restricted access Promotion, Borrowing, and Caroline Kirkland's Literary Labors
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Promotion, Borrowing, and Caroline Kirkland's Literary Labors
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Caroline Kirkland. From Female Prose Writers of America, ed. John S. Hart (1852), facing 105.

[End Page 390]

At the start of Caroline Kirkland's A New Home, Who'll Follow? (1839), Mary Clavers (Kirkland's pseudonymous persona) expresses surprise at her own role in developing the western frontier: "When my husband purchased two hundred acres of wild land on the banks of this to-be-celebrated stream, and drew with a piece of chalk on the bar-room table at Danforth's the plan of a village, I little thought I was destined to make myself famous by handing down to posterity a faithful record of the advancing fortunes of that favoured spot."1 Here, Clavers's tongue is more than slightly in cheek—development proved more difficult than anticipated for the Claverses, as it had for the Kirklands, whose financial difficulties led them to return to the East after only six years in Pinckney, Michigan (the town fictionalized as Montacute in A New Home).2 In this passage, Clavers traces her unexpected participation in a cyclical movement, from her husband's purchase of land and its imaginative development on paper, to her personal encounter with the wilderness (an already written region) and the "real" difficulties of establishing a community, and finally, back to paper—the pages of her own text, ostensibly an accurate portrait of her experiences. Kirkland found a ready market for her western writing; after A New Home's success, Kirkland continued writing her version of the West in Forest Life (1842) and Western Clearings (1845), although she became more circumspect when portraying her Michigan neighbors in those later texts. [End Page 391]

As critics have frequently noted, Kirkland's western writings offer an overtly corrective vision of the frontier, particularly the rosy images offered in promotional guides and romantic texts.3 While there are evident differences between Kirkland's literary works and the profit-oriented emigrant's guides and advertisements of the era, I argue here against the tendency to dichotomize the two genres. Although Kirkland certainly poses her work as an alternative to such skewed portrayals of the West, her writing, like the promotional literature of the time, is inevitably enmeshed in the systems of commerce and speculation she critiques so strongly. Much of Kirkland's overtly promotional work centers on cultivation, which she celebrates as a positive alternative to speculation and other destructive practices. Cultivation emerges again and again as a central concern, whether Kirkland is advocating for the cultivation of land through gardening and farming or the cultivation of proper manners among her frontier neighbors. Throughout A New Home, Kirkland plots these practices along the axes of profit versus work, calling attention to the indispensability of work on the frontier and the hazards of a work-shy economy. At the same time as she condemns the dishonest means by which settlers are lured to the West and the practices of land speculation that undermine labor on the land, Kirkland herself engages in forms of promotion and creates images from uncultivated soil. This precarious position invites us to ask: what kind of labor is Kirkland's writing? Key to answering this question, I argue, is the concept of borrowing: while Kirkland uses her texts to critique the detrimental effects of borrowing on the frontier economy and community, she also employs literary borrowing as a kind of (mostly) visible authorial labor and an alternative to more suspect forms of borrowing—forms that threaten to erase separations between public and private as well as distinctions between the "genteel" and "vulgar" classes in the West. [End Page 392]

Promotion and Cultivation: Writing and Growing the Frontier

To understand the economic contexts of Kirkland's work, it is helpful to examine changes in the policies governing the selling of land in the West in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In The Public Lands, Vernon Carstensen documents the history of U.S. public land sales, tracing the development of a credit option in 1796 that gave buyers a year to pay for land, which was increased to four...