April 21, 2011

Fern and Whitman: You are delicious!

About a year after the publication of the first edition of Leaves of Grass, America's most popular columnist wrote to the book's author. Fanny Fern was enthusiastic in her short letter to Walt Whitman, dated April 21, 1856:

You are delicious! May my right hand wither if I don't tell the world before another week, what one woman thinks of you. "Walt"? "what I assume, you shall assume!"

Fern then invited Whitman to spend an evening with her and her husband James Parton. Some scholars have suggested Fern had a romantic interest in Whitman, though there is no evidence for it.

The next month, Fern dedicated her weekly column to Leaves of Grass — a book which would soon become one of the most controversial in American literature for its frank depiction of sexuality and the human body. She called it, "Well baptized: fresh, hardy and grown for the masses." Both Fern and Whitman made light of more serious subject matters by using a pun in their book titles, specifically the term "leaves" for "pages." Fern's book, Fern Leaves from Fanny's Portfolio, predated Leaves of Grass by only a couple years.

When they met in 1856, they were at markedly different points in their career. Fern was the highest paid newspaper writer of the day and had published four books successfully, including Ruth Hall. Whitman was unemployed after serving as a struggling journalist. His first book, Franklin Evans (a temperance novel), made no impact and he had to self-publish Leaves of Grass at his own expense. Of Whitman's book, Fern emphasized she could "extract no poison from these 'Leaves'."

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