Chapter Five: Celebrity’s Revolutionary Power
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154 Chapter 5 �������������� FANNY FERN Celebrity’s Revolutionary Power When Fanny Fern began writing for Robert Bonner’s New York Ledger in 1855, she became the highest-­ paid newspaper writer in America—­ a fact known to newspaper readers in New York and elsewhere because Bonner advertised it. But readers did not know just how much Fern was earning until, in the weeks leading up to Fern’s debut in the Ledger’s pages, Bonner confirmed that he was paying her a hundred dollars per column. After serializing her story “Fanny Ford” at that rate, in 1856 Bonner negotiated a contract to pay Fern a whopping twenty-­ five dollars per week to write exclusively for his paper, and he publicized that, too. The combination of high salaries and aggressive publicity paid off for Bonner: the Ledger drew a hundred thousand new subscribers. Fern’s column was a mainstay of the Ledger for the next sixteen years—­ the rest of Fern’s life—­ while Bonner continued to hire other celebrity writers at high rates and publish them with great fanfare.1 Fern’s arrival at the Ledger exemplifies the ways celebrity culture links personality and profit. In hiring Fern, Bonner recognized not only the quality of her writing but also the marketability of Fern herself, the appeal of her personal story, curiosity about her identity, and controversy over the propriety of her writing. These same interests followed Fern from her emergence in the Olive Branch newspaper in 1851, but Bonner’s Barnumesque embrace of aggressive promotional practices in the personal public sphere enabled him to capitalize on them as no one else had done. Both he and Fern profited by the arrangement: like Bonner, Fern recognized that her personality—­ her public expression of self—­ drove popular interest in her writing. As Brenda Weber explains, Fern’s entire career hinged on her ability to feed public interest in herself while at the same time protecting herself from celebrity’s voracious hunger for the public figure: she “was able to alter the signifying terms of the culture in which she resided largely by constructing various and contradictory figures of female literary celebrity.”2 Early on, Fern perfected writing strategies that both revealed and concealed the self: her first-­ person style affected various personas, from the sensible old maid to the practical bluestocking to the self-­ regarding “Miss Fan,” Fanny Fern 155 all of which projected her unconventional thinking and masked the details of her personal background that her readers craved. In all of this, as Weber notes, Fern evades the aspects of celebrity that threaten to overwhelm or consume her, even as she continues to court public interest in and even desire for her. From her first appearance in the Olive Branch in 1851, Fern encounters readers who respond to her directly, personally, and authoritatively. These letters initiate the public queries into Fern’s “real” identity that persist throughout her career. Responding publicly to those queries in letters of her own, Fern actively participates in the construction of her own celebrity image. The Olive Branch letters reveal celebrity as a process of reading, responding to, and writing the celebrity image or personality—­ a process that is aptly illustrated by epistolary reciprocity .3 At the same time, the letters show Fern’s efforts not only to evade public identification—­ she uses the letters to establish and defend her pseudonymity—­ but, moreover, to reconceptualize identity itself by encouraging ongoing exchange and response that liberates identity from ideological fixtures. Among those fixtures, the idealization of women’s sexual purity is especially limiting, Fern realizes. More than any writer of the age except, perhaps, Whitman , Fern wrote about sex frankly and critically. Her critiques of gender ideologies explore the various results of a sexual double standard that granted men erotic license but bound women to notions of virtue that were personally and socially crippling. Indeed, Fern tacitly acknowledges desire, erotic desire, as central to her appeal. A key element of her public relations is her skillful handling of the erotic dimensions of her fame. Moreover, Fern used her own celebrity to reveal and interrogate the erotic dimensions of public life. As a woman in the public eye, Fern was keenly aware of the transgressiveness of her situation: daring to publish her views on matters of cultural and political significance, Fern claimed her right to participate in a public sphere from which women were excluded on the grounds that they lacked an abstract self. Women’s identities were understood...


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