Born in New York, Kirkland moved west to Michigan with her family in 1837 where they founded a town. The project was financially unsuccessful and they returned to New York by the mid 1840s. The experience, however, inspired her first two books: A New Home—Who'll Follow? (under the pseudonym Mary Clavers) and Forest Life. Her view of the experience in her books was quite negative, as she depicted Michigan as a blighted Eden. The first book in particular stirred controversy when locals in Michigan recognized themselves lampooned in the book. From her preface:
I claim for these straggling and cloudy crayon sketches of life and manners in the remoter parts of Michigan the merit of general truth of outline. Beyond this I venture not to aspire. I felt somewhat tempted to set forth my little book as being entirely—what it is very nearly—a veritable history; an unimpeachable transcript of reality; a rough picture, in detached parts, but pentagraphed from the life; a sort of 'Emigrant's Guide;'—considering with myself that these my adventurous journeyings and tarryings beyond the confines of civilization might fairly be held to confer the traveller's privilege. But conscience prevailed, and I must honestly confess, that there be glosses, and colorings, and lights, if not shadows, for which the author is alone accountable. Journals, published entire and unaltered, should be Parthian darts, sent abroad only when one's back is turned. To throw them in the teeth of one's everyday associates might diminish one's popularity rather inconveniently. I would desire the courteous reader to bear in mind, however, that whatever is quite unnatural, or absolutely incredible, in the few incidents which diversify the following pages, is to be received as literally true. It is only in the most common-place parts (if there be comparisons) that I have any leasing-making to answer for... And with such brief salvo, I make my humble curtsey.
Back in New York, Kirkland founded a school for girls and joined the local literary community. Her home often hosted various gatherings of literary figures.
Kirkland was buried at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, alongside her husband, William Kirkland, a former professor at Hamilton College and assistant editor of the New York Evening Mirror. After his death in 1846, her writing became a main source of income.