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The Schoolmaster's Progress
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Caroline Kirkland

Caroline Kirkland was born in New York City in 1801, the oldest of eleven children of Samuel and Eliza Alexander Stansbury. Her mother was herself a poet and fiction writer, and Kirkland grew up in a secure middle-class home. She was able to attend a school headed by her aunt and then, by becoming a teacher there, to contribute substantially to her family's income. When her father died in 1822, she in fact became the most important family provider. At this time she moved her mother and siblings to Clinton, in upstate New York, where she was teaching and where she had already met her future husband, William Kirkland. He was a tutor at nearby Hamilton College, and with their marriage in 1828, they began a balanced union of shared interests and endeavors unusual for its time. They eventually had seven children, four of whom survived early childhood.

In 1835 the Kirklands took the adventurous step of moving to Detroit, at that time little more than a western frontier town, to head a female academy. Then, in 1837, William Kirkland bought 800 acres of land and moved with Caroline and their three young children to a frontier village, Pinkney, which he founded and named. The experiment in settling the frontier was a financial failure, yet it did provide material for Caroline Kirkland's first book, an account of settlement life titled A New Home-Who'll Follow? Appearing in 1839, it found immediate popularity. The book was a partly satirical look at the trials of traveling to the West and adjusting to life in a village like Pinkney told in the voice of "Mary Clavers." A New Home drew praise from critics for its frankness, a quality that, unfortunately, her neighbors did not appreciate. By 1842, following many admiring reviews, including one by Edgar Allan Poe, the book had been given two more printings, yet insulted neighbors, along with worsening finances, made the Kirklands decide to return to New York City. They felt, no doubt, some of the disgrace that Kirkland's character, Harriet Bangle, experienced in "The Schoolmaster's Progress." Two other books on western life followed Kirkland's first success: A Forest Life (1842) and Western Clearings (1845), a collection of stories that earned especially high marks from Poe.

In New York the Kirklands moved in high literary circles, with William becoming an editor of the New York Mirror and Caroline opening a girl's school while continuing to write for the major magazines of the day. William Kirkland's tragic death by drowning in 1846 left Caroline Kirkland even more dependent on her writing. The Union Magazine of Literature and Art, which hired her as editor in 1847, published through her efforts some of the most important writers of the day. Her articles for this magazine and others throughout the 1840s and 1850s represent an important chronicle of American society and art. During the 1850s she published a biography of George Washington for children and helped her own son, Joseph Kirkland, establish a literary career. She died of a stroke in 1864. She had been a quiet champion of women's rights and a strong opponent of slavery, and at the time of her death was deeply committed to the Union effort through her work for the U.S. Sanitary Commission. -Lucinda H. MacKethan

Photograph courtesy of the Michigan Historical Society

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radio play logo   Dr. Deborah Hooker, Director
Women's and Gender Studies
Department of Interdisciplinary Studies
NC State University
    Send inquiries to dahooker@ncsu.edu

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