Parton, Sara (Payson) Willis

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PARTON, Sara (Payson) Willis

Born 9 July 1811, Portland, Maine; died 10 October 1872, New York, New York

Wrote under: Fanny Fern, Olivia Branch

Daughter of Nathaniel and Hannah Parker Willis; married Charles Eldredge, 1837 (died); Samuel Farrington, 1849; James Parton, 1856; children: three daughters

Sara Willis Parton preferred her talented mother to her harsh, narrowly religious father; she believed her mother would have distinguished herself in literature had she not had such a large family. Parton said her pen name, "Fanny Fern," was inspired by happy childhood memories of her mother picking sweet fern leaves.

When Parton was a small child, her family moved to Boston, where her father established a religious newspaper. Parton attended Boston schools and Catharine Beecher's famous seminary in Hartford, Connecticut, at the time when Harriet Beecher was a student teacher. Despite a lack of studiousness, Parton wrote witty essays at the Beecher school and on her return to Boston contributed to her father's new publication, Youth's Companion.

In 1884 Parton's mother died, and in the next two years she lost the older of her three daughters and her first husband, a bank cashier. Parton was reduced to relative poverty, with only grudging support from her father and in-laws. She tried a marriage of convenience to Boston merchant Samuel Farrington, but it didn't work out. Although Parton attempted to forget her second marriage, never directly referring to it, she later used Farrington as a model for one of her characters. In Rose Clark (1856), a "hypocrite" and "gross sensualist" tricks a reluctant widow into marriage and then slanders her and leaves her penniless.

When Parton failed in her attempts to earn a living teaching and sewing, she appealed unsuccessfully to her brother, a successful poet and editor in New York, for help in launching a literary career. Parton began to write short sketches, and by 1851 she was placing her work in small Boston magazines. Her magazine pieces were so popular that in 1853 J. C. Derby published a collection of them as Fern Leaves from Fanny's Portfolio. Parton continued the next year with a second series and a juvenile, Little Ferns for Fanny's Little Friends. The three books sold an astonishing 180,000 copies in America and England, and Parton was suddenly rich and famous.

Based very closely upon Parton's own experience, Ruth Hall (1855) recounts the struggles of a widow to support herself and her children. Ruth Hall finds few opportunities open to women and is treated shabbily by her relatives, who can tolerate neither a passive dependent nor the successful and assertive writer Ruth finally becomes. Ruth Hall caused a sensation in the literary world. Parton had apparently thought herself protected by her pseudonym and neglected to disguise the characters, who were obviously based on her relatives. Parton's true identity was discovered and the family quarrel aired in public.

Ruth Hall was admired by Hawthorne, and attacked by the critics for the same reasons he praised it—its lack of restraint and "female delicacy"—one critic referred to it as "Ruthless Hall." Soon after the publication of Ruth Hall, the anonymous Life and Beauties of Fanny Fern appeared, satirizing Parton as a spend-thrift, adventuress, and ingrate to her family.

In the meantime, Parton moved to New York City and was engaged by Robert Bonner, publisher of the New York Ledger, to write a weekly column for the then outlandish sum of $100 a week. For the next 20 years, Parton wrote weekly for the Ledger, never missing a column. Parton lived a relatively quiet life with her third husband, James Parton, a well-known biographer 11 years her junior.

After Ruth Hall, Parton wrote only one more novel, Rose Clark, but her talent was not for fiction, and after Rose Clark she stuck with the form she was best at—the informal essay, sometimes lightly fictionalized but always short. She published several collections of these from her Ledger columns.

Because her early work is best known, Parton has been mistakenly classified as a sentimentalist. Yet her writing changed and developed significantly after her initial success. In the first series of Fern Leaves there are two parts: the first, which comprises about three quarters of the book, is indeed lachrymose, but the remaining quarter consists of humorous and satirical pieces. In the second series of Fern Leaves the proportion is exactly reversed.

In Folly as It Flies (1859), Parton adopted a new voice, which she would maintain for the rest of her career. Her sentimentality and heavy-handed satire give way to relaxed, humorous philosophizing. She abandons the artificiality and straining for effect of her earlier pieces, and writes more naturally and spontaneously. While Parton's staple continued to be everyday domestic topics, like child care and the annoying habits of husbands, she became conscious of social conditions in New York City and began to depict poverty, prostitution, exploitation of workers, and prison life.

Parton also became more direct and outspoken in her championship of women. Women's estate and the relationship between the sexes had always been Parton's major subject, but in her early fiction she protested injustice to women by portraying them as passive victims of male brutality. By the end of the 1850s, Parton came to support the women's rights movement and encourage her readers to seek suffrage, better education, and wider fields of endeavor.

Other Works:

Fern Leaves from Fanny's Portfolio (English title, Shadows and Sunbeams; 1st series, 1853; 2nd series, 1854). Fresh Leaves (1857). Play-Day Book (1857). A New Story Book for Children (1864). Ginger-Snaps (1870). Caper-Sauce (1872). Fanny Fern: A Memorial Volume (edited by J. Parton, 1873).

The private papers of Sara Willis Parton are housed in the Sophia Smith Collection of Smith College.


Adams, F. B., Fanny Fern (1966). Derby, J. C., Fifty Years Among Authors, Books and Publishers (1884). The Life and Beauties of Fanny Fern (1855). Warren, J. W., Fanny Fern: An Independent Women (1992).

Reference works:

NAW (1971). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).

Other references:

AL (Nov. 1957). Biblion (Spring 1969). Colophon (Sept. 1939). NY Historical Society Quarterly (Oct. 1954). WS (1972).