Caroline Kirkland (1801-1864)
Contributing Editor: Judith Fetterley
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Most of the students I have taught love Caroline Kirkland. They find
her eminently contemporary. Her prose style is accessible, she is funny,
and she deals with a subject familiar to nearly all Americans--the frontier.
Some students are put off by her middle-class bias and perspective; they
find her attitudes toward the locals patronizing and they object to the
fact that (unlike Jewett
) Kirkland provides very
little space for the stories of any of these people as told by themselves.
Kirkland's letters sound like they were written yesterday to the students
reading the letter. One obvious way of breaking open the text and inviting
discussion is to ask students to pick one of her "natives" and
have them write what they imagine that person would say about their new
neighbor, Caroline Kirkland, if they wrote a letter to one of their friends
who has moved farther west.
Students often wonder why they have never heard of Kirkland before.
They want to know what else she wrote. They wonder why she is so concerned
with issue of manners and ask what happened when she published her book.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Kirkland is accessible in part because she is writing about a subject
that has been made central to the study of American culture--the frontier,
the movement west of white settlers. Kirkland is important because she
is dealing with this phenomenon from the point of view of the woman who
was required, often not of her own will, to follow the man to his new home.
She writes specifically of the cost to women of the male model of "upward
mobility"--the pattern of constantly moving on under the guise of
improving one's position. This theory of "improvement" of course
takes no account of the woman's position, which is usually worsened as
a result. Thus the most important feature of Kirkland for the survey course
is the fact that she inserts the woman's perspective into this male cultural
pattern. Kirkland's work thus provides the context for discussing the commitment
of the mid-century women writers to values of home, domesticity, etc.
Kirkland is equally important as an example of a relatively early American
woman writer who successfully established a voice. The instructor should
be familiar with Kirkland's essay "Literary Women," collected
in A Book for the Home Circle
(1853), and included in the forthcoming
volume of Kirkland's work from the Rutgers Press American Women Writers
series. Kirkland was well aware of the prejudices against women writers
and of the strictures governing what they were and were not supposed to
write. Her decision to lace her text with literary references may in part
have stemmed from her desire to define herself clearly as a literary woman
and to defy the strictures and the stereotypes. In a context where there
was so much harassment of women writers, her voice is remarkably clear
and confident. She writes with a sense of authority and conviction that
is not modulated through any other agency. She writes because she likes
to write, not because she is trying to save the world or support her children.
She is a rare example of an early American woman writer who wrote carefully
and published only what she felt was well written.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
First, Kirkland defines herself as a realist. Since American literary
history has been based, until very recently, on a study of the works of
male American writers, the governing generalization insists that realism
in American literature is a post-Civil War phenomenon. However, American
women writers were experimenting with realism in the decades before the
Civil War and Caroline Kirkland was among the first, the most explicit,
and the most articulate. Clearly defining herself against the romantic
views of the West provided by contemporary male writers, Kirkland claims
to write the truth about Michigan, which means that she intends to include
the difficulties that face women who try to put together three meals a
day in the wilderness, the state of the Michigan roads with their enormous
pot holes, and the general slovenliness of the "natives." So
certainly any discussion of Kirkland needs to address her conception of
realism and the general contours of American literary history that emerge
from including women writers in the map of the territory.
Second, Kirkland identifies herself as participating in a tradition
set by women writers. She ends her preface to A New Home
reference to "Miss Mitford's charming sketches of village life"
and with a "humble curtsey." It is important to explore the degree
to which Kirkland establishes throughout her text her connection to a tradition
of women writers presenting a woman's point of view. As is clear from the
preface, Kirkland embraces an iconography that clearly identifies her as
a woman writer (men don't curtsey) and she wishes to remind her readers
that they are reading a work written by a woman. In the process of so doing,
she is also attempting to explore the nature of a woman's aesthetics. Implicitly,
and on occasion explicitly, she is asking, what kind of book does a woman
write, given the nature of woman's experience and perspective?
One can also raise here the question of genre--to what extent is Kirkland's
voice, her authority, tied to her use of a relatively unconvention-ridden
genre, namely the letter home? Is she freed to do her best because she
is not trying to be a great writer but is trying only to write interesting
letters to the folks back home? Students might be encouraged to look into
the use of the letter as a form for published writing by both men and women
in the nineteenth century.
As I have said earlier, Kirkland is useful for raising the larger question
of the relation of the nineteenth-century American women writers to their
audience. Nineteenth-century white middle-class American male writers had
problems establishing an audience, a sense of who they were writing to.
A new view could and should question these assumptions. Hawthorne's
preface to The Scarlet Letter
, the chapter on the Custom-House,
can serve perhaps as a paradigm for the male situation. Here Hawthorne
reveals his fear that he is speaking to no one except himself. Kirkland,
on the other hand, has a very clear sense of the "you" at the
other end of her letter. One can certainly raise with students the question
as to why it is that Kirkland might have such a clear sense of audience.
To what degree does it have to do with the world she describes women as
inhabiting--a world in which loved ones are left behind, a world in which
the letter (and think of the implications of this fact--here we look forward
to The Color Purple
) was left in the hands of women, a world in
which there was a clear sense of community and of someone who would want
to know what was happening to their daughters who had gone west?
It seems fairly obvious that Kirkland assumed her readers would be of
the same social class as herself. Whether or not she assumed her readers
would be primarily women is a more complex question. My own sense of Kirkland
leads me to believe that she assumed a readership made up of men as well
as women, that she was not of that group of women writers who were writing
essentially to women even though they knew and hoped that men might read
their books and thus overhear their conversation. But I also think Kirkland
took her women readers seriously and wrote at least in part to educate
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
I have already suggested many points of comparison. I will just reiterate
them here. Kirkland can be compared with many male writers in terms of
her presentation of the frontier and the experience of westward and "upward"
mobility. She can also be compared with many male writers in terms of her
attitudes toward and handling of the issue of class. A writer like Hawthorne
is so completely class-bound that class is never even an issue in his work.
In many of the classes I have taught on Kirkland, I have been able to use
students' anger at Kirkland's classism to raise the issue of class prejudice
in writers like Hawthorne. Many students have come to realize that writers
like Hawthorne protect themselves, albeit unconsciously, against charges
of classism by simply never raising class as an issue. Kirkland is at least
aware that American society is profoundly affected by the issue of class.
Kirkland can also be compared to male writers in terms of the question
of audience, as discussed above.
Kirkland can be fruitfully compared with other nineteenth-century American
women writers in terms of the issue of voice. Students can compare the
authority with which Kirkland speaks to the less secure voice of certain
other women writers. She can also be compared with other women writers
in terms of her commitment to realism and in terms of her commitment to
presenting the woman's story.
I refer the instructor to the discussion of Kirkland in Annette Kolodny's
The Land Before Her
and in my own Provisions
There is also a Twayne series book on Kirkland that is useful for an
overview but does not provide much in the way of criticism and would not
be of much use in the classroom.
The Rutgers Press American Women Writers series has a volume of Kirkland
under contract and the introduction to that volume should be very useful.