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History Time: 'Can you tell me anything about this Fanny Fern?'

Posted by Susannah Blair  February 22, 2012 10:00 AM

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"It gives me much pleasure to see that my affairs are in such good condition, and I feel truly obliged to you for your kind care. I hardly venture to hope that I shall do so well, this present year; but anyhow, with the assistance of my pen, I shall manage to live….

In my last, I recollect, I bestowed some vituperation on female authors. I have since been reading 'Ruth Hall'; and I must say I enjoyed it 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. Generally women write like emasculated men, and are only to be distinguished from male authors by greater feebleness and folly; but when they throw off the restraints of decency, and come before the public stark naked, as it were, — then their books are sure to possess character and value. Can you tell me anything about this Fanny Fern? If you meet her, I wish you would let her know how much I admire her. . . " - Nathaniel Hawthorne to his publisher, 1855

Who was this "Fanny Fern" who wrote with a pen dipped, apparently, in hellish flames, and who inspired admiration in Salem's acerbic son for her so-called "naked" writing?

As America's first professional female (and highest paid) newspaper columnist, known for her satirical and trenchant cultural commentary, Sara Payson Willis Parton wrote under the pseudonym "Fanny Fern." 

Grata (soon called "Sara") Payson Willis was born July 9, 1811 in Portland, Maine, the daughter of newspaper publisher Nathaniel Willis. The Willis family moved to Boston in 1812. In 1816, Nathaniel Willis published the "Boston Recorder," one of America's earliest religious newspapers; later founding "The Youth's Companion," a pioneering children's magazine. 

From her mother, Hannah Parker, Sara said, she inherited "all the capability for writing which I possess," asserting that her mother would have been a literary light in her own right had she not been "constantly engrossed" with family responsibilities.

There were nine Willis children, and three of Sara's siblings also achieved literary and artistic success. Older brother Nathaniel Parker Willis (1806-1867) was a prolific and well-known writer, who became an editor of the New York Mirror and founder/editor of the Home Journal. 

Her younger brother Richard Storrs Willis (1819-1900), composer and music critic, was, like Nathaniel, educated at Yale. Study in Europe followed college; Felix Mendelssohn became a cherished friend. Back in the States by 1847, he wrote music criticism for the "New York Trib" and "The Albion." Later, he edited the "Musical Times" and "Musical World." In 1861 Willis moved to Detroit, Michigan, publishing collections of vocal music. You would recognize his tune "Carol," as the standard melody for the Christmas classic “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.”

Sara's elder sister, Julia Dean Willis (1809-1904) worked for her brother's Home Journal; with a talent for languages, she became a linguist, a teacher, and wrote reviews.

"Irrepressible" Sara was educated well, most notably at Catherine Beecher's seminary.  

"The school of which she had the liveliest recollection was that of Miss Catharine Beecher, at Hartford, where Miss Harriet Beecher was half teacher and half pupil, and in both characters beloved. Several letters are before me, mementoes of her Hartford school-days, and they all speak of her in the same tone, as a rosy-cheeked, daintily formed, gracefully stepping girl … who gave her teachers a good deal of trouble, and yet was liked by them all the better for it."

"Mrs. Stowe … in one of her letters to Fanny Fern, of thirty-five years after, describes her ... 'You, I remember, with your head of light curls, with your bonnet always tipped on one side, with a most insidious leaning towards that broad road of laughing and conjuration, which is the horror of well regulated school-ma'ams—and the many scrapes….'"

From an early age Sara proofread for her editor father and thus learned how to prepare manuscripts properly. Although excerpts of her essays appeared in local newspapers, Willis did not write professionally as a young adult. 

In 1837, 25-year-old Sara Willis married doctor's son Charles Harrington Eldredge, who worked at the Merchant's Bank of Boston. Eldredge was described to be of a "buoyant nature," handsome, and athletic. They were well-matched. The young couple moved into his parents' Boston house. Although the marriage was by most accounts a happy one, there were tense adjustments for the newlyweds (especially for the bride, who found herself contending with a mother-in-law perennially possessive of her son). 

Their first child, Mary Stace, was born in 1838, and shortly afterwards they bought their first house, "Swissdale," in Brighton. In 1841, they welcomed their second child, Grace Harrington, into the world. 

Unfortunately, the elder Eldredge couple moved to Brighton as well, causing renewed tension. Charles made poor investments, one of which resulted in prolonged litigation (he lost); financial troubles pursued him.

A new baby (Ellen) arrived in the midst of all this, illness and death in the family (including Sara's mother) added to the chaos, and then tragedy struck closest to home when seven-year-old Mary died. Heartsick, Sara and Charles moved to Boston. Then calamity truly struck the young couple. In 1846, Charles died at the age of thirty-five of typhoid fever. 

These successive blows left Sara "emotionally reeling." Worse still, she was also left penniless, her husband's death catapulting her from "relative affluence to relative poverty."

Her father and father-in-law refused to help to any significant degree; they urged her, instead, to remarry as a means of support for herself and for her children. In January 1849, she finally did so; marrying a widower with two children of his own, Boston merchant Samuel P. Farrington.

This would prove to be a terrible mistake.

Author's Note: I am indebted to the scholarship of Dr. Judith Fetterley, Professor Joyce W. Warren, and various historical sources, including those by Caroline Ticknor, Fanny Fern and James Parton, from whom I have drawn biographical and quoted material for this article.

Next Week: A Scribbling Mob of Women: A Resilient Fern (Final Installment of "Salem's Love of Letters") Coming Soon: Salem's Oddest Election

Musician, educator and lecturer, Maggi Smith-Dalton is the president of the Salem History Society. Author of “Stories and Shadows from Salem’s Past: Naumkeag Notations” (The History Press, 2010), she is working on her second book of Salem history for 2012. She and her husband, Jim Dalton, are also co-authoring a book on music in Salem's history and have released two new recordings of 19th-century music. Reach her at For information on joining the Salem History Society, go to

To view our previous "History Time" articles in this "Salem's Love of Letters" series: 

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