- Re-Possessing Individualism in Fanny Fern's Ruth Hall
- Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory
- Johns Hopkins University Press
- Volume 56, Number 4, Winter 2000
- pp. 25-56
- View Citation
MARIA C. SANCHEZ Re-Possessing Individualism in Fanny Fern's Ruth Hall Be it known that Mrs. Ruth Hall, of —, is entitled to one hundred shares of the Capital Stock of the Seton Bank, and holds the same subject to the conditions and stipulations contained in the Articles of Association of such Institution; which shares are transferable on the Books of the Association by the said Mrs. Ruth Hall or her Attorney, on surrender of this Certificate. You are very fond of poetry and beauty, wherever you see it, —of oratory, sculpture, painting, scenery, flowers, and beautiful sentiments. You must have everything nice; you cannot tolerate anything coarse or gross. The world is hardly finished nice enough for you. . . . The fact is, you are made of finer clay than most of us. Fanny Fern, Ruth Hall 'ear the end of Fanny Fern's Ruth Hall (1854), the eponymous heroine undergoes two defining experiences: she purchases bank stock, and is examined by a phrenologist. Her acquisition of stock, a scene that is accompanied by an illustration of the bank note itself, has been read by critics as that moment which most forcefully emblematizes Ruth Hall's success, her endorsement of possessive individualism, and her restoration to a middle-class status quo.1 However, the often overlooked phrenologist's visit, and his diagnosis of innate refinement, also speak to the class of Fern's most (in)famous creation. Indeed, the "Professor" finds that Ruth possesses "an unusual degree of respect and regard for whatever you value as superior. ... I do not mean conventional superiority or bombastic assumption, but what you really believe to be good and noble," remarking that when it comes to cultural endeavArizona Quarterly Volume 56, Number 4, Winter 2000 Copyright © 2000 by Arizona Board of Regents ISSN 0004-1610 20María C. Sánchez ors, "You [Ruth] will tolerate nothing low" (168, 170). This declaration of Ruth's ability to see through "conventional" signs and detect the truly "noble" or "low" reassures the reader that, for all her trials and tribulations, Ruth Hall's essential identity has never changed. The prevailing theme of the phrenologist's diagnosis is that Ruth is a distinctive woman, in part because she knows how to make distinctions. Although Ruth herself protests that the Professor has provided her with "our $2 worth in flattery," the novel's other voice of truth, Mr. Walter, challenges her modesty: '"There is not a whit of exaggeration in it,' said Mr. Walter. 'The Professor has hit you off to the life'" (171). Thus the novel ends as it begins, by elaborating Ruth Hall's taste, style, distinctions and refinement. Fanny Fern insists, then, that her heroine's class can never be wholly represented by the financial and occupational status indexed by the impressive, and singularly illustrated, bank stock. This essay examines the role that class plays in constructing individualism in Fern's text. I read class here as an index of personal worth that, while fundamentally dependent upon wealth and occupation, is never reducible to them; rather class is understood, both in Fern's novel and in my reading, through the individual markings of taste and style that manifest one's relation to a dominant culture. Few critics of either Ruth Hall or Fanny Fern note the extent to which the novel engages in a consistent construction, indeed, in a constant fashioning of its heroine as a particularly classed subject in the process of furthering its individualist agenda. Yet this fashioning, apparent here in the phrenologist's verdict, indicates that the currently popular theory of possessive individualism is not fully adequate to comprehending the complexities of class in Fern's text. Ruth Hall is of the middle class, but more importantly , she "has class," and it is Fern's construction of this elusive quality that I connect here to individualism—an anti-market individualism. Such an assessment of Ruth Hall's brand of individualistic philosophy goes against the grain of Fanny Fern criticism. Indeed, few nineteenth -century stories of women reward their heroines with money as opposed to conjugal bliss; Fern herself, throughout a long career as a newspaper columnist, tirelessly advocated the necessity of women's financial...