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Marietta Holley
by Roxie Holmstead


Marietta Holley, popular authoress of the nineteenth century, has been one of the best kept secrets in the field of American Literature. Called “a female Mark Twain,” because of similar wit and success as a writer, in 1887 she sold more books than Mark Twain. Twain is still well known and his books still read. One must ask why so few ever heard of Holley or her books.

Holley, the youngest of seven children, was born in 1836 on the family farm in Jefferson County, New York. Her family described Holley as a small, frail child who suffered shyness because of a lisp and merciless teasing of her three brothers. Her entire life was affected by the shyness.

Holley’s formal education at a district school ended when she was fourteen. About that time her brothers left home to go west and her efforts were needed to support the family income. Though reading matter at home was scarce, lively discussions about religion and politics were brought up often at their supper table.

In matters of religion Holleys traditionally favored the Episcopal Church. Her father, however, became a Universalist. At sixteen Holley joined the Baptist Church after her conversion at a revival meeting. Significantly, women in the Baptist Church were given the right to vote in church matters and the opportunity to participate fully in all Baptist meetings except formal Sunday services.

In politics Holley’s family members believed in the cause of both abolition and temperance, but debated strategies to those ends. Even when she didn’t have the admission price, she read accounts in the local paper of the lectures on temperance, abolition, suffrage, and other topics given by Lyceum speakers booked at the nearby opera house.

Holley’s father died in 1861 leaving a household of Holley, her mother and her sister Sylphina. Sylphina was a ghostly presence in their house which she never left. She would quickly rustle out of sight if unexpected visitors arrived. The family simply said she was peculiar from birth. Sylphina died in 1915.

Early on Holley contributed to the family economy in a way considered acceptable for an unmarried woman by engaging in another of her passions – music. She learned to play the piano through the generosity of an
uncle who paid for her lessons. She became proficient enough to accept students, buy a melodeon on which to give lessons and brought in much needed cash. She continued giving lessons even after publishing poems and short pieces in magazines until finally with the publication of her first book her income derived from writing alone.

After composing verses since the time she could first read and write she saw her first words in print when she was twenty-one. Two poems, “Welcome to Summer” and “Phair and Phalse,” were published in the Jefferson County Journal under the pen name, Jemyma. In keeping with her intense need for privacy and fear of ridicule if rejected, she told no one about submitting the poems and did not declare herself even to her family until she knew they praised the poems without knowing she was the author.

In the next issue of the Jefferson County Journal her first prose sketch entitled, “Piety,” was published. In it she addressed many of the subjects she would continue to wrestle with for the next sixty years; the vanity of fashion, work over worship, the value of class status, the absurdity of the ‘cult of true womanhood’, the evils of drink, and the
importance of staying close to the land.

Her cousin Henry Holley advised her to write stories instead of poems and essays. She followed his advice and built her reputation on her “dialect sketches.” With the publication of “Fourth of July in Jonesville” in the July 1869 issue of Peterson’s Magazine, her vernacular character and new pen name, Josiah Allen’s Wife, made their first appearance. Peterson’s Magazine published everything she offered from then on and she never lacked for a publisher again.

Holley became possessed with the idea of writing something wherein she endowed principles with personality. To absolute practicality she gave the name “Samantha” and to the opposite principle of weak sentimentality she gave the name “Betsy Bobbit.” All her other characters sort of grew up around these two. “Samantha” was altogether practical, but she knew that love is the greatest thing in the world. So she loved and married “Josiah,” and while lacking in sentiment her love was nevertheless so solid that she was willing to take second place before all the world as
plain “Josiah Allen’s Wife.”

Holley’s ambition went beyond magazines of the day. She wrote to president of the American Publishing Company whose authors included Mark Twain and Brett Harte. She sent a poem previously published in 1872 in the New York Home Journal, and for contrast a sketch in dialect by “Josiah Allen’s Wife.” She boldly asked whether he would like her to write a book for him. To her delight, he answered, “Yes, begin at once.” To her dismay, he wanted it written in the Samantha dialect despite her pleas that the other work held more literary merit and a Samantha book would be a “dead failure” and “none would ever want to read it.” He held firm of his conviction that, “Josiah Allen’s Wife could reach a new and immense public.” An example of the dialect is the substitution of “sez” for “says,” “wuz” replaced “was” and “medium” became “megum.”

When American Publishing Company published _My Opinions and Betsey Bobbet’s_ in 1875 it was shown as written by Josiah Allen’s Wife. On the first page is printed:

Designed as A Beacon of Light, To Guide Women to Life Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, But Which May Be Read By Members of The Sterner Sect Without Injury to Themselves Or The Book

In her book, _Samantha Rastles the Woman Question_, Jane Curry
wrote,“Only Holley wrote consistently from a pro-women’s rights point of
view and exposed as foolish the various arguments against the
development of full human potential for women.”

Holley’s mother served as her protector, advocate of her talents, and
confidante from childhood on. Shortly before publication of her second
book in 1877, her mother died of pneumonia. Only her sister Sylphina now
lived in the household.

It seems as though Holley created Samantha as her direct opposite. She
was not like Samantha in appearance, culture or status. Samantha was a
plain, homely character; Holley was described more like a Grand Duchess.

Holley used her character Samantha with much wisdom to humorously get her points across regarding women’s issues of the day. She dealt largely with the questions of suffrage, temperance, women’s right of economic dependence, lack of political power, double standards, traditional roles, and outright discrimination.

A vehicle Holley used in her writing were discussions between Samantha and husband Josiah. In her book, _My Opinions and Betsey Bobbet’s_, Samantha and Josiah were having a heated discussion on women’s right to
vote. Josiah had commented that women were “too fraguile (sic), too delicate” to vote. This caused over-worked Samantha to respond with:

“Josiah Allen, you think that for a woman to stand up straight on her feet, under a blazin’ sun, and lift both her arms above her head, and pick seven bushels of hops, mingled with worms and spiders, into a gigantic box, day in, and day out is awful healthy, so strengthenin’ and stimulatin’ to wimmin, but when it comes to droppin’ a little slip of clean paper into a small seven by nine box, once a year in a shady room, you are afraid it is goin’ to break down a woman’s constitution to once.” These conversations between Samantha and Josiah usually ended with Josiah having to leave her presence because of some pressing need elsewhere.

Though Samantha, her main character, was a married woman, Holley never married. Her character Samantha married Josiah, a widower with two children. She reared his two children, but never had any of her own. Holley had no children, but at the age of fifty-eight she took May Shaver, an eight-year-old daughter of one of her subscription book agents to rear. She never legally adopted May, but treated her as a daughter – rearing and educating her until May married and left home.

Samantha was well traveled. Other than a trip to Saratoga and Coney Island, Holley never visited the places she wrote about. She studied maps and reference material then wrote about places without actually visiting them. Samantha’s society was made up of country folk, but Holley’s society was people of prominence.

Frances Willard and Susan B. Anthony, Holley’s contemporaries, recognized the propaganda value of her writing and invited her to be a delegate at the 1877 Women’s Christian Temperance Union Convention. Then Anthony urged her to attend the 1878 National Woman Suffrage Association. Holley never attended any conventions. Even at the height
of her popularity, shyness kept her from making public appearances.

Twenty-one books of Holley’s were published from 1873 to 1914. The 1880s success of Holley’s writing brought so many requests from publishers of magazines and weeklies that she could not oblige them all. She became a
shrewd businesswoman, securing ever more money as she negotiated her own book contracts.

Not until 1881 at age forty-five did she venture for the first time outside her world on the farm nearby Watertown. She finally accepted an invitation from the persistent Dr. Alonso Flack, president of Claverack College on the banks of the Hudson River, for an extended visit with him and his wife. In 1885 she began making yearly visits to New York City, staying at the Murray Hill Hotel, writing, seeing her publishers, attending readings and receptions, and meeting friends. Over the years, she traveled to Washington D.C., Virginia and Chicago and met many of the prominent people of the day including two presidents and four first ladies. She visited for weeks at a time with newfound friends.

In 1887 she was invited to the White House to meet President and Mrs. Grover Cleveland. On the same visit to Washington, D. C. she met Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, who became one of her closest
friends until Barton’s death in 1912.

Though she visited and traveled more than once she could imagined, she still preferred the quiet home life, where from the window of her writing room she could see the woods, plants, flowers and streams of nature. With financial comfort now ensured, she decided to have a house built to replace the small cottage to which her mother had been brought as a bride. The 15-room Victorian house she constructed on the homestead in 1888, later was called Bonnie View.

Holley’s home was a museum in the summer of 1994. The sign posted on the property at that time read: BONNIE VIEW, Birthplace of Home of Marietta Holley, 1840 – 1926, Author “Samantha” Novels, Pen Name “Josiah Allen’s

You will note the error on her birth year. It was actually 1836. The post office returned a letter addressed to the museum curator in 1997 marked “Undeliverable – Out of Business.” Today the property is privately owned.

In spite of her success, by the time of her death in 1926 at the age of eighty-nine, Holley’s books were no longer read. The ideas and issues so relevant to late-nineteenth-century America had become by then commonplace and lacked the urgency and appeal that had preceded the war and the Nineteenth Amendment. Women obtained the right to vote in 1920. There is no record as to whether Holley voted.

Holley was asked to write about her life. By an agreement made while she lived, she wrote “The Story of My Life” and it was published posthumously and serially in 1931 in the Watertown Daily Times.