Selections from Fern Leaves from Fanny’s Portfolio
You may be surprised when you begin reading Fanny Fern’s writing. Her style, language, and tone are not quite what we see in many other writers you may be familiar with during this period, and that is certainly true when we consider her style next to the other writers included in this section. Fern’s humor and sharp commentary made her one of the most popular—and highest-paid—writers of her time. While her columns might initially seem entertaining, humorous, and “easy” to read, don’t be fooled: her writing is still very engaged in many reformist causes of the period.
Like Lydia Maria Child, Fern was a prolific writer who focused on a variety of social problems, including class issues, poverty, and prison reform; however, most of her writing focuses on women’s rights. She tackled women’s education, the institution of marriage, legal rights, professions for women, pay equity, sexual double standards, the role of women writers, and more. Her own experiences informed much of what she wrote. The death of her first husband left her dependent on family members who were reluctant to support her and her daughters. After divorcing her second husband, she was disowned by her family, and she realized quickly that the social system did not make it easy for women to survive on their own. Fern worked a number of jobs before she finally became successful as a writer, and it was around this time that she adopted the pseudonym Fanny Fern; this was a significant move, considering that Fern was born into the Willis family, a very prominent family in the newspaper publishing business. That Fern reimagined herself, and essentially reconstructed her identity in ways that translated to public and private success, was unusual and important for women in her time. Despite, or perhaps because of, her success, Fern remained sympathetic to other women who were not so fortunate, and her writing is largely devoted to improving conditions for women.
- Consider Fern’s tone, pacing, rhetorical strategies, and any other interesting or unusual characteristics of her writing style. How do these strategies help her to convey her ideas? How might they hurt?
- Consider how Fern constructs herself in these columns. What impressions about herself do you think she is trying to convey to her readers? How or why might these impressions be significant in terms of the commentary she’s offering?
- Consider Fern’s writing in the context of other American women writers. How does her work participate in that larger tradition? How does her work extend the conversation started by other women writers? To what extent does her writing reveal changes in how women are perceived, or in terms of what counts as “appropriate” roles for women?
- Consider Fern’s essays in the context of the American Dream. How does she define this phrase? How does she seem to be defining what counts as the ideal American?
“Bilious wretches, who abuse you because you write better than they.”
Slander and detraction! Even I, Fanny, know better than that. I never knew an editor to nib his pen with a knife as sharp as his temper, and write a scathing criticism on a book, because the authoress had declined contributing to his paper. I never knew a man who had fitted himself to a promiscuous coat, cut out in merry mood by taper fingers, to seize his porcupine quill, under the agony of too tight a self-inflicted fit, to annihilate the offender. I never saw the bottled-up hatred of years, concentrated in a single venomous paragraph. I never heard of an unsuccessful masculine author, whose books were drugs in the literary market, speak with a sneer of successful literary feminity, and insinuate that it was by accident, not genius, that they hit the popular favor!
By the memory of “seventy-six,” No! Do you suppose a man’s opinions are in the market—to be bought and sold to the highest bidder? Do you suppose he would laud a vapid book, because the fashionable authoress once laved his toadying temples with the baptism of upper-tendom? or, do you suppose he’d lash a poor, but self-reliant wretch, who had presumed to climb to the topmost round of Fame’s ladder, without hisroyal permission or assistance, and in despite of his repeated attempts to discourage her? No—no—bless your simple soul; a man never stoops to a meanness. There never was a criticism yet, born of envy, or malice, or repulsed love, or disappointed ambition. No—no. Thank the gods, I have a more exalted opinion of masculinity.
MRS. ADOLPHUS SMITH SPORTING THE “BLUE STOCKING.”
Well, I think I’ll finish that story for the editor of the “Dutchman.” Let me see; where did I leave off? The setting sun was just gilding with his last ray—“Ma, I want some bread and molassess”—(yes, dear,) gilding with his last ray the church spire—“Wife, where’s my Sunday pants?” (Under the bed, dear,) the church spire of Inverness, when a—“There’s nothing under the bed, dear, but your lace cap”—(Perhaps they are in the coal hod in the closet,) when a horseman was seen approaching—“Ma’am, the pertators is out; not one for dinner”—(Take some turnips,) approaching, covered with dust, and—“Wife! the baby has swallowed a button”—(Reverse him, dear—take him by the heels,) and waving in his hand a banner, on which was written—“Ma! I’ve torn my pantaloons”—liberty or death! The inhabitants rushed en masse—“Wife! will you leave off scribbling?” (Don’t be disagreeable, Smith, I’m just getting inspired,) to the public square, where De Begnis, who had been secretly—“Butcher wants to see you, ma’am”—secretly informed of the traitors’—“Forgot which you said, ma’am, sausages or mutton chop”—movements, gave orders to fire; not less than twenty——“My gracious! Smith, you haven’t been reversing that child all this time; he’s as black as your coat; and that boy of yours has torn up the first sheet of my manuscript. There! it’s no use for a married woman to cultivate her intellect.——Smith, hand me those twins.”
“If your husband looks grave, let him alone; don’t disturb or annoy him.”
Oh, pshaw! were I married, the soberer my husband looked, the more fun I’d rattle about his ears. Don’t disturb him! I guess so! I’d salt his coffee—and pepper his tea—and sugar his beef-steak—and tread on his toes—and hide his newspaper—and sew up his pockets—and put pins in his slippers—and dip his cigars in water,—and I wouldn’t stop for the great Mogul, till I had shortened his long face to my liking. Certainly, he’d “get vexed;” there wouldn’t be any fun in teasing him if he didn’t; and that would give his melancholy blood a good, healthful start; and his eyes would snap and sparkle, and he’d say, “Fanny, will you be quiet or not?” and I should laugh, and pull his whiskers, and say decidedly, “Not!” and then I should tell him he hadn’t the slightest idea how handsome he looked when he was vexed, and then he would pretend not to hear the compliment—but would pull up his dickey, and take a sly peep in the glass (for all that!) and then he’d begin to grow amiable, and get off his stilts, and be just as agreeable all the rest of the evening as if he wasn’t my husband; and all because I didn’t follow that stupid bit of advice “to let him alone.” Just as if I didn’t know! Just imagine me, Fanny, sitting down on a cricket in the corner, with my forefinger in my mouth, looking out the sides of my eyes, and waiting till that man got ready to speak to me! You can see at once it would be—be—. Well, the amount of it is, I shouldn’t do it!
“STUDY MEN, NOT BOOKS.”
Oh, but books are such safe company! They keep your secrets well; they never boast that they made your eyes glisten, or your cheek flush, or your heart throb. You may take up your favorite author, and love him at a distance just as warmly as you like, for all the sweet fancies and glowing thoughts that have winged your lonely hours so fleetly and so sweetly. Then you may close the book, and lean your cheek against the cover, as if it were the face of a dear friend; shut your eyes and soliloquise to your heart’s content, without fear of misconstruction, even though you should exclaim in the fullness of your enthusiasm, “What an adorable soul that man has!” You may put the volume under your pillow, and let your eye and the first ray of morning light fall on it together, and no Argus eyes shall rob you of that delicious pleasure, no carping old maid, or strait-laced Pharisee shall cry out, “it isn’t proper!” You may have a thousand petty, provoking, irritating annoyances through the day, and you shall come back again to your dear old book, and forget them all in dream land. It shall be a friend that shall be always at hand; that shall never try you by caprice, or pain you by forgetfulness, or wound you by distrust.
Well, try it! I don’t believe there’s any neutral territory where that interesting study can be pursued as it should be. Before you get to the end of the first chapter, they’ll be making love to you from the mere force of habit—and because silks, and calicoes, and delaines, naturally suggest it. It’s just as natural to them as it is to sneeze when a ray of sunshine flashes suddenly in their faces. “Study men!” That’s a game, my dear, that twocan play at. Do you suppose they are going to sit quietly down and let you dissect their hearts, without returning the compliment? No, indeed! that’s where they differ slightly from “books!”—they always expect an equivalent.
Men are a curious study! Sometimes it pays to read to “the end of the volume,” and then again, it don’t—mostly the latter!
“A husband may kill a wife gradually, and be no more questioned than the grand seignor who drowns a slave at midnight.”—Thackeray, on Household Tyrants.
Oh! Mr. Thackeray! I ought to have known from experience, that beauty and brains never travel in company—but I was disenchanted when I first saw your nose, and I did say that you were too stout to look intellectual. But I forgive you in consideration of the above paragraph, which, for truth and candor, ought to be appended to the four Gospels.
I’m on the marrow bones of my soul to you, Mr. Thackeray. I honor you for “turning State’s evidence” against your own culprit-sex. If there’s any little favor I can do for you, such as getting you naturalized, (for you are a sight too cute and clever for an Englishman,) I’ll fly round and get the documents made out for you to-morrow.
I tell you, Mr. Thackeray, the laws over here allow husbands to break their wives’ hearts as much as they like, so long as they don’t break their heads. So the only way we can get along, is to allow them to scratch our faces, and then run to the police court, and shew “his Honor” that Mr. Caudle can “make his mark.”
Why—if we were not cunning, we should get circumvented all the time by these domestic Napoleons. Yes, indeed; we sleep with one eye open, and “get up early in the morning,” and keep our arms a-kimbo.
—By-the-way, Mr. Thackeray, what do you think of us, as a people?—taking us “by and large,” as our honest farmers say. Pretty tall nation for a growing one; don’t you think so? Smart men—smarter women—good broad streets—no smoking or spitting allowed in ’em—houses all built with an eye to architectural beauty—newspapers don’t tell how many buttons you wear on your waistcoat—Jonathan never stares at you, as if you were an imported hyena, or stirs you up with the long pole of criticism, to see your size and hear your roar. Our politicians never whip each other on the floor of Congress, and grow black in the face because their choler chokes them! No mushroom aristocracy over here—no “coats of arms” or liveried servants: nothing of that sham sort, in our “great and glorious country,” as you have probably noticed. If you are “round takin’ notes,” I’ll jog your English elbow now and then. Ferns have eyes—and they are not green, either.
WOMEN AND MONEY.
“A wife shouldn’t ask her husband for money at meal-times.”—Exchange.
By no manner of means; nor at any other time; because, it is to be hoped, he will be gentlemanly enough to spare her that humiliating necessity. Let him hand her his porte-monnaie every morning, with carte-blancheto help herself. The consequence would be, she would lose all desire for the contents, and hand it back, half the time without abstracting a single sou.
It’s astonishing men have no more diplomacy about such matters. I should like to be a husband! There arewives whom I verily believe might be trusted to make way with a ten dollar bill without risk to the connubial donor! I’m not speaking of those doll-baby libels upon womanhood, whose chief ambition is to be walking advertisements for the dressmaker; but a rational, refined, sensible woman, who knows how to look like a lady upon small means; who would both love and respect a man less for requiring an account of every copper; but who, at the same time, would willingly wear a hat or garment that is “out of date,” rather than involve a noble, generous-hearted husband in unnecessary expenditures.
I repeat it—“It isn’t every man who has a call to be a husband.” Half the married men should have their “licenses” taken away, and the same number of judicious bachelors put in their places. I think the attention of the representatives should be called to this. They can’t expect to come down to town and peep under all the ladies’ bonnets the way they do, and have all the newspapers free gratis, and two dollars a day besides, without “paying their way!”
It’s none of my business, but I question whether their wives, whom they left at home, stringing dried apples, know how spruce they look in their new hats and coats, or how facetious they grow with their landlady’s daughter; or how many of them pass themselves off for bachelors, to verdant spinsters. Nothing truer than that little couplet of Shakspeare’s—
“The hand that can make a pie is a continual feast to the husband that marries its owner.”
Well, it is a humiliating reflection, that the straightest road to a man’s heart is through his palate. He is never so amiable as when he has discussed a roast turkey. Then’s your time, “Esther,” for “half his kingdom,” in the shape of a new bonnet, cap, shawl, or dress. He’s too complacent to dispute the matter. Strike while the iron is hot; petition for a trip to Niagara, Saratoga, the Mammoth Cave, the White Mountains, or to London, Rome, or Paris. Should he demur about it, the next day cook him another turkey, and pack your trunk while he is eating it.
There’s nothing on earth so savage—except a bear robbed of her cubs—as a hungry husband. It is as much as your life is worth to sneeze, till dinner is on the table, and his knife and fork are in vigorous play. Tommy will get his ears boxed, the ottoman will be kicked into the corner, your work-box be turned bottom upwards, and the poker and tongs will beat a tattoo on that grate that will be a caution to dilatory cooks.
After the first six mouthfuls you may venture to say your soul is your own; his eyes will lose their ferocity, his brow its furrows, and he will very likely recollect to help you to a cold potato! Never mind—eat it. You might have to swallow a worse pill—for instance, should he offer to kiss you!
Well, learn a lesson from it—keep him well fed and languid—live yourself on a low diet, and cultivate your thinking powers; and you’ll be as spry as a cricket, and hop over all the objections and remonstances that his dead-and-alive energies can muster. Yes, feed him well, and he will stay contentedly in his cage, like a gorged anaconda. If he were my husband, wouldn’t I make him heaps of pison things! Bless me! I’ve made a mistake in the spelling; it should have been pies and things!
FOR LITTLE CHILDREN.
“I love God and every little child.”—Richter.
I wonder if I have any little pinafore friends among the readers of Fern Leaves? any little Nellys, or Katys, or Billys, or Johnnys, who ever think of Fanny? Do you know that I like children much better than grown-up people? I should so like to have a whole lap full of your bright eyes, and rosy cheeks, and dimpled shoulders, to kiss. I should like to have a good romp with you, this very minute. I don’t always keep this old pen of mine scratching. If a bright cloud comes sailing past my window, I throw down my pen, toss up the casement, and drink in the air, like a gipsey. I feel just as you do, when you are pent up in school, some bright summer day, when the winds are at play, and the flowers lie languidly drooping under the blue, arching sky;—when the little butterfly poises his bright wings on the rose, too full of joy even to sip its sweets;—when the birds sing, because they can’t help it, and the merry little swallow skims the ground, dips his bright wing in the lake, circles over head, and then flies, twittering, back to his cunning little brown nest, under the eaves. On such a day, I should like to be your school-mistress. I’d throw open the old school-room door, and let you all out under the trees. You should count the blades of grass for a sum in addition; you should take an apple from a tree, to learn subtraction; you should give me kisses, to learn multiplication. You shouldn’t go home to dinner. No: we’d all take our dinner-baskets and go into the woods; we’d hunt for violets; we’d lie on the moss under the trees, and look up at the bits of blue sky, through the leafy branches; we’d hush our breath when the little chipmunk peeped out of his hole, and watch him slily snatch the ripe nut for his winter’s store. And we’d look for the shy rabbit; and the little spotted toad, with its blinking eyes; and the gliding snake, which creeps out to sun itself on the old gray rock. We’d play hide and seek, in the hollow trunks of old trees; we’d turn away from the gaudy flowers, flaunting their showy beauty in our faces, and search, under the glossy leaves at our feet, for the pale-eyed blossoms which nestle there as lovingly as a timid little fledgling under the mother-bird’s wing; we’d go to the lake, and see the sober, staid old cows stand cooling their legs in the water, and admiring themselves in the broad, sheeted mirror beneath; we’d toss little pebbles in the lake, and see the circles they made, widen and widen toward the distant shore—like careless words, dropped and forgotten, but reaching to the far-off shore of eternity.
And then you should nestle ’round me, telling all your little griefs; for well I know that childhood has its griefs, which are all the keener because great, wise, grown-up people have often neither time nor patience, amid the bustling whirl of life, to stop and listen to them. I know what it is for a timid little child, who has never been away from its mother’s apron string, to be walked, some morning, into a great big school-room, full[Pg 399] of strange faces;—to see a little urchin laugh, and feel a choking lump come in your little throat, for fear he was laughing at you;—to stand up, with trembling legs, in the middle of the floor, and be told to “find big A,” when your eyes were so full of tears that you couldn’t see anything;—to keep looking at the ferule on the desk, and wondering if it would ever come down on your hand;—to have some mischievous little scholar break your nice long slate-pencil in two, to plague you, or steal your bit of gingerbread, out of your satchel, and eat it up, or trip you down on purpose, and feel how little the hard-hearted young sinners cared when you sobbed out, “I’ll tell my mother.”
I know what it is, when you have lain every night since you were born, with your hand clasped in your mother’s, and your cheek cuddled up to hers, to see a new baby come and take your place, without even asking your leave;—to see papa, and grandpa, and grandma, and uncle, and aunt, and cousins, and all the neighbors, so glad to see it, when your heart was almost broke about it. I know what it is to have a great fat nurse (whom even mamma herself had to mind) lead you, struggling, out of the room, and tell Sally to see that you didn’t come into your own mamma’s room again all that day. I know what it is to have that fat old nurse sit in mamma’s place at table, and cut up your potato and meat all wrong;—to have her put squash on your plate, when you hate squash;—to have her forget (?) to give you a piece of pie, and eat two pieces herself;—to have Sally cross, and Betty cross, and everybody telling you to “get out of the way;”—to have your doll’s leg get loose, and nobody there to hitch it on for you;—and then, when it came night, to be put away in a chamber, all alone by yourself to sleep, and have Sally tell you that “if you wasn’t good an old black man would come and carry you off;”—and then to cuddle down under the sheet, till you were half stifled, and tremble every time the wind blew, as if you had an ague fit. Yes, and when, at last, mamma came down stairs, I know how long it took for you to like that new baby;—how every time you wanted to sit in mamma’s lap, he’d be sure to have the stomach-ache, or to want his breakfast; how he was always wanting something, so that mamma couldn’t tell you pretty stories, or build little blocks of houses for you, or make you reins to play horse with; or do any of those nice little things, that she used to be always doing for you.
To be sure, my little darlings, I know all about it. I have cried tears enough to float a steamship, about all these provoking things; and now whenever I see a little child cry, I never feel like laughing at him: for I know that often his little heart is just ready to break, for somebody to pet him. So I always say a kind word, or give him a pat on the head, or a kiss; for I know that though the little insect has but one grain to carry, he often staggers under it: and I have seen the time when a kind word, or a beaming smile, would have been worth more to me, than all the broad lands of merrie England.
Fern Leaves from Fanny’s Port-folio by Fanny Fern is produced by Project Gutenberg and released under a public domain license.