Fenno, Jenny

views updated

FENNO, Jenny

Born circa 1770; died death date unknown

Jenny Fenno, a resident of Boston, Massachusetts, and a Baptist by religious persuasion, wrote during the last quarter of the 18th century. Biographical information is practically nonexistent, but Fenno's choice of subject, style, and diction reflects a fairly substantial education and indicates the influence of the diversified middle class cultural ambience flourishing in postrevolutionary New England.

Original Compositions in Prose and Verse; on Subjects Moral and Religious (1791) reveals a dedicated, ambitious writer. Subjects range from the simply religious to areas of contemporary philosophical and literary interest. Typical of most early American women writers, Fenno's preface attempts to draw attention away from her evident ambition and sophistication as a writer. She presents an image of feminine piety and shy modesty; she insists she avoided public exposure of her "private thoughts"; and she finds in an act of Providence her excuse for such an aggressively unfeminine act as publishing: once she had been critically ill at death's door, but God had sent her back to finish her work. She compares her book to the pebble with which David slew Goliath, hoping its religious attitudes will "be so slung as to smite one philistine."

Fenno's subjects in both poetry and prose are mostly traditional and religious. Her religious tone is one of sweet self-assurance; her persona expresses neither tension nor doubt about the state of her soul or God's mercy. Some poems exhibit an early romanticism; however, each nature poem ends conservatively with praise of the Deity. Indeed, graveyard romanticism is prevalent in many of Fenno's ostensibly religious verses. Occasionally a feeling of sweetness and languor, enhanced by her smooth-rhymed couplets, invades a poem, contradicting the harsh tones of traditional New England religious expression. Unfortunately, her childish metrics often devalues the serious ideas which she expresses.

The last third of her collection is organized as a series of short sermonic essays. Many of these subjects duplicate those found in her sentimental and religious verse. As in her poetry, the tropes in Fenno's prose reflect the influence of early romanticism.

Fenno's verse and prose reveal a dedicated attempt to experiment with the sophisticated and complicated literary modes and ideas of her age while remaining within a religious context. Her simple but often skillfully atmospheric works show that by the late 18th century, American women had begun to consider themselves as serious writers and had consciously accepted their expanding roles as spiritual and moral guides for the young republic.