Lee in 1836. His last novel was called The Adventures of Robin Day, written in 1839, an autobiographical depiction of the harsh corporal punishments on a young man who had never forgotten. Not only was Bird known as a man of words during this time, but he developed an interest in "sun painting," better known as photography. This work, however, was unknown until 1992 when the Library Company of Philadelphia acquired an archive documenting Bird's Photographic Experiments from the early 1850s.
In yet another side of Bird's creative life, as a young man he drew and sketched with some of his later works, recording scenes and impressions of Philadelphia, other parts of America, and Europe. Most of these works are thought to have been made during his many travels. Bird also portrayed his nearby surroundings, such as his friends, neighbors, and his wife. His sketches and drawings may also have been used as visual aides and memoirs of his travels, but also had a value to him in their own right, as they do now to their viewers. Much of this work, which displays freshness and genuine excitement of such a clear vision, are most exciting and precious because they are still essentially unknown.
At the time of Bird's death, January 23 of 1854, he was living in Philadelphia and working as the literary editor and part owner of the Philadelphia North American. Bird died of an "effusion of the brain" and according to his obituary, Dr. Robert Montgomery Bird was "a man of high and exalted intelligence."
Twas All for the Best, 1827.
The Cowled Lover, 1827.
The City Looking Glass, 1828. Republished by Arthur Hobson Quinn. New York: The Colophon, 1933.
Pelopidas, 1830. (never produced)
The Gladiator, 1831. First produced in the Park Theater in New York, 26 Sept. 1831.
Oralloossa; Son of the Incas. First produced in the Arch Street Theater in Philadelphia, 10 Oct. 1832.
The Broker of Bogata, 1834. First produced in the Bowery Theater in New York, 12 Feb. 1834.
Calavar; or, The Knight of the Conquest; a Romance of Mexico. Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard, 1834.
The Infidel; or, The Fall of Mexico. Philadelphia: Lea & Blanchard, 1835.
Nick of the Woods; or, The Jibbenainosay; a Tale of Kentucky. Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard, 1837.
Sheppard Lee. New York: Harper, 1836.
The Adventures of Robin Day. Philadelphia: Lea & Blanchard, 1839.
Dahl, Curtis. Robert Montgomery Bird. New York: Twayne Publishers Inc., 1963.
"Robert Montgomery Bird (1806-1854)." American Literature on the Web. 7 Jan. 2002. 28 Jan. 2006