Fern, Fanny (1811–1872)
Fern, Fanny (1811–1872)
Pseudonym of Sara Willis Parton who protested American women's social, political, and economic inequality in both her fiction and her popular weekly newspaper column in the New York Ledger. Name variations: Sara Willis Eldredge; Sara Willis Farrington; Sara Willis Parton; Sara Payson Willis; in childhood, spelled first name "Sarah"; name legally changed to Fanny Fern. Born Sara Willis on July 9, 1811, in Portland, Maine; died of breast cancer on October 10, 1872, in New York City; daughter of Nathaniel Willis (a printer and publisher of religious and children's periodicals) and Hannah Parker Willis (a homemaker); attended Catharine Beecher's Hartford Female Seminary, Hartford, Connecticut, 1828–31; married Charles Eldredge, on May 4, 1837 (died 1846); married Samuel Farrington, on January 17, 1849 (divorced 1853); married James Parton, on January 5, 1856; children: (first marriage) Mary Eldredge (died in 1845 at age 7); Grace Eldredge (d. 1862); Ellen Eldredge .
Became first salaried woman newspaper columnist in America (1852); published bestselling novel, Ruth Hall (1854); offered record-setting payment of $100 a column by Robert Bonner, editor of the New York Ledger (1855); was a founding member of the women's club Sorosis (1868).
Newspaper columns published in Olive Branch (Boston, 1851–54); True Flag (Boston, 1852–54); Musical World and Times (New York, 1852); and the New York Ledger (1856–72). Newspaper columns collected and published in book form as: Fern Leaves from Fanny's Port Folio (1853); Fern Leaves from Fanny's Portfolio, Second Series (1854); Fresh Leaves (1857); Folly as It Flies (1868); Ginger-Snaps (1870); and Caper-Sauce (1872). Novels: Ruth Hall (1854); Rose Clark (1856). Children's books: Little Ferns for Fanny's Little Friends (1853); The Play-Day Book (1857); and The New Story Book for Children (1864).
Fanny Fern is often categorized as a "sentimental" novelist of the era and style of Harriet Beecher Stowe . While Fern did write a bestselling novel, the 1854 Ruth Hall, in the somewhat melodramatic prose tradition of the mid-19th century, she had a long and successful career as a writer of nonfiction, and in her own day she was a national celebrity whose radical views were widely known. Fern was a pioneer of reform journalism and an early crusader for women's political and economic rights. In the newspaper columns she wrote from 1851 to 1872, she denounced what she saw as the ills of her society, from prostitution and domestic abuse to women's restrictive clothing and lack of the vote. While similar concerns were articulated in women's-rights publications of the day, such as the Una and the Revolution, Fern was the first journalist to regularly champion women's rights in a consumer medium with a large readership that cut across the divisions of gender and class—a weekly column in the New York Ledger that reached 400,000 readers, men as well as women, the working class as well as the upper classes.
The stances she took on political and social issues were a result of her own life experiences. The woman who became so well known as "Fanny Fern" was born Sara Payson Willis in 1811 in Portland, Maine, the fifth of nine children of a stern Presbyterian deacon who made his living as a printer and publisher of religious and children's magazines. After the Willises moved to Boston, Sara and her sisters were sent to boarding schools, including the Reverend Joseph Emerson's Ladies Seminary (run by a cousin of Ralph Waldo Emerson) and Catharine Beecher 's Hartford Female Seminary. During her three years in Hartford, the teenaged Sara received affection and support from her headmistress and began a lifetime friendship with Beecher's younger sister Harriet, who was one of Sara's classmates.
In 1837, when she was 26, Sara married Charles Eldredge, a young bank clerk with whom she lived happily until his death of typhoid fever nine years later. They had three daughters, one of whom died in childhood. Sara's relations with her in-laws, never good, disintegrated after Charles' death, and they offered no financial support for the 35-year-old widow and her two children. Neither did Sara's own family when she did not seem inclined to remarry, the course advised by her father (who had himself remarried within a year of Sara's mother's death in 1844). Sara and her daughters moved into a dismal Boston boardinghouse, where she took in sewing. This tedious and poorly paying work—she earned, at most, 75 cents a week—gave her, as one of her biographers notes, "a lifelong sympathy with working women" that she would later voice in her newspaper columns.
[Fanny Fern] sails with all her canvas spread, by a chart of her own.
In 1849, she acquiesced to a match, made for her by her father, with Samuel Farrington, a Boston businessman. Farrington proved to be verbally abusive, and Sara left him two years later. He, in turn, spread stories that Sara had been unfaithful to him, following the lead of many other mid-19th-century husbands who used slander to keep their wives in line. Nevertheless, Sara refused to reconcile. Again in the position of breadwinner, she tried her hand at writing and immediately made a sale—a humorous essay on "model husbands"—to the editor of the Boston-based Olive Branch, a religious newspaper that, despite its small circulation, was read throughout the Eastern states. She was paid 50 cents. She sent other essays to her brother Nathaniel Parker ("N.P."), by then a successful poet and the editor of a magazine in New York, but he dismissed them as amateurish and told her she was "on a mistaken track."
Sara continued to contribute essays to the Olive Branch, using pseudonyms including "Clara," "Tabitha," and, finally, "Fanny Fern." Most women writers of the day wrote under pen names, and "flowery" ones were especially common (there were also, for instance, Essie Evergreen, Lottie Laurel, and Minnie Myrtle). But Sara had two additional incentives: the scandal associated with her second marriage, and her family's expressed disapproval of her writing. A pseudonym would hide her activity and income from all of them; what's more, she would be able to publish under a name that would not connect her to either her abusive second husband or her first husband's hostile parents. Sara began to use her new identity socially as well as professionally, and later she would legally change her name to Fanny Fern.
By early 1852, Fern was contributing to both the Olive Branch and another Boston-based newspaper, the True Flag, earning two dollars a column and producing a total of three columns a week. During the fall of 1852, she briefly wrote on an exclusive basis for the New York Musical World and Times (despite its title, a general-interest publication). Though this affiliation did not last long, it officially made her America's first woman "columnist"—someone paid a regular salary (not on an article-by-article basis) to write her opinion. When she resumed writing for the two Boston papers, they were forced to follow suit and put her on salary in 1853, the year Samuel Farrington divorced her on grounds of desertion.
Fern's articles were widely reprinted in newspapers all across the country, giving her a national audience and a national reputation. Her identity was becoming a matter of considerable speculation. In 1853, only two years into her journalism career, Fern accepted a publisher's offer to issue a collection of her columns in book form. It was called Fern Leaves from Fanny's Port Folio, and within one year it sold nearly 100,000 copies in the United States and Great Britain. The first volume was followed by a second, and its sales encouraged Fern to agree to the suggestion that she write a novel. During 1854, in only nine months, she produced Ruth Hall, a thinly veiled autobiography written in melodramatic language yet harboring a feminist theme: Ruth Hall learns that she cannot depend on men or other relatives to survive, but rather must look out for herself and earn her own living.
Like Fern's column collections, Ruth Hall was a popular success, selling more than 50,000 copies within eight months of its publication, but it was not a critical success. Dozens of reviews castigated Fern for being unfeminine and irreverent in her choice of story line (about a woman done wrong by self-important men). A rare positive review came from Elizabeth Cady Stanton , who, writing in the feminist newspaper Una, praised the book's message "that God has given to woman sufficient brain and muscle to work out her own destiny unaided and alone."
What might have been a death blow to Fern's career was delivered the year after the publication of Ruth Hall. William Moulton, the editor of the Boston True Flag, who was angry because Fern had stopped writing for him, anonymously published a book called The Life and Beauties of Fanny Fern in 1855. Purportedly an official biography of Fanny Fern, The Life and Beauties not only personally and professionally slandered Fern—implying that as a divorcée she had loose morals and stating quite clearly that she had little talent and did not meet deadlines—but also revealed her real name. The final insult was that more than three-quarters of the book consisted of reprints of columns Fern had written for the Boston newspapers, each with a short, sarcastic introduction by Moulton; thus, he profited from her work while causing her pain and embarrassment.
Nevertheless, Moulton's "biography" served only to increase public interest in Fanny Fern. At the same time her star was rising, so was the ambition of Robert Bonner, the new publisher and editor of the New York Ledger. The Ledger was typical of the many mid-19th-century weekly newspapers in its content, which included essays, fiction, and poetry along with news. Bonner's paper was unique, however, in its publication of signed selections by well-known writers of the day. The first such scribe Bonner pursued was Fanny Fern. His 1855 promise to pay her $100 per column—not per article, but per column of type—was unprecedented. It was a one-shot deal for a piece of fiction rather than journalistic writing (the resulting story, "Fanny Ford," ran serially in the Ledger throughout June of 1855 and totaled ten columns of type, for which Fern was paid $1,000). But Bonner then offered Fern an exclusive contract to write a weekly opinion column in the Ledger at $25 a week.
Fern accepted the offer and moved to New York. Bonner announced his acquisition by buying a full page of advertising space in a rival paper, the New York Herald, filled with type repeating one sentence: "Fanny Fern writes only for the Ledger." Soon her name was so widely known that it was used to promote merchandise completely unrelated to her work or life—from railroad cars to songs to tobacco. Her early success in both journalism and letters earned her the respect and friendship of fellow writers including Horace Greeley and Walt Whitman, to whom she was an early mentor during the mid-1850s.
Fern was the first of a long list of celebrity conquests Bonner would make, and her record-setting fee was soon eclipsed by what he paid for the services of writers such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, Charles Dickens, and the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher. Other well-known writers who contributed to the newspaper included Harriet Beecher Stowe, Louisa May Alcott , Alice and Phoebe Cary , Edward Everett, E.D.E.N. Southworth , Lydia Sigourney , and James Gordon Bennett. Thanks to these famous bylines, as well as the booming population of New York City as America industrialized, the Ledger's circulation was soon the highest in the country, climbing to 400,000 in the 1860s.
The fact that many of the paper's new readers were women is evident in the voice and content of Fern's columns. She often began them by using a quote or maxim as a springboard for her commentary, or by summarizing and reacting to a news item—both devices that would be commonly used by 20th-century columnists. To choose these devices, she took her cue from the hundreds of letters she received each week from female readers, whose concerns ranged from parenting problems to dress styles to financial troubles. Fern's responses were sympathetic and yet full of humor and animation, written in a style Fern herself jokingly described as "popgun"—short, impassioned sentences broken up by dashes and exclamation points. Fern no longer worried about what people would think of her writing or her views. She had survived Moulton's attack with her popularity and paycheck intact. She and her daughters also had a happier home life by 1856, the year she married James Parton, a journalist and biographer who was supportive of her work.
While Fern's topics were many and varied during her 21-year career as a columnist, most of her journalism focused on the rights of women and other disadvantaged people. She categorically dismissed "the old cry of 'a woman's sphere being home,'" believing instead that women should get out of their homes, literally (through exercise) and figuratively (through reading, writing, and other mental stimulation). She crusaded against restrictive clothing and the "fashionable invalidism" of the day, urging women to don men's attire, as she and her eldest daughter, Grace, sometimes did. ("I've as good a right to preserve the healthy body God gave me, as if I were not a woman," she wrote in 1858.)
Her column was read not just by upper-class "literary ladies," but also by middle-class homemakers and working-class women, and she addressed all three groups in her many discussions of women and work. Remembering her own experience, she made plain the economic necessity that forced women to work and chided those who would fault such women for trying to earn a living—especially if they succeeded. "No matter how isolated or destitute [a woman's] condition," she wrote, "the majority would consider it more 'feminine,' would she unobtrusively gather up her thimble, and, retiring into some out-of-the-way place, gradually scoop out her coffin with it, than to develop [a] smart turn for business." She lamented the lot of domestic servants at the mercy of upper-class employers, taking the latter group to task for the unhappiness of their poorer sisters. Fern also championed women in the professions—even those whose husbands or fathers could support them—arguing that an accomplished working woman "holds up her head with the best, and asks no favors." And she was ahead of her time in identifying and discussing problems such as sexual harassment and unequal pay.
Fern felt that women who worked at home were entitled to the same respect, and the same access to money, as women who worked in paid positions. In an 1869 column, she expressed the "disgust with which I am nauseated, at the idea of any decent, intelligent, self-respecting, capable wife, ever being obliged to ask for that which she so laboriously earns." She noted the exhausting work load of middle- and lower-class homemakers, calling the results "legal murder." Fern's then-radical position on housework and child care can be seen in passages like this:
There are self-sacrificing mothers who need somebody to say to them, "Stop! you have just to make your choice now, between death and life. You have expended all the strength you have on hand—and must lay in a new stock before any more work can be done by you."…[L]et me tell you that if you think you are doing God service, or anybody else, by using up a year's strength in a week, you have made a sinful mistake.…[W]hen you are dead, all the king's men can't make you stand on your feet again, that's plain. Well, then—don't be dead. In the first place, go out a part of every day, rain or shine, for the fresh air, and don't tell me you can't; at least not while you can stop to embroider your children's clothes. As to "dressing to go out," don't dress. If you are clean and whole that's enough.…The moral of all which is, that if nobody else will take care of you, you must take care of yourself.
Several of Fern's columns addressed the relatively new campaign for women's suffrage, which she supported. She dismissed men's objections to giving women the vote; she also criticized women who opposed suffrage. In a column that linked women's political rights to their economic strength, she wrote, "I feel only pity, that, torpidly and selfishly content with her ribbons and dresses, [a woman] may never see or think of those other women who may be lifted out of their wretched condition of low wages and starvation, by this very lever of power."
Fern was also outspoken on women's legal rights during and after marriage. Again writing from personal experience, she acknowledged the horror of physical abuse within marriage but also noted the damage done by emotional abuse, even in the "best" marriages: "That the better educated husband murders with sharp words instead of sharp blows, makes it none the less murder." Fern believed that women in bad marriages should get out, not suffer nobly. She gave this advice in 1857:
[T]here are aggravated cases for which the law provides no remedy—from which it affords no protection.…What I say is this: in such cases, let a woman who has the self-sustaining power quietly take her fate in her own hands, and right herself. Of course she will be misjudged and abused. It is for her to choose whether she can better bear this at hands from which she has a rightful claim for love and protection, or from a nine-days-wonder-loving public. These are bold words; but they are needed words—words whose full import I have well considered, and from the responsibility of which I do not shrink.
Just as Fern wrote about men's abuse of their power over women and children, she also scrutinized the ways in which wealthy New Yorkers viewed and treated the poor. In a column sympathizing with the life of a prostitute, Fern speculated that "They who make long prayers, and wrap themselves up in self-righteousness, as with a garment, turned a deaf ear, as she plead [sic] for the bread of honest toil." After an 1858 trip to a prison on Blackwell's Island (in New York City's East River), she wondered of its inmates, "How many times when their stomachs have been empty, some full-fed, whining disciple has presented them with a Bible or a Tract, saying, 'Be ye warmed and filled.'" Following her visit to a poor neighborhood in Manhattan, she graphically described the squalor of poverty and then questioned the priorities of a "democracy" divided, in 1864, by class as well as politics. She wondered what might be achieved, "if some of the money spent on corporation-dinners, on Fourth of July fireworks, and on public balls, where rivers of champagne are worse than wasted, were laid aside for the cleanliness and purification of these terrible localities which slay more victims than the war is doing."
In the later years of Fern's long tenure at the Ledger, her columns alternated between such grim subjects and her more reflective essays about nature and family life. She shared her joy at becoming a grandmother, when her daughter Grace had a baby girl in 1862, and her grief when Grace died of scarlet fever later that year, leaving Fern to raise the child. But she continued to write about "hard-news" topics such as crime and the war, and to make news herself. In 1868, when she and other women journalists, including Jane Cunningham Croly , were excluded from a New York Press Club dinner to honor Charles Dickens, they formed their own group, Sorosis, one of the first professional women's clubs in America.
By 1870, Fern knew she had cancer, and an operation in 1871 or early 1872—most likely, a mastectomy—failed to prevent its growth. Though weak and ill, she continued to write her weekly column until her death on October 10, 1872. Two weeks later, the editorial page of the New York Ledger, bordered in black, contained a eulogy written by Robert Bonner, who concluded, "Her success was assured, because she had something to say, and knew how to say it.…With all her intellect and genius, had there not been added to these her courage, her honesty of purpose, and her faithfulness of heart, she would not have been Fanny Fern."
Fern, Fanny. Fern Leaves from Fanny's Port Folio. Auburn, NY: Derby & Miller, 1853.
——. Fern Leaves from Fanny's Portfolio, Second Series. Auburn & Buffalo, NY: Miller, Orton, & Mulligan, 1854.
——. Folly As It Flies. NY: G.W. Carleton, 1868.
——. Ruth Hall and Other Writings. Ed. Joyce W. Warren. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1986.
Greenwood, Grace. "Fanny Fern—Mrs. Parton." Eminent Women of the Age. Ed. James Parton. Hartford, CT: S.M. Betts, 1872.
Mott, Frank Luther. American Journalism: A History, 1690–1960. 3rd ed. NY: Macmillan, 1962.
Walker, Nancy A. Fanny Fern. NY: Twayne, 1993.
Warren, Joyce W. Fanny Fern: An Independent Woman. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1992.
Adams, Florence Bannard. Fanny Fern, or a Pair of Flaming Shoes. West Trenton, NJ: Hermitage Press, 1966.
Baym, Nina. Woman's Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America, 1820–1870. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1978.
Wood, Ann Douglas. "The 'Scribbling Women' and Fanny Fern: Why Women Wrote," in American Quarterly. Vol. 3. Spring 1971, pp. 3–24.
Correspondence and manuscripts located in the Fanny Fern Collection, Barrett Library, University of Virginia; the Alma Lutz Collection, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College; the James Parton Papers, Houghton Library, Harvard University; the Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College; and other collections.
Fanny Fern's Favorite [chapbook; songs]. London: Pattie, n. d. Microfilm, Cleveland, OH: Cleveland Public Library Preservation Office (most likely not authored by Fern but only marketed under her name).
Fern, Fanny. Lyrics. Women's Rights (sheet music). NY: William Hall & Son, 1853. The Alice Marshall Collection, The Pennsylvania State University at Harrisburg.
Jullien, Louis Antoine. The Ruth Hall Schottische, Dedicated to Fanny Fern (instrumental sheet music). New York, 1855.
Carolyn Kitch , former editor for Good Housekeeping and McCall's, and Assistant Professor at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois