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My New Book!

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

March 29, 2016: 19th Century Humor: Fanny Fern

[For this year’s installment of my annual April Fool’s Day series, I wanted to AmericanStudy some 19th century humorists. I’d love to hear your humorous responses and nominations in comments. I’m serious!]
On the very serious side to one of our most talented humorists.

There are all sorts of reasons not to take Fanny Fern (1811-1872) seriously. First there’s that name—when Sara Willis (later and perhaps best known as Sara Willis Parton) decided in 1851 to publish her first newspaper columns and articles under a pen name (Willis was a widow with two young daughters to support, and while she had been writing on her own for many years she did not begin publishing until that year, at the age of 40), she opted for a name that parodied the alliterative pseudonym of one of the period’s most prominent authors and columnists, Grace Greenwood. Perhaps if Willis had known that she would within four years’ time be the highest-paid newspaper columnist in the country (as she became in 1855 when the New York Ledger paid her $100 a week), she would have chosen a name based more on her own identity and less on parodying that of another writer.

But even if we leave her name aside, much of Fern’s published work was, by its own admissions and in its explicit purposes and genres, relatively light. One of the catchphrases with which her columns were often described was “witty and irreverent,” and indeed the majority of them, including her first article “The Governess” (which appeared in the Boston newspaper Olive Branch), comprised humorous takes on various social and domestic situations; when those columns were collected and published in book form, it was usually under titles (such as Ginger-Snaps [1870] and Caper-Sauce [1872]) that seemed to emphasize their lightness. Many of her other writings were directed explicitly and solely at youthful audiences, such as all those pieces collected in Little Ferns for Fanny’s Little Friends (1853), The Play-Day Book  (1857), and A New Story Book for Children (1864). Neither humorous columns nor children’s books are without their value—not only as cultural and historical documents, but also as works of literature in their own right—but compared to some of Fern’s immediate predecessors and contemporaries as extremely prominent women writers, especially Lydia Maria Child and Margaret Fuller (but also for example Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a magazine-published phenomenon in the same year that Fern began publishing her columns), these works seem significantly less serious in theme and perhaps less meaningful as a result.

Well, maybe some of them are—and when you’re writing columns as frequently as Fern, it’s difficult to imagine that many of them wouldn’t be somewhat light or forgettable—but any extended engagement with Fern’s writings reveals not only a hugely prodigious talent but an unquestionable ability to connect her humor and style to some of the most serious topics of her own or any other era. Her autobiographical novel Ruth Hall (1854) certainly illustrates both talent and that ability, and illuminates quite effectively the particular situations and settings out of which she was working throughout these years. But we don’t have to leave her columns to find ample evidence of this rare combination of funny and serious, engaging and deep. To cite only two: “Male Criticism on Ladies’ Books” (1857) responds with vigor and passion to a New York Times book reviewer’s overtly sexist perspective on women’s writing, and manages both to skewer that critic as thoroughly as one can possibly imagine and to engage thoughtfully (all this in only a couple paragraphs!) with some of the most complex and important questions of gender, art, and audience; while “Blackwell’s Island” (which begins on page 29 in that linked book, and was part of a series begun in 1858) narrates a journey to the women’s prison located on that New York island and engages at length with a number of critical sociological and psychological factors and effects in the identities and lives of the women Fern encounters there. The two pieces feel quite distinct in many ways, but that of course is part of my point—her columns and writerly roles required her to give her talents quite free reign over a wide variety of topics and focal points, and the common denominator, quite simply, was those talents themselves.

There are specific and very contemporary and salient reasons to read each of those texts, and many others of Fern’s besides (such as her “A Law More Nice Than Just,” written in response to the story of a woman who had been fined for wearing men’s clothing in public, which engages with issues of gender, performance, appearance and identity more clearly and meaningfully than any dozen 1980s literary theorists). But I think the best reason is precisely Fern’s talent itself. In an era when far too many columnists seem unable to string together two coherent thoughts, much less to take our breath away with a phrase—and I’m not trying to sound like an old-timer pining for a Golden Age of writing; I think this is more about an emphasis on achieving partisan political aims and pleasing built-in constituencies and less about a waning of quality in and of itself—Fanny still packs a serious punch. Next humorist tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other humorists you’d highlight?


  1. I might suggest The Reverend Petroleum Vesuvius Nasby, Artemus Ward, and Marietta Holley.