February 1990

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Caroline Kirkland

and Her Book, A New Home


Bill Treichler

Click here for an index to the chapters of A New Home.

When the Kirklands moved from Geneva, New York, to Michigan in 1835, Caroline Kirkland was 34 years old and the mother of four small children. While they lived in Detroit and her husband was head of the academy for young women there, Caroline taught, but after they moved to Pinckney and were more isolated she may have longed for intellectual stimulation. She was intelligent and she was observant; she wrote of their experiences and the people they met on the frontier and sent letters to her family and friends. Evidently their appreciation of her stories encouraged her to produce a series of sketches of life that she witnessed first hand in the Michigan Territory. Her observations were clear. truthful, optimistic, sympathetic and very entertaining. When they were published as A New Home: Who'll Follow? in 1839 her book became a literary sensation that caught world-wide recognition as a new American style combining wit and sprightliness with realism and accuracy. Mrs. Kirkland didn't describe people as much as she told their whole story. Her descriptions of their daily living are real, never romanticized.

Although she used an adopted name, Mrs. Mary Clavers, in the book, her neighbors in Michigan soon recognized that they were the subjects of Mrs. Kirkland's sketches in A New Home.

The local people thought they had been exposed. They felt that she had made them look ridiculous by revealing their mannerisms and foibles. After the book had come back to Pinckney, the Kirklands became outsiders to their former neighbors who now realized that the Kirklands were not alone in the new country but still had connections where they had lived.

Caroline Kirkland had not meant to ridicule her neighbors. She recognized their true worth. She was not an outsider visiting the settlements to describe them as a number of European travelers had. She had come with her husband to make a new home for their family in the new territory of Michigan. She entered into the everyday life of establishing a home, raising her children, accepting help from her neighbors when she and her husband both became sick, and extending her own support to them when they needed her help or the use of some article or tool she could lend to them. Obviously, Caroline Kirkland was a person who enjoyed other people and who could accommodate herself to their unique personalities. She always insisted that her experiences on the frontier had developed her own character and that her contact with the settlers had improved her judgment.

The response of the settlers to A New Home and the failure financially of their venture caused the Kirklands to return to New York City in 1843. William Kirkland entered the newspaper field and became editor in 1846 of the New York Evening Mirror and his own paper, The Christian Inquirer. He was a scholarly man with poor vision and hearing. That year he tragically walked off the end of a pier and drowned because he couldn't see well.

Caroline opened a school for girls and continued her literary pursuits. She was in the center of a group of writers, editors, professors and professional people in New York that included Poe, Bryant, and Stoddard. Mrs. Kirkland even traveled abroad twice where she met Dickens, the Brownings, and Harriet Martineau.

While still in Michigan, she had published a second book, Forest Life, in 1842, and in 1845 published Western Clearings, her last book of frontier stories. She continued to write articles and edit books while she was editor of the Union Magazine from 1847 to 1849.

One of her children born in Geneva was Joseph who followed in his mother's literary footsteps. He wrote Zury, The Meanest Man in Spring County and is credited with encouraging Hamlin Garland to become a novelist.

When Joseph was in the Union Army his mother suffered from anxiety for his safety and for the cause. During the war she threw herself into work for the Metropolitan Fair, a benefit for the U. S. Sanitary Commission. Two nights after the opening of the fair she died in her sleep on April 6, 1864.

She had inaugurated an American style of realism in writing, yet by the time of her death her popularity had faded and by 1900 she was nearly forgotten. A great change had come over the country with the catastrophe of the Civil War, the financial panics, the end of the frontier, the growth of the factory system in industry, and swelling city populations. Many Americans lost their self-confidence; others who amassed fortunes turned to emulating Europeans and adopted a living style in which appearance counted most. Realism was out of vogue.

Caroline Kirkland's personality was a complementary blend of realism and idealism. She was a realist in her keen observation of all the people around her and by her own participation in the pioneering adventure, yet she was an idealist in her standards for her own education and for her teaching. She was also an idealist for having joined the great western movement. Her well-schooled mind was aware that this was an unusual moment in history.

She did see that these people who had come to the frontier were as often fortune seekers as they were freedom seekers; that some were only looking for a short-term gain in money profit. Many of her stories portray these personalities: those who were always trading property and speculating in land prices.

She wrote also of those settlers who had come with very little and were clearing their fields and building cabins in a wilderness miles from any neighbor. They were individualists. They believed that they could better themselves by their own work and that this was their opportunity. They may not have thought much about the whole movement but they were proud of what they had accomplished and what others around them were building.

Already in 1839 schools were forming in the settlements. Even an historical society had been started in Ohio. There were people who strongly felt that they were a part of a monumental movement as Caroline Kirkland did.

Copyright 1990 by William E. Treichler
Much of the information in this article comes from the
introduction by John Nerber to the 1953 reissue of A New Home.
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