Fanny Fern: An Independent Woman

There’s a lot not to like in Joyce Warren’s 1992 biography of Fanny Fern (Sara Willis Parton), the most successful American woman writer and columnist of the mid-nineteenth century. For one thing, the subtitle. An independent woman? In today’s world this falls flat, incomprehensible as to why this would be of interest, like “Fanny Fern: a woman who tied her own shoes.” A much more engaging one would reference her popularity and era, “Fanny Fern: witty and successful writer between 1850-1872” or “Fanny Fern: first woman columnist in America.” Ech, I don’t know. But “an independent woman” gives no clues to how amazing Fern’s work and life were. My other main beef with the biography is stylistic. Those of us brought up in the age of Hermione Lee’s style of biography expect layered and rich stories, meticulously researched. I was impressed by Warren’s research, but it all felt too detached and academic. Towards the end you get the feeling that she’s jamming in as much as possible into the wrap-up. The last four paragraphs of the Children’s Lit section of Paper Pellets chapter all begin: “Fern’s interest…”, “Fern’s ideas…”, “Fern’s ideas…”, “Fern’s insights…” Not to mention that nearly every sentence is parenthetically cited within the text. Fanny Fern deserves a better biography. It’s still amazing that she has sunk beneath the waters of known American literature, only showing up in a footnote about Walt Whitman.