Thursday, September 22, 2011

Emily Dickinson & Fanny Fern: Soul Sisters?

Some scholars maintain that Emily Dickinson was familiar with Fanny Fern’s writing.  Frankly, being alive and breathing in the 1850s and 60s meant you were probably familiar with Fanny Fern’s writing.  So, while it is no surprise that Dickinson had likely read Fern’s work and likely discussed that work with others, less is known, of course, about Dickinson’s possible poetic reaction to Fern’s often provocative newspaper columns and novels.  Some scholars have posited that Dickinson might have penned her poem “I’m Wife” after reading Fern’s work, especially given Fern’s staunch views about (traditional 1850s-style) marriage being “the hardest way to get a living.”  On the other hand, Dickinson was quite the forward thinker herself and perhaps didn’t need a bit of outside influence to inspire her artistry.  Take a look yourself.  Do you see any Fanny Fern in Emily Dickinson’s poem “I’m Wife”? 

I'm "wife" -- I've finished that --
That other state --
I'm Czar -- I'm "Woman" now --
It's safer so --

How odd the Girl's life looks
Behind this soft Eclipse --
I think that Earth feels so
To folks in Heaven -- now --

This being comfort -- then
That other kind -- was pain --
But why compare?
I'm "Wife"! Stop there!

Compare Dickinson’s poem to Fern’s famous lines in the Olive Branch on Aug. 28, 1852:

Fanny Fern
"Never mind back aches, and side aches, and head aches, and dropsical complaints, and smoky chimneys, and old coats, and young babies! Smile! It flatters your husband. He wants to be considered the source of your happiness, whether he was baptized Nero or Moses! Your mind never being supposed to be occupied with any other subject than himself, of course a tear is a tacit reproach. Besides, you miserable little whimperer, what have you to cry for? A-i-n-t y-o-u m-a-r-r-i-e-d? Isn’t that the summon bonum—the height of feminine ambition? You can’t get beyond that! It’s the jumping-off place! You’ve arriv!—got to the end of your journey! Stage puts up there! You’ve nothing to do but retire on your laurels, and spend the rest of your life endeavoring to be thankful that you are Mrs. John Smith! Smile! you simpleton!”


  1. The content is definitely comparable. But might that not have been a universal, growing watch-cry of literate women recognizing the restraints of their "correct place"? I'm curious whether you, the Fanny expert, think there was likely direct influence?

    I'm very interested in and surprised by your sentence,"Frankly, being alive and breathing in the 1850s and 60s meant you were probably familiar with Fanny Fern’s writing." I wouldn't have guessed that she was so famous!

  2. She WAS! She was like the "Oprah" of the 19th century with hundreds of thousands of fans in the US and Europe. She was the most popular, highest-paid writer of her era, which is why it's so weird that nobody has heard of her these days!

  3. Their views certainly seem similar. Words in the poem like "safer" and "pain" stand out to me, and I would imagine many women feeling similarly given their "place" in society.

  4. Yes, I think they were two of many who likely felt this way.