January 5, 2011

Fanny Fern and James Parton

Fanny Fern (pen name of Sara Payson Willis) had garnered major popularity through works like her semi-autobiographical novel Ruth Hall. Taking advantage of her success, the New York Ledger contracted with Fern as a columnist. The first of what her editors called her "spirited, lively, dashing, unrivalled sketches" appeared in the January 5, 1856 issue. Within a year, circulation increased by over 100,000 new subscribers.

Fern agreed to write exclusively for the Ledger, a deal she maintained until her death. Her weekly column appeared — without missing an issue — for 16 years. At $100 an article, she became America's highest-paid columnist for a time.

On the same date six years earlier, January 5, 1850, Fern's brother Nathaniel Parker Willis published the first article by a writer using the name "Currer Bell" (a pseudonym inspired by Charlotte Bronte) in his Home Journal. That writer was James Parton (pictured), who soon became an editor alongside Willis. Parton began publishing Fern's articles in the Home Journal — without Willis's blessing. In a move that has perpetually baffled scholars, the amiable Willis angrily forbade the publication of Fanny Fern in his magazine. In protest, Parton resigned. Perhaps in gratitude for his loyalty, shortly after Ruth Hall was published, she convinced her publishers to produce a book by Parton. The two soon built up a strong personal relationship.

In fact, Fern and Parton were married in Hoboken, New Jersey on the same day her first New York Ledger article was published — after signing a prenuptial agreement that ensured her literary earnings remained solely her own. He was her third husband and eleven years her junior.

*Much of the information in this article is found in Joyce Warren's Fanny Fern: An Independent Woman.

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