Kirkland, Caroline (1801-1864)
Caroline Kirkland (1801-1864)
Writer and editor
New York to the Frontier . Caroline Matilda Stansbury, who would become a pioneering literary realist, was born on 11 January 1801 in New York City. Her literary career had its roots in her family upbringing. Her parents nurtured a love of reading, and she was also influenced by the satiric verses of her grandfather Joseph Stansbury, an ardent Loyalist during the American Revolution. In 1828 Caroline married William Kirkland, a bright young tutor at Hamilton College. In 1835 the couple moved west to Detroit, and then, in 1837, as Michigan boomed and the Western frontier expanded, William purchased land in the new settlement of Pinckney, Michigan. Here, as Caroline later recalled, the Kirklands believed hard work and perseverance would be rewarded with “boundless treasures,” but life in Pinckney turned out to be less rewarding than the Kirklands hoped. William, like many of his neighbors, was swindled by dishonest land agents. Wildcat banks issued paper notes that turned out to be worthless and then closed, virtually overnight. The Kirklands, along with others who joined them in Pinckney, became poorer, rather than richer in the new settlement.
A New Home. Through her misfortunes Caroline did find material for a novel in Pinckney. Setting out to debunk the popular notion of the West as a bounteous garden, a land of untapped wealth, in 1839 she published A New Home—Who’ll Follow? or, Glimpses of Western Life (1839). Narrated by her fictional counterpart, Mrs. Mary Clavers, A New Home described daily life on the frontier in realistic (and sometimes hilarious) terms. As she wrote in the opening of her book, A New Home was to be an honest account of the frontier, not a romantic adventure. “I have never seen a cougar—nor been bitten by a rattlesnake,” she warned her readers; “in short,” her book was “valuable only for its truth.” Writing from her cultured Eastern background, Kirkland found that the “savage state” was not always a noble one. She laughed at her own misadventures, but she also portrayed some of the villagers of “Montacute” as greedy and crude vulgarians. In one grim episode Amelia Newland, a young neighbor from an impoverished, “wretched” family, dies, apparently the victim of a beating. Kirkland comments that “the class of settlers to which the Newlands belong, a class but too numerous in Michigan, is a vicious and degraded one,” and she notes that when the Newlands left Montacute, they took “as many of their neighbors’ cattle and hogs as they could persuade to accompany them.” A New Home was a departure from conventional Western narratives in several respects. In substituting experience for popular myth, the novel’s realism offered a corrective to the “romance of rustic life.” Second, Kirkland emphasized what other Western writers overlooked or omitted: frontier life could be most difficult for women, who suffered isolation and other “sacrifices for which they were not at all prepared.” Finally, the novel’s satirical tone was unusual; popular women writers of the antebellum period were generally much more circumspect in their social critiques. While the novel was generally well received by Eastern critics, Pinckney residents were not amused by Kirkland’s satire. They felt, according to one visitor, that Kirkland had “slander[ed] them most scan-dously” and suggested that “she should be more usefully employed. There is not the least benefit to mind or mortals in her writings.” Kirkland returned to her Western experiences in Forest Life (1842) and Western Clearings (1845), later collections of sketches. Perhaps stung by the response to A New Home, these works were less pointedly satirical.
Return to New York. In 1843, disappointed by their western experiment, the Kirklands returned to New York City. William became active as a writer and newspaper editor, but in 1846 he apparently drowned after falling from a dock as he tried to board a steamer. Caroline was determined to take responsibility for supporting herself and her children. She was already publishing educational pieces, sketches, and essays; she now joined the new literary journal The Union Magazine of Literature and Art, which she edited and contributed to from 1847 to 1851. An editorial position was unusual for a woman of her day, and Kirkland’s career in New York is notable for her ability to successfully negotiate and flourish in a business world dominated by men. In addition to her duties at the Union, Kirkland also supported the abolition of slavery, wrote on behalf of female convicts, and opposed capital punishment. Her last significant work was Personal Memoirs of Washington (1856), a biography of George Washington in which Kirkland returned to writing social commentary. Devoting several sections to Mary Washington, George’s mother, Kirkland argued for the important role played by women in the nation’s history. Further, Kirkland’s biography emphasized Washington’s opposition to slavery, suggesting that Washington “would have been slow to believe” that good people would “refuse to condemn slavery.” When Kirkland died in 1864, Bayard Taylor, author and Western correspondent, remembered her as “the possessor of more genius than any woman in America.” Yet later literary critics overlooked Kirkland’s work for nearly a century until the 1970s, when several scholars sought to reestablish her reputation as both social critic and pioneering literary realist.
Caroline Kirkland, A New Home—Who ll Follow?, or, Glimpses of Western Life, edited by Sandra A. Zagarell (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1990);
Annette Kolodny, The Land Before Her: Fantasy and Experience of the American Frontiers, 1630–1860 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1970);
William S. Osborne, Caroline M. Kirkland (New York: Twayne, 1972).