English, Department of


Date of this Version



Published in New England Quarterly, 74 (2001): 210-237. Copyright 2001, MIT Press. Used by permission.


In Walden, Henry David Thoreau complained of what he believed to be the provincial reading habits of his Concord neighbors: "If we will read newspapers, why not skip the gossip of Boston and take the best newspapers in the world at once?- to not be sucking the pap of 'neutral family' papers, or browsing the 'Olive Branches' here in New England.” While Thoreau's own Week on the Concord and Merrinlack Rivers failed to find a national audience, he misreads (or willfully misrepresents) the potential geographic reach of authors who published in the Olive Branch, the weekly paper that launched Fanny Fern's career as a national mass cultural phenomenon. Every week in Boston in 1851 and 1852, as Thoreau was laboring over his revisions of Walden in Concord, Fanny Fern wrote short newspaper sketches in a variety of modes addressing all members of the average middle-class family-short and scathing satirical sketches of social types, flirtatious "letters" addressed to her editor and her male admirers, sentimental stories of the deaths of young children, sprightly confidential chats with married women about the foibles of the typical husband, and instructive tales directed at young readers. Once the Olive Branch and later the True Flag published her works for the consumption of their Boston area subscribers, her works quickly moved beyond this localized audience through the mechanism of reprinting, finding their way into both other weekly papers (essentially weekly magazines published in a newspaper format) and into daily newspapers across the country.