On the inspiring partnerships of Fanny Fern and James Parton.
I’ve written in this space about Fanny Fern, and how much I admire and enjoy her sarcastic and serious, light and liberated, playful and powerful voice and style. That voice and style don’t need biographical detail to be clearly unique and important in American literary history; neither does the specific fact that Fern was for many years in the 1850s the highest-paid newspaper columnist in America depend on any contextualizing for its impressiveness. But it’s nonetheless the case that in the decade leading up to her first publishing successes, Fern went through significant traumas on two key levels: in her marriages, first with the early death of her first husband (which left her to care for two young daughters) and then in a very unhappy second marriage (which she courageously ended despite familial condemnation); and in her first professional forays, as she tried to submit her early columns to her brother, the editor and entrepeneur Nathaniel Parker Willis, and found herself more or less blacklisted at his request instead. (Fern fictionalized all of these experiences in her autobiographical novel Ruth Hall .)
By the early 1850s, Fern had already begun conquering the professional challenges, with her unique and engaging style and themes more than compensating for any disadvantages created by either her circumstances or her brother. She got a significant assist in those efforts from James Parton, the young journalist and biographer who was then editing Willis’s magazine Home Journal—Parton began publishing her columns in the magazine, and when Willis objected and demanded that he stop, Parton instead resigned his position and continued the literary partnership. A few years later, in 1856, with Fern’s success and reputation well established, she and Parton united in a domestic partnership as well; Fern was 45 and Parton 33, but their difference in ages was clearly no more an obstacle to their happiness than any other aspect of their backgrounds or circumstances, as they stayed married until Fern’s death in 1872. Two years later, Parton continued the literary partnership and paid one more tribute to his wife’s talents, publishing Fanny Fern: A Memorial Volume.
All of those details would be more than sufficient to establish the strength of Fern and Parton’s partnerships—but fortunately for those of us who love Fern’s style, we have further proof in a column of hers, “A Law More Nice than Just” (most of it is excerpted on pages 301-302). The column as a whole is pitch-perfect Fern: responding to a serious women’s rights issue (a woman who had been arrested for wearing men’s clothes in public), turning it into an occasion for humor (Fern decides to put on her husband’s clothes and try for a walk), but retaining social and satirical as well as light and funny tones throughout. And none of it would work anywhere near as well without Parton’s presence—from his genial acquiescence to the original plan to his mixture of laughter and support throughout the experience, Parton serves as a perfect partner for Fern on both of the levels I’ve been discussing; as a husband who helps her be herself and is clearly in love with that self; and as a supporter of and participant in her writing and work. If reading Fern’s columns makes it easy to fall in love with her, reading this one makes it just as easy to love Parton, and what the two meant to each other.
Next lovers tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Any nominees, suggestions, or guest post possibilities?6/4 Memory Day nominee: Dr. Ruth Westheimer, whose funny accent, quirky personality, and risqué recommendations shouldn’t disguise the revolutionary and liberating nature of her frank and unashamed embrace of sex and the power of mass media.
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