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  • Mediums of Exchange:Fanny Fern's Unoriginality
  • Lara Langer Cohen (bio)

Who is FANNY FERN? and, What is FANNY FERN?

—"Interesting to Ladies," Pittsfield Sun, 22 September 1853

In 1849, the editor and critic Rufus Wilmot Griswold followed the success of his anthologies The Poets and Poetry of America (1842) and The Prose Writers of America (1847) with The Female Poets of America, an expanded version of his Gems from American Female Poets (1844). Griswold's was one of three popular anthologies of women's poetry that appeared in quick succession in the late 1840s, signaling along with the success of women's popular novels an unmistakable shift in the gender composition of the American literary marketplace.1 In his introduction, Griswold commends women for showing "indications of the infusion of our domestic spirit and temper into literature" and for their affinity for pursuits that "beautify existence but do not consolidate power"—and yet his critical faculties are discomfited by women's literary accomplishments.

It is less easy to be assured of the genuineness of literary ability in women than in men. The moral nature of women, in its finest and richest development, partakes of some of the qualities of genius; it assumes, at least, the similitude of that which in men is the characteristic or accompaniment [End Page 59] of the highest grade of mental inspiration. We are in danger, therefore, of mistaking for the efflorescent energy of creative intelligence, that which is only the exuberance of personal "feelings unemployed." . . . The most exquisite susceptibility of the spirit, and the capacity to mirror in dazzling variety the effects which circumstances or surrounding minds work upon it, may be accompanied by no power to originate, nor even, in any proper sense, to reproduce.2

Women's emotional susceptibility, according to Griswold, uncannily mimics the effects of men's artistic talent, putting the critic's habitual discernment "in danger." We could unpack Griswold's anxieties about the interchangeability of literary greatness and female sentiment, not to mention his fear that literary women do not "reproduce" in the "proper sense," at some length. For my purposes, what is most interesting about his ambivalent introduction is its nervousness about the origins of women's writing—or, more to the point, its nervous suspicion that this writing has no origins at all but simply "assumes" the "similitude" of "mental inspiration."

Griswold's concerns about recognizing the "genuineness of literary ability in women" can help us excavate a contemporaneous discourse that saw in these writers, not an authentic selfhood, as is generally held, but an intrinsic fraudulence. In order to do so, I focus my analysis on the novelist and newspaper columnist Fanny Fern, the pen name of Sara Payson Willis, whose enormous popularity put her at the center of debates around women's authorship. Fern belonged to a rash of midcentury newspaper writers whose flowery, alliterative, obvious pseudonyms—Fanny Forrester, Grace Greenwood, Minnie Myrtle, Lily Larkspur, Bell Bramble, Jenny June—focused Griswold's concerns by defining their owners, to borrow Ann Douglas's phrase, as "purely fictional."3 Fern's writing has, until quite recently, been largely absent from discussions of American literary history, but this omission would have greatly surprised her contemporaries, who devoured her writings in [End Page 60] the New York Ledger, where she was the highest paid newspaper columnist of her time (at a newspaper that boasted the highest circulation of its time); who made her novel Ruth Hall a runaway bestseller; who enthusiastically named waltzes, boats, and children after her; who made her true identity the subject of heated debate and, even after it was revealed, energetically impersonated her in print, in photographs, and on the lecture circuit. As one of the many articles catering to popular curiosity announced, the question of the day was "Who is FANNY FERN? and, What is FANNY FERN?"4

I want to pursue the possibility that the writer's shift from "who" to "what"—from human to thing, from subject to object, and the very uncertainty the slippage implies—is just as revealing as the rest of the article's disclosures about Fern. Griswold's image of women writers who "mirror" their surroundings "in...


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