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(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...

(The entire section is 1,498 words.)