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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Masculine Heroes Caroline Stansbury Kirkland (1801-1864)

[4340] Thomas Cole, Home in the Woods (1847), courtesy of Reynolda House, Museum of American Art.

Appearing well before either “regionalism” or “realism” had established themselves as literary movements, Caroline Kirkland’s early writings anticipate these developments to such a degree that many critics now consider her to be among their founders. Born to a literary, middle-class family in New York, Caroline Stansbury received a good education at a series of distinguished schools and academies. In 1828, she married William Kirkland and moved to Geneva, New York, where the couple had four children and founded and ran a girls’ school. In 1835, the Kirklands moved to Detroit, in the Michigan Territory, where William accepted a job as principal of the Detroit Female Seminary. He soon began purchasing large parcels of land in the Michigan backcountry and eventually moved his family to the frontier village of Pinckney, which he hoped would grow and thus increase the value of his land. The move into the backcountry inspired Kirkland to write her first work, a collection of realistic and often humorous sketches of frontier life called A New Home–Who’ll Follow?, written under the pseudonym of “Mrs. Mary Clavers.”

In 1843, after William lost the family’s landholdings and capital to a swindling land agent, the family was forced to return to New York. There, Kirkland taught school and continued her writing career, publishing pieces in magazines and literary journals. In 1846, William died suddenly, leaving Kirkland to support herself and their children. Building on her literary connections, Kirkland took a job as the editor of the Union Magazine of Literature and Art, a position she held until 1851. Under her guidance, the magazine maintained a commitment to supporting both literary realism and women’s writing. She also successfully compiled and sold several popular “gift books” (expensively printed books containing stories, essays, and poems, often given as gifts in the nineteenth century). Her literary celebrity enabled her to generate popular support for social reforms as well as for philanthropic work supporting the Union soldiers during the Civil War.

Today Kirkland is remembered chiefly for her innovative, realistic descriptions of western pioneer life in A New Home. Explicitly reacting against other writers’ romanticized visions of the West, Kirkland was committed to providing her readers with an honest description of both the hardships and the joys of frontier life. Kirkland was also unique in offering a portrait of the West from something other than a masculinized point of view; rather than focusing on heroic tales of cowboys, outlaws, and dangerous adventures in the wilds of nature, Kirkland took as her subject the everyday experiences of hardworking women. Her witty, insightful commentary on problems of baking and ironing and getting along with one’s neighbors is filtered through the persona of her narrator–an educated, middle-class woman who takes women’s concerns seriously. Although her narrator in A New Home sometimes seems snobbish and overly invested in class distinctions by today’s standards, Kirkland’s voice marks an important innovation in descriptions of the West.

Teaching Tips

  • Kirkland describes in detail many of the domestic commodities that circulate within her frontier community, both to complain about her ungrateful neighbors’ habit of borrowing her possessions and to poke fun at pioneer women’s pretensions in owning such luxuries as “silver tea-pots” and fancy dresses. Ask students to think about the role of commodities in Kirkland’s narrative. How does she feel when she is accused of “introducing luxury” into the community when she displays her parlor carpet? How do commodities function to distinguish one “class” of women from another within the village? What kind of symbolic importance do the women in Pinckney attach to their furniture and household goods? How does gender structure the people of Pinckney’s attitudes toward domestic objects, both decorative and useful? You might refer students to the contextual material on parlors featured in Unit 8.
  • Realism is usually thought of as a post-Civil War development in American literature, probably because male writers did not adopt it until the 1860s and 1870s. Kirkland’s work provides clear evidence of an earlier incarnation of realism, yet she has never received the kind of critical attention afforded to the male writers who are seen as realism’s “pioneers”–writers like Mark Twain and William Dean Howells. Ask students to think about the assumptions that inform our categorization and canonization of particular American writers. How does gender impact writers’ reputations? How do we decide what constitutes a “school” or “movement” within American literature?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: How do men and women experience frontier life differently, according to Kirkland’s analysis in A New Home? What distinct problems and anxieties do women encounter in their new homes in the West?
  2. Comprehension: Chapter 36 is titled “Classes of Emigrants.” What characterizes the different “classes” that Kirkland describes? Which classes does Kirkland respect? Which does she condemn? How do issues of class structure Kirkland’s portrait of life in the village of Pinckney?
  3. Context: In many ways, Kirkland’s sketches of frontier life read like letters home or journal entries. How does her project in A New Home compare to Louise Clappe’s descriptive letters about life in the mines in California? How are the narrative personae that these writers develop similar? In what respects do they differ? What kind of audience does each writer assume?
  4. Exploration: A New Home–Who’ll Follow? sold well and received favorable notices from important reviewers such as William Cullen Bryant and Edgar Allan Poe. Yet Kirkland’s book marks a distinct shift from previous popular descriptions of frontier life–it is neither romanticized nor sentimental nor filled with tales of masculine heroism and adventure. Why do you think Kirkland’s work appealed to nineteenth-century readers? Do you think she appealed to the same kind of audience that read Cooper and Nat Love?

Selected Archive Items

[4340] Thomas Cole, Home in the Woods (1847),
courtesy of Reynolda House, Museum of American Art.
Painted just before the artist died in 1848, Thomas Cole’s Home in the Woods depicts the pastoral bliss of a settler family amidst the destructive effect of human intrusion and settlement on wilderness.

[4423] Anonymous, The First Step [Godey’s Lady’s Book] (June 1858),
courtesy of Hope Greenberg, University of Vermont.
During the nineteenth century, a parlor was perceived as a necessary room in every home. Even Americans who lacked room for a formal parlor adorned their living spaces with decorative objects, such as the paintings and bureau-top items in this drawing.

[5806] J. F. Queen, Home Sweet Home II (1871),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-2056].
Homesteading was often romanticized in American literature and decorative arts, as in this popular pastoral print of a woman feeding sheep.

[8703] Arch C. Gerlach, ed., Map of Territorial Growth–1830 [from The National Atlas of the United States, U.S. Dept. of the Interior, Geological Survey] (1970),
courtesy of the General Libraries, University of Texas at Austin.
Spurred by the belief in Manifest Destiny and the search for a Northwest Passage, the United States acquired new land through wars, treaties, and purchase.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


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