"Sorrow in satin he can sympathize with, but sorrow in rags is too plebeian for his exquisite organization."
Today, July 9, is the birthday of Fanny Fern (born 1811). Before she became Fanny Fern, she was Sara Willis, a widow and then divorcée who was trying to write for a living--and to support herself and her two young daughters. She sent some of her early work to her brother, the powerful editor and essayist Nathaniel Willis. It was a risk, for he had disapproved of her decision to leave her possessive and conniving second husband, Samuel Farrington, and had not come to her defense when Farrington tried to slander her. Nathaniel not only refused to publish any of her work, he even took up this haughty tone in his rejection letter: “You overstrain the pathetic, and your humor runs into dreadful vulgarity sometimes. I am sorry that any editor knows that a sister of mine wrote some these which you sent me."
But her drive and her lucid, funny prose soon brought her success and in a wonderfully ironic turn, her brother's young assistant, James Parton, published some of her work, not knowing that "Fanny Fern" was really his boss's sister. When her identity was revealed, Nathaniel Willis forbade Parton from publishing any more of his sister's work. Parton resigned in protest and soon he and Sara fell in love. In short order, she published her first collection of short pieces, Fern Leaves (1853), which became one of the nation’s first bestsellers with 70,000 copies sold within the year. She followed it with Ruth Hall, a roman a clef that savaged some of those who had done her wrong, including Farrington, her in-laws, and various editors, most notably her brother. Readers especially loved Fern’s portrait of her brother as an arrogant dandy named Hyacinth Ellet, who, she wrote, “recognizes only the drawing-room side of human nature. Sorrow in satin he can sympathize with, but sorrow in rags is too plebeian for his exquisite organization." In no time, that book also sold 70,000 copies. Because her earnings were so considerable, she took the name Fanny Fern as her own, even protecting it and any future earnings from it in a prenuptial agreement with Parton before their marriage in January 1856. When an unscrupulous publisher pirated her work, Fern brought suit, using her popular column to win support for her cause. She won the case and the exclusive right to her pseudonym, but as the critic Melissa Homestead has reminded us it was James Parton who actually “brought the suit because she, as a wife, had no separate legal existence. Even though Fern and her husband entered into a prenuptial agreement that allowed her to maintain ownership of and control over her copyrights, she still could not bring suit against Fleming without her husband’s consent and full cooperation.”
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