by Ana Navascues
April 2009

In “Blackwell’s Island,” Fanny Fern asks the citizens of 1850s New York to take a closer look at the people- criminals, the insane, and prostitutes- who are hidden away on Blackwell’s Island.  Fern, a social activist and writer for the New York Ledger, wrote the three installments of “Blackwell’s Island” urging her readers to question their own responsibility and accountability in the plight of these exiles.  Fern demonstrates progressive thinking in the first installment of the her essay, as she advocates for shifting the current prison system from a punitive institution that sets men up to fail once they are released to one of rehabilitation.   In later installments, however, it becomes unclear just what Fern is trying to accomplish when she undermines her cause by marginalizing the very people she is trying to help.  Fern expresses her amusement at the patients in the asylum and in some ways shows her approval of the way they are treated in the second installment.  And in the third installment, Fern laments the prostitutes’ situation but becomes waylaid in her discussion of their real struggles to instead either generalize their plight or rail against the men who contribute to their downfall. Despite Fern’s efforts, she is still limited in her thinking when it comes to the insane and the fallen women of Blackwell’s Island.

The second installment of “Blackwell’s Island” contains Fern’s account of the people in the insane asylum.  Fern describes the image of a mock regiment that has been created by the resident doctor as a way to get the patients to exercise.  She recounts the “ludicrously solemn earnestness” of the made up regiment; not only does she thus condone the treatment of the insane, but she also finds the doctor’s idea to be quite “ingenious” (1068).  This ridiculous image of the insane fuels the idea that the people in the asylum could never be a part of society and so should stay on the island to be cared for from afar.  Fern is unable to see that she is contributing to a negative view of the insane with her patronizing depiction of the people in the asylum.  Similarly, in the third installment of the essay, concerning the prostitutes of Blackwell’s Island, Fern dehumanizes the prostitutes by focusing on the impact of prostitution on society instead of the prostitutes themselves.

Fern begins the segment in which she discusses the prostitutes by reproaching society’s hypocrisy; men are allowed to visit prostitutes, but the prostitutes who serve them are punished.  She wonders how these fallen women could be ignored as the upper classes practically trip over them on their way to the opera.   Fern accuses society for wanting to “push them [the prostitutes] ‘anywhere out of the world,’” but makes no move herself to show how they could be reintroduced into society (1068).  Fern seems more concerned with preventing prostitution than aiding the prostitutes who have been secreted away on the island.  Despite being the longest of the three installments, this third segment of Fern’s essay only briefly discusses her feelings as she observed the dismal lives of the women.  Fern recalls the “tugging of her heartstrings” as she saw the prostitutes; however, she only mentions them again in the essay one more time (1069).  The rest of the pages are devoted to the frustration Fern feels about the double standards that women are held to in her society.  Fern distances herself from the prostitutes by mainly speaking of them in terms of men, thereby exposing her reluctance—and perhaps her inability—to relate to these women.  Whether Fern is unable fully to escape the trappings of the patriarchal society in which she lives, or she subconsciously resents the prostitutes, she falls short in her efforts to gain awareness of the lives of the current prostitutes of Blackwell’s Island

Fanny Fern’s well-intentioned attempts to bring to light the bleak existence of those on Blackwell’s Island for her readers misses the mark time and time again.  She laughs at the insane as they march around the grounds in their imaginary regiment, failing to see the connection in her reaction to the general societal apathy she claims to be fighting. Further, she abstracts the prostitutes from the human equation.  The prostitutes only serve to illustrate Fern’s call for the purity of both sexes.   Regardless of her original intentions for writing “Blackwell’s Island,” Fern’s writing itself marginalizes the people for whom she purports to advocate.

Works Cited

Fern, Fanny (Sara Payson Willis Parton). “Blackwells Island [Numbers I-III].” The Bedford Anthology of American Literature Volume I: Beginnings to 1865. Ed. by Susan Belasco and Linck Johnson. Boston, Bedford/St. Martin’s: 2008.  1066-1071.

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