A New Home—Who'll Follow?
A NEW HOME—WHO'LL FOLLOW?
A New Home—Who'll Follow? or, Glimpses of Western Life (1839) presents the experiences of a woman settler in eastern Michigan, then the western frontier of the United States. Its author, Caroline M. Kirkland (1801–1864), was an educator from Geneva, New York, who relocated to Detroit in 1835 so her husband, William, could head the Detroit Female Seminary. In 1837 William purchased land to found a village, and the Kirklands moved farther west.
Initially lacking such basics as roads and a store, life in Pinckney, as the village was named, was harsh. For a cultivated woman like Kirkland the hardships also included proximity to—and interdependence with—unrefined and minimally educated lower-class families for whom settling the West meant realizing the promise of Jacksonian democracy that white Americans could enjoy land ownership, economic betterment, and full citizenship. High-spirited and witty, Kirkland did not anguish over her circumstances, although she never liked them. Her greatest pleasure was apparently to write about what she recognized as a many-faceted situation in which no participant could be fully satisfied. A New Home is an entertaining, sometimes rueful, always variegated account of the emergence of the village of Montacute (as Kirkland calls Pinckney) in which Kirkland's fictional narrator, Mary Clavers, details her experiences and observations. Inflected by Clavers's persisting sense of gentility but also her deepening sympathy for many of her rougher-edged neighbors, its freewheeling satire targets the crudeness of Clavers's poorer neighbors' homes, behavior, and expressions as well as excesses of gentility to which Clavers and others of her class cleave.
THE SKETCH FORM AND THE MANY-SIDEDNESS OF A NEW HOME
The complexity of A New Home has presented difficulties for commentators who have wanted to classify it within a single category, be it cultural-political (Whiggishly elitist? Mildly democratic?) or generic (Autobiography? Travel literature? Fiction?). Reflecting on the generic backbone of the book, the sketch, helps one approach this intricacy. The sketch—a seemingly casual prose form often devoted to appearing to capture, or "sketch," what the sketcher sees or experiences, often as he or she travels—became very popular in the early nineteenth century. Sketches often blurred boundaries between fiction and nonfiction; many also appealed to readers' growing interest in ways of life different from their own. Many sketches mixed descriptions of sometimes remote places, people, and activities with thoughts and reflections more akin to those of the readers. The form's openness to rendering locales and domestic life contributed to its appeal for women writers.
A New Home uses many of the sketch's conventions. Its linked sketches are sometimes almost ethnographic in the detail with which they evoke frontier life, and the book is directed to East Coast readers, whose outlook its narrator shares. Like many sketchers, Mary Clavers constantly addresses her readers. (This may also reflect the book's origins—one story is that the New York literary man Nathaniel P. Willis read some of Kirkland's entertaining letters and asked her to write a book about life in the West—but it also bespeaks Clavers's/Kirkland's abiding identification with genteel culture.) While many sketches seem offhand and unassuming, however, A New Home accentuates its status as estimable literature. It distinguished itself from two popular forms of writing about the West produced mainly by men: rosy, romantic depictions of western life like Charles Fenno Hoffman's (1806–1884) A Winter in the West (1835) and emigrants' guides whose enthusiastic descriptions of obstacle-free land were designed to entice (male) purchasers. Its abundant quotations from European and British literature align it with belletristic writing, as does Clavers's declared model, the British writer Mary Russell Mitford's celebrated linked sketches, Our Village (1824–1832), which conveyed the look and feel of life in an actual English village to which Mitford gave the name Three Cross Roads.
Like Mitford's unnamed female sketcher, Mary Clavers describes life on the ground. She details the rough, marshy terrain, crude log cabins, and in many cases rugged settlers she encounters as she traverses her village-in-the-making and the area around it. She also takes in the gradual realization of the plan drawn by Mr. Clavers and his land agent as an actual village with flour mill, schoolhouse, store, and some frame houses and eventually a debating society, women's sewing circle, and court sittings presided over by a "Justas of the Piece." She is even more attuned to a subject that literature was just beginning to represent, the emergence of the village as a process. In her depiction, that process entails conflicts, cultural clashes, and often vexed adjustments between the "Wolverines" (the earlier settlers) and middle-class later arrivals like the Claverses. (Kirkland refers rarely to Native Americans and does not acknowledge that the "wilderness" was actually their homeland, although she would in later writing about Michigan.) The representation of interpersonal and cultural life in Montacute is especially complex. Kirkland's representation endorses the efforts of Clavers and her kind to preserve control as they establish a modus operandi with the older settlers, but the narrative also stresses the disparateness of the viewpoints of the two classes of settlers as well as reflecting some modifications in Clavers's own outlook.
Many of the early sketches focus on Clavers's introduction to the wilderness and Wolverines, satirically contrasting her literature-nourished anticipation of a garden-like landscape and frontier with the difficult terrain of "bogs," "mudholes," and log-covered paths she actually encounters. When it comes to humans' behavior and domestic arrangements, though, her gentility may seem unquestioned. As Lori Merish and other commentators suggest, her descriptions of people and culture affirm the identification with possessions and order that accompanied the ante-bellum rise of a substantial middle class and of commodity culture. In effect, the bourgeois sense of order involved the internalization of a system of classification for domestic life that dictated which possessions one should group together and which one should keep separate, what space should be on display and what space should be kept private. This sense suffuses the offended propriety of Clavers's satiric account of a morning spent visiting two women in a "log house" while her husband inspects his newly purchased land. The text highlights her repelled depiction of "two large beds not partitioned off . . . but curtained in with cotton sheets pinned to the unhewn rafters" and the visible hodgepodge of the cabin's inhabitants' "go-to-meeting hats and bonnets, frocks and pantaloons" (p. 13). Also affirmed are her mockery of log walls "garnished" in poor taste with garish circus posters and the affront to her concepts of hygiene and decorum of a "strip of dingy listing [wood] . . . nailed in such a way as to afford support for a few iron spoons, and small comb, and sundry other articles grouped with the like good taste" (p. 13).
Even here, though, Clavers also mocks her own assumed superiority by reporting on her distress when her husband makes her depart without giving her time to eat the meal the unappealing residents offer her. Increasingly, moreover, her genteel disdain is crosscut (though never annulled) by her recognition that her own refinement is an obstacle to a life in which hazardous transportation, spartan domestic life, and debilitating ague (marsh malaria) are commonplace—a life in which she must depend on her Wolverine neighbors' expertise, labor, and goodwill. As the narrative accentuates the process of her adjustment to the frontier, it features her self-satire alongside her affirmation of her initial values. Thus in explaining that she has learned to work around the democratic expectations of the women who assist her in domestic work—and expect to take dinner with the Clavers family—she italicizes the local term "wearing round" (p. 52), meaning "manipulate," in describing her deflections of such expectations. The emphasized phrase relishes her skill at maneuvering the neighbors she has hired, but it also accentuates how calculating she is in playing on their culture to preserve class-based distinctions they abhor. She also calls attention to a salutary weakening of her sense of decorum as she learns to savor activities whose mundaneness and improvisational character she would initially have
The following excerpt is from the penultimate chapter of A New Home. Addressing her East Coast readers, Mary Clavers summarizes some of the difficulties she has experienced living in close proximity with her rough pioneer neighbors, expressing scorn for what she regards as their presumptuousness. Yet she also mocks her readers' unreflecting expectations about their right to a fairly privileged way of life. (She also recommends a year on the Michigan frontier as a cure for ennui or dissipation.) Clavers's characteristic self-deprecation about her writing is part of the satire of A New Home. She, or Kirkland, may well be modest about her literary efforts, but she is also suggesting that decorous writing would be an inappropriate medium for representing life on the frontier.
I have in the course of these detached and desultory chapters, hinted at various deficiencies and peculiarities, which strike, with rather unpleasant force, the new resident in the back-woods; but it would require volumes to enumerate all the cases in which the fastidiousness, the taste, the pride, the self-esteem of the refined child of civilization, must be wounded by a familiar intercourse with the persons among whom he will find himself thrown, in the ordinary course of rural life. He is continually reminded in how great a variety of particulars his necessities, his materials for comfort, and his sources of pain, are precisely those of the humblest of his neighbours. The humblest, did I say? He will find that he has no humble neighbors. He will very soon discover, that in his new sphere, no act of kindness, no offer of aid, will be considered as any thing short of insult, if the least suspicion of condescension peep out. Equality, perfect and practical, is the sine qua non, and any appearance of a desire to avoid this rather trying fraternization is invariably met by a fierce and indignant resistance. The spirit in which was conceived the motto of the French revolution, "La fraternite ou la mort," exists in full force among us, though modified as to results. . . .
This same republican spirit is evinced rather amusingly, in the reluctance to admire, or even to approve, any thing like luxury or convenience which is not in common use among the settlers. Your carpets are spoken of as "one way to hide dirt;" your mahogany tables as "dreadful plaguy to scour;" your kitchen conveniences as "lumberin' up the house for nothing;" and so on to the end of the chapter. One lady informed me, that if she had such a pantry full of "dishes," under which general term is included every variety of china, glass and earthenware, she should set up store, and "sell them off pretty quick," for she wold not "be plagued with them." Another, giving a slighting glance at a French mirror of rather unusual dimensions, larger by two-thirds, I verily believe, than any she had ever seen, remarked, "that it would be quite a nice glass, if the frame was done over." . . .
The doll of Fortune, who may cast a languid eye on this homely page, from the luxurious depths of a velvet-cushioned library chair, can scarce be expected to conceive how natural it may be, for those who possess nothing beyond the absolute requisites of existence, to look with a certain degree of envy on the extra comforts which seem to cluster round the path of another; and to feel as if a little might well be spared, where so much would still be left. To the tenant of a log-cabin whose family, whatever be its numbers, must burrow in a single room, while a bed or two, a chest, a table, and a wretched handful of cooking utensils, form the chief materials of comfort, an ordinary house, small and plain it may be, yet amply supplied, looks like the very home of luxury. The woman who owns but a suit a-piece for herself and her children, considers the possession of an abundant though simple and inexpensive wardrobe, as needless extravagance; and we must scarcely blame her too severely, if she should be disposed to condemn as penurious, any reluctance to supply her pressing need, though she may have no shadow of claim on us beyond that which arises from her being a daughter of Eve. We look at the matter from opposite points of view. Her light shows her very plainly, as she thinks, what is our Christian duty; we must take care that ours does not exhibit too exclusively her envy and her impertinence.
Kirkland, A New Home, Who'll Follow? pp. 182–185.
scorned: "Is one of your guests dependent upon a barber? Mr. Jenkins can shave. Does your husband . . . demolish his boot upon a grub? Mr. Jenkins is great at a rifacciamento. Does Billy lose his cap in the pond? Mr. Jenkins makes caps comme il y en a peu. Does your bellows get the asthma? Mr. Jenkins is a famous Francis Flute" (pp. 146–147). Although Mr. Jenkins's versatility is cast as a spectacle whose enjoyment unites Clavers and her reader, her appreciation for the Wolverines' idiom ("grub" is a vernacular term for root) as well as their skills bespeaks her deepening respect for them.
As Clavers becomes increasingly familiar with her Wolverine neighbors' material circumstances, her satire of them is crosscut by economic analysis and empathic imagining of the conditions of their lives. She exposes the riches of those who profit from speculation in land and currency, casting these activities as aspects of unchecked capitalism, itself an economic order in which the gains of a few depend on the losses of many. She mobilizes empathy so as to "unroof" the "humble log-huts of Michigan" and imagine farm families left without flour for bread when "splendid looking bank notes"—"their hard-earned all"—prove "valueless" (p. 126). Though she preserves an often-voiced disdain for the pride that informs Wolverines' sense of entitlement to the property of better-off neighbors, she gains the ability to imagine their outlook as well as expressing her own: to a "woman who owns but a suit a-piece for herself and her children," she explains, what is for a Mary Clavers merely an "abundant though simple and inexpensive wardrobe" appears "needless extravagance." Increasingly she also trains her satiric lens on her eastern readers. Typifying many easterners as "spoiled child[ren] of refined civilization" (p. 185) who could not endure frontier hardships, she suggests that their unalloyed elitism relies on a physical segregation of the poor with which the frontier is doing away. Likewise, taken as a whole, her shift from easy scorn to complicated cultural commentary, from flaunted censure of log-cabin tenants to compassionate, though grudging, tolerance, conveys a warning about the nation's future. It nudges readers to reflect that their own privilege, like hers, is contingent—dependent on economic, cultural, and topo-graphic arrangements whose impermanence the frontier casts in high relief because the nation's future is unfolding there.
KIRKLAND'S LATER LIFE AND WORK
A New Home was received enthusiastically, but most readers were apparently inattentive to its urgings for self-examination about their own attitudes. Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849) articulated easterners' assumption that life on the frontier was fully different from their own, proclaiming the nation's "indebted[ness] to [Kirkland] for our acquaintance with the home and home-life of the backwoodsman." Those who did recognize themselves were Kirkland's Michigan neighbors, many of whom were openly resentful. Their reactions mortified and alarmed her, and although she continued to write, she was more cautious. Forest Life (1842) tailors the sketch to travelogue mode, describing people and places Clavers encounters on trips away from Montacute and satirizing fairly conventional targets, like swindlers and meddlesome old maids.
By 1843, weary of frontier hardships and realizing that their western ventures would not improve their finances, the Kirklands removed to New York City. There both taught and wrote; they were readily accepted into the city's lively literary circles. In 1846, however, William drowned while boarding a steamboat, and Caroline was forced to support herself and four children. She taught on and off until her death and also worked as a literary professional. From 1847 to 1851 she edited the well-respected Union Magazine (Sartain's Union Magazine after 1848). She persuaded the magazine to support a trip to Europe in exchange for columns about her travel observations; she penned many essays for Sartain's and other magazines on such subjects as corsets (which she opposed), the need for prison reform and temperance, women writers, the excesses of the urban rich, and the importance of stable homes. She also produced another volume of western tales, Western Clearings (1846), several anthologies, and Memoirs of Washington (1845), a book for young people whose outspoken support of abolition almost cost her her publisher. A staunch supporter of the Union, she took a leading role in the U.S. Sanitary Commission, forerunner of the Red Cross, after the Civil War began.
Kirkland died unexpectedly in April 1864, a day after opening a fair to raise money for the Sanitary Commission. Literary notables like Nathaniel P. Willis and William Cullen Bryant attended her funeral. Although appreciation for her writing waned during the postbellum era, interest in A New Home revived once American literature emerged as an academic discipline in the 1920s. With sociocultural aspects of American literature and American women pioneers subjects of intensive scholarly interest, a growing body of commentary has been taking the measure of the book's unusual mixture of tones and its combination of elitism, empathy, and incisive cultural and economic analysis.
See alsoDemocracy; Dialect; Exploration and Discovery; English Literature; Health and Medicine; Humor; Individualism and Community; Labor; Manifest Destiny; Travel Writing; Wilderness
Kirkland, Caroline M. Forest Life. 2 vols. New York: Francis, 1842.
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Sandra A. Zagarell