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Notices & Reviews of Fern Leaves from Fanny’s Portfolio, by “Fanny Fern” (1853)

It can be a lot of fun to watch 19th-century readers read 19th-century works, and works by “Fanny Fern” (Sara Payson Willis) are good examples. Reviews of Fern Leaves from Fanny’s Portfolio are found in literary magazines, religious papers, and in at least one children’s periodical. The reviews call the books “charming” and “full of grace and beauty” and praise them for a combination of pathos and humor. Because of the briefness of the essays, the books are recommended to invalids and to those wishing to “fill up odd moments.” There is a sense that the books are somehow “good” for the reader.

But, some critics appear to have been nonplussed by “Fanny Fern,” who they felt couldn’t be easily categorized; one finds her capricious, pathetic, amusing, vulgar, and refined. The lightness of her style—so different from, for example, Lydia H. Sigourney’s turgid archaicisms—seems to have been refreshing and, perhaps, a little alarming. “She writes what she sees and hears, in household words, and then expresses her own views and feelings in a careless, pleasant way,” the Country Gentleman contends; the The Literary World calls the book “sprightly and spirited, sensible, sparkling, saucy, satirical, stinging, and, occasionally—we must say it—slangy”—and pretends to be terrified of her.

The Literary World 9 April 1853

Illustrated News 11 June 1853

Moore’s Rural New-Yorker 11 June 1853

Country Gentleman 30 June 1853

Una 1 July 1853

New York Journal 2 July 1853

Independent [New York, New York] 2 July 1853

The Literary World 6 August 1853

The Student September 1853

The Christian Review 1 October 1853

United States Journal March 1854

The Independent 1 June 1854

Portland Transcript [Portland, Maine] 17 June 1854

Booksellers’ Trade List and Publishers’ Register of New American and Foreign Publications 20 June 1854

Pioneer [San Francisco, California] 1 July 1854

Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine August 1854

Pioneer [San Francisco, California] 1 September 1854

National Era 7 September 1854

Notice. The Literary World 12 (9 April 1853): 295.

Messrs. Derby, Orton & Mulligan, in connexion with the Auburn branch, have in press “The Life of Daniel Webster,” by Professor Tefft; “Pictorial Museum,” by Professor Frost; “Daniel Boone; or, the Hunters of Kentucky;” “Why am I a Temperance Man?” by Thurlow W. Brown; “Life on the Plains,” by A. Delano; “Morning Stars of the New World,” by Helen F. Parker; “Select Speeches of American Authors,” edited by Christopher Morgan; and “Fern leaves from Fanny’s Portfolio.” The last is a 12mo., destined, no doubt, to have a great run; for the fugitive “leaves” which Fanny Fern has scattered abroad are for the healing of—melancholy. …

Notice. Illustrated News 11 June 1853: 379.

Fern Leaves from Fanny’s Portfolio. It is not often that we have an opportunity to notice a book which everybody had read ere the first edition made its appearance, and still less frequently do we meet with such an extraordinary melange as this. Fanny Fern is like a spoiled child at one minute, she vexes us with wanton caprices; at another moves us to tears by a strange turn of native pathos; again provokes the heartiest laughter; anon runs on in a strain which smacks of vulgarity; and then rises to the very climax of pure womanly refinement, and high-toned sentiment. We know of no female writer of the present day, who has written in so many varied veins, who has done so well or so ill, or who, in a word, has shown such a very decided talent for bizarrerie. We like it in Fanny Fern that she has made but little pretension; she seems to have written as she has felt, and has shown herself inspired with that deepest of all feelings—true humor—without making any straining efforts to become a literary humorist. What such a mind as Fanny’s might have become in the higher walks of literature we know not—let us suffice it to know that we have here a right, readable, witty, spicy volume; well printed, beautifully bound, exquisitely illustrated, and of which six or seven thousand copies were ordered before the first copy was printed.

Notice. Moore’s Rural New-Yorker 11 June 1853: 194.

Fern Leaves from Fanny’s Portfolio. With original Illustrations. Auburn: Derby & Miller, 1853.

Wherever the newspaper circulates, there have these “ Fern Leaves” floated, so that few need information as to their character and style. Most of them are full of grace and beauty, the more abrupt and rude which have sometimes met us, having been omitted from the collection. Many of them now appear in print for the first time, and the longer sketches stamp Fanny Fern as an unmistakable genius of an original type—a type combining true power with the genuine Yankee spirit and character. It is the general remark of the readers of this volume, that they now really begin to appreciate its author.

The beauty of paper, print and binding, and the taste with which the work is executed, equal that of the eastern publishers, and show that enterprise and tact can build up a successful and profitable business almost anywhere. We are glad to see these and other proofs of it almost daily. Sold at Dewey’s, Arcade Book Store.

Review. Country Gentleman 30 June 1853: 406.

Fern Leaves from Fanny’s Portfolio.*

We fancy there are very few readers of newspapers and family journals, who have not heard of Fanny Fern, read some of her little sketches, and formed some opinion of the authoress. The person who enjoys a life-like portraiture of human nature calls them “capital.” The staid sum total of some undefined abstractions, says they are “overdrawn and sentimental,” but can not resist the inclination to read them. The young and impulsive are rapturous in their praise, and are sure they should love Fanny very much, if they could only see her. In short the lady has won a popularity, which has its exceptions only in minds who give their tastes very little latitude and their hearts very little exercise.

In the rhetorical point of view the sketches before us may be open to criticism. There are faults in the style and the choice of language which are offensive to a precise ear. But every production should not be criticised by the same rules of art. Fanny Fern picked leaves as they grew on hill and valley, and threw them artlessly into her portfolio. She writes what she sees and hears, in household words, and then expresses her own views and feelings in a careless, pleasant way. She has chosen to write upon subjects which no one else ever made very attractive, and has invested them with a beauty and an individuality peculiarly their own. We confess that to our mind, over and above all other excellences in a literary production, stands originality. But some one says, “ideas are all old as time—what’s the use of talking about originality?” True, but there are new minds to learn, and new modes of expression, and we like to read a fresh, sparkling article better than one eked out of musty volumes, head-aches and ambition.

We are willing that an author should select his own weapons, fight without seconds, and claim that no one should find fault with anything but results. So long as the spirit and tendency of one’s writings are right, he may be trusted to select his own language. When the mass of community have expressed their satisfaction with a book, it matters little for a critic to rise up and say that there are deficiencies in matter and manner. The popular verdict is the one a production must be sanctioned or condemned by.

The secret of the popularity of Fern Leaves, is its simplicity and truthfulness. The characters you meet with, are such as cross your path every day. They wear their usual costume, talk in their accustomed tone, act rudely and uncouthly, it may be, but they are always and everywhere genuine. Throughout all the sketches, a deep sympathy for home-like feelings, and a sacred regard for domestic ties and the heart’s best affections, are interfused. There is a basis of healthy, womanly, independent thinking, which is sometimes built upon by a gossamer edifice, peopled with beautiful beings, and at others by a building of the strongest masonry. But at all times there is an originality in the architecture. Her style is one expressly fitted for what she has to say, and grows as naturally out of her habits of thought, as the plant from the seed. It is one remarkably well adapted to arrest the attention, take a strong hold on the better nature, and influence the whole man. You read a polished essay, and say it is very well written—you listen to an impressive sermon, and say it is methodical and true—you read one of Fanny Fern’s sayings, be it grave or gay, serious or satiric, and you cannot forget it. the common sense there is in them all, is sure to be appreciated by every person of common sense who reads them.

There are others who have drawn characters as faithfully, and touched them with traces as lifelike as Fanny Fern, but we know of no writer who has made such a severe onslaught upon popular errors. She never hesitates to say what seems right in her eyes, let the bolts fall and the lightnings scathe where they will. As a general rule sarcasm and contempt do not come with good grace from a woman’s pen or lips; still, Fern Leaves show some examples which for kenness and bitterness have few equals. The day is past when woman is to be recognized as a creature all sweetness, gentleness, and amiable acquiescence in “the powers that be.” She must be allowed to exercise her own power, and we hope that none will ever display it for other ends than have influenced Fanny Fern. Though her writings cannot properly be classed among the highest in literature, the “leaves” she has “gathered at random in shady spots, where sunbeams seldom play,” will be preserved when more elaborate volumes are unremembered, dust-covered and worm-eaten.

We have frequently published extracts from these sketches, and it is unnecessary to refresh our readers’ memories with farther specimens. The neat volume in which they are now comprised, is worthy a place at every fireside. Its touching incidents, good natural sallies, domestic pictures, pithy sayings and excellent suggestions, will enliven many a vacant hour, and teach lessons of virtue and temperance, when other teachings would be of no avail. The only tribute the authoress asks—“The impromptu compliment of a smile or tear”—has been many times paid her, and will be many times more before the Fern Leaves wither.

* Fern Leaves from Fanny’s Port Folio; Illustrated with original designs, 400 pages, 12 mo., Derby & Miller, Auburn, Derby, Orton & Mulligan, Buffalo. H. W. Derby, Cincinnati. For sale by Gray, Sprague & Co., Albany.

Review. Una 1 July 1853: 83.

Fern LeavesFrom Fanny’s Portfolio. For sale by G. H. Whitney, Westminster street.

This is certainly a most charming book, beautifully printed on the finest paper, and prettily illustrated; but that is not the best of it, though it is a great recommendation. It is fresh, natural, and genuine. Full of keen, delicate, irony, curiously quaint humor and touching pathos; one can never take it up without finding something to meet them in any mood or humor. Every article is complete in itself, and it can be read while waiting for a moment for the carriage, or for the kettle to boil. It is just the book to lie any where about house, to fill up odd moments with, and make people better. It will cheer and amuse, or find a tender place in the heart and make people in their pleasant homes think of the orphan, the lone widow, or the desolate outcast.

It suits the sick room. The invalid can read a page or two, lay down the book and the thoughts will be turned away from self to some sunny place abroad, or to some other sufferer, and so they will be made better. Fanny has a genuine love for humanity, is full of tender sympathy with children, she looks through their eyes into the depths of their young pure souls, and receives them as angels—and gives them a tender welcome.

Review. New York Journal 2 July 1853: 11.

Fern Leaves from Fanny’s Portfolio.

Periodically now we have some book that seizes upon the taste of the public, and carries their judgment by storm. The last of this kind is the production of a lady, entitled “Fern Leaves from Fanny’s Portfolio,” by Fanny Fern, a strange medley of many dishes, some very delicate, and flavored pleasantly to the palate, and a few others not exactly suited to our taste. There are some beautiful sketches marked by so exquisite and delicate pathos, that somehow as we read our eyes grow moist and we feel a choking in the throat. but in the very next page, perhaps, is a bold, humorous, Yankee dash at something that makes us wink, and we wonder how it is that the same pen could have produced both. but its occasional tone of coarseness may well be pardoned in view of the many sparkling, gay, tender and beautiful things it contains. May we hear more of Fanny Fern.

Review. Independent [New York, New York] 2 July 1853: 108.

Fern Leaves from Fanny’s Portfolio. With original designs by Fred. M. Coffin. Auburn: Derby & Miller. 1853.

A warm heart, a clear head, and a certain energetic way of saying what she thinks, without pausing to consult much the so-called ‘proprieties’ of letter-writing, have made the lady whose soubriquet is Fanny Fern a decided favorite with the recent readers of newspapers and magazines. Her writings show good sense and talent, a keen eye for shams, some humor and ‘a power of Saxon,’ as Pat might say; they indicate, too, a great and memorable experience of sorrow, and more knowledge than the always-rich have of the sad and binding constraints of poverty. If, as we think, we detect beneath the shadowy mask a hand that more than once has grasped our own in kindly welcome in “the old House” now deserted, when as a diffident boy we made our occasional pilgrimages to its hospitable doors, we bid her God-speed in her new career, if only for the pleasant Past’s sake. She comes, however, of a family in which talent is exuberant; and she has memories that only need to be fairly written out to make a book world famous.

There is tragedy and comedy, too, in this pretty volume. Some of the tales, although so brief and fragmentary, no one will read without a tear; and on other pages the genius of mirth and laughter has left his unmistakable imprint. It is a pleasant book for the summer afternoon, under leafy trees, and beside musical brooks; and to the knights and nymphs to whom such scenes are appropriate and permitted, we cheerfully refer it.

Review. The Literary World 13 (6 August 1853): 22-23.

Fern leaves, from Fanny’s Portfolio.*

Fanny Fern, indeed! There may be nothing in a name. Vinegar might perhaps be just as tart if you called it loaf sugar, and mustard as pungent were it termed ice-cream. Such an anomaly as a lean, lanky, and Cassius-like Stubbs may exist, and, for aught we know, some squabby Longfellow may be puffing and wheezing along our streets, anathematizing the dog-days. At this our present writing, venerable Smiths, without large families, may be found; and we all know that the fiery race of Plantagenets borrowed their title from the planta genista, or lowly broom—much the same as the fern, we take it.

All this, and all these that may be, nay are, but they are the misfortunes, not the faults, of the proprietors of preposterous patronymies, and not of their own seeking or contriving. Had we been called upon to act as literary father to our author, “Amazonia Thistle,” “Pyrotechnia Nettle,” or “Pugnacia Popgun,” we think would have filled the order.

One imitator—at a great distance indeed—of our authoress, who, at weekly intervals, is blazing away small squibs in one of the Boston hebdomadals, has taken unto herself the title of Gay Spanker; and if she possesses no more of London assurance than the name, has certainly a fair share of the genuine down-east article, and treats us to a very creditable specimen of the wit and slang of our cis-atlantic Athens. If she be not very gay, there is no room to doubt her being a spanker.

But again, we say, “Fanny Fern,” indeed! and “Leaves from Fanny’s Portfolio!” Why that should have been “explosions from Fanny’s Port-fire.” Fanny, per se, is not so bad. There is an espieglerie, a soupçon of pertness, and any amount of true feminine diablerie in it; and candor compels us to add, that all the Fans of our recollection have had well-defined proclivities towards hoydenism. “Fern” is in-fern—but hold; the name is of small account after all; and it little matters what we call the dish, if it be as piquant and palatable as the one just served upon our table.

There is evidently a war of long standing between our Fanny and the masculine gender, and, on dit, not without due cause. Coats and continuations do not agree with her; and to such an extent does she carry this war into Africa, as even to anathematize Bloomerism, despite the predilection for it, consequent upon her self-imposed name.

But to Fanny’s book. It is sprightly and spirited, sensible, sparkling, saucy, satirical, stinging, and, occasionally—we must say it—slangy. Of course, with so many estimable adjectives, it is anything but stupid or soporific.

The way that Fanny—to use an expression that would be very characteristic of her—pitches it into the men, is highly cautionary. Some one having said or written that “a tear on the cheek of a wife is a drop of poison to her husband,” thereon Fanny, taking up the cudgels, punishes the offender while nominally delivering a lecture to the sex on


Their “occupation’s gone”! Matrimonial tears “are poison.” There is no knowing what you will do, girls, with that escape-valve shut off; but that is no more to the point, than—

* With Original Designs, by Fred. M. Coffin. Auburn: Derby & Miller.

p. 23

whether you have anything to smile at or not; one thing is settled—you must not cry! 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? Is n’t that the summum bonum,—the height of feminine ambition?

“You can’t get beyond that! It is the jumping-off place! You’ve arriv!—got to the end of your journey! Stage puts up there! You have 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!”

Had we time and space, we might, perhaps, give our readers some further specimens of Fanny’s peculiar free and easy style. The book is a volume of some 400 pages, and very creditably illustrated by Mr. F. M. Coffin. With all its crudities, it is excessively amusing; and, were it not so, we should be loth to say it: for, from our present experience of “pretty Fanny’s ways,” she is about the last one with whom we should provoke encounter.

Review. The Student September 1853: 159.

Fern Leaves From Fanny’s Portfolio. With Illustrations. 12mo, 400 pages. Published by Derby & Miller, Auburn, and Derby, Orton & Mulligan, Buffalo.

In her preface Fanny declares that she had no intention of writing a book, and that even herself is puzzled at the appearance of one from her pen. The secret of this is, the author, under the nom de plume of Fanny Fern, a little more than a year since, began to write very spicy articles for the Boston Olive Branch, and a few other papers, which attracted considerable attention from their singular style and plainness of speech. She continued these brief sketches from week to week, and soon they increased so as to fill a volume, and at the request of the publishers of Fern Leaves she collected them, adding, also, some fresh leaves, and thus came the volume before us.

Have you read it? If not, you have a treat yet to enjoy; and if you do not pay it the compliment of many a laugh, and of tears too, we shall conclude that you are not very “feelingful,” as Frederika Bremer says.

Notice. The Christian Review 74 (1 October 1853): 635.

Fern Leaves from Fanny’s Portfolio. Auburn: Derby & Miller. 1853. 12mo. pp. 400.

Mrs. Farrington, who writes under the nom du plume of “Fanny Fern,” is the sister of N. P. Willis, and exhibits considerable of that sprightliness and grace of style, as well as the exquisite pathos which have secured so much eclat for the latter. Some of her fragments are very beautiful, and nearly all are fraught with good lessons and quaint fancies.

Notice. United States Journal 5 (March 1854): 4.

Fern Leaves from Fanny’s Portfolio, with original designs by Coffin. Auburn, Derby & Miller; Buffalo. Derby, Orton & Mulligan; Cincinnati, Henry W. Derby, 1854. pp. 400.

This book is decidedly one of the most successful of the season, having already, in a few months, reached fifty-five thousand. Somehow or other there is an enchantment about Fanny’s pen that “holds children from play, and old men from the chimney corner.”

“Fern.” The Independent 6 (1 June 1854): 170.

Fern.—“Fern-Leaves from Fanny’s Portfolio. Second series.” Published by Miller, Orton & Mulligan, Auburn and Buffalo. For sale by Mason & Brothers. 12mo, pp. 400, with original designs by Fred. M. Coffin. We are told that

“The sale in this country has been 93,000 copies of the first series of Fern-Leaves and Little Ferns, and in England, 32,000 copies—showing the astonishing sale of 125,000 copies of these two works within six months average time of their first publication.”

Notice. Portland Transcript [Portland, Maine] 18 (17 June 1854): 78.

Fern Leaves from Fanny’s Portfolio.—Second series. Aubutn and Buffalo: Miller, Orton & Mulligan.

This is Fanny Fern’s third book within a year. The secret of her success, lies, we think, in her frank, hearty, earnest tone; her contempt of hypocrisy and meanness, and her off hand way of talking—for Fanny talks rather than writes. She is impulsive, and sometimes flippant, but always wide-awake and sprightly. The present volume is handsomely bound and illustrated, and contains many good things. For sale by Sanborn & Carter.

Review. Booksellers’ Trade List and Publishers’ Register of New American and Foreign Publications 20 June 1854: 40.

Fern Leaves from Fanny’s Portfolio. Second Series. Auburn and Buffalo: Miller, Horton, & Mulligan.

“Fanny Fern”—we believe her real name is yet involved in mystery—has written but three books, inclusive of the present one, and yet she is almost as popular and widely known as any writer of the day. This is principally owing to the originality of her style, which, since the publication of her first work, has produced a host of small-fry imitators. “Fanny” is witty, lively, and saucy; at times full of love and charity for all humanity; at others, equally full of bitterness and invective. Now overflowing with reverence and humility as her thoughts turn heavenward; then launching forth into a torrent of “smart” irreverence, which leaves the reader with very little respect for the moral tone of its writer’s mind. She is always bold—occasionally broad—invariably pert—often unwomanly, but at all times piquant and readable. The present volume is elegantly produced, and we presume it will be very generally read.

Review. Pioneer [San Francisco, California] 1 July 1854: 43.

Fern Leaves from Fanny’s Portfolio. In one volume. For sale by Messrs. Cooke, Kenny & Co., Montgomery Street, corner of Merchant.

Who has not heard of Fanny Fern? Her beautiful little gems of thought have been published and republished in every paper of the Union, and admired by countless readers. They are written in an easy, natural style, and every one of them conveys an excellent moral or teaches a useful lesson. We are glad to see them collected at last into book form, and thus redeemed from the comparative uncertainty of mere newspaper existence. The sameness which is usually found in the style and manner of similar collections can hardly be detected in the Fern Leaves, so varied are the subjects of the articles, and in so many different moods do they appear to have been written; so that the reader peruses one after another without wearying. the work should be in the library of every man of taste.

Commentary. Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine 49 (August 1854): 178.

From Miller, Orton, & Mulligan, Auburn and Buffalo, through T. B. Peterson, Philadelphia:—

FERN LEAVES FROM FANNY’S PORTFOLIO. Second series. With original designs by Fred. M. Coffin. Every one—that is, every one in the habit of reading the newspapers—has read, and consequently admired at least a few of the long and short essays, paragraphs, and memorable remarks, which, like flashing meteors, have shot athwart the literary firmament from time to time, to the amazement, in particular, of a certain class of quiet writers, who for a time have been left to wander in the gloom of the past. But, unlike meteors, which fade away after a brief flash, Fanny’s flashes are designed for preservation, and are carefully collected together and made to form a brilliant galaxy for permanent usefulness and lasting admiration. Her originality, industry, and proficiency in all the departments of life and human knowledge are wonderful, indeed, and therefore wonderfully widespread is her popularity. She is, besides, very bold and independent in her strictures on men, women, and every object else that comes in her way, and she has the courage to say things which almost any common thinker might think, but which very few, perhaps could put upon paper in the same nervous and striking language. Hence, no doubt, in a great measure, Fanny’s popularity with the multitude of readers.

Review. Pioneer [San Francisco, California] 1 September 1854: 164.

Fern Leaves from Fanny’s Portfolio—Second Series: pp. 400. Miller, Orton & Mulligan, Buffalo. For sale by Marvin & Hitchcock, Montgomery street, San Francisco.

It was but two months since, that we noticed the first series from Fanny Fern’s Portfolio; and here before us lies the second. The success which attended the first collection, points surely to an extensive sale for this volume. Fanny Fern needs no word from us to add to her hosts of admirers. She is known throughout the length and breadth of the land, and wherever there is a man of taste, there will she be heartily welcomed.

“C.” Notice. National Era 7 September 1854: 144.

Fern Leaves, Second Series.—The publisher of this handsome volume are Miller, Orton, & Mulligan, Buffalo, and Sampson, Low, Son, & Co., London. Fanny Fern is the rage of the time, and it were idle to praise her; but we think the single page, “The Aged Minister,” and its engraved illustration, would make this a good book, were all the rest of its leaves blank.

For sale by Taylor & Maury, Washington.

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