Fanny Fern Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Fanny Fern 1811-1872

Pseudonym of Sara Payson Willis Parton. American journalist, novelist, essayist, and short story writer.

Writing under the pseudonym “Fanny Fern,” Willis Parton was both the first woman newspaper columnist as well as the most highly-paid newspaper writer of her time. Among a minority of women writers in the mid-nineteenth century who disturbed both male and female readers with “unfeminine” and “vulgar” writing, Fern in her weekly columns addressed such issues as women's economic independence, children's rights, birth control, prostitution, and venereal disease—all topics considered unseemly for a woman to be discussing publicly. But it was the release of her first novel, the anonymous and largely autobiographical Ruth Hall (1855), that gained for Willis Parton widespread attention. Soon after its publication, a fellow journalist, so angered by his fictional portrayal in the novel, publicly revealed Willis Parton's identity, leading many readers to criticize her candid disclosure of her family's misbehavior—however egregious it may have been. The resourceful and independent title character also drew scathing commentary from critics, many of whom insisted that the heroine exhibited behavior that was grossly unfeminine. Modern critics, however, tend to view Willis Parton as being ahead of her time both in terms of what she considered important societal concerns and her commentary on them.

Biographical Information

Willis was born in Portland, Maine, the fifth of nine children, and moved with her family to Boston at an early age. Her father, Nathaniel Willis, was the editor of two Boston newspapers, while her brother, Nathaniel Parker Willis, eventually became a noted journalist and poet within the New York publishing industry. Willis attended several female seminaries before finally graduating in 1829 from Catharine Beecher's Female Seminary in Hartford, Connecticut, where the young Willis was noted for her spirited writings and mischievous behavior. In 1837 she married Charles H. Eldredge, a bank cashier, and they had three children, all girls. When Eldredge died in 1846 from typhoid fever, he left his wife and two daughters (the eldest had died in 1845) penniless. Willis appealed to her father and father-in-law for assistance, and though they each gave her a small allowance, they advised her that remarriage would be her best means of support. Willis acquiesced to her families' demands and married Samuel Farrington in 1849, a widower with two children. The marriage ultimately failed; taking the children with her, Willis left him in 1851 (a shocking move for a woman) and Farrington obtained a divorce in 1853. Willis's family was scandalized and refused to continue to support her.

Willis then tried the traditional course for women—taking up sewing and teaching to earn money—but was unsuccessful at both of these. In desperation, she tried writing. In the summer of 1851 the Boston Olive Branch published one of her essays and paid her fifty cents. Willis then sent some samples of her writing to her brother in New York, but he sent them back with scathing criticism, deeming her work inappropriate and indecent. She persevered without his assistance, and was able to make ends meet by writing for various Boston newspapers under the pseudonym Fanny Fern. She became so popular that her columns were pirated by other newspapers nationwide, and in 1853, a New York publisher released Fern Leaves from Fanny's Portfolio, a collection of her columns and short stories, which was wildly successful. Two more popular collections soon followed, and Fern decided to move to New York after earning ten thousand dollars in royalties.

After the publication of Ruth Hall, Fern was hired by Robert Bonner of the best-selling New York Ledger as a weekly columnist. By 1855, Fern was the highest paid columnist in the country, earning an unprecedented one hundred dollars for each installment of a serial novel titled “Fanny Ford,” which eventually appeared as part of a collection entitled Fresh Leaves (1857). She published another novel, Rose Clark (1856), as well as other collections of stories, and continued to write popular weekly columns for Bonner. One of her columns included a review of her friend Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, in which she took the unpopular stance among critics of praising the book. In 1856, she married editor and writer James Parton, eleven years her junior. Parton was familiar with Fern's publications and supported every aspect of her writing and work; he signed a prenuptial agreement specifying that all Fern's property belonged to her. Fern died in 1872 from cancer, missing only one column—the week before her death—in seventeen years of journalism.

Major Works

In most of her work, Fern wrote as a social critic, exposing what she saw as societal wrongs and sometimes proposing ways to right these wrongs. She was deeply concerned with injustice as it affected women, both at home and in the marketplace, which is why she never ceased urging women to secure financial independence from men. While Fern's female contemporaries were writing what was called “sentimental,” “delicate” literature, deemed appropriate for women writers, Fern was wrestling in her weekly columns with such topics as equal pay and more employment opportunities for women (her brief stint in the sewing industry made her sympathetic to the plight of underpaid seamstresses), divorce, children's education reform, and the sexual double standard. In her best-selling, largely autobiographical novel Ruth Hall (which was originally intended to be anonymous), Fern made private matters public by exposing her own life's trials (in her family's mistreatment of her) and documenting her ultimate success despite their abandonment. This was shocking reading for that time period—genteel women were not supposed to be maligning their families in public and celebrating their personal victories. And, unlike other novels of its generation, Ruth Hall does not end with the heroine's marriage and the end of her career. Ruth is an assertive, independent businesswoman in a male-dominated environment, but she is also a devoted mother—it was for her children's benefit that she began writing in the first place. Fern's second novel, Rose Clark (which also sold well), contains autobiographical elements as well, but this book centers on the difficulties of her second marriage. After Rose Clark, Fern stopped writing long fiction; Joyce W. Warren, a respected Fern scholar, speculates that the “rules” for women novelists of the 1850s were too constricting for Fern, leading her to focus instead on the essay form, which allowed her the opportunity to express herself much more openly and freely. In all of her writings, Fern also decried hypocrisy, pretension, and conformity and urged individualism for both men and women.

Critical Reception

Until recently, Fern has been lumped together with other women writers of the mid-nineteenth century, perhaps in part due to the “sentimental” pieces contained in some of her collections of essays and short stories. One critic has commented that these were likely included in her early collections so that her work might be published at all. When Ruth Hall first appeared, Fern, who was praised by the British press, was generally castigated by the American review media, who cited the baseness of the novel and the fact that Fern had “demeaned herself” with its publication. She did, however, have her American supporters. Nathaniel Hawthorne, for example, found her writing refreshingly different from the writing of her female contemporaries, noting that when, like Fern, women writers “throw off the constraints of decency … then their books are sure to possess character and value. …” Elizabeth Cady Stanton praised the novel for its debunking of the myth that women can always depend on men for economic, legal, and social protection. Modern critics have reexamined the importance of Fern's life and writing. Ann Douglas Wood, for example, argues that Fern “challenged the preconceived ideas about why women should write and what kind of literature they could write.” Commenting on the fact that the public and emotional expression of anger was perceived as a direct threat to traditional nineteenth-century gender roles, Linda Grasso notes that Ruth Hall was at the center of a heated debate over whether a woman could reveal her ill-will toward men in a public forum and yet still retain a respectable position in society. Joyce W. Warren, who has written extensively on Fern, writes that Fern's “ideas and writing style were far in advance of her day.” Warren finds that Fern advocated individualism, independence, and rights for women when the American individualist was thought to be exclusively male and the “American Dream” solely his. Focusing on the dualistic nature of Ruth Hall, Susan K. Harris, too, considers Fern to have been a forward thinker. According to Harris, Fern mixed sentimentalism with cynicism in the novel, thereby consciously manipulating the conventions of sentimental literature in order to cast doubt on prevailing nineteenth-century notions of womanhood, equality, and economic independence. Another critic, Nicole Tonkovich, also points out, though, that Fern viewed the process of writing as closely related to a woman's domestic role. According to Tonkovich: “Although writing and domesticity mutually efface each other, they are for Fern inseparable. Women writers cannot be separated from their maternal function; that maternal function … differentiates their practice of literacy from men's.”