Legacy 20.1&2 (2003) 62-75
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The Politics of Vision in Caroline Kirkland's Frontier Fiction
Elizabeth C. Barnes
The nineteenth-century science of optics may seem incongruous in a discussion of Michigan novelist Caroline M. Kirkland, who is best known for work in three closely connected, mutually reinforcing traditions: regionalism, local color writing, and realism. Kirkland's Michigan-based frontier novel A New Home, Who'll Follow?: Or, Glimpses of Western Life (1839) fits into these categories and has led scholars to appreciate this "rough picture" of "life and manners in the remoter parts of Michigan" (A New Home 1). 1 Kirkland's self-proclaimed "Emigrant's Guide" to personal, familial, and social survival is described by the author herself as a "daguerreotype" (Forest Life 27), a photographic rendition of one woman's extended, intimate contact with a particular social and environmental community.
This very term "daguerreotype," however, points toward an investment in theories of vision, not simply from a literary standpoint, but also within the context of scientific processes debated during the nation's antebellum years. A New Home and its sequel Forest Life (1842) offer a discourse on frontier settlement by way of an optical rhetoric arguably more relevant to science than to nineteenth-century literary realism, or, for that matter, feminism.
Though Kirkland's texts are pervaded by references to log huts, mud holes, and the vernacular speech of rustic Michigan, they also register an experiential knowledge of and a fascination with antebellum machines and optical devices. This is not a hobbyist's preoccupation, but rather a rhetorical method for engaging in a national debate about western patterns of settlement and environmental development, about the aggressive growth and ethics of market capitalism, about power relations between the East and the West, and about the ultimate fate/stability of regional and (by extension) national character.
Kirkland's fascination with visual experimentation and optical discourse derives in large part from personal experience; throughout her married life, Kirkland's ability to function as a reliable optical instrument, as it were, played a crucial role in her family's economic and environmental survival. Her husband, William Kirkland, suffered not only from poor eyesight (a condition that required thick spectacles) but also from partial deafness. William's physical impairments prevented him from pursuing his career as a distinguished teacher in the East and played a direct role in his decision to relocate to Michigan. [End Page 62]
Significantly, William's move (both in real life and as represented in his wife's autobiographical first novel) begins with a fantasy of the West which he will attempt to realize as actual fact. In A New Home, an otherwise supportive Kirkland ironically confesses that her husband is prey to "'The madness of the people' in those days of golden dreams": "When my husband purchased two hundred acres of wildlands 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" (4).
Of course, William has purchased (and will continue to purchase throughout the narrative) the equivalent of the notorious swampland in Florida, with the addition of several fictional buildings that never actually materialize. The Kirklands survive despite William's impaired vision primarily because Caroline serves as his eyes. She must literally transform herself into an optical instrument; thus, a "faithful record" plays a critical role not only in her production of western literature, but also in personal survival on the frontier—both factors of interest to the future emigrant women among Kirkland's eastern readers. For Kirkland, visual praxis acquires an active urgency initially on personal, then on geographical, regional, and national bases.
Functioning in her life and in her fiction as a spousal lens, Kirkland developed an interest in the rapidly developing national passion for visual experimentation (from aerial perspectives to moving dioramas) pervasive...