Fanny Fern (Sara Willis Parton) (1811-1872)
Contributing Editor: Barbara A. White
Classroom Issues and Strategies
I have found Fern most accessible to students when presented as primarily
a humorist and satirist, rather than a "sentimentalist," and
a journalist rather than a novelist. However, I try to avoid setting her
up as an exception, as Hawthorne
did, a writer "better" than the typical "scribbling woman."
Ann Douglas Wood sets Fern apart for her refusal to disguise her literary
ambition and conform to prevailing rationales for women writing, and Joyce
W. Warren tries to rescue her from classification as a sentimentalist instead
of a satirist; Warren includes no "sentimental" pieces in her
selection from Fern's work. One might argue, however, that Fern should
be recognized as the author of "Thanksgiving Story" as well as
"Critics," and that while she was more outspoken than most of
her sister authors, she also resembles them in many ways.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
The rights of women and the problems and status of female authors are
obvious Fern themes. I believe it is also important to emphasize Fern's
treatment of class, since she is unusual for her time in portraying domestic
servants and factory workers as well as middle-class women.
Students have been responsive to approaching Fern through the issue
of names and their symbolism. When I was in graduate school studying nineteenth-century
American literature, female writers other than Emily
were mentioned only to be ridiculed as having three names.
To use more than two names, like Harriet
, or two initials, like E. D. E. N. Southworth, was to
be ipso facto
a poor writer, and it was just as bad to adopt an
alliterative pseudonym like Grace Greenwood or Millie Mayfield. I don't
recall the professors ever referring to Grata Payson Sara Willis Eldredge
Farrington Parton, "Fanny Fern."
The "Grata Payson" was supplied by the writer's father, who
named her after the mother of a minister he admired; the rest of the family
objected to "Grata," and in the first of a series of symbolic
name changes, she became "Sara," discarding the influence of
the father and his orthodox religion. Later in life Fern explained her
pen name as inspired by happy childhood memories of her mother picking
sweet fern leaves. In a further repudiation of patriarchal tradition Fern,
although she is often referred to in literary histories as Sara Parton,
did not use that name; she preferred her pseudonym, extending it to her
personal life and becoming "Fanny" even to family and friends.
Ann Douglas Wood (see headnote) views the nom de plume
Fern" as an emblem of Fern's "artistic schizophrenia." She
points out that "Fern" is a woodsy, flowery name typical of "sentimental"
writers, while "Fanny" suggests the rebel (Fern, who was given
the nickname "Sal Volatile" at the Beecher school, once remarked,
"I never saw a `Fanny' yet that wasn't as mischievous as Satan").
Wood, noting the two different types of sketches Fern wrote, concludes
that she possessed "two selves, two voices, one strident and aggressive,
the other conventional and sentimental." Mary Kelley, in Private
Woman, Public Stage
(Oxford, 1984), also stresses Fern's "dual
identity" in arguing the thesis that female authors of the nineteenth
century experienced a split between their private selves and public identities.
(Teachers who plan to assign Ruth Hall
should also see Linda Huf's
comments on this issue in her chapter on the novel in A Portrait of
the Artist as a Young Woman
Although the "split personality" approach interests students
and helps illuminate the cultural context in which women wrote, it can
be overdone. Early in her career Fern was obviously searching for a voice,
trying out the more conventional approach in pieces like "Thanksgiving
Story" and expressing herself more daringly in "Soliloquy of
a Housemaid." But it could be argued that once she established herself,
she successfully united the Fanny and the Fern in her writing--and in her
life shed the identity given her by men and became the person she herself
created. In any case, it is typical of Fern, who possessed the unusual
ability to mock herself, to create a final irony by making fun of her pen
name. She advised budding authors in search of a pseudonym to "bear
in mind that nothing goes down, now-a-days, but alliteration
instance, Delia Daisy, Fanny Foxglove, Harriet Honeysuckle, Lily Laburnum.
. . ."
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Fern's writing is especially useful for getting students to think about
style and tone, and the discussion can be related both to the split personality
issue raised above and the question of literary worth. Although some students
have considered Fern's style human and spontaneous, probably accounting
in large measure for her popularity, others have criticized it as too loud
("noisy," "braying"). They tend to view the italics,
capital letters, and exclamation points with suspicion ("unprofessional,"
"feminine," "schoolgirl"). One student claimed that
a writer who employs expressions like "Heigho!" and "H-u-m-p-h!"
cannot be "taken seriously." He could not explain why, any more
than most students (or critics) have been able to explain very successfully
what "sentimental" means and why it's bad to be so.
The question of literary value can easily be related to that of audience.
Fern's "Thanksgiving Story" lends itself to discussion of these
issues. The question of whether "Thanksgiving Story" is "worse"
than the other selections by Fern and how so, can be used to provoke discussion
of the standards by which literature is judged (and who does the judging)
and of the differences between nineteenth- and twentieth-century readers.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Fern's work can easily be compared and contrasted with that of just
about any woman of her time. She can also be paired with male writers,
such as Walt Whitman
and Leaves of Grass
) and Ik Marvel (Donald Grant
Mitchell), the essayist, who gained fame at about the same time as Fern.
Or she can be treated along with other nineteenth-century humorists.
If Fern's relationship with Walt Whitman is to be emphasized, see J.
F. McDermott, "Whitman and the Partons" (American Literature
29 [Nov. 1957] 316-19) and William White, "Fanny Fern to Walt Whitman:
An Unpublished Letter" (American Book Collector
11 [May 1961]
8-9). In "Fern Leaves and Leaves of Grass" ( New York Times
, April 22, 1945) it is suggested that Whitman imitated
in choosing both his title and his binding, particularly
the floral designs on the cover. Fern's review of Leaves of Grass
is reprinted in Warren, pp. 274-77.
In a course that includes Harriet
Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
will enjoy knowing that the "Mr. Bruce" for whom Jacobs works
as a nursemaid was N. P. Willis, Fern's brother; Fern satirizes her social-climbing
brother in "Apollo Hyacinth." Jacobs kept her writing of Incidents
secret from Willis, she wrote her friend Amy Post, because "Mr. W
is too proslavery he would tell me that it was very wrong and that I was
trying to do harm or perhaps he was sorry for me to undertake it while
I was in his family" (Incidents
, ed. Jean Fagan Yellin, 1987,
p. 232). Harriet Jacobs
and Fanny Fern were friendly; for an account of their relationship, see
Joyce W. Warren, Fanny Fern
If students read "The Declaration of Sentiments," they may
want to see Elizabeth Cady Stanton's review of Ruth Hall
(Frb. 1855, pp. 29-30). Stanton's defense of Fern is discussed
in Linsa Grasso's "Anger in the House: Fanny Fern's Ruth Hall
and the Redrawing of Emotional Boundaries in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America,"
in Studies in the American Renaissance
, 1955, pp. 251-61.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
1. I prefer to have students read her without any initial intervention.
2. For the intrepid--have students try to imitate Fern's style. This
demonstrates that it's not "natural," i.e., easy, but you may
not be forgiven for this assignment. It is also illuminating to compare
the original version of "Soliloquy of a Housemaid" (in Warren)
and the collected version in this anthology--so that students can see how
Fern revised her seemingly slapdash work.
Joyce W. Warren's Fanny Fern: An Independent Woman
become the standard biography. An overview of Fern's writings is available
in Nancy A. Walker's Fanny Fern