Sunday, July 6, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 234: Fanny Fern, Tyrants of the Shop (#234)

Fanny Fern, "Tyrants of the Shop" (1867) from Writing New York: A Literary Anthology:

"Fanny Fern" was the pen-name of Sara Willis--which I mostly mention for the Poe fans among you, who may recognize the last name as that of Nathaniel Parker Willis. N.P. Willis was Fanny's brother and later a "friend" of Poe--in quotation marks more because of Poe's issues than N.P.'s.

Though we could also note that Fanny charged brother Nathaniel Parker with more-or-less abandoning her in her need, as recounted in the semi-autobiographical--and very good--novel, Ruth Hall. As the LoA notes, many contemporaries thought Fanny Fern was too mean, too sarcastic, too--gasp!--unwomanly in her writing. They leave off one of my favorite jokes in that vein: people who thought Ruth Hall was too mean and vicious to real people referred to it as "Ruthless Hall." Ba-da-bing!

Of course, "unwomanly" could also be a positive thing for some people; the LoA notes that Nathaniel Hawthorne praised her work: she "writes as if the devil is in her." What the LoA doesn't note is that this message of his was an addendum to his justly famous and reviled comment on how American novels are dominated by "a damned pack of scribbling women." That is, in one letter, he complained about women's writing; in the next, he singled Fanny Fern out as an exception to that rule.

But if we--for the moment--dump out all the gendered language and the restrictive ideals of femininity of the time that Hawthorne is leaning into, I think we might more or less agree with him: Fanny Fern is not a "nice" writer. This whole piece is two pages about what jerks men shop-owners can be to their female help; and how women who make very little and don't have a lot of job prospects have to submit to this sort of inhumane treatment. And I say "jerks," but Fanny puts this into rather quintessentially American language of tyranny and repression and slavery--all the things that Americans (theoretically) hate, but which many people seem fine with as long as its happening to someone else.

No surprise that Fanny Fern--like her old school-mate Harriet Beecher Stowe--was an abolitionist as well as a feminist.

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