FANNY FERN by Joyce W. Warren


An Independent Woman
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 Warren (English/Queens College) performs a true literary service here by re-creating the life of America's first female newspaper columnist--a witty, brave, and defiant writer whose life proves both inspirational and heartening even now. Born in 1811 in Maine as Sarah Payson Willis Parton (``Fanny Fern'' was a pen name), Fern was raised in Boston in strictest Calvinist fashion by a severely religious father and a more spirited and humorous mother. Stumbling into the best education then available for American women, at the Hartford Female Seminary, Fern returned home after graduation to learn what she ironically dubbed the ``Lost Arts'' of ``bread-making and button-hole stitching.'' Married at 25, she bore three children and looked forward to a happy, traditional middle-class life--but was dealt a major blow when early widowhood, a disastrous second marriage that she felt compelled to end, and the resulting loss of reputation and income left her a destitute, virtually friendless single mother. It was the desperate need to earn money that prompted Fern, now 40, to try her hand as a writer. Her witty, astonishingly frank satirical essays on life as a 19th-century female caught on instantly with readers, leading to a highly paid newspaper column, a bestselling novel, and several adult and children's books--all written under the Fanny Fern pseudonym. Triumph in her career and a third, happy marriage failed to erase Fern's memories of poverty and discrimination, though, and she became an eloquent activist for women's rights, tussling, in her heroic-female fiction and her tart and amusing essays, with issues of fairness and equality until her dying day. Dismissed as a ``sentimentalist'' by 20th-century male critics, Fern, claims Warren, was the most threatening and aggressively feminine writer of 19th-century America. Fern's experiences, evoked here in lively and engaging prose, should provide inspiration for those who follow. (Twenty-one b&w illustrations.)

Pub Date: April 15th, 1992
ISBN: 0-8135-1763-X
Page count: 380pp
Publisher: Rutgers Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1st, 1992