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5 Best-Selling Female Writers You May Not Have Heard Of

Sara Payson Willis, known as Fanny Fern (1811-1872) Library of Congress hide caption

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Library of Congress

Sara Payson Willis, known as Fanny Fern (1811-1872)

Library of Congress

A handful of popular female writers of 19th century America — such as Louisa May Alcott and Harriet Beecher Stowe — continue to be widely taught and read. Others who were extremely well-known back then, for some reason or other, are today pretty much relegated to the history books.

Take Fanny Fern for instance.

The nom de plume of Sara Payson Willis — who was born in 1811 and died in 1872 — Fanny Fern "was hugely popular in the 19th century" and a highly paid journalist, says Tiffany Aldrich MacBain, who teaches 19th century American literature at the University of Puget Sound. Fanny Fern "had a newspaper column that was widely syndicated; it was humorous and cutting and smart and accessible, and people gobbled it up."

Fern "was resuscitated by feminist scholars in the 1970s," MacBain tells NPR. "Today, if people read — or write about — Fern, they tend to focus on her novel, Ruth Hall ​(1854), which was a best-seller. Still, I'd guess that most people today have not heard of her." You can find Ruth Hall at Internet Archive.

Library shelves are loaded with books, penned by American writers, that were vastly circulated and lauded in the 1800s but are barely known today. Now and then one is reprinted.

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911) Photo Researchers/Getty Images hide caption

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Photo Researchers/Getty Images

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911)

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Here are a few best-selling writers of the 19th century — with links to books — that may be new to you:

  • Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911). Renowned as a poet and a novelist, Harper, born in Baltimore in 1825, was also a public speaker. "She helped slaves escape through the Underground Railroad and wrote frequently for anti-slavery newspapers, earning her a reputation as the mother of African American journalism," according to the Poetry Foundation. When she lectured in Philadelphia in February of 1867, the local Evening Telegraph noted that certain of her poems exhibited "more than ordinary depth of thought and fervor of expression." Her hallmark work of fiction, Iola Leroy, Or Shadows Uplifted, was published in 1892. When it appeared, the Philadelphia Times review on Nov. 26, 1892, stated that the novel "is an exquisite delineation of one of the noblest of characters among the rescued slaves and the plot is delightfully woven as the heroine is grand in all the qualities of elevated and refine womanhood." You can read Iola Leroy, Or Shadows Uplifted (1892) at Project Gutenberg.
  • Mary J. Holmes (1825-1907). When Holmes died in 1907, her obituary in the Nation noted that she had written more than three dozen novels with aggregate sales of more than 2 million copies. One hallmark of Holmes' work was "accurate rural description"; and "her characters almost always question societal injustices with humor and seriousness, and no religion, class, or people is immune to being made fun of by the narrator for any prejudice or hypocrisy she uncovers," writes Earl Yarington of Cheyney University in a 2008 essay. "Holmes's body of work is one of the purest examples of American literature, and, within that body of work, we see the fears, prejudices, injustices, hopes, and dreams of a new nation struggling with the concepts of equality and democracy." Tempest and Sunshine (1854) is on the Public Bookshelf.
  • Ann S. Stephens (1810-1886). In the 1963 We the Women: Career Firsts of Nineteenth Century Women, Madeleine B. Stern writes that Stephens' 1839 serial Malaeska, reissued in 1860, was the first "dime novel" and was incredibly popular, with an eventual publishing presence of at least 300,000 copies. Stephens was so prolific and well-known, writes Stern, that her publishers attributed her success to the notion that readers just could not escape her influence. "Her popularity as an author was attested by the fact that at the time of her death a 23-volume edition of her works was at the press," noted the 1980 Famous American Women: A Biographical Dictionary from Colonial Times to the Present. You can read The Gold Brick (1866) at Project Gutenberg.
  • E.D.E.N. Southworth. "During the last half of the 19th century Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte Southworth (1819-1899) was probably the single most widely-read American novelist," according to the University of Virginia's Uncle Tom's Cabin and American Culture multimedia archive. "Part of Southworth's extraordinary appeal to her contemporaries was her ability to imagine sensational or melodramatic events and adventurous, active roles for her heroines within the constraints of the doctrine of feminine gentility." She began her career in 1844 and at one point was one of the country's best-paid writers. Of the 60 or so novels she wrote, The Hidden Hand is probably her best-known. The Hidden Hand (1888) can be read at the Digital Library Project.

E.D.E.N. Southworth is "not entirely lost to history," says the University of Puget Sound's MacBain, "at least among 19th century Americanists, with whom she's been a favorite since the 1970s or '80s. That said, I've just scanned my 2014 Heath Anthology, and she's not in it."

So just what made a writer popular in 19th century America?

Quoting from Nina Baym's 1993 work Woman's Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America, 1820-70, MacBain says, "It is widely agreed that since the middle of the 19th century, no book can hope for popular success if it does not attract large numbers of women readers, because women were and are the majority of readers in America."

Baym's assertion stems from the idea that the elite writers — those usual suspects we tend to canonize, such as Hawthorne, Melville, Twain — have always been understood in terms of greater intelligence and literary acumen than the mass of their readers, MacBain says. "However ... as Nina Baym writes in her book, 'hundreds of women authors ... and millions of women readers have enjoyed a mutually profitable relationship.' "

MacBain says, "The truth that begins to emerge is that the writers who have had staying power are — for the most part — those who attracted women readers, but did not write primarily to and for women readers. This is sexism, of course, but there it is."

In the mid-19th century, MacBain adds, "sentimental literature was very popular, and at least some of the women you list found fame by writing in this mode. The genre grew out of the conduct literature that was popular earlier in the century — for example, seduction novels that frightened girls and young women away from sexual impropriety — and was popular among women more so than men. For this reason, it was dismissed by 'serious' authors — as when Hawthorne bemoaned the 'damned mob of scribbling women.' What's fascinating, though, is that sentimental literature was not just inviting women to read and weep. Today we recognize that it was a powerful political tool."

[After my colleague Lynn Neary read this piece she posed an intriguing question: "It does make me wonder which of the writers we admire today will be remembered 100 years from now ... " Your thoughts?]

(This post has been updated.)


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