Antebellum and Civil War America, 1784-1865

 

Fanny Fern (Sarah Willis), 1811-1872

By Mark Canada  
Professor, University of North Carolina at Pembroke  

Writing under the pseudonym of "Fanny Fern," Sarah Willis was one of the most successful newspaper columnists of her day.  Having lost her first husband to typhoid fever and her second husband to a divorce, Willis turned to writing as a source of income in the early 1850s.  In Fanny Fern, Nancy A. Walker quotes an account of the young widow living in a boarding house and notes that Willis struggled to support her two daughters (14-15).  Willis's timing for entering journalism was perfect.  As Marion Marzolf explains in an article in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, American periodicals were booming in the 1850s and 1860s, publishing light reading for the many Americans who had recently learned to read in the common schools (360).  Between 1851 and 1872, Willis published a weekly column in several newspapers, as well as six collections of her columns, two novels, and three books for children.  Willis's writing brought her both income and fame. Within a year of its publication in 1853, almost 100,000 copies of Fern Leaves from Fanny’s Port-Folio were sold in England and America, and Willis earned 10 cents per copy in royalties, enabling her to buy a house in Brooklyn, New York, and live comfortably.  For her column in the New York Ledger, she earned $100 a week, more than any other columnist was making in 1855. 

Surely one reason for Willis's success is the match between her audience and subject matter.  As Walker notes, most of the people who read the literary weeklies were women (25).  Willis wrote about subjects that would have interested these readers, often lashing out at problems that beset the women of the time period. In an 1858 column called "A Law More Nice Than Just," she questions the arrest of a woman for wearing men's clothes and goes on to tell a humorous story of putting on her husband's clothes and going for a stroll.  In "Independence," a column apparently inspired by the celebration of Independence Day in 1859, she asks a series of rhetorical questions about what women can or cannot do in America.  In other columns, she frankly addresses women's suffrage and their right to their children.  At other times, Willis was less polemical, sometimes merely reminiscing about her childhood or complaining about feeling blue.  What unifies many of these columns, however, is Willis's strong sense of her audience: ordinary women who at times feel oppressed and at other times are merely depressed, wives and mothers who worry about losing their children and about managing their skirts in rainy weather.  Indeed, in both content and style, Willis's columns often encourage "female bonding."  Two 1851 columns, "The Model Husband" and "Aunt Hetty on Matrimony," provide fodder for commiserating about husbands and their annoying habits.  "The honey-moon is as short-lived as a lucifer-match;" Aunt Hetty proclaims, "after than you may wear your wedding-dress at the wash tub, and your night-cap to meeting, and your husband wouldn't know it" (220).  Willis's conversational style complements her content.  Her 1857 column "In the Dumps," for example, contains numerous interjections and exclamation points, as  these sentences illustrate: "Good Gracious, hear that wind how!" "Donkey!"  "Gracious, how blue I am!"  "Oh, the visions I've had on haymows!" (288). Walker suggests that this aspect of Willis's style grew out of habit of writing her columns just before deadline (21), but it seems equally likely that she was simply addressing her readers in the intimate manner of talking to friends.  The enormous success of Willis's column and books suggests that "Fanny Fern" had many friends, including one who, according to Margo Culley's book A Day at a Time, apparently named her diary after Willis's pseudonym (qtd. in Walker ix).  While Willis may never have known it, it seems that at least one of Fanny Fern's friends was writing her back. 
 

Bibliography

Marzolf, Marion.  "Sara Payson Willis Parton (Fanny Fern)."  The Dictionary of Literary Biography.  202 Volumes. Detroit, Mich.: Gale, 1985. PS21 .D5 v. 43 
Relatively timely, this secondary source provides a concise summary of Parton's life, critical evaluations of her work and context, a useful bibliography, and other information.  Researchers who need more than just a snapshot of Fern's work may want to skip this source, however, and go directly to the more substantive study by Nancy A. Walker.  Marzolf is a professor emeritus of communication studies at the University of Michigan. 
Fern, Fanny.  Ruth Hall and Other Writings.  Ed. Joyce W. Warren. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1986. 
A combination of both primary and secondary source material, this relatively recent book contains Fern's most famous novel and dozens of her columns, as well as a thorough introduction by Joyce W. Warren, author of The American Narcissus: Individualism and Women in Nineteenth-Century American Fiction and Fanny Fern: An Independent Woman.
Walker, Nancy A.  Fanny Fern.  New York: Twayne, 1993. 
This timely, thorough secondary source contains a chronology and a substantial narrative description of Parton's life, as well as individual chapters on her newspaper columns, novels Ruth Hall and Rose Clark, and children's books.  In clear, accessible prose, Walker insightfully analyzes Parton's work, noting patterns in her themes and technique, and describes her popularity and income.  Walker, a member of the English faculty at Vanderbilt University, is the author of several books, including Feminist Alternatives: Irony and Fantasy in the Contemporary Novel by Women and  The Disobedient Writer: Women and Narrative Tradition.

Major Works

  • Fern Leaves from Fanny's Port-Folio 
  • Ruth Hall 

Careers

  • homemaker
  • newspaper columnist
  • novelist

Family

Father: journalist Nathaniel Willis 
Mother: homemaker Hannah Willis 
Siblings: eight, including  journalist Nathaniel Parker Willis 
Husband: bank cashier Charles Harrington Eldredge 
Daughters: Mary Stace, Grace Harrington, Ellen Willis 
Husband: merchant Samuel P. Farrington 
Husband: biographer James Parton 

Homes

  • Portland, Maine 
  • Boston, Massachusetts 
  • Hartford, Connecticut 
  • Brooklyn, New York 
  • Manhattan, New York 

Chronology

1811: born on July 9 in Portland, Maine 
1828-1829: attends Catharine Beecher's school in Hartford, Conn. 
1837: marries Charles Harrington Eldredge 
1838: gives birth to daughter Mary Stace 
1841: gives birth to daughter Grace Harrington 
1844: mother dies 
1844: gives birth to daughter Ellen Willis 
1845: daughter Mary dies of brain fever 
1845: husband, Charles, dies of typhoid fever 
1849: marries Samuel P. Farrington 
1852: begins publishing regular column in Musical World and Times 
1853: Fern Leaves from Fanny's Port-Folio 
1853: Little Ferns for Fanny's Little Friends 
1853: divorced from Farrington 
1854: Fern Leaves, Second Series 
1854: Ruth Hall 
1855: agrees to write for New York Ledger 
1856: marries James Parton 
1857: Fresh Leaves 
1857: The Play-Day Book 
1863: daughter Grace dies 
1864: The New Story Book for Children 
1868: Folly As It Flies 
1868: helps form Sorosis, a women's press organization 
1870: Ginger-Snaps 
1872: Caper-Sauce 
1872: dies of cancer on October 10
Return to All American: Literature, History, and Culture