Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

"Pious Cant" and Blasphemy: Fanny Fern's Radicalized Sentiment

Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

"Pious Cant" and Blasphemy: Fanny Fern's Radicalized Sentiment

Article excerpt

For contemporary readers who find nineteenth-century culture smotheringly conventional, Fanny Fern seems an enigmatically modern voice--funny, courageous, and disrespectful. She criticizes traditional Christian ministers, the "listless and blundering clerical expositors--many of whom offer us a Procrustean bed of theology, too short for any healthy creature of God to stretch himself upon" (Fresh Leaves 90). By exposing the materialism of the pious, Fern demonstrates over and over that for many, the "contents of [the] pocket-book" are the most important, at the expense of widows, orphans, immigrants, and the poor (Fern Leaves, First Series 18).

But unlike other nineteenth-century writers whose "advanced" feminism made them anathema to the general public (for example, Lydia Maria Child), Fanny Fern was well-paid and popular. Her 1853 Fern Leaves From Fanny's Portfolio sold seventy thousand copies, and her success continued through a weekly column for the New York Ledger (for more than fifteen years), two novels, five additional collections of articles, and three children's books.

Fern's honored place in 1850s popular culture has prompted drastically different interpretive responses. Her literary success led Fred Pattee, in The Feminine Fifties, to describe her as "the most tearful and convulsingly 'female' moralizer of the whole modern blue-stocking school" (110). The issue of sentimentalism has been central for U.S. feminist scholarship focusing on the nineteenth century. Jane Tompkins's ground-breaking study Sensational Designs reclaimed sentimental culture as exemplary and formally skillful; in many ways, her work paved the way for feminist re-evaluations of nineteenth-century women writers. Yet Tompkins's literary paradigm has often erroneously been applied to all women's writing of the nineteenth century, and many scholars have moved away from Tompkins's celebration of "sentimental power" due to its gender essentialism and its often conservative politics. What the sentimental is and how contemporary feminists can best understand and value the sentimental are increasingly difficult questions to resolve.

Fanny Fern is a prime example of this difficulty, for her writings both embody and challenge common understandings of sentimental culture. Her newspaper articles, even more than her fiction, combine funny and progressive critiques with pietistic fervor. It is this point that makes Fern so tantalizing and ultimately so frustrating, for alongside her subversiveness and her humor are anthems to the God of nature and impassioned apologies for motherhood and religion--and irony is difficult to detect in many of these passages. Certain topics are off-limits for Fern; she approves of those who "ha[ve] not learned to sniff at sacred things" and never questions the existence of God or the truth of Christianity (Folly as it Flies 271).

So is Fanny Fern sentimental or modern? Subversive or sincere? I would like to consider the possibility that she is both. If Fern invoked irony to persuade her audience to a progressive Christian ethics and invoked pathos and religion for the same purpose, what cultural implications might such a reading have for the "feminine fifties" as well as for contemporary American culture? Examining Fern's critical legacy and her newspaper articles, this essay will consider the following proposition: Fanny Fern's humor, her feminism, and her progressive politics came not in spite of or against her Christianity, but through it.


Before the development of feminist literary and cultural criticism in the seventies, Fanny Fern appeared in most critical accounts (when she appeared at all) as a prototype of weepy sentimentalism--a pious, insipid popular icon of a consumerized American culture. Feminist reclamations of Fanny Fern, by contrast, emphasize her "nonsentimental" qualities. To most feminist scholars, it seems incompatible for Fern simultaneously to lampoon the hypocritically pious and to muse on the joys of flowers, motherhood, and Christ. …

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