Fanny Fern (Sara Payson Willis Parton)

Born Sara Payson Willis in Portland, Maine, in 1811, Fanny Fern, the daughter of a newspaperman, lived in Portland until age 6 when her parents relocated to Boston. Fern was educated in Hartford, Connecticut, a student of Catharine Beecher and classmate of famed author Harriet Beecher Stowe, Catherine's sister. Shortly after graduating, she wed Charles Harrington Eldredge. The happy couple had three daughters, but the few years of domestic bliss were short-lived. Tragedy struck the Eldredge household, first with the death of Fern's husband and later with the death of her eldest daughter, pushing Sara to literary ambitions borne out of her mournful despair.

In 1849, Fern married Samuel Farrington; it was a brief unhappy union that led Fern to leave him two years later, though the marriage did not officially dissolve for another year or two. In 1851, an essay written by the bereaved widow and mother and future divorcee was published under the pseudonym of Fanny Fern.

Her writing's instant popularity led to further publications by demand of her fans. Her fearless style, no-nonsense attitude and unabashed wit were received with great reluctance by critics and with admiration by her readers. Her first book, Fern Leaves, sold 70,000 copies, her second, geared toward children, Little Ferns, For Fanny's Little Friends, sold 32,000 and her third, Second Series of Fern Leaves, 30,000 in America alone. Later, the books' popularity spread to England, increasing the distribution by an additional 48,000. These books were collections of her columns.

In 1854, Ruth Hall: A Domestic Tale of the Present, the most famous of Fern's novels, was published. An autobiographical tale, divided into sections examining marriage, widowhood and career success as a writer, Ruth Hall was Fern's first full-length novel and represented what she is best recalled for: a call to women to achieve economic independence. A year later, Fern married James Parton of New York, a fellow writer.

Fern continued to work as a columnist for 21 years at the New York Ledger and at $100 dollars a week became the highest paid columnist in the United States. A revolutionary critic for a 19th-century housewife, Fern expressed feminist ideals, encouraged female economic and social independence and mocked the domestic construct and patriarchal society, breaking down the image of the husband as being of practically divine proportions and the wife as a simple, demure creature incapable of independent thought. In her wholly practical way, Fern called women to develop themselves intellectually and financially and exhorted men to partake in the domestic realm of housework.

While Fern rejected the ideas that the submission of women is a matter of divine law and religious statute, her character in Ruth Hall is motivated by religion. So too, Fern found her greatest inspiration in prayer and religious experience, while rejecting the institutionalized nature of the church that wielded power over piety, ultimately leading to the corruption of Christian values. Despite her controversial views, Fern was one of the most popular columnists in her time, with readership not solely confined to women but to a broad, diverse audience of various demographics.

Fern was excluded from the New York Press Club, consisting solely of male writers. In response to this, she became one of the founding members of Sorosis, the first professional women's club in the United States, established in 1868 by Jane Cunningham Croly, who later founded the New York Women's Press Club.

Fern has been compared to Harriet Jacobs, a contemporaneous writer, author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Both argued against societal constructs imposed at the expense of a certain sector, both were middle-class white women, both fought for their children and wrote to support them. Fern has also been compared to Louisa May Alcott, whose protagonist of her most famous novel Little Women, Jo, seeks a career as a writer motivated by a desire for self-expression rather than by financial need. Both have been confusingly accused of encouraging domesticity by some critics and encouraging empowerment by others. Fern was a strong supporter of Walt Whitman, who was flagged as controversial by critics with the release of Leaves of Grass.

Fern represented the female voice in the literary world primarily dominated by male writers. She died in 1872, at age 61, after battling cancer for years. Fern wrote continually until her death and fought to leave behind a legacy of triumphant female literature. After her death, Parton released a memoir about her: Fanny Fern: A Memorial Volume.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Domesticity with a Difference: The Nonfiction of Catharine Beecher, Sarah J. Hale, Fanny Fern, and Margaret Fuller
Nicole Tonkovich.
University Press of Mississippi, 1997
The (Other) American Traditions: Nineteenth-Century Women Writers
Joyce W. Warren.
Rutgers University Press, 1993
Librarian’s tip: "Domesticity and the Economics of Independence: Resistance and Revolution in the Work of Fanny Fern" begins on p. 73
Necessary Madness: The Humor of Domesticity in Nineteenth-Century American Literature
Gregg Camfield.
Oxford University Press, 1997
Librarian’s tip: "Fanny Fern: 'It's a Way I Have When I Can't Find a Razor Handy to Cut my Throat'" begins on p. 48
Separate Spheres No More: Gender Convergence in American Literature, 1830-1930
Monika M. Elbert.
University of Alabama Press, 2000
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 4 "No Separations in the City: The Public-Private Novel and Private-Public Authorship"
FREE! Eminent Women of the Age: Being Narratives of the Lives and Deeds of the Most Prominent Women of the Present Generation
James Parton; Horace Greeley; T. W. Higginson; J. S. C. Abbott; James M. Hoppin; William Winter; Theodore Tilton; Fanny Fern; Grace Greenwood; E. C. Stanton.
S.M. Betts, 1869
Librarian’s tip: "Fanny Fern -- Mrs. Parton" begins on p. 66
Unruly Tongue: Identity and Voice in American Women's Writing, 1850-1930
Martha J. Cutter.
University Press of Mississippi, 1999
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 2 "American Women's Fiction, 1850-1880: Domestic Discourses in the Writings of Fanny Fern, Louisa May Alcott, and Harriet Wilson"
Criticism and the Color Line: Desegregating American Literary Studies
Henry B. Wonham.
Rutgers University Press, 1996
Librarian’s tip: "The Politics of Mourning: Cultural Grief-Work from Frederick Douglass to Fanny Fern"
Hired Pens: Professional Writers in America's Golden Age of Print
Ronald Weber.
Ohio University Press, 1997
Librarian’s tip: Chap. Two "Cacoethes Scribendi: Women Writers Among the Paying Periodicals"
Nineteenth-Century American Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook
Denise D. Knight.
Greenwood Press, 1997
Librarian’s tip: "Fanny Fern (Sara Payson Willis Parton) (1811-1872)" begins on p. 123
The Artistry of Anger: Black and White Women's Literature in America, 1820-1860
Linda M. Grasso.
University of North Carolina Press, 2002
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 6 "Fanny Fern's Ruth Hall"
The Political Work of Northern Women Writers and the Civil War, 1850-1872
Lyde Cullen Sizer.
University of North Carolina Press, 2000
Librarian’s tip: "Fern and Oakes: Independent versus Influential Womanhood" begins on p. 57
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