July 9, 2011

Bicentennial of Fanny Fern

Sarah Payson Willis was born in Portland, Maine on July 9, 1811 to Nathaniel Willis and Hannah Parker Willis. Her father, an unofficial "deacon" at the Park Street Church in Boston, hoped to instill his daughter with piety by naming her after the Reverend Edward Payson. It did not work. Though educated well (even better than most girls), Sarah never seemed to fall in line with her father's religious beliefs.

Both her father and her brother Nathaniel Parker Willis were well-known and influential in literature and publishing — but did not financially support Sarah when she became destitute. No longer feeling like a member of the Willis family, with her first husband Charles Eldredge dead, and a divorce from her second husband Samuel Farrington pending, Sarah seemed to have lost her identity. As she turned to writing for income, she took the name Fanny Fern instead, beginning with the essay, "The Model Husband."

By the end of her life, Fern (she stopped using "Sarah" entirely) had published novels, short stories, and various essays. Among her works aimed at children was "The Policeman," which knocked down any expectations for happy birthdays.

...[Little Johnny] had beautiful presents, and a little sugared plumcake, made on purpose for him by his grandmother; and he was to have a little party in the evening, and ice cream and cake to eat; and they were to play blind man's buff, and all go to the circus in the evening...

Having just turned nine years old, he announces, "I want to be a policeman." At his age, however, it never occurred to him that an officer's job involved anything negative. Earlier, a policeman which had inspired little Johnny had heard the sobs of a little girl who, like Johnny, had turned nine years old that day.

He went into the room where the noise came from, and saw, not a birthday party, of warmly-dressed little children, and a bright fire, and pretty pictures on the walls, and such beautiful roses on the pretty carpet, that one almost hated to step on them. No, indeed! The floor was bare, and so were the walls; there was no bed in the room, no chairs, no tables; but on the floor lay a dead woman, and over her stood her own little girl, named Katy, only nine years old that very day... In her hand was a basket of cold victuals, that her mother had sent her out alone to beg; and there lay her mother, dead!

Though the officer was a stranger to young Katy, he offers to take her into his home and he and his wife raise her as their own daughter. This unsolicited act of kindness is severely contrasted with Fern's own life, when her own family refused to help her. Fern struggled for a time in boarding-houses, earning only a few dollars a week as a seamstress. Even when she turned to writing, her four to six articles a week earned her $6 to $20. What a relief it must have been when, years later, New York Ledger editor Robert Bonner paid her $100 a week.

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