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Parton, Sara Payson Willis (Fanny Fern) (1811–1872)

Sara Payson Willis Parton took the pseudonym "Fanny Fern" in 1851 while she was writing several articles a week for two Boston newspapers, the Olive Branch and the True Flag. By 1856, the year her husband, James Parton, introduced her to his friend Walt Whitman, Fanny Fern had become a famous woman. The author of four books, including a best-selling novel, Ruth Hall, Fern was also the celebrated author of weekly articles for the New York Ledger and the first woman in America to be a professional newspaper columnist. Although Fern wrote about many social issues, especially the status of women and women's rights, she was also interested in the place of literature and the arts in American life.

Impressed by Whitman's originality, Fern published first a brief comment on Whitman's fine speaking voice in an article on New York celebrities for the Ledger on 19 April 1856 and then a laudatory review of Leaves of Grass on 10 May 1856. She was the first woman to praise Whitman's generally unnoticed book. Calling attention to the contrast between Whitman's "fresh, hardy" poems and "forced, stiff, Parnassian exotics," Fern applauded the "unmingled delight" of Leaves of Grass and defended Whitman against charges of coarseness and sensuality ("Fresh Fern" 4). The emerging friendship between Fern and Whitman was short-lived, for reasons that have been a subject of some highly charged speculation among Whitman biographers. But recent studies of Fern's life suggest a fairly straightforward story. Accepting a loan of two hundred dollars from James Parton as an advance against payment he was to receive for a "literary project" (Warren, "Subversion" 60), Whitman was unable to pay his debt when it was due in February 1857. The unpaid loan, as well as the Partons' feeling that they had been ill used by a friend, ended the relationship.


Coad, Oral S. "Whitman vs. Parton." The Journal of the Rutgers University Library 4 (1940): 1–8.

Fern, Fanny. "Fresh Fern Leaves: Leaves of Grass." New York Ledger 10 May 1856: 4.

———. Ruth Hall and Other Writings. Ed. Joyce W. Warren. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers UP, 1986.

Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980.

Warren, Joyce W. Fanny Fern: An Independent Woman. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers UP, 1992.

———. "Subversion versus Celebration: The Aborted Friendship of Fanny Fern and Walt Whitman." Patrons and Protegees: Gender, Friendship, and Writing in Nineteenth-Century America. Ed. Shirley Marchalonis. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers UP, 1988. 59–93.

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