Friday, October 28, 2011

Shame the Devil – A Review and Q & A with Author Debra Brenegan

By Kim

A few weeks ago Debra Brenegan e-mailed me about her novel, Shame the Devil. She had a hunch I might enjoy a story about a spunky (and very real) 19th century woman writer who has been nearly forgotten by history. She sent along the copy on the book jacket:

Shame the Devil tells the remarkable and true story of Fanny Fern (the pen name of Sara Payson Willis), one of the most successful, influential, and popular writers of the 19th century. A novelist, journalist and feminist, Fern (1811-1872) outsold Harriet Beecher Stowe, won the respect of Nathaniel Hawthorne, and served as a literary mentor to Walt Whitman. Scrabbling in the depths of poverty before her meteoric rise to fame and fortune, she was widowed, escaped from an abusive second marriage, penned one of the country’s first prenuptial agreements, married a man eleven years her junior, and served as a 19th century Oprah to her hundreds of thousands of fans. Her weekly editorials in the pages of The New York Ledger over a period of about twenty years chronicled the myriad controversies of her era and demonstrated her firm belief in the motto, “Speak the truth, and shame the devil.” Through the story of Fern and her contemporaries, including Walt Whitman, Catharine Beecher, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Harriet Jacobs and Nathaniel Hawthorne, Shame the Devil brings the intellectual and social ferment of mid nineteenth-century America to life.

Um, yeah, this sounded right up my alley! I quickly finished the book I was reading so I could dive into Shame the Devil the minute it arrived. I was a little nervous when I read on the internet that the novel began as Brenegan’s doctoral thesis. Would it be too academic for the average reader?

While it is obvious that Brenegan is highly educated, the writing is both accessible and entertaining. Characters are well drawn, especially Fanny Fern. The reality of life for many 19th century women was at times difficult for this 21st century reader to stomach, but Fanny’s circumstances made her that much more remarkable. As I read the novel, I often wondered how it was I had never heard of her before while men like Whitman, whom I frankly wanted to slap, are celebrated in our literary canon. I laughed, I raged and I cried while reading Shame the Devil – all sure signs of a good read.

Photo by Steve Rozansky
Q & A with Debra Brenegan

Debra Brenegan is Assistant Professor of English and Coordinator of Women’s Studies at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. Her work has been published in CALYX, The Cimmeron Review, Southern Women’s Review, Phoebe and other publications.

Welcome Debra! How did you first learn about Fanny Fern? Were you drawn to her at once? 

In graduate school, I took a nineteenth-century American Literature class with a professor who told me, “I know a writer you’re just going to love.” This writer, Fanny Fern, wasn’t on our reading list that semester, so, he added her book, Ruth Hall, to the reading list of a course I took with him the next semester. And, he was right – I adored her! I became so interested in Fern and her amazing life that I started writing papers about her. I applied for and got a graduate school fellowship to visit Fern’s archives at Smith College in Massachusetts. As I learned more about Fanny Fern, I couldn’t stop telling people about her. And people were amazed with her rags-to-riches story. They couldn’t believe that they had never heard of her. When it came time to write my dissertation, I combined my interest in creative writing, literature and Women’s Studies to write a historical novel about this forgotten journalist, novelist and feminist. I wanted everyone who hadn’t heard of Fanny Fern to learn about her; I wanted to bring her back to life.

What made you decide to write this book as a novel instead of a biography? 

Fanny Fern - young
My publisher asked me the same thing! Although I had done enough research to write a biography, I wanted to reach a broader audience. There are already several scholarly biographies out there about Fanny Fern, but they are written for and appeal to a more academic audience. I wanted Fern’s story to be as broadly-known as possible, to present her to as many people as possible. I felt that by putting her story into a story-format, it would be more assessable – and more likely to be read.

Why do you think Fanny has been forgotten by time while others, like Walt Whitman, are celebrated?

I don’t think there is any one reason for this, but, rather a collection of possible reasons. First, she wasn’t a literary writer, so when editors and scholars began formally and informally to assign works to the “canon,” she was probably passed over for being a popular writer. Second, she was a woman, and, again, during the canon formation period, most of the attention went to white, male writers like Hawthorne, Melville, Thoreau, and, yes, Whitman. Many women writers, along with many other marginalized writers, were forgotten about. Third, since the idea of women working and having careers in general was still considered unfeminine, even vulgar, during Fern’s life and in the years after it, she and her family were judged, sometimes harshly, for her endeavors. When she died, she made it known that she wanted her literary fame to die along with her. Her family, abiding by her wishes, didn’t encourage her literary memory in the same way that, say, Walt Whitman’s followers and fans did after he died.

You portray the reality of life for most women in the mid 1800’s as pretty grim. Happiness depended solely on the character of the man a woman married, and that choice wasn’t always hers to make. Then, of course, there was the matter of praying that man stayed alive. Without giving away the plot too much, what parts of a woman’s plight (not necessarily Fanny’s) were the hardest to write about?

The hardest parts for me to write were probably also the most painful parts of life for Fanny and the other characters. I don’t want to be a spoiler, so I won’t give specific details, but Fern and some of the other characters had to face a number of very difficult moments – abuse, poverty, and the loss of several loved ones. I had to put myself in their shoes and to write about their pain and desperation. That is never easy.

You wrote from several points of view. Which did you enjoy most and why? Who came as a struggle for you? 

Although this book is definitely Fanny’s story, I did enjoy presenting chapters from the perspectives of several different characters. My favorite characters to write, besides Fanny, were Fanny’s older brother, N.P. (Nat) Willis, and her daughter, Grace. Nat was fun because he was a rich, spoiled celebrity and it was entertaining for me to research and portray upper-crust life from a different era. Grace was also a great and satisfying challenge for me, because she was emotionally sensitive and slightly traumatized. I wanted to portray her emotional and psychological struggles within the story of her mother’s amazing success and strength.

Are you working on anything now?

I just finished a draft of another novel, tentatively titled Motherless. It is a contemporary fiction story from the perspective of a pregnant college student who decides to hide her pregnancy and have her baby in secret. Just yesterday, I sent it to an agent who requested the first reading. I, of course, have crossed all of my fingers and toes, hoping she will like it! I also have a short story collection that is being considered by several publishers.

Thank you for stopping by What Women Write today, Debra. Shame the Devil is available at bookstores everywhere.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a copy of the book mentioned above gratis in the hope that I would mention it on this blog. Regardless, I only recommend books I've read and believe will appeal to our readers. In accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising” I am making this statement.


  1. I'm intrigued by the idea of this book! It's a wise
    writer that knows how to reach their audience, and I have an inkling that using Ms. Fern's life as seed for a novel will help grow her the respect she deserves... can't wait to read this.

  2. Cindy Keeling28 October, 2011

    Great interview. I'm putting this on my "must-read" list.
    Best of luck, Debra!

  3. Thank you so much for stopping by What Women Write! It's a great read!


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