Ruth Hall and Other Writings

Read this book immediately, because it’s shameful to be alive without knowing about the genius of Sara Willis Parton who wrote such delightful sarcastic columns in newspapers across the East in the 1850s & 60s under the pseudonym Fanny Fern. Discovered via the Aunt Lute Anthology, I knew I had to read more of her writing, such clear and sensible words taking the wind out of society’s sails on things like women writing (or doing any kind of work outside the home), the illegality of wearing pants, the hypocritical male. This book has both her first novel, Ruth Hall, a thinly disguised story about her own riches to rags to riches story, and a heap of her newspaper articles, which are a real treasure. Both contain light barbs, puns, sarcasm, and wit. This is a woman whom Hawthorne praised, “I enjoyed [Ruth Hall] a good deal. The woman writes as if the devil was in her, and that is the only condition under which a woman ever writes anything worth reading.” Fanny Fern was the first woman newspaper columnist in the U.S. and the highest paid newspaper writer of her day. How is it that we don’t know her words and works as accurately as her contemporaries of Thoreau, Whitman, Hawthorne? Why isn’t she as well-loved as Mark Twain??
In Ruth Hall, we see a joyful woman in a happy marriage lose her first child, and after having a few more children, losing her beloved husband. Both her and her husband’s families are well-off, but stingy, and neither of them step up to help the widow, leaving her and her daughters to nearly starve as she tries to find work. When she attempts to become a teacher, she asks her cousin to help, but he actually votes against her. When she begins to write, she reaches out to her successful editor brother and he tells her she has no talent. You can almost hear her loins girding, because she then proceeds to become one of the most successful writers in the country, earning enough money to rescue her older daughter from the evil clutches of a her deranged former mother-in-law, and buy a house. It’s a wonderful story, although difficult to stomach all the horrors she endures in the first half, and difficult to believe that this was something that actually happened to Fern.
Some great examples of her newspaper writing follow. She frequently used a formula of quoting a recent periodical and then slashing it to bits:

MALE CRITICISM ON LADIES BOOKS (1857)
“Courtship and marriage, servants and children, these are the great objects of a woman’s thoughts, and they necessarily form the staple topics of their writings and their conversation. We have no right to expect anything else in a woman’s book.” — N.Y. Times
Is it in feminine novels only that courtship, marriage, servants and children are the staple? Is not this true of all novels? –of Dickens, of Thackery, of Bulwer and a host of others? Is it peculiar to feminine pens, most astute and liberal of critics? Would a novel be a novel if it did not treat of courtship and marriage? and if it could be so recognized, would it find readers? When I see such a narrow, snarling criticism as the above, I always say to myself, the writer is some unhappy man, who has come up without the refining influence of mother, or sister, or reputable female friends; who has divided his migratory life between boarding-houses, restaurants, and the outskirts of editorial sanctums; and who knows as much about reviewing a woman’s book, as I do about navigating a ship, or engineering an omnibus from the South Ferry, through Broadway, to Union Park. I think I see him writing that paragraph in a fit of spleen–of male spleen– in his small boarding-house upper chamber, by the cheerful light of a solitary candle, flickering alternately on cobwebbed walls, dusty wash-stand, begrimed bowl and pitcher, refuse cigar stumps, boot-jacks, old hats, buttonless coats, muddy trousers, and all the wretched accompaniments of solitary, selfish male existence, not to speak of his own puckered, unkissable face; perhaps, in addition , his boots hurt, his cravat-bow persists in slipping under his ear for want of a pin, and a wife to pin it (poor wretch!) or he has been refused by some pretty girl, as he deserved to be (narrow-minded old vinegar-cruet!) or snubbed by some lady authoress; or, more trying than all to the male constitution, has had a weak cup of coffee for that morning’s breakfast.

MRS. STOWE’S UNCLE TOM (1853)
“Mrs. Stowe’s Uncle Tom is too graphic ever to have been written by a woman.” — Exchange
“Too graphic to be written by a woman?” D’ye hear that, Mrs. Stowe? or has English thunder stopped your American ears?… Do you suppose that you can quietly take the wind out of everybody’s sails, the way you have, without having harpoons, and lampoons, and all sorts of miss—iles thrown after you? No indeed; every distanced scribbler is perfectly frantic; they stoutly protest your book shows no genius… they are transported with rage in proportion as you are translated. Everybody whose cat ever ran through your great grandfather’s entry “knows all about you,” and how long it took you to cut your first “wisdom tooth.” … I trust you are convinced by this time that “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is a “flash in the pan.” I’m sorry you have lost so much money by it, but it will go to show you, that women should have their ambition bounded by a gridiron, and a darning needle. If you had not meddled with your husband’s divine inkstand for such a dark purpose, nobody would have said you was “40 years old and looked like an Irish woman;” and between you and me and the vestry door, I don’t believe they’ve done with you yet; for I see that every steamer tosses fresh laurels on your orthodox head, from foreign shores, and foreign powers. Poor unfortunate Mrs. Tom’s Cabin! Ain’t you to be pitied.

SUNSHINE AND YOUNG MOTHERS (1852)
“Folly–For girls to expect to be happy without marriage. Every woman was made for a mother, consequently, babies are as necessary to their ‘peace of mind,’ as health. If you wish to look at melancholy and indigestion, look at an old maid. If you would take a peep at sunshine, look in the face of a young mother.”
Now I won’t stand that! I’m an old maid myself; and I’m neither melancholy nor indigestible! My “PIECE of mind” I’m going to give you, (in a minute!) and I never want to touch a baby except with a pair of tongs! “Young mothers and sunshine!” Worn to fiddling strings before they are twenty-five! When an old lover turns up he thinks he sees his grandmother, instead of the dear little Mary who used to make him feel as if he should crawl out of the toes of his boots! Yes! my mind is quite made up about matrimony;