Wednesday, May 13, 2015
May 13, 2015: Semester Conclusions: Fanny Fern Rocks
[As another semester winds to a close, a week’s series on some of the moments that have stood out to me and what conclusions I’d take away from them. Leading up to a weekend post on some of my summer and fall plans. Share your spring follow ups or summer/fall plans in comments, please!]
On a moment that delightfully reinforced one of my longest-held scholarly beliefs.
I’ve loved Fanny Fern since the first time I encountered her writing, in a few newspaper columns that were part of my (American) History and Literature Sophomore Tutorial. I loved her even more when I got to study her at length in a graduate school class with Carolyn Karcher, including reading all of Fern’s autobiographically, socially satirical novel Ruth Hall (1854) alongside many more of those columns. Since then, I’ve made a couple selected Fern columns a consistent part of my American Literature I syllabus, reading her alongside Margaret Fuller and Emily Dickinson in a week dedicated to expanding our images and narratives of the American Renaissance era to include different women’s voices and texts. Those two columns have always gone over well with students, but they’re very short (probably 2 pages total) and far more readable than Fuller or Dickinson, so I couldn’t use that response as definite confirmation that my Fern-love was widely shared.
Well, consider my love shared. Fern’s Ruth Hall and a collection of many of her columns comprised one of our six main/long readings in my The Romantic Era in America senior seminar this semester, alongside Edgar Allan Poe’s stories and poems, Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and Stoddard’s The Morgesons. Each of those other five authors and texts had their adherents in the class, and if I were to teach it again (this was my first time), I would probably keep all of them on the syllabus. But there’s no doubt in my mind that the Fern unit was the clear winner—the students took immediately and consistently to her wit and humor, her hyperbole and sarcasm, her creation of outrageous personas and subjects; and at the same time they recognized the serious issues underlying those stylistic elements (from domestic violence and abuse to poverty and prostitution, among many others), and appreciated Fern’s ability to balance those aspects of her texts and engage with her audiences on many levels simultaneously and successfully.
To paraphrase the great Jack Nicholson line from the film As Good As It Gets, this collective response certainly made me feel good … about me. But it also and more importantly confirmed the significance of what I would call one of my most central lifelong scholarly goals: to add into our collective memories and conversations the figures, texts, stories and histories that have too often been forgotten or excluded instead. Fern is a great example, one hugely interesting in her own right but also connected to many other social, cultural, and historical issues from the period. And the truth, as my students’ responses amply demonstrated, is that better remembering such figures and voices isn’t the slightest bit like taking our medicine, forcing ourselves to do something unpleasant but necessary. Instead, it very frequently helps us connect with fun, engaging, inspiring works and lives, while at the same time expanding our collective perspectives in vital ways. Like Fern’s balance of humor and activism, that’s a very nice combination indeed.
Next conclusion tomorrow,
PS. Thoughts on this semester conclusion? Ones of yours you’d share?