As Joseph Kirkland grew up, he moved to Chicago, joined the Union Army during the Civil War, and worked as a lawyer. He also became a writer, publishing his first book in 1887: Zury; The Meanest Man in Spring County, subtitled "A Novel of Western Life." Though set in Illinois, the novel makes a quick jab at Michigan and the Kirkland family's inability to be financially successful there, referring specifically to "when a Massychusetts caounterfeit one dollar bill wuz worth more than a ginuyne Michigan ten!"
The title character, Zury, certainly draws curiosity but Kirkland answers a reader's most important question in one of the book's chapters, "How the Meanest Man Got So Mean, and How Mean He Got." Much of it was the influence of his father Ephraim; the competed severely to save more money than the other. On his death bed, for example, Ephraim tells Zury he hopes to die on Thursday so that his funeral can be held on Sunday. That way, Zury doesn't have to go to mass twice and miss extra work. When Ephraim instead died on a Saturday, he held the funeral on Sunday anyway. Yet, despite his "meanness," Zury was not disliked and was noted for his honesty:
"Honest? Me? Wal, I guess so. Fustly, I wouldn't be noth'n' else, nohoaw; seck'ndly, I kin 'fford t' be, seein' 's haow it takes a full bag t' stand alone; thirdly, I can't 'fford t' be noth'n' else, coz honesty's th' best policy."
Hamlin Garland saw Kirkland's novel as the birth of a new nationalist type of literature. Zury, he said, "is completely unconventional" and had "not a trace of the old-world literature or society, — and every character is new and native."