Though she sold more books than her contemporary Harriet Beecher Stowe and was the highest paid and most published writer in the 1850s and 1860s, few outside of academia have ever heard of Fanny Fern while almost everyone recognizes the name of Stowe.
"She was so very amazing popular and so significant for several decades," says Debra Brenegan, a professor of English and women's studies at Westminster College in Fulton, Mo., and author of the recently released "Shame the Devil" (State University of New York Press 2011; $24.95), a novel about Fern. "She was like the Oprah Winfrey of her day."
Even Brenegan, an English and creative writing major in college, hadn't heard of Fern.
"I was working on my PhD in a graduate course in 19th century literature and my professor kept telling me that he had an author that he thought I would like because I was a feminist and a journalist who wanted to become a novelist," says Brenegan. "The very first novel I read was her first novel 'Ruby Hall.'"
Why did Fern's fame burn so brightly and then disappear? Brenegan says that until the 60s and 70s, most of the people we think of being representative of American literature came from a very narrow group — mostly from the Northeast and were white men.
"Then people started looking around at other authors and Fern was one of them," she says.
But Brenegan didn't choose Fern because she had been ignored. She was compelled by her story, including her emergence from poverty and as a leader in advancing women's rights (She wrote one of the first pre–nuptial agreements in the U.S.).
"Her life had a lot of highs and lows," says Brenegan. "She was widowed and then had an abusive second marriage. Her third marriage was to a man 11 years younger than she was. She also had hundreds of thousands of fans, worked as a columnist for over 20 years for the New York Ledger and her books, including her collections of columns, were best sellers. It was quite a life."