Saturday, July 5, 2014

Tyrants of the Shop

Fanny Fern (1811–1872)
From Writing New York: A Literary Anthology

The Woman in Business, 1897, oil on canvas by American artist Alice Barber Stephens (1858–1932), used for the cover illustration for the September 1897 issue of The Ladies Home Journal, for the magazine’s “The American Woman” series. Image courtesy of The Athenaeum website.
When Fanny Fern’s first novel, the autobiographical Ruth Hall, was published in 1854, The New York Times critic (in an otherwise favorable review) huffed, “But we confess that we cannot understand how a delicate, suffering woman can hunt down even her persecutors so remorselessly.” Literary scholar Joyce W. Warren affirms that Fern, a journalist, must have seemed starkly unconventional to her contemporaries: “At a time when the ‘cult of the lady’ urged women to be gentle, ‘feminine,’ and submissive, Fern’s writing was satirical, outspoken, polemical—and even outrageous.” Yet Fern was not only America’s first woman newspaper columnist but also, by the 1850s, the highest paid of any columnist.

Born Sara Payson Willis, she earned a reputation as a nonconformist by the time she was an adolescent. Hoping to subdue her free spirit with a strong dose of religious instruction, her father sent sixteen-year-old Sara to the Hartford Female Seminary—her third boarding school in half a decade. Years later, according to Warren’s biography of Fern, the headstrong former student reintroduced herself to the school’s headmistress, Catherine Beecher, saying, “I suppose you don’t know me.” Beecher replied, “Not remember you, Sara Willis? You were the worst behaved student in my school!” Then she added, “And I loved you the best.” While she attended the school, the precocious Willis, who had been editing and writing for her father’s periodicals since she was twelve, began to write occasional pieces for a local Hartford newspaper, whose editor would come to the school to pick them up. (Alas, not a single one of these early columns survives.)

Decades later, Willis’s days at the Hartford Seminary were recalled by a far more straight-laced alumna, who had lived with her at a nearby boardinghouse run by Mrs. Strong. In the late 1860s, about the time Fanny Fern was publishing weekly columns such as “Tyrants of the Shop” in the New York Ledger, Harriet Beecher Stowe had occasion to write to Fern’s husband:
I believe you have claim on a certain naughty girl once called Sara Willis [who] one night stole a pie . . . and did feloniously excite unto sedition and rebellion some five or six other girls,—eating said pie between eleven & twelve o’clock in defiance of the laws of the school & in breach of the peace—ask her if it isn’t so. . . . Perhaps she has long been penitent—perhaps—but ah me—when I read Fanny Fern’s articles I detect sparks of the old witchcraft—& say as poor Mrs. Strong used to when any new mischief turned up—That’s Sarah Willis, I know!
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