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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Caroline Kirkland

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.
Judith Fetterley
State University of New York at Albany

In the Heath Anthology
A New Home -- Who'll Follow?
      Chapter I (1839)
      Chapter XLIII (1839)
      Chapter XV (1839)
      Chapter XVII (1839)
      Chapter XXVII (1839)
      Preface (1839)
      Preface to the Fourth Edition (1839)

Other Works
Forest Life (1842)
Western Clearings (1845)
A New Home - Who'll Follow? (1849)
The Evening Book (1852)
A Book for the Home Circle (1853)

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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.

Local Color
A biography of Kirkland, part of a larger project on 19th century regional writers.

Scribbling Women
A brief biographical sketch and portrait.

Secondary Sources

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