Fanny Fern was born under the name of Sara Payson Willis Parton in 1811. She became widely famous in America for her autobiographical novel Ruth Hall (1854), and for her humorous, satirical, and critical newspaper sketches and
columns. She was born into a literary family, as her father was a publisher and her brother N.P. Willis a poet and editor. She got a superior education at Catharine E. Beecher’s seminary. Stricken by the deaths of close family members, including her mother, her husband, and one of her daughters, Fern fell into poverty with little help from her remaining family. Her short pieces for Boston newspapers were collected and published as Fern Leaves from Fanny’s Portfolio (1853) and became a bestseller. While the majority of the critics found fault with “the lack of ‘female delicacy’,” (White: 871) literary great Nathaniel Hawthorne wholeheartedly advocated Fern’s texts and deemed her very enjoyable as an author: “The woman writes as if the Devil was in her … If you meet her, I wish you would let her
know how much I admire her” (Wood: 3). After publishing a second novel, Rose Clark (1856), she refrained from bigger projects and focused on informal essays for the New York Ledger. In New York City she continued to focus on everyday struggles and covered a broad spectrum of topics in her widely read newspaper pieces. She was
not only the first woman to be a newspaper columnist in the United States but also one of the most popular writers in the entire country. Finally, she died aged 61 in 1872.
Fanny Fern was the highest-paid newspaper columnist in 19th century America.
Critical Analysis of Tyrants of the Shop by Felix Reich
In this newspaper column from the New York Ledger Fern shows sympathy with shop-girls in the Manhattan mercantile district. More specifically, Fern’s article provides the reader with a feminine perspective on women in the workplace. She draws a picture of contemporary working women as disempowered, muted, trapped, and embarrassed. She hints at the non-existent alternatives for women but to keep quiet and obey misogynist practices: “because you know something about women`s wages and women`s work in the crowded city”. With picturesque phrases she describes the feeling of being trapped in such an environment: “the air about had suddenly become too thick to breathe.” With trenchant words she presents the dilemma the shopper finds herself in because albeit wanting to do help the shop-girls in the end “you bite your tongue to keep it quiet.”
Full text: Tyrants of the Shop
McCullen, Kevin. Fanny Fern in the New York Ledger. http://fannyfern.org/. Last access 11/4/2016.
Warren, Joyce W. (1994) Fanny Fern: An Independent Woman. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press. 1994.
White, Barbara A. (2003) “Parton, Sara Payson Willis.” Serafin, Steven R. (ed.) The Continuum Encyclopedia of American Literature. New York: Continuum.
Wood, Ann D. (1971) “The ‘Scribbling Women’ and Fanny Fern: Why Women Wrote.” American Quarterly Vol. 23, No. 1, pp. 3-25. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.