Caroline M. Kirkland Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Caroline M. Kirkland 1801-1864

(Born Caroline Matilda Stansbury; also wrote under the pseudonyms Mrs. Mary Clavers and Aminadab Peering.) American nonfiction writer, short story writer, journalist, and essayist.

Best known for her three books that illuminate a distinct phase of American settlement of the West, A New Home—Who'll Follow? Or, Glimpses of Western Life (1839), Forest Life (1842), and Western Clearings (1845), Caroline M. Kirkland established a reputation as an energetic and opinionated exponent of the woman's view of an era dominated by male writers. Whereas most of her fellow women writers of the period were specializing in fiction, Kirkland preferred the realm of literary journalism, contributing numerous articles to periodicals; additionally, she worked as a magazine editor, this during a time when women were rarely involved in the business end of publishing. Though her work, like that of many other antebellum American women writers, was labeled “sentimental” and pushed to the side in the field of literary study, Kirkland's realism as well as her simple and frank style have once more begun to command attention.

Biographical Information

The daughter of Samuel, a bookseller and publisher, and Eliza Alexander Stansbury, Kirkland was born Caroline Matilda Stansbury in January, 1801, in New York City. Kirkland's background encouraged her intellectual development, her self-sufficiency, her instincts for reform, and her interest in writing; both her grandfather, the Tory poet Joseph Stansbury, and her mother, who wrote poetry and fiction, provided the driving influence for her writing career, and her father's sister, Lydia Mott, ran a Quaker school, which Kirkland attended. After completing her schooling, Kirkland accepted a teaching position in a school in Clinton, New York, convincing her family to move there after the death of Samuel Stansbury in 1822. Soon thereafter, in the late 1820s, she married William Kirkland, a tutor at Hamilton College. In that same year, the couple had their first of seven children and founded a girls' school near Utica, New York. In 1835, the Kirklands moved to Detroit, where together they headed the Detroit Female Seminary. Two years later, taking advantage of the Michigan land boom, they purchased eight hundred acres of land sixty miles west of Detroit, where they founded the village of Pinckney—the village that would serve as the model for Kirkland's town of Montacute in A New Home. The Kirklands returned to New York City in 1843, and William died suddenly by drowning three years later, leaving Kirkland responsible for the care of their family. This prompted Kirkland to alternate between teaching and writing, the latter of which she now regarded as her “profession and not a calling.” Having already published three books and a number of articles and essays, Kirkland took over the editorship of the periodical the Union Magazine of Literature and Art. Her influence on the magazine came in the form of a predilection for regional literature and intense scrutiny regarding writing submitted for publication. She frequently declared in her editorials that “nineteen-twentieths” of the verse submitted to the magazine fell below its standards. During her tenure with the Union, which ended in 1850, Kirkland contributed a number of articles and essays on a variety of topics. In the years that followed, she continued to write, and among many other literary achievements compiled three collections of her magazine articles, The Evening Book (1852), A Book for the Home Circle (1853), and Autumn Hours (1854). She died of apoplexy on April 6, 1864.

Major Works

Though she published numerous books, articles, and essays over the course of her career, Kirkland is best known for her very first publication, A New Home—Who'll Follow? Or, Glimpses of Western Life. Written under the pseudonym Mrs. Mary Clavers, A New Home presents Kirkland's frank observations regarding the settlement of frontier Michigan in the 1830s. Kirkland's outspoken satire made A New Home virtually unique among works published by women of her era, as the scope and irreverence of such social critique was considered to be incompatible with prevailing notions about white middle-class femininity. Though critics responded positively to the book, many of Kirkland's Michigan neighbors were incensed by it. Due to their negative reactions, Kirkland muted her voice somewhat in Forest Life and Western Clearings, the volumes that followed. While these works still provide a satirical portrayal of Michigan settlement, their focus shifts to generally “acceptable” targets, such as dishonest land sharks and meddling spinsters. By this time a highly respected female writer, Kirkland edited and published a number of books in the years that followed, but her later career was dominated by articles, essays, and editorials she published in various magazines and periodicals, most notably the Union, for which she served as editor for a number of years. In addition to more western sketches in the same vein as her first published works, Kirkland wrote notable essays on a variety of topics, from commentary on literature to the latest fashions. Many of these articles were compiled in three collections, The Evening Book, A Book for the Home Circle, and Autumn Hours.

Critical Reception

Following the publication of A New Home, the January, 1840, issue of The North American Review published a review that claimed the book “will confer upon its author no unenviable reputation.” This response to Kirkland's first book was not unique; many critics praised A New Home for its realistic portrayal of settlement life. While many writers debunked the West as crude and uncivilized, Kirkland presented observations that allowed the reader a much more detailed look at the daily life of the settler. Edgar Allan Poe argued that the success of the book lay in its originality, stating that it “wrought an undoubted sensation [because of its] truth and novelty,” noting further that while “[t]he west at that time was a field comparatively untrodden by the sketcher or the novelists … to Mrs. Kirkland alone we were indebted for our acquaintance with the home and home-life of the backwoodsman.” Indeed, several modern critics claim that Kirkland was the forerunner to later American realists, including Hamlin Garland and Mark Twain. Scholar Robert Bray, for example, points out how subsequent American realists modeled their own writing after Kirkland's—which features folk and comical stereotypes, considers themes of acculturation, and is free from artifice.

Though critical reception for A New Home was predominately positive, the book was not well-received by many of Kirkland's Michigan contemporaries, who resented the manner in which they felt they had been depicted. In response to this resentment, Kirkland altered her style somewhat in the two books that followed, Forest Life and Western Clearings, restraining her commentaries in order to avoid negative public response. Modern critics, such as Sandra A. Zagarell, note the necessity for Kirkland's conscious effort to avoid hostilities such as those bred by A New Home; in her introduction to the 1990 edition of A New Home, Zagarell argues that Kirkland recognized the need for a female writer to maintain a respectable reputation in order to afford herself continued opportunities to publish. However, William S. Osborne, praising the vivid and perceptive sketches in A New Home, emphasizes that the quality of Kirland's later works suffered as a result of the poor reception of A New Home by Kirkland's Michigan neighbors. Claiming that her later works focus on “safer” topics, the critic finds these publications leaning heavily toward sentiment and, though popular among contemporaries of Kirkland, much less appealing to modern readers.

Though Kirkland's body of work is much more varied and extensive than the sketches contained in A New Home, most modern critics choose to focus on this volume as the “true” voice of Caroline Kirkland, due to its unrestrained style. Kirkland herself acknowledged this fact, stating in a letter to Rufus Griswold, editor of Graham's Magazine, that A New Home was “uninhibited” in a way nothing else she wrote would ever be, further stating that thereafter she would separate her public voice from her private one. One particular area of interest to many twentieth-century critics is the manner in which pioneer women are portrayed in A New Home. Exploring the depiction of patrician models in A New Home and the way in which the female characters manipulate males, David Leverenz argues that although Kirkland portrayed the women as ultimately superior to the men, the author realized that the women were entirely dependent on their husbands' success for survival. Looking at Kirkland's undermining of the traditional notion of the “masculine frontier,” Kelli A. Larson finds that it is the female—serving as “domesticator, socializer, healer, and provider”—who in reality makes life in the wilderness not only possible, but tolerable.