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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

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.

Fern tried 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 by critics.

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.”

Neither disapproving 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
University of New Hampshire

In the Heath Anthology
Hints to Young Wives (1852)
Independence (1859)
The Working-Girls of New York (1868)
Fern Leaves, 1st Series
      Thanksgiving Story (1853)
Fern Leaves, 2nd Series
      Apollo Hyacinth (1854)
      Critics (1854)
      Mrs. Adolphus Smith Sporting the "Blue Stocking" (1854)
      Soliloquy of a Housemaid (1854)

Other Works

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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.

Secondary Sources

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