June 1, 2012

Fern: the transparent mask of neutrality

The popular Fanny Fern (formerly known as Sarah Payson Willis) wrote nothing in her column about Abraham Lincoln's election in 1860, nor did she acknowledge the secession of a few Southern states from the Union. When shots were fired on Fort Sumter, however, she acknowledged the crisis at hand. Finally, on June 1, 1861, she published an article titled "The Time to Speak Out":

When timidity creeps into its hiding place, or measures its stealthy pace under the transparent mask of neutrality, then—God be thanked for the man of bold utterance! He refreshes us like the quick thunder storm, when the air grows too thick for breath.

Fern, perhaps upset at her own delay in speaking out as Civil War loomed, claimed that silence on important issues was unforgivable: "There be things worse than death." The italics are original. She continued:

When men walk with closed mouths, and averted eyes, nor dare look into the mirror of their own souls, and face the marring of God's image there... When with iron heel they crush out like so many insects, the soul's breath from thousands, and impiously say, "Am I not doing God's service?" Is it a time when the smoke of the pit ascends to the very nostrils, for men to coin pretty phrases?

Through her writings, Fern established herself quickly as a pro-Unionist. More importantly, she railed against apathy, implying that unconcern was the bigger cause of the problems of the United States (whether it was slavery, the Civil War, or the role of women in society). In a strange twist, when Lincoln called for more volunteers to enlist, the feminist Fern said that young men who refused to join should be given petticoats and sewing machines.

*The best source of information on Fern is Fanny Fern: An Independent Woman (1992) by Joyce Warren, from which I found the above information.

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