In This Article Caroline Kirkland

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Correspondence
  • Biography

American Literature Caroline Kirkland
by
Alexandra Ganser
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0018

Introduction

Best known for her books on frontier settlement, A New Home—Who’ll Follow? (1839), Forest Life (1842), and Western Clearings (1845), Caroline Mathilda Saintsbury Kirkland (b. 1801–d. 1864) preferred writing and editing literary journalism to fiction during a time when women were not normally involved in the business of publishing. She shared the fate of many of her peers in that her work was often dismissed as sentimental and has been praised only since her rediscovery by feminists in the 1980s. Kirkland was born into an educated middle-class family (which included the satiric poet Joseph Stansbury) in New York City that encouraged a writing career; her aunt Lydia Mott ran the Quaker school that Kirkland attended for ten years, and for Kirkland she provided a model of an independent woman. Her father died when she was twenty-one, making her the family’s main breadwinner. She had started working as a schoolteacher in upstate New York, where she also met her husband William Kirkland. They founded a domestic school and had seven children, one of whom died in infancy. The school failed, and they moved to Detroit to run the Female Seminary. Two years later, they joined the Michigan land boom, purchasing land sixty miles west, where they founded the hamlet of Pinckney. Here, she wrote her first and most successful book, the autobiographical A New Home; Who’ll Follow?, published under the pen name Mary Clavers. The Kirklands returned to New York City in 1843 not only because their venture did not succeed financially but also because of their neighbors’ harsh response to Kirkland’s portrayal of them in her work. Her husband drowned in 1846, leaving Kirkland responsible for the family. She opened a school for girls and worked as editor of the Union Magazine of Literature and Art (1847–1849), which mainly published regional literature; she contributed regularly and also wrote reviews for Duyckinck’s Literary World. Kirkland followed her husband as editor of the Christian Inquirer and actively participated in New York’s literary life, her home serving as a salon for literati such as Edgar Allan Poe (who called her “unquestionably . . . one of our best writers”), Lydia Maria Child, William Cullen Bryant, Catharine Sedgwick, Lydia Sigourney, Elizabeth Drew Stoddard, and George Palmer Putnam. Kirkland went to Europe as a correspondent in 1848 and apparently again in 1850, where she met Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, and Harriet Martineau. Back in America, she compiled three collections of articles, The Evening Book (1852), A Book for the Home Circle (1853), and Autumn Hours (1854). Her often satirical publications offered criticism on topics from education and women’s rights to social class, slavery, and the reform of the penitentiary system. She helped found the Women’s Prison Association of New York and the Home for Discharged Female Convicts and also worked for the movement that led to the formation of the US Sanitary Commission (later Red Cross) to support Union troops, visiting numerous army camps. Much grieved by the Civil War, Kirkland continued her literary activities until her death from a stroke in 1864.

General Overviews

Osborne 1972, published in the Twayne’s American authors series, is the only monograph to date on Kirkland and her work.

  • Osborne, William S. Caroline M. Kirkland. New York: Twayne, 1972.

    E-mail Citation »

    Osborne’s biographical study provides a rather dismissive general assessment of Kirkland’s work, praising her for the realism of A New Home but arguing that her later work lacks much of her former uninhibited honesty, focusing on “safer” topics and leaning toward sentiment.

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