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  • The Domestic Transcendentalism of Fanny Fern
  • Carole Moses

In rediscovering Fanny Fern (Sara Willis Parton), critics have focused on the elements that make her most accessible to contemporary audiences: her feminism and lively style.1 Joyce W. Warren, discussing her "revolutionary writing style" ("Fanny Fern, Performative," 17), draws parallels to gangsta rap, and in particular, to those female performers who "redefine the conventional definition of 'woman'" (22). Elizabethada A. Wright, focusing on irony and black signifying, reaches a similar conclusion, noting that Fern "use[d] supposed norms to destabilize many culturally sanctified beliefs" and wound up "trouncing the patriarchy" (109). And Alfred Habegger underscores her rebellious irony by quoting a mock-review she wrote of her own writing (887). Thus, although Ann Wood refers to the strategy by which the sentimentalists eschewed the role of professional writer while writing professionally (5–7), Fanny Fern, in Elaine Showalter's words, "spoke of writing as a form of resistance for women imprisoned by their social and sexual roles" (116).

This outspoken feminist sensibility is what finds its way into most collections of American literature. For example, The Heath Anthology of American Literature puts Fern in a section entitled "Literature and 'The Woman Question'" (Lauter, 2031–38). Of the six selections, only one is a sentimental sketch of a widow and her two children striving to keep warm on a frigid December evening by remembering their former days of happiness when "papa" was alive (2032–33). The other excerpts from Fern are first-person pieces in which she ridicules conventional wisdom about woman's place in the home (2031–32); criticizes society for mistreating its female servants (2033–34); lambastes the aesthete Apollo Hyacinth, a thinly veiled reference to Fern's brother who refused to help her when she was struggling financially (2034–35); defends, ironically, male critics of women's books (2035–36); depicts humorously a female author torn between her desire to write and the domestic catastrophes that keep occurring around her; and denounces Independence Day in a country that restricts freedom for its women (2036–37). The Norton Anthology of American Literature is similarly [End Page 90] biased (Baym, 1748–1757). Of the six excerpts from Fern, five deal with feminist issues or are sharply critical of society in some way. Only one contains a rather sentimental portrait of childhood and a belief in God's benevolence in watching over a sleeping infant. Yet this sketch is part of a description of the poorhouse on Blackwell's Island, and even her sentimental musings are tinged with social conscience as she wonders why God laid the poor child "in that pauper bed, instead of the downy one which plenty delights to deck for its own" (1754).

The popular view of Fern as a rebel, however, overlooks the vast amount of unabashedly sentimental writing in her six anthologies, writing that led Fred Lewis Pattee to characterize her first volume of collected prose pieces as "a tear-drenched section of goody-goody inanity" (118). More recent critics are similarly bothered by her sentimental pieces. Mary Kelly, referring to Fern's triumphant address to her ink stand after her hard-won success, observes that she finally comes down on the side of feeling in a later essay as she asks "literary fame!—Alas, what is it to a loving woman's heart, save as it lifts her out of the miry pit of poverty and toil" ("Charlotte Brontë," Fresh Leaves, 334). Despite the fact that Fern is commenting on the pathos of Brontë's life, Kelly construes this as a direct contradiction of her earlier pride at her own literary success (158–59). Terry Novak simply notes that her sentimental writing is less popular with modern audiences (127), but Ann Wood goes as far as to say that her "earliest work reads like an exercise in artistic schizophrenia" (18). Nicole Tonkovich, on the other hand, sees her sentimentalism as a ploy, saying that she "used the feminine stereotype to pave the way for more daring work" (45). Such a comment implies that there is a more authentic Fern not represented by her sentimental writing.2

I would like to examine the collected nonfiction of...