Fanny Fern wrote her way out of poverty to become the highest paid columnist of her day. And she did it in spite of her brother, a highly paid publisher who put obstacles in her way.
She turned her sorrows and struggles into newspaper columns that gained her huge popularity in the 19th century. Using witty, audacious prose, Fern told stories about children, family and domestic life.
Critics called her sentimental, but Nathaniel Hawthorne disagreed. “The woman writes as if the devil was in her,” he wrote.
She was born Sara Willis on July 9, 1811, in Portland, Maine. Her father, Nathaniel Willis, was a newspaper publisher, but her mother, Hannah Parker, was said to have the brains of the family. Sara was the fifth of nine children. Her brother Richard Storrs Willis became a musician and music journalist known for writing the melody for It Came Upon a Midnight Clear. Her brother Nathaniel Parker Willis owned and wrote for magazines. If she was the highest paid columnist, he was the highest paid journalist of his day.
The family moved to Boston when Sarah was an infant. She attended Catherine Beecher’s boarding school, the Hartford Female Seminary. Beecher called her one of the “worst-behaved girls,” but said she “loved her the best.” She also attended Saugus Female Seminary before returning home to write for her father’s publications.
Marriages and Sorrows
In 1837 she married banker Charles Harrington Eldredge. They had three daughters, Mary, Grace and Ellen. Eldredge died suddenly of typhoid fever in 1845, shortly after their daughter Mary died of meningitis. He left the future Fanny Fern destitute and heartbroken.
She struggled to survive, with very little help from her father or her in-laws, and none from her brother Nathaniel, known as N.P.
Her father wanted her to remarry. Two years after Eldredge died, she married a merchant named Samuel P. Farrington — a huge mistake. He was insanely jealous and she left him after two years, divorcing him two years after that in 1849.
In November 1851 her first article, The Governess, was published in a Boston newspaper. Soon she could support herself and her daughters with her writing. She began using the pen name Fanny Fern because it reminded her of her mother picking ferns. Eventually she called herself Fanny Fern in real life.
She sent her stories to her brother N.P., who refused to publish them and said they weren’t marketable outside Boston. They were.
James Parton, a biographer who edited N.P.’s magazine, published her articles and invited her to come to New York. When N.P. realized his sister’s columns were published in his magazine, he told Parton not to print them. Parton quit.
Within two years she published a collection of her most sentimental columns, called Fern Leaves from Fanny’s Portfolio. It sold 70,000 copies, an astonishing number for the time. She earned 10 cents for every book sold, which enabled her to buy a house in Brooklyn.
By 1855, she earned $100 per week for her New York Ledger column, which she wrote for 16 years until her death.
Controversy and Criticism
In 1854 Fanny Fern wrote a thinly veiled autobiography, Ruth Hall, in which she skewered people who shunned her when she most needed help: her father, her in-laws and N.P. When her identity was revealed, critics called it scandalous and unwomanly for her to attack her own family.
She also championed the then-controversial poet Walt Whitman, which earned her further criticism. On April 21, 1856, she wrote to Whitman: “Leaves of Grass You are delicious!” may my right-hand wither if I don’t tell the world before another week, what one woman thinks of you.”
That year she married James Parton. She was 45. They lived in New York with her daughter Ellen and granddaughter Ethel by her daughter Grace, who had died. Fanny Fern became a suffragist and co-founded Sorosis, the first professional women’s club.
Fanny Fern died Oct. 10, 1872, after a six-year battle with cancer.
My Old Ink-Stand and I
Fanny Fern wrote My Old Ink-Stand and I about her escape from poverty, recalling how a landlady named Mrs. Griffin humiliated her and her daughter. Written in her new house, she begins:
Well, old Ink-stand, what do you think of this? Haven’t we got well through the woods, hey? A few scratches and bruises we have had, to be sure, but what of that? Didn’t you whisper where we should come out, the first morning I dipped my pen in your sable depths, in the sky-parlor of that hyena-like Mrs. Griffin? With what an eagle glance she discovered that my bonnet-ribbon was undeniably guilty of two distinct washings, and, emboldened by my shilling de laine, and the shabby shoes of little Nell, inquired ‘if I intended taking in slop-work into her apartments?’
She then recalls how distinctly the landlady made her understand that Nell was not to speak above a whisper. Nor could she “infringe upon the rights of her uncombed, unwashed, unbaptized, uncomfortable little Griffins.”
Fern then tells her inkstand how she overheard Mrs. Griffin tell her husband that she lived on bread and milk, “and wore her under-clothes rough-dry, because she could not afford to pay for ironing them!”
Fanny Fern Stands By Her Inkstand
She then reminded her inkstand how Mrs. Griffin told her she must scrub the stairs that led up to her room. “[A]nd when I ventured humbly to mention, that this was not spoken of in our agreement, do you remember the Siddons-like air with which she thundered in our astonished ears–‘Do it, or tramp’!”
Inkstand then vowed to help her out of the scrape, she recalled.
[A]nd haven’t you done it, old Ink-stand? And don’t you wish old Griffin, and all the little Griffins, and their likes, both big and little, here and elsewhere, could see this bran-new house that you have helped me into, and the dainty little table upon which I have installed you, untempted by any new papier-mâché modern marvel?
Griffin and her crew should see them now, she wrote. But she vowed to forgive them. “By the title deed and insurance policy of this bran-new pretty house, which their sneers have helped us into, and whose doors shall always be open to those who have cheered us on, we’ll do it,” she wrote.
You can read more of Fanny Fern’s work here.
This story updated in 2022.