- From the Periodical ArchivesFanny Fern and the New-York Ledger
Perhaps more than any other individuals in the nineteenth century, Fanny Fern and Robert Bonner are responsible for making professional authorship not only a viable profession but even a lucrative one. As publisher of the New-York Ledger, Bonner went out of his way to use his considerable promotion machine to turn his stable of authors into celebrities, publicizing the previously unheard of sums he paid and exclusive contracts he negotiated. And he began by bringing Sara Willis Parton, better known as Fanny Fern, to his paper, first by paying her an astounding rate of $100 per column for a serialized story in 1855, then making the arrangement permanent by contracting with her for a regular column, with the length of each installment entirely up to her discretion. Bonner first announced the arrangement in the unique style that became a cornerstone of his storypaper's success and the celebrity of his authors:
is now engaged in writing a Tale for the Ledger, the publication of which we will commence about the first of June. For this production we have to pay by far the highest price that has ever been paid by any newspaper publisher to any author.1
Bonner was not complaining about the price he paid for Fern's services. He was boasting, daring, as he confessed, his fellow editors to call him "half-cracked." And his fellow editors responded in kind. As the Wisconsin Patriot put it:
The New York Ledger gives Fanny Fern $100 per column for an original story. We would not give $100 for all she has written and less for what she will. A woman that unsexes herself [End Page 97] to abuse her parents and relatives, however much they may deserve it, is not a very agreeable personage.2
The Fayetteville Observer openly expressed disbelief, suggesting the rumors were themselves a publicity prank: "The price is out of all proportion to the worth of the article. It would not pay."3 But pay it did, and within a short time Bonner took great pleasure in rubbing his rivals' noses in the fact that the arrangement had rewarded the Ledger "three times over!"4 By the end of the year, Bonner could announce his "New Arrangement with Fanny Fern," whereby she would publish weekly and exclusively for the Ledger, a partnership the two maintained until Fern's death in 1872.
Fern of course was already famous—and infamous—when she joined the Ledger. As the first professional female columnist, beginning in 1852, Fern's acid wit and outspokenness on a range of private and public issues of the day had earned her many fans and almost as many detractors, critics who saw her, like the editor of the Wisconsin Patriot, as "unsexing" herself. Her first collection of periodical essays, Fern Leaves (1853), gathering columns she had written for the Olive Branch, True Flag, and the Musical World, sold over 70,000 copies in its first year. Her semi-autobiographical novel, Ruth Hall (1855) sold more than 100,000 copies, despite a rash of critical reviews taking Fern to task for what were perceived to be attacks on her family (especially her father, the publisher Nathaniel Willis, and her famous brother, the journalist Nathaniel Parker Willis) as well as other public figures. One such figure, Fern's former editor at True Flag, William Moulton, correctly believing himself to have been satirized in the novel, took his revenge by publishing a tell-all unauthorized biography, The Life and Beauties of Fanny Fern (1855). The biting and often nasty portrait of the author only served to increase the sales of Fern's books and her celebrity.
In fact, so profitable had been the sales of her editions of Fern Leaves and Ruth Hall, that Fern had in 1855 decided to walk away from periodical writing to devote herself entirely to book publication. Bonner's extended courtship of her back into the periodical business famously resulted in the remarkable sums through which he secured her services, but it also resulted in a lifelong friendship and mutual admiration between these two outspoken and...