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  • "How I Look":Fanny Fern and the Strategy of Pseudonymity
  • Robert Gunn

"I proceed to explain why I cannot tell whether 'I be I.'"

Fanny Fern, "How I Look," New York Ledger 9 Apr. 1870.

I n a crafty promotional ploy that has become famous as a touchstone in American women's history, Sarah Willis Parton became the highest-paid newspaper columnist in the United States in 1855. By 1870, she was appearing regularly to 400,000 subscribers and had sold in excess of 500,000 books. Yet, despite this enormous print celebrity, the physical appearance of Fanny Fern was something of a mystery.1 Although her private identity and family background were common knowledge by this time, Fern shunned the public eye and avoided occasions in which her name might be connected to her face.2 Thus, at the height of her celebrity, Fern reported making a trip to the opera during which she and her companion could eavesdrop, unrecognized, on an amusing if altogether erroneous appraisal of her appearance and personality by two unwitting fellow patrons. Indicating a "tall, handsome, graceful, and beautifully dressed" woman entering a box seat in the gallery, the man seated in front of Fern—a stranger to her—unexpectedly announced within her hearing, "[W]ell, that is Fanny Fern." Asked by his lady companion if he knew the woman, he replied, "[I]ntimately. Observe how expensively she is dressed. See those diamonds, and that lace! Well, I assure you, that every cent she has earned by her writings goes straightaway upon her back." Hearing these remarks, Fern's own companion bristled in indignation and moved to confront Fern's "intimate" acquaintance. But Fern restrained him: "[T]he fun was too good to be spoiled, and the game too insignificant to hunt; so, in hope of farther revelations, I laughingly observed my 'double' during the evening, who looked as I have just described, for your benefit" ("How I Look" 368). [End Page 23]

Fern fashions this episode in a 9 April 1870 article for the New York Ledger, titled "How I Look," offered ostensibly as a response to a reader's inquiries about her height, complexion, and eye color. "I should be very happy to answer these questions, did I know myself," she writes; "I proceed to explain why I cannot tell whether 'I be I'" (368). With these lines, the piece introduces a series of strategic double-entendres that register multiple representations of the first person and mask an active stance with a passive one. In explaining "How I Look," Fern resists exposing to public view the physical features or interior character of a woman hidden behind the protection of a pseudonym. Rather, "How I Look" expresses how she looks at others, but in a way that capitalizes on those who mistakenly imagine her private self (one version of the "I" about which she "cannot tell") to be the hidden truth of the writerly identity, Fanny Fern (the other "I" in play). Foregrounding the status of her own anonymous celebrity, Fern's clever reversal figures the content of that pseudonymous identity as a virtual self, a printed placeholder that may masquerade as a person but that instead embodies a strategic posture for surveying and managing the gendered conventions of public life.3

I open with this exercise in close reading because, as I mean to argue, this writerly play of veiling and unveiling is central to Fern's negotiation of her own publicity, a practice that links the evasive possibilities of her pseudonymity in the literary marketplace to a counterpolitics of expression within the spheres of domestic containment wherein Fern imagines her female readers to reside. Indeed, in "How I Look," Fern's subtle and ambiguous use of language deepens the actual stakes of the encounter. What, in point of fact, is being offered "for your benefit"? This final dependent clause would seem to suggest that Fern's description of the tall, handsome "double" was offered for her readers' appreciation. And yet the clause, "who looked as I have just described," subtly reminds the reader to whom the term "double" refers. It is, in fact, a succinct answer to the question implied in...


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