October 12, 2010

Fern: I thank thee that I live

After 16 and a half years, the final column by Fanny Fern was published on October 12, 1872 — two days after her death. Fern, whose birth name was Sara Payson Willis, had printed her column continuously, without exception, every week in the New York Ledger since 1856. Her weekly salary made her the highest-paid columnist in the United States.

Fern's life, however, was not easy. Her first husband died in 1845 and she turned to her wealthy and influential brother, the writer Nathaniel Parker Willis. For reasons still unknown today, he shunned her. She married again but divorced shortly after. She wrote children's stories and a newspaper column, attracting the attention of James Parton, editor of the Home Journal (owned by Willis). He printed some of her work and, when Willis protested, he resigned as editor. Shortly after, Fern and Parton married (he was 11 years younger).

Fern's major break was the book Ruth Hall (1854), which fictionalized some of her unhappy experiences in her second marriage as well as a depicting thinly-veiled caricature of Willis, renamed "Hyacinth Ellet" — an effeminate, obnoxious editor who tries to sabotage the literary ambitions of the title character. The book sold 100,000 copies in one year, ultimately arguing that women need to financially support themselves.

Fern suffered for some time with cancer, at one point losing the use of her right arm. No matter; she wrote with her left instead. Her final column was titled "End of the Summer Season." In it, she wrote about a vacation:

As for me, whether I go early or late, whether my eyes are open or shut, memory will always make pictures for me... which makes me say with Festus, "Oh, God, I thank thee that I live."

Her editor, Robert Bonner, ordered the next issue of the Ledger print its editorial page with black edges representing mourning. He wrote, "Her success was assured, because she had something to say, and knew how to say it."

*I cannot recommend strongly enough Joyce W. Warren's Fanny Fern: An Independent Woman, which was used as a major source for this post.

1 comment:

  1. This reminds me of a story about Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley. When Parker was fired from the staff of Vanity Fair Benchley resigned in protest.