Caroline Kirkland (1801-1864)
Contributing Editor: Judith Fetterley
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Most of the students I have taught love Caroline Kirkland. They find her eminently contemporary. Her prose style is accessible, she is funny, and she deals with a subject familiar to nearly all Americans--the frontier. Some students are put off by her middle-class bias and perspective; they find her attitudes toward the locals patronizing and they object to the fact that (unlike Jewett) Kirkland provides very little space for the stories of any of these people as told by themselves.
Kirkland's letters sound like they were written yesterday to the students reading the letter. One obvious way of breaking open the text and inviting discussion is to ask students to pick one of her "natives" and have them write what they imagine that person would say about their new neighbor, Caroline Kirkland, if they wrote a letter to one of their friends who has moved farther west.
Students often wonder why they have never heard of Kirkland before. They want to know what else she wrote. They wonder why she is so concerned with issue of manners and ask what happened when she published her book.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Kirkland is accessible in part because she is writing about a subject that has been made central to the study of American culture--the frontier, the movement west of white settlers. Kirkland is important because she is dealing with this phenomenon from the point of view of the woman who was required, often not of her own will, to follow the man to his new home. She writes specifically of the cost to women of the male model of "upward mobility"--the pattern of constantly moving on under the guise of improving one's position. This theory of "improvement" of course takes no account of the woman's position, which is usually worsened as a result. Thus the most important feature of Kirkland for the survey course is the fact that she inserts the woman's perspective into this male cultural pattern. Kirkland's work thus provides the context for discussing the commitment of the mid-century women writers to values of home, domesticity, etc.
Kirkland is equally important as an example of a relatively early American woman writer who successfully established a voice. The instructor should be familiar with Kirkland's essay "Literary Women," collected in A Book for the Home Circle (1853), and included in the forthcoming volume of Kirkland's work from the Rutgers Press American Women Writers series. Kirkland was well aware of the prejudices against women writers and of the strictures governing what they were and were not supposed to write. Her decision to lace her text with literary references may in part have stemmed from her desire to define herself clearly as a literary woman and to defy the strictures and the stereotypes. In a context where there was so much harassment of women writers, her voice is remarkably clear and confident. She writes with a sense of authority and conviction that is not modulated through any other agency. She writes because she likes to write, not because she is trying to save the world or support her children. She is a rare example of an early American woman writer who wrote carefully and published only what she felt was well written.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
First, Kirkland defines herself as a realist. Since American literary history has been based, until very recently, on a study of the works of male American writers, the governing generalization insists that realism in American literature is a post-Civil War phenomenon. However, American women writers were experimenting with realism in the decades before the Civil War and Caroline Kirkland was among the first, the most explicit, and the most articulate. Clearly defining herself against the romantic views of the West provided by contemporary male writers, Kirkland claims to write the truth about Michigan, which means that she intends to include the difficulties that face women who try to put together three meals a day in the wilderness, the state of the Michigan roads with their enormous pot holes, and the general slovenliness of the "natives." So certainly any discussion of Kirkland needs to address her conception of realism and the general contours of American literary history that emerge from including women writers in the map of the territory.
Second, Kirkland identifies herself as participating in a tradition set by women writers. She ends her preface to A New Home with a reference to "Miss Mitford's charming sketches of village life" and with a "humble curtsey." It is important to explore the degree to which Kirkland establishes throughout her text her connection to a tradition of women writers presenting a woman's point of view. As is clear from the preface, Kirkland embraces an iconography that clearly identifies her as a woman writer (men don't curtsey) and she wishes to remind her readers that they are reading a work written by a woman. In the process of so doing, she is also attempting to explore the nature of a woman's aesthetics. Implicitly, and on occasion explicitly, she is asking, what kind of book does a woman write, given the nature of woman's experience and perspective?
One can also raise here the question of genre--to what extent is Kirkland's voice, her authority, tied to her use of a relatively unconvention-ridden genre, namely the letter home? Is she freed to do her best because she is not trying to be a great writer but is trying only to write interesting letters to the folks back home? Students might be encouraged to look into the use of the letter as a form for published writing by both men and women in the nineteenth century.
As I have said earlier, Kirkland is useful for raising the larger question of the relation of the nineteenth-century American women writers to their audience. Nineteenth-century white middle-class American male writers had problems establishing an audience, a sense of who they were writing to. A new view could and should question these assumptions. Hawthorne's preface to The Scarlet Letter, the chapter on the Custom-House, can serve perhaps as a paradigm for the male situation. Here Hawthorne reveals his fear that he is speaking to no one except himself. Kirkland, on the other hand, has a very clear sense of the "you" at the other end of her letter. One can certainly raise with students the question as to why it is that Kirkland might have such a clear sense of audience. To what degree does it have to do with the world she describes women as inhabiting--a world in which loved ones are left behind, a world in which the letter (and think of the implications of this fact--here we look forward to The Color Purple) was left in the hands of women, a world in which there was a clear sense of community and of someone who would want to know what was happening to their daughters who had gone west?
It seems fairly obvious that Kirkland assumed her readers would be of the same social class as herself. Whether or not she assumed her readers would be primarily women is a more complex question. My own sense of Kirkland leads me to believe that she assumed a readership made up of men as well as women, that she was not of that group of women writers who were writing essentially to women even though they knew and hoped that men might read their books and thus overhear their conversation. But I also think Kirkland took her women readers seriously and wrote at least in part to educate them.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
I have already suggested many points of comparison. I will just reiterate them here. Kirkland can be compared with many male writers in terms of her presentation of the frontier and the experience of westward and "upward" mobility. She can also be compared with many male writers in terms of her attitudes toward and handling of the issue of class. A writer like Hawthorne is so completely class-bound that class is never even an issue in his work. In many of the classes I have taught on Kirkland, I have been able to use students' anger at Kirkland's classism to raise the issue of class prejudice in writers like Hawthorne. Many students have come to realize that writers like Hawthorne protect themselves, albeit unconsciously, against charges of classism by simply never raising class as an issue. Kirkland is at least aware that American society is profoundly affected by the issue of class. Kirkland can also be compared to male writers in terms of the question of audience, as discussed above.
Kirkland can be fruitfully compared with other nineteenth-century American women writers in terms of the issue of voice. Students can compare the authority with which Kirkland speaks to the less secure voice of certain other women writers. She can also be compared with other women writers in terms of her commitment to realism and in terms of her commitment to presenting the woman's story.
I refer the instructor to the discussion of Kirkland in Annette Kolodny's The Land Before Her and in my own Provisions.
There is also a Twayne series book on Kirkland that is useful for an overview but does not provide much in the way of criticism and would not be of much use in the classroom.
The Rutgers Press American Women Writers series has a volume of Kirkland under contract and the introduction to that volume should be very useful.