The Schoolmaster's Progress
Caroline Kirkland

by Caroline Kirkland

Kirkland takes us to a small frontier community outside of Detroit, Michigan, in the 1840s. In this lightly comic short story, we see a raw, rudimentarily educated schoolmaster learn his trade in the classroom and stumble his way through the uncharted pathways of romance.  Go to the tale

   B a c k g r o u n d

  • Story Setting: Near Detroit, MI
  • Story Date: The 1840's
  • Publication Date: 1844
  • Caroline Kirkland: 1801-64

  •    T h e    S t o r y
    (The links bookmark the tale.)

  • The beginning of the tale
  • The new schoolmaster
  • The schoolmaster's examination
  • His second & third terms
  • Miss Harriet Bangle, outsider
  • The spelling-school
  • Ellen Kingsbury & the schoolmaster
  • Harriet tricks the schoolmaster
  • Schoolmaster takes the bait
  • Preparations for the grand exhibition
  • Schoolmaster & Ellen talk - calamity!
  • Her father confronts the schoolmaster
  • Schoolmaster is publicly accused
  • Harriet's trickery is uncovered

  •    T h e    T h e m e s
    (The links bookmark theme-related passages in the color-coded version of the tale.)

  • Students at Work: 1
  • The Schoolmaster: 1, 2, 3, 4
  • Punishment, Revenge: 1, 2
  • School & Community: 1, 2, 3
  • Romance: 1, 2, 3

  •    R e l a t e d    S i t e s

  • Caroline Kirkland (1801-1864)

  • Caroline Kirkland: Local Color

  • "The Schoolmaster's Progress": Scribbling Women

  • Caroline Kirkland: Early American Fiction

  • Caroline Kirkland's "A New Home (images from book)

  • Caroline Kirkland: Perspectives in American Literature:

  •    I n t r o d u c t i o n

       Kirkland lived in New York City most of her life, but much of her early writing, including "The Schoolmaster's Progress," is based on experiences gathered when she and her husband lived in and around Detroit, Michigan, which was then a frontier town. Her schoolmaster, his school and the surrounding community are similar to those described in many education-related stories written in the first half of the 19th century.

       Kirkland's schoolmaster is a minimally educated 18 year old from a neighboring town who is barely equipped to deal with his teaching duties in the community's one room schoolhouse. Her comic portrayal of his ineptness is echoed in many other stories in this collection, as is his dependence on corporal punishment to maintain order (See Washington Irving's "Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" for other examples). Unlike many fictional schoolmasters, however, he grows and matures, becoming a dedicated and reasonably successful teacher, then leaves the classroom by the end of the story. His departure from the profession is not surprising, since most fiction of the time implies that teaching is no place for any man with the ability to succeed elsewhere.

       As minimal as the schoolmaster's education is at the beginning of the tale, he towers above the local citizenry in learning. Schooling was in its infancy in remote regions like the one she describes, and Kirkland mocks the ignorance of the locals, satirizing and patronizing her frontier characters for the amusement of her sophisticated New York audience. In fact, some of the people she wrote about in the Detroit area took offense when they saw themselves and their neighbors satirized in her stories.

       Kirkland describes in considerable detail one of the traditional amusements of these small communities -- the Spelling School. The entire community turns out to watch students from neighboring schools go head to head in spelling contests. Possibly the finest description of the traditional Spelling School can be found in Edward Eggleston's "The Hoosier Schoolmaster," also included in this collection.

       Kirkland was a schoolteacher for many years, but since most of her teaching was done in a more rarified academic setting than is found in this story, the situations she describes are probably not directly autobiographical. However, her experience in the classroom allows her to bring greater authenticity to her depictions of the schoolmaster's trials in the classroom. Her discussion of the young schoolmaster's transition from a first year teacher to a more experienced veteran, for instance, is captured with insight that could easily derive from her personal classroom experience.

       We never actually enter the schoolmaster's classroom in this story to see how he conducts his classroom. Though his role as schoolmaster is central to the tale, the storyline revolves around a convoluted comic romance in which the schoolmaster is originally made a fool, as are so many fictional schoolmasters, but has a chance to redeem himself at the end.