December 30, 2011

Guest post: Revealing Fanny Fern

Fanny Fern’s famous first novel, Ruth Hall, was released amid much hoopla in December 1854. Fern, the pseudonym for Sara Willis Eldredge Farrington, had recently left Boston and had settled in New York to write, first for the Musical World and Times and then for the New York Ledger. In the few years leading to the release of her first novel, critics and fans unsuccessfully tried to learn her identity and gender. Speculation about just who Fanny Fern really was rose to a fever pitch, especially upon the much-awaited release of Ruth Hall. Mason Brothers, her publisher, struggled to print enough copies to meet the never-before-seen demand for an American novel, yet utilized one of the most-successful early advertising campaigns to fuel that demand. Early critics insisted on reading the novel as autobiographically-based, something Mason Brothers denied, even as they publicized these speculations.

When Fern left Boston, she left behind her first two editors. One of those, William U. Moulton, editor of the True Flag, made it clear that he was bitter and angry at Fern for several reasons. Moulton was not used to dealing with a business-minded woman and resented Fern’s requests for earnings increases (to bring her income closer to a living wage) and especially resented her “abandoning” Boston (and the True Flag) for the greater earning power and prestige to be had in New York City. Although Moulton gladly profited from Fern’s pithy writing when he had her under his commission, nevertheless, he seemed disturbed and annoyed that she failed to conform to conventional feminine expectations of the era.

On December 30, 1854, just a few weeks after Ruth Hall was released, Moulton did the unthinkable – he outted Fanny Fern. Moulton announced that Fern’s identity was that of Sara Willis Eldredge Farrington, the scandalized ex-wife of Boston merchant Samuel Farrington, and, moreover, posited that Ruth Hall was a biographically-based novel laced with unflattering and, perhaps, false, representations of her family and acquaintances, including Moulton himself and Fern’s famous poet/editor brother, N. P. Willis. Fern’s novel, indeed, was biographically-based, and she wrote it with the assurance of anonymity. But, once her identity was known, it wasn’t difficult for readers to identify possible true-life models for the novel’s characters. Fern was hurled to the critical, though fascinated, masses, which devastated her personally, but ultimately led to making her book a phenomenal success.

*Debra Brenegan teaches English and Women’s Studies at Westminster College in Missouri. She is the author of Shame the Devil (SUNY Press), a historical novel based on the life of nineteenth-century journalist, novelist and feminist, Fanny Fern.

1 comment:

  1. Moulton was a creep--you did an excellent job of portraying him that way in the book. Thank heaven Fanny, and the handful of other successful female authors of that era, paved the way for us today, when we no longer have to hide behind a pseudonym when we write, unless we choose to.

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