Caroline M. Kirkland Essay - Critical Essays

Kirkland, Caroline M.


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.

Principal Works

A New Home—Who'll Follow? Or, Glimpses of Western Life [as Mrs. Mary Clavers] (sketches) 1839

Forest Life. 2 vols. [as Mrs. Mary Clavers] (sketches) 1842

Western Clearings. 2 vols. [as Mrs. Mary Clavers] (sketches) 1845

Spenser and the Faëry Queen [editor] (poetry) 1847

Holidays Abroad; or, Europe from the West. 2 vols. (sketches) 1849

The Book of Home Beauty (nonfiction) 1852

The Evening Book; or, Fireside Talk on Morals and Manners, with Sketches of Western Life (sketches and essays) 1852

Garden Walks with the Poets [editor] (poetry) 1852

A Book for the Home Circle; or, Familiar Thoughts on Various Topics, Literary, Moral and Social (essays) 1853

The Helping Hand; Comprising an Account of the Home; for Discharged Female Convicts, and an Appeal in Behalf of That Institution (essays) 1853

Autumn Hours, and Fireside Reading (essays) 1854

Memoirs of Washington (biography) 1857

The School-Girl's Garland, A Selection of Poetry [editor] (poetry) 1864.

Also contributor of numerous short stories, essays, and articles to magazines and periodicals, including Knickerbocker Magazine, Graham's Magazine, and the Union.


John C. McCloskey (essay date 1956)

SOURCE: “Back-Country Folkways in Mrs. Kirkland's A New Home—Who'll Follow?,” Michigan History, Vol. 40, No. 3, September, 1956, pp. 297-308.

[In the following essay, McCloskey examines Kirkland's depiction of western settlers in A New Home. Paying special attention to her realistic style and use of satire, McCloskey notes the manner in which Kirkland differed from other writers of the era who typically chose a more sentimental approach to their subject matter.]

Backwoods life in Michigan from 1835-1836 Mrs. Caroline Matilda Stansbury Kirkland1 observed with an accuracy and a freshness which make her book of sketches A New...

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John C. McCloskey (essay date 1958)

SOURCE: ‘Land Speculation in Michigan in 1835-36 as Described in Mrs. Kirkland's A New Home—Who'll Follow?,” in Michigan History, Vol. 42, No. 1, March, 1958, pp. 26-34.

[In the following essay, McCloskey examines Kirkland's depiction of the Michigan land rush of the mid 1830s in A New Home.]

Mrs. Caroline Matilda Stansbury Kirkland1 in her book of sketches, A New Home—Who'll Follow? Or, Glimpses of Western Life (1839),2 gave a contemporary, circumstantial account based on personal experience of the fever of land speculation in Michigan Territory in 1835-36.3

A woman of sharp observation, keen...

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William S. Osborne (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: “‘Valuable Only for Its Truth’: An Appraisal” in Caroline M. Kirkland, Twayne, 1972, pp. 130-37.

[In the following essay, Osborne provides a general assessment of Kirkland's work. Praising her for the realism of A New Home, Osborne argues that her later work is a “disappointment” to modern readers, as it lacks much of the uninhibited honesty that made A New Home such a success.]

… My life has been one of much sorrow and it would be painful to me to have it dragged before the public. I would rather be known by my writings only—except to my friends—who can do as they like after my death—If I knew which of my...

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Henry Golemba (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: “Caroline and Will,” Midwestern Miscellany, Vol. 3, October, 1974, pp. 6-10.

[In the following essay, Golemba explores in Kirkland's work what he defines as “the clash of wills” between men and women on the Western frontier.]

The particular bead I wish to draw is not on local color, American culture or universal issues of ontology, time or art. Instead I would like to uncover the woman behind the pen, to investigate the personality, problems, ambitions and frustrations of this, Michigan's first accomplished writer. I call this paper “Caroline and Will” and I mean “will” in a two-fold sense—literally as the name of her husband and also...

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Robert Bray (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: “The Art of Caroline Kirkland: The Structure of A New Home—Who'll Follow?,Midwestern Miscellany, Vol. 3, October, 1974, pp. 11-17.

[In the following essay, Bray presents a detailed analysis of the structure of A New Home, arguing that if the work is to be worthy of the importance “occasionally attributed to it, then the reasons for this importance ought to be specified as carefully as possible.”]

In the myriad game of literary status, at least as it is played with American literature, there is a certain ploy of categorization which results in a few books' being designated “minor classics.” Now the one thing that can surely be said...

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Audrey Roberts (essay date 1983-85)

SOURCE: “Caroline M. Kirkland: Additions to the Canon” in Bulletin of Research in the Humanities, Vol. 86, No. 3, 1983-85, pp. 338-46.

[In the following essay, Roberts discusses Kirkland's letters and the value they add to understanding her as an author and an individual.]

During the heyday of the sentimental scribblers Caroline Kirkland pioneered as a literary realist. Kirkland, eschewing tears, idle tears, recorded with humor and candor America's achievements and shortcomings in mid-nineteenth century.1 Now with the help of Kirkland's letters, several additions to her canon have come to light: a clever poem, “An Intercepted Letter to Dickens,” in...

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Annette Kolodny (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: “The Literary Legacy of Caroline Kirkland: Emigrants' Guide to a Failed Eden” in The Land Before Her: Fantasy and Experience of the American Frontiers, 1630-1860, University of North Carolina Press, 1984, pp. 131-58.

[In the following essay, Kolodny argues that even though Kirkland's success was in large part due to the element of realism in her depiction of the West, her most immediate impact on literature was the fact that her work made the West “available for literary treatment by women.”]

Among those whom Margaret Fuller read in order to prepare herself for her summer in Illinois and Wisconsin was Caroline Kirkland. Like Fuller, Caroline Kirkland...

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David Leverenz (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: “Two Genteel Women Look at Men: Sarah Hale and Caroline Kirkland” in Manhood and the American Renaissance, Cornell University Press, 1989, pp. 135-70.

[In the following excerpt, Leverenz explores the manner in which Kirkland utilized class conflict to generate humor in A New Home. Leverenz argues that “Kirkland's voice and wit depend on a clash between traditional pastoral and antipastoral.”]

… Dress constitutes no small part of the social comedy in A New Home—Who'll Follow? (1839), Caroline Kirkland's witty, often acerbic account of life on the Michigan frontier in the 1830s. Her opening chapter, which she intends as a parable for all...

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Kelli A. Larson (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “Kirkland's Myth of the American Eve: Re-Visioning the Frontier Experience,” Midwestern Miscellany, Vol. 20, 1992, pp. 9-14.

[In the following essay, Larson discusses Kirkland's subversion of the romantic myth of western settlement and her exploration of the significant role women played in establishing homes in the wilderness.]

Though Caroline Kirkland's early Western sketches charted the course for American literary realism, she has only recently begun to attract the close critical scrutiny she deserves as an artistic innovator in her own right rather than as merely the background from which major figures of the movement emerged. Familiar with...

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Caroline Gebhard (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “Caroline M. Kirkland's Satire of Frontier Democracy in A New Home—Who'll Follow?” in Women, America, and Movement: Narratives of Relocation, edited by Susan L. Roberson, University of Missouri Press, 1998, pp. 157-75.

[In the following essay, Gebhard discusses Kirkland's use of humor and the manner in which it “relates both to the author's own life and to the book's ‘realism' of social type.”]

In her groundbreaking work on diaries of frontier women, Lillian Schlissel argued for the need to read “the obscured patterns” in such women's writing, yet ironically only recently have critics begun to value the complex literary form of Caroline...

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Further Reading


Hart, John S. “Caroline M. Kirkland.” In The Female Prose Writers of America, pp. 105-15. Philadelphia: E. H. Butler & Co., 1852.

Provides a brief biographical sketch of Kirkland's life at the time of publication, along with a sample of her work.

Spencer, Stacy L. “Legacy Profile: Caroline Kirkland.” Legacy 8, No. 2 (Fall 1991): 133-40.

Provides a brief summary of Kirkland's life, as well as an excerpt from A New Home.


Felton, Cornelius Conway. Review of A New Home—Who'll Follow? The North American Review L, No....

(The entire section is 326 words.)