In Emerson’s rally for critical thinking he reading he claims that books were written by those, “who set out from accepted dogmas, not from their own sigh of principles.” His remedy to this plight was to have readers “look forward not backward.” His reasoning was that a “Genius always looks forward…. The eyes of man are set in his forehead, not his hindhead. Man hopes. Genius creates.”
For readers of Fanny Fern’s works, forward thinking and creation is vital. Her message, because of it’s radically progressive nature, is so subverted, that the meaning behind her text must be created by the reader out of humor and sarcasm. She gives you all of the ingredients, and asks that through critical thought, you create for yourself, a clear picture of patriarchy in America.
On reading the “Aunt Hetty” passage:
“’Now girls,’ said Aunt Hetty, ‘put down your embroidery and worsted work; do something sensible, and stop building air-castles, and talking of lovers and honeymoons…Love is a farce; matrimony is a humbug; husbands are domestic Napoleons, Neroes, Alexanders – sighing for other hearts to conquer, after they are sure of yours’” (Fern 1794).
“This short excerpt had me laughing from the very beginning. It is so matter-of-fact and blatant that you just have to find it humorous. Its themes are depressing, but Fern’s humor is used so effectively. You never feel berated or chastised, but just wholly amused. Comedy often has this magical effect. It reveals to us the woes of our society and exaggerates them, but makes us laugh while we have such epiphanies. It makes everyday life into the laughable. My favorite part was when she described marriage as ‘humbug.’ Of course, I just pictured being married to Scrooge. He would be so persnickety and boring. That kind of a marriage would be awful. And then her description of husbands as famous conquerors was hilarious. True, its very depressing that this women has so little freedom and is subject to the whims of her husband, but it is also inspiring. What woman would like to be stuck in a situation like Aunt Hetty describes?”
It is clear that even for modern readers, Fanny Fern’s wit and masterful descriptions allows the reader to “create” a truth, as Emerson suggests. From the language Fern uses, Sophia created the worst possible scenario in her mind of a woman being married to the Charles Dickens character Scrooge. Her critical reading brings Fern’s socially cryptic message to life.
Likewise, after critically reading Fern’s description of husbands in Hungry Husbands, she wrote:
“The male is seen as a base and animalistic creature, solely concerned with filling his belly, and the wife as a cooking slave, who attempts to whet the man’s appetites. I believe that Fern wants both sexes to be embarrassed. The woman for catering to the man’s needs at every turn, and the male for being a mere drone. She is not condoning manipulation, or even saying that women merely desire fancy clothing and nice trips to exotic locations, but is making a mockery of this firmly held and degrading belief. She wants people to realize what ideologies they are actually subscribing to and to reexamine them. However, she does this in a very sarcastic and humorous tone so one doesn’t feel attacked, but plainly stupid.”
Again, we see how essential critical reading is to this text. Beyond the image Sophia conjures, she is able to reexamine Fern’s stance based on what she knows of the time period, and gender relations. By relying on more than what the text provides, and forwardly thinking, it is fair to say the Sophia has grasped, in this example, the practice of Emerson and the message of Fern.
Readers of Fern’s times, who were not as privy to the practice and importance of critical reading, said that her text was “not sufficiently endowed with female delicacy.” The same writer who wrote this review, which was published in the 1855 Putnam Monthly*, also wrote that Fern’s work was “un-femininely bitter wrath and spite.” Lastly, he all but attacked Fern in stating that she “demeaned herself as no right-minded woman would have.” This is a perfect example of what is lost without critical reading, specifically, in regards to Fanny Fern. While this review was actually regarding one of her longer works, the same sentiment applies. Her essays can easily be read through the same scope the Putnam review was reading from in 1855. The value of critical reading is apparent in these two reviews of the same author.
Furthermore, what makes Fern’s text an even better example of why critical reading is important, beside the fact that she writes in code and jest, is the fact that she too, wrote on critical reading, and literary critiquing. The forwardness of her though in that essay echoes Emerson’s call for scholars to re-define the terms we have been given. Fern does exactly that.
Regarding the Male Criticism on Ladies’ Books quote,“Whether the book which called forth the remark above quoted, was a good book or a bad one, I know not.” Angelia realizes:
“Fern is critiquing what the male world defines a ‘good’ literature. In the quote below, she doesn’t even want to call it criticism because it is so biased and shallow!
‘…is such shallow, unfair, wholesome, sneering criticism (?) the way to reform them? Would it not be better and more manly to point out a better way kindly, justly, and, above all, respectfully? or—what would be a much harder task for such critics—write a better book!’
I think Fern is saying that criticism from men concerning women’s writing is shallow in that it does not give women the credit they deserve, but also in that men critique women’s writing but that’s where they stop. They don’t offer any concrete reasons as to why it’s not sufficient writing (other than women belong in the kitchen, not writing literature). They also do not offer ways to improve the writing they critique. I think Fern is touching on men’s fear that women could potentially be better scholars than men, so they just dismiss the topic as much as they can.”
This analysis, as well as the others, are brilliant. Without the influence of Emersonian thought, and the shift literate America made toward critical thinking, Fanny Fern’s essays would have never existed. If they existed, it is likely they would not have been understood. Critical thought and reading provided a path for Fanny Fern to express her critiques on patriarchy, domesticity, and literature in a manner that the public could tolerate and not take offensively. This same critical thought provided readers like Sophia and Angelia the tools they needed to understand such a critique. They are Women Thinking.
To read the commonplace books of the Women Thinking featured in this post, follow the links below.