Fanny Fern (Sara Willis Parton) (1811-1872)

    Contributing Editor: Barbara A. White

    Classroom Issues and Strategies

    I have found Fern most accessible to students when presented as primarily a humorist and satirist, rather than a "sentimentalist," and a journalist rather than a novelist. However, I try to avoid setting her up as an exception, as Hawthorne did, a writer "better" than the typical "scribbling woman." Ann Douglas Wood sets Fern apart for her refusal to disguise her literary ambition and conform to prevailing rationales for women writing, and Joyce W. Warren tries to rescue her from classification as a sentimentalist instead of a satirist; Warren includes no "sentimental" pieces in her selection from Fern's work. One might argue, however, that Fern should be recognized as the author of "Thanksgiving Story" as well as "Critics," and that while she was more outspoken than most of her sister authors, she also resembles them in many ways.

    Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

    The rights of women and the problems and status of female authors are obvious Fern themes. I believe it is also important to emphasize Fern's treatment of class, since she is unusual for her time in portraying domestic servants and factory workers as well as middle-class women.

    Students have been responsive to approaching Fern through the issue of names and their symbolism. When I was in graduate school studying nineteenth-century American literature, female writers other than Emily Dickinson were mentioned only to be ridiculed as having three names. To use more than two names, like Harriet Beecher Stowe, or two initials, like E. D. E. N. Southworth, was to be ipso facto a poor writer, and it was just as bad to adopt an alliterative pseudonym like Grace Greenwood or Millie Mayfield. I don't recall the professors ever referring to Grata Payson Sara Willis Eldredge Farrington Parton, "Fanny Fern."

    The "Grata Payson" was supplied by the writer's father, who named her after the mother of a minister he admired; the rest of the family objected to "Grata," and in the first of a series of symbolic name changes, she became "Sara," discarding the influence of the father and his orthodox religion. Later in life Fern explained her pen name as inspired by happy childhood memories of her mother picking sweet fern leaves. In a further repudiation of patriarchal tradition Fern, although she is often referred to in literary histories as Sara Parton, did not use that name; she preferred her pseudonym, extending it to her personal life and becoming "Fanny" even to family and friends.

    Ann Douglas Wood (see headnote) views the nom de plume "Fanny Fern" as an emblem of Fern's "artistic schizophrenia." She points out that "Fern" is a woodsy, flowery name typical of "sentimental" writers, while "Fanny" suggests the rebel (Fern, who was given the nickname "Sal Volatile" at the Beecher school, once remarked, "I never saw a `Fanny' yet that wasn't as mischievous as Satan"). Wood, noting the two different types of sketches Fern wrote, concludes that she possessed "two selves, two voices, one strident and aggressive, the other conventional and sentimental." Mary Kelley, in Private Woman, Public Stage (Oxford, 1984), also stresses Fern's "dual identity" in arguing the thesis that female authors of the nineteenth century experienced a split between their private selves and public identities. (Teachers who plan to assign Ruth Hall should also see Linda Huf's comments on this issue in her chapter on the novel in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman [Ungar, 1983].)

    Although the "split personality" approach interests students and helps illuminate the cultural context in which women wrote, it can be overdone. Early in her career Fern was obviously searching for a voice, trying out the more conventional approach in pieces like "Thanksgiving Story" and expressing herself more daringly in "Soliloquy of a Housemaid." But it could be argued that once she established herself, she successfully united the Fanny and the Fern in her writing--and in her life shed the identity given her by men and became the person she herself created. In any case, it is typical of Fern, who possessed the unusual ability to mock herself, to create a final irony by making fun of her pen name. She advised budding authors in search of a pseudonym to "bear in mind that nothing goes down, now-a-days, but alliteration. For instance, Delia Daisy, Fanny Foxglove, Harriet Honeysuckle, Lily Laburnum. . . ."

    Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions

    Fern's writing is especially useful for getting students to think about style and tone, and the discussion can be related both to the split personality issue raised above and the question of literary worth. Although some students have considered Fern's style human and spontaneous, probably accounting in large measure for her popularity, others have criticized it as too loud ("noisy," "braying"). They tend to view the italics, capital letters, and exclamation points with suspicion ("unprofessional," "feminine," "schoolgirl"). One student claimed that a writer who employs expressions like "Heigho!" and "H-u-m-p-h!" cannot be "taken seriously." He could not explain why, any more than most students (or critics) have been able to explain very successfully what "sentimental" means and why it's bad to be so.

    Original Audience

    The question of literary value can easily be related to that of audience. Fern's "Thanksgiving Story" lends itself to discussion of these issues. The question of whether "Thanksgiving Story" is "worse" than the other selections by Fern and how so, can be used to provoke discussion of the standards by which literature is judged (and who does the judging) and of the differences between nineteenth- and twentieth-century readers.

    Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections

    Fern's work can easily be compared and contrasted with that of just about any woman of her time. She can also be paired with male writers, such as Walt Whitman (Fern Leaves and Leaves of Grass) and Ik Marvel (Donald Grant Mitchell), the essayist, who gained fame at about the same time as Fern. Or she can be treated along with other nineteenth-century humorists.

    If Fern's relationship with Walt Whitman is to be emphasized, see J. F. McDermott, "Whitman and the Partons" (American Literature 29 [Nov. 1957] 316-19) and William White, "Fanny Fern to Walt Whitman: An Unpublished Letter" (American Book Collector 11 [May 1961] 8-9). In "Fern Leaves and Leaves of Grass" ( New York Times Book Review, April 22, 1945) it is suggested that Whitman imitated Fern Leaves in choosing both his title and his binding, particularly the floral designs on the cover. Fern's review of Leaves of Grass is reprinted in Warren, pp. 274-77.

    In a course that includes Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), students will enjoy knowing that the "Mr. Bruce" for whom Jacobs works as a nursemaid was N. P. Willis, Fern's brother; Fern satirizes her social-climbing brother in "Apollo Hyacinth." Jacobs kept her writing of Incidents secret from Willis, she wrote her friend Amy Post, because "Mr. W is too proslavery he would tell me that it was very wrong and that I was trying to do harm or perhaps he was sorry for me to undertake it while I was in his family" (Incidents, ed. Jean Fagan Yellin, 1987, p. 232). Harriet Jacobs and Fanny Fern were friendly; for an account of their relationship, see Joyce W. Warren, Fanny Fern (see headnote).

    If students read "The Declaration of Sentiments," they may want to see Elizabeth Cady Stanton's review of Ruth Hall in the Una (Frb. 1855, pp. 29-30). Stanton's defense of Fern is discussed in Linsa Grasso's "Anger in the House: Fanny Fern's Ruth Hall and the Redrawing of Emotional Boundaries in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America," in Studies in the American Renaissance, 1955, pp. 251-61.

    Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing

    1. I prefer to have students read her without any initial intervention.

    2. For the intrepid--have students try to imitate Fern's style. This demonstrates that it's not "natural," i.e., easy, but you may not be forgiven for this assignment. It is also illuminating to compare the original version of "Soliloquy of a Housemaid" (in Warren) and the collected version in this anthology--so that students can see how Fern revised her seemingly slapdash work.


    Joyce W. Warren's Fanny Fern: An Independent Woman (1992) has become the standard biography. An overview of Fern's writings is available in Nancy A. Walker's Fanny Fern (Twayne, 1993).