| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Fanny Fern (Sara Willis Parton)
Born in Portland, Maine, the daughter of Nathaniel and Hannah
Parker Willis, Fern spent her early years in Boston, where her father
established a religious newspaper and founded Youth’s Companion. Fern
learned journalism from him but preferred her more broadminded mother to whom
she later attributed her literary talents. Fern was educated at the famous
Beecher seminary; Catharine Beecher and her sister Harriet recalled her as a
mischief-maker who neglected her studies but wrote witty essays.
Fern lived happily
with her first husband, Charles Eldredge, a bank cashier whom she married in
1837. But when he died in 1846, soon after the deaths of her mother and the
eldest of her three daughters, she was reduced to relative poverty with only
grudging support from her father and
in-laws. In 1849 she married Samuel Farrington, a Boston merchant; they
quickly separated, and Fern later portrayed him as a “hypocrite” who tricks a
reluctant widow into marriage and then deserts her.
unsuccessfully to earn a living sewing and teaching and had to give up a
daughter to her in-laws before she decided to make use of her background and
write short sketches for Boston papers. She appealed to her brother, N.P.
Willis, a successful poet and editor, for help in launching a literary career;
apparently he pronounced her writing vulgar and advised making shirts instead.
But Fern’s sketches proved so popular that when she collected them in 1853, Fern
Leaves from Fanny’s Portfolio became an instant bestseller. She continued the
next year with a second series and a juvenile.
Fern’s early sketches
are heavily autobiographical: they treat the deaths of husbands or children, as
in “A Thanksgiving Story,” or the failings of family members, as in “Apollo
Hyacinth,” where she satirizes her brother as a dandy and social climber. One
prominent theme, which appears in the book in “Mrs. Adolphus Smith Sporting the ‘Blue
Stocking’” and “Critics” and would become a Fern staple, is the difficult
situation of the female writer; Fern’s aspiring authors have trouble finding
decent writing conditions, proper remuneration from editors, or fair treatment
Fern used material
from her early sketches in Ruth Hall (1855), a novel about the struggles
of a widow to gain financial security. Fern had thought herself protected by
her pseudonym, but Ruth Hall caused a sensation when her identity was
discovered—and apparently hinted at by her publisher’s ads—and Ruth’s mean
father, in-laws, and brother “Hyacinth” recognized as the author’s own.
While Nathaniel Hawthorne admired the novel, making Fern the one exception to
his sweeping indictment of his female rivals as a “d—d mob of scribbling
women,” most critics attacked it for the same reason he praised it: the lack of
“female delicacy” involved in satirizing one’s relatives and allowing one’s
heroine to evolve from tearful victim to aggressive author and businesswoman.
Fern was widely thought to have “demeaned herself” in creating “Ruthless Hall.”
critics nor the publication of Life and Beauties of Fanny Fern (1855),
an anonymously authored book denouncing her, affected Fern’s popularity with
readers. She accepted the extravagant sum of $100 a week to write for the New
York Ledger, reclaimed her daughter, and moved to New York. In 1856 she
again broke with convention, marrying a man eleven years her junior (James
Parton, the biographer) and publicly praising Walt Whitman’s scandalous Leaves
of Grass. She also published an inferior novel, Rose Clark, but
thereafter restricted herself to the form she excelled at, the short, informal
essay; from 1857 to her death in 1872 she published several collections of
these from her Ledger columns.
Because her early work
is best known (or because women writing in mid-nineteenth-century America have
been lumped together), Fanny Fern has been mistakenly classified as a
“sentimentalist.” Fred Pattee in The Feminine Fifties calls her a
“tearful moralizer,” claiming she produced “goodygoody inanity.” However,
Fern’s writing changed significantly after her initial success. The first
three-quarters of Fern Leaves may be too lachrymose for modern taste but
the last quarter contains humorous and satirical pieces, and in the second
series the proportion is exactly reversed. Fern was known to her contemporaries
for her non-goody-goody wit and humor expressed in the “noisy, rattling”
style—full of italics and exclamation points—that her brother deplored.
By 1859 and the
publication of Folly As It Flies, Fern had developed a surer voice,
still direct and fresh but more relaxed and unified. She also broadened her
range of subject matter. Although her trademark continued to be women’s and
children’s rights and everyday domestic topics, like the annoying habits of
husbands, Fern became more conscious of urban social and economic conditions.
She began to express her empathy with working women, which had earlier revealed
itself in pieces like “Soliloquy of a Housemaid,” in greater detail, depicting
poverty, prostitution, exploitation of workers, and prison life.
Barbara A. White|
In the Heath Anthology
Hints to Young Wives
The Working-Girls of New York
Fern Leaves, 1st Series
Fern Leaves, 2nd Series
Mrs. Adolphus Smith Sporting the "Blue Stocking"
Soliloquy of a Housemaid
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Antebellum and Civil War America, 1784-1865
A general history and chronology (personal and professional) of Fern's life.
Resources for the Study of Fanny Fern
An extensive bibliography of primary and secondary resources.
Sara Payson Willis Parton
A biography and a scanned portrait.
Judith Fetterley, Provisions: A Reader from 19th-Century American Women, 1985
Lucy M. Freibert and Barbara A. White, eds., Hidden Hands: An Anthology of American Women Writers, 1790-1870, 1985
Sharon Harris, ed., Redefining the Political Novel: American Women Writers, 1797-1901, 1995
Joyce W. Warren, Fanny Fern: An Independent Woman, 1992