The Literati of New York/No. IV/Caroline M. Kirkland
Mrs. Kirkland's"New Home," published under the nom de plume of "Mary Clavers," wrought an undoubted sensation. The cause lay not so much in picturesque description, in racy humor, or in animated individual portraiture, as in truth and novelty. The west at the time was a field comparatively untrodden by the sketcher or the novelist. In certain works, to be sure, we had obtained brief glimpses of character strange to us sojourners in the civilized east, but to Mrs. Kirkland alone we were indebted for our acquaintance with the home and home-life of the backwoodsman. With a fidelity and vigor that prove her pictures to be taken from the very life, she has represented "scenes " that could have occurred only as and where she has described them. She has placed before us the veritable settlers of the forest, with all their peculiarities, national and individual; their free and fearless spirit; their homely utilitarian views; their shrewd out-looking for self-interest; [column 2:] their thrifty care and inventions multiform; their coarseness of manner, united with real delicacy and substantial kindness when their sympathies are called into action — in a word, with all the characteristics of the Yankee, in a region where the salient points of character are unsmoothed by contact with society. So life-like were her representations that they have been appropriated as individual portraits by many who have been disposed to plead, trumpet-tongued, against what they supposed to be "the deep damnation of their taking-off."
"Forest Life" succeeded "A New Home," and was read with equal interest. It gives us, perhaps, more of the philosophy of western life, but has the same freshness, freedom, piquancy. Of course, a truthful picture of pioneer habits could never be given in any grave history or essay so well as in the form of narration, where each character is permitted to develop itself; narration, therefore, was very properly adopted by Mrs. Kirkland in both the books just mentioned, and even more entirely in her later volume, "Western Clearings." This is the title of a collection of tales, illustrative, in general, of Western manners, customs, ideas. "The Land Fever" is a story of the wild days when the madness of speculation in land was at its height. It is a richly characteristic sketch, as is also "The Ball at Thram's Huddle." Only those who have had the fortune to visit or live in the "back settlements" can enjoy such pictures to the full. "Chances and Changes" and "Love vs. Aristocracy" are more regularly constructed tales, with the "universal passion" as the moving power, but colored with the glowing hues of the west. "The Bee Tree" exhibits a striking but too numerous class among the settlers, and explains, also, the depth of the bitterness that grows out of an unprosperous condition in that "Paradise of the Poor." "Ambuscades" and "Half-Lengths from Life" I remember two piquant sketches to which an annual, a year or two ago, was indebted for a most unusual sale among the conscious and pen-dreading denizens of the west. "Half-Lengths " turns on the trying subject of caste. "The Schoolmaster's Progress" is full of truth and humor. The western pedagogue, the stiff, solitary nondescript figure in the drama of a new settlement, occupying a middle position between "our folks" and "company," and "boarding round," is irresistibly amusing, and cannot fail to be recognised as the representative of a class. The occupation, indeed, always seems to mould those engaged in it — they all soon, like Master Horner, learn to "know well what belongs to the pedagogical character, and that facial solemnity stands high on the list of indispensable qualifications." The spelling-school, also, is a "new country" feature which we owe Mrs. Kirkland many thanks for recording. The incidents of "An Embroidered Fact " are singular and picturesque, but not particularly illustrative of the "Clearings." The same may be said of "Bitter [page 76:] Fruits from Chance-Sown Seeds;" but this abounds in capital touches of character: all the horrors of the tale are brought about through suspicion of pride, an accusation as destructive at the west as that of witchcraft in olden times, or the cry of mad dog in modern.
In the way of absolute books, Mrs. Kirkland, I believe, has achieved nothing beyond the three volumes specified, (with another lately issued by Wiley and Putnam,) but she is a very constant contributor to the magazines. Unquestionably, she is one of our best writers, has a province of her own, and in that province has few equals. Her most noticeable trait is a certain freshness of style, seemingly drawn, as her subjects in general, from the west. In the second place is to be observed a species of wit, approximating humor, and so interspersed with pure fun, that "wit," after all, is nothing like a definition of it. To give an example — "Old Thoughts on the New Year" commences with a quotation from Tasso's "Aminta"—
"Il mondo invecchia E invecchiando intristisce;"
and the following is given as a "free translation" —
"The world is growing older
And wiser day by day;
Everybody knows beforehand
What you're going to say.
We used to laugh and frolic —
Now we must behave:
Poor old Fun is dead and buried —
Pride dug his grave."
This, if I am not mistaken, is the only specimen of poetry as yet given by Mrs. Kirkland to the world. She has afforded us no means of judging in respect to her inventive powers, although fancy, and even imagination, are apparent in everything she does. Her perceptive faculties enable her to describe with great verisimilitude. Her mere style is admirable, lucid, terse, full of variety, faultlessly pure, and yet bold — so bold as to appear heedless of the ordinary decora of composition. In even her most reckless sentences, however, he betrays the woman of refinement, of accomplishment, of unusually thorough education. There are a great many points in which her general manner resembles that of Willis, whom she evidently admires. Indeed, it would not be difficult to pick out from her works an occasional Willisism, not less palpable than happy. For example —
- "Peaches were like little green velvet buttons when George was first mistaken for Doctor Beaseley, and before they were ripe he," etc.
And again —
- "Mr. Hammond is fortunately settled in our neighborhood, for the present at least; and he has the neatest little cottage in the world, standing, too, under a very tall oak, which bends kindly over it, looking like the Princess Glumdalclitch inclining her ear to the box which contained her pet Gulliver." [column 2:]
Mrs. Kirkland's personal manner is an echo of her literary one. She is frank, cordial, yet sufficiently dignified — even bold, yet especially ladylike; converses with remarkable accuracy as well as fluency; is brilliantly witty, and now and then not a little sarcastic, but a general amiability prevails.
She is rather above the medium height; eyes and hair dark; features somewhat small, with no marked characteristics, but the whole countenance beams with benevolence and intellect.