| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Caroline Stansbury Kirkland, eldest of eleven children of Eliza
Alexander and Samuel Stansbury, was born on January 11, 1801, in New York
City where she spent most of her childhood and adolescence in a family noted
for its interest in literature and education. Kirkland’s mother was herself a
writer and Kirkland later revised and published some of her mother’s work in
her own gift books. An aunt headed a series of distinguished schools which
Caroline attended and in which she later taught. In 1828 Caroline married
William Kirkland, previously a teacher of classics at Hamilton College, and
together they opened a girls’ school in Geneva, New York. In 1835,
however, they emigrated to Detroit, Michigan, for William, tired of teaching,
had dreams of buying land and founding a “city” on the Michigan frontier. By
1837 they had acquired sufficient land and capital to move to the village of
Pinckney where they began the experience in frontier living recorded in A
New Home—Who’ll Follow? (1839).
After five years on the frontier, the Kirklands returned to
New York City where Caroline continued to pursue the writing career she had
begun in Michigan. She had by this time published both A New Home and
its sequel, Forest Life (1842), as well as essays and sketches in a
variety of magazines. In 1846, William Kirkland died and at forty-five Kirkland
became the sole support of herself and her four children. To make a living, she
managed and taught in several girls’ schools and wrote. She collected many of
her essays in the various gift books she edited; in contrast to many similar
offerings, Kirkland’s collections were deservedly popular for their
intellectual and aesthetic superiority. In 1847, Kirkland became editor of the Union
Magazine of Literature and Art. As an editor, Kirkland demonstrated a
strong commitment to realism in the materials she accepted for publication and
considerable critical skill in her reviews, including an enthusiastic response
to Melville’s early books. Moreover, Kirkland was seriously interested in women
as writers. In her long review essay of Susan Warner’s The Wide, Wide World
(1851) and Queechy (1852), and Anna Warner’s Dollars and Cents
(1852), published in the North American Review in 1853, she provided, in
addition to detailed analyses of the strengths and weaknesses of these books, a
survey of the state of the art of the novel in America with particular
reference to women writers. Kirkland herself was part of a social and
professional friendship network of women writers and her home frequently
functioned as a literary salon. She died in New York City on April 6, 1864, and
was buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn.
A New Home—Who’ll
Follow?, published under the pseudonym Mary Clavers, describes the
experience of a relatively well-educated middle-class white woman transported
to the American frontier by virtue of her husband’s ambition. As a follower,
Kirkland takes advantage of the accident of her presence on the Michigan
frontier to become a recorder of American social history. Defining herself
against the romanticism of previous western chroniclers, Kirkland consciously
asserts her commitment to realism. But what kind of a “story” can one tell if
she has “never seen a cougar—nor been bitten by a rattlesnake?” In meeting the
dual challenge posed by writing as a woman and a realist, Kirkland recognizes
that she is doing something new in American literature. At the heart of her
enterprise is the education of her readers to the significance of the American
frontier. For Kirkland, the frontier is a true text, revealing a national
character obsessed with issues of class and gender. The pressure exerted by the
frontier toward “levelling downwards” derives its intensity from the fact that
upward mobility is the prevailing motive for western emigration. Thus settlers
who have come to Michigan to improve their class status wish no reminders of
the class system they think they have left behind.
As a follower,
Kirkland can view with some detachment those masculine impulses that have
brought her to the frontier. While Mrs. Clavers as a woman struggles to
establish a community with her neighbors, the desire to make money at the
expense of one’s neighbors dominates the male world that Mr. Clavers enters.
The “factotum” who offers to build Montacute for Mr. Clavers clears out after
having gotten rich on his money, and if Mrs. Jenkins does not effect the
“thorough reformation” of Simeon, similar schemes will no doubt ensue from his
presence in the “arena of public life.” Kirkland’s detachment from masculine
“madness,” however, does not blind her to the degree to which this madness
shapes her life. Unable to save the fine
oaks, she is granted only the symbolic power of naming the venture to be
erected on their stumps. But her detachment does enable her to focus on
the lives of women and to recognize that the experience of those who follow is
not necessarily the experience of those who lead. Though the frontier may
enlarge women’s sphere to some degree, woman’s world is still primarily the
home. Kirkland devotes much of her text to describing the physical and material
hardship of housekeeping in the wilderness. More seriously, she records the
homelessness frequently experienced by women on the frontier. Since the
westering impulse originates in the masculine agenda of upward mobility, men
have little incentive to make homes; rather they view their land as counters in
the status game, and they are prepared to sell out and move on at the first
good offer, leaving women to pay the hidden costs. A New Home—Who’ll Follow?
signals a realism in American fiction designed to counter not simply previous
romanticism but equally that masculine “realism” which believes the whole story
is told when the man’s story is told. In the portrait of Eloise Fidler,
which precedes Mark Twain’s Emmeline Grangerford by almost fifty years,
Kirkland insists on telling her own story about women and writing. Satirizing
through Eloise conventional masculine stereotypes of the woman writer, Kirkland
in A New Home provides her readers with an alternative persona and
style, distinctively female but clearly not feminine.
University of New York at Albany
In the Heath Anthology
A New Home -- Who'll Follow?
Preface to the Fourth Edition
A New Home - Who'll Follow?
The Evening Book
A Book for the Home Circle
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Early American Fiction
Links to texts of A New Home--Who'll Follow? Or Glimpses of Western Life and Forest Life, Vols 1 & 2.
A biography of Kirkland, part of a larger project on 19th century regional writers.
A brief biographical sketch and portrait.
Judith Fetterley, ed., Provisions: A Reader from Nineteenth-Century American Women, 1985
Annette Kolodny, The Land Before Her, 1984
William S. Osborne, Caroline M. Kirkland, 1972
Audrey Roberts, "The Letters of Caroline M. Kirkland" (Ph.D. dissertation, U. of Wisconsin), 1976
Sandra Zagarell, "Introduction" to A New Home - Who'll Follow?, 1990