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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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5. Masculine Heroes   

5. Masculine

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton
- Cherokee Memorials
- Louise Amelia Smith Clappe
- James Fenimore Cooper
- Corridos
- Caroline Stansbury Kirkland
- Nat Love
- John Rollin Ridge
- Catharine Maria Sedgwick
- Walt Whitman
- Suggested
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Authors: Caroline Stansbury Kirkland (1801-1864)

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

Caroline Stansbury Kirkland Activities
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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.

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