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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Marietta Holley (pseud. "Josiah Allen's Wife")

In her lifetime, Marietta Holley's popularity rivaled that of Mark Twain, to whom she was often compared. Humorist and inventor of the first female comic protagonist of significance in American literature, Holley published twenty-four books between 1873 and 1914. Prior to Holley's work, American humorists had been primarily male, in the tradition of the "literary comedians" and of Down East and southwestern humor. Two women—Ann Stephens and Frances Whitcher—had preceded Holley as humorists, and in developing her own literary manner Holley drew upon their techniques and subject matter as well as those of masculine traditions. For much of her style she depended on the upcountry dialect, proverbs and maxims, and extravagant images that were the stuff of the Down East "cracker-barrel philosophers." To the native idiom of New York State's north country, where she was born and lived, she added other devices of the humor traditions: anticlimax, misquoted Scripture, puns, malapropisms, mixed metaphors, comic similes, and language reversals such as "foremothers."

In addition, she chronicled the homely events and hard work that set the rhythm of life for country women as the local color writers of New England did. Like Stowe, Jewett, and Freeman, Holley re-created the voices and manners peculiar to her fictive landscape, in this case Jonesville, New York. Taking the notion of home-centeredness and the plot and character conventions that the domestic novelists had used, Holley turned it to her own purposes by showing the failure of gentility to provide a safe, satisfying life for women, and she melded three American literary traditions in a way no other writer had: the attention to regional detail of the local colorists merges with the conventions of the domestic novelists and the vernacular comedy developed by earlier humorists.

Holley used humor for a new end: to make accessible and palatable the ideals of the temperance and suffrage movements. Whereas the earlier comedians had made the woman—particularly the woman's rights advocate—the butt of their comedy, Holley created characters of both genders who embodied the absurdities of anti-suffrage and intemperance. Her early work was enormously popular with a wide audience, including reformers such as Susan B. Anthony and Frances Willard, who sought her support. Holley was often invited to address audiences, including the U.S. Congress, but because of her intense shyness and a slight speech impediment, she always declined. "Samantha Allen, Josiah Allen's Wife," spoke for her.

Holley was the last of seven children born into a farm family in southern Jefferson County, New York. When her three older brothers left the small farm to make their fortunes in the West after their father's death in the 1860s, Holley was left to help support the family by selling handicrafts and giving music lessons. Her education in the rural district school ended when she was fourteen because there was not enough money, but she continued a program of reading and self-directed study with a neighbor.

At an early age she began writing verses with accompanying illustrations, although she maintained secrecy about all her writing until 1857, when she began publishing poetry in the local newspaper under a pseudonym. Soon her fiction, including some in Yorker dialect, was appearing in popular magazines. In 1872 she boldly sent a few sketches to Mark Twain's publisher. He immediately commissioned her to write a novel in the style of the vernacular humorists, and the career of "Josiah Allen's Wife" was launched. Holley used several pseudonyms during her public career, but none served her so long or well as "Samantha."

Her first "Samantha" book, My Opinions and Betsey Bobbet's (1873), was immediately successful. It established the characters of Samantha Smith Allen, her foolish husband Josiah Allen, and the spinster Betsey Bobbet. In that work, Holley adopted the pattern that dominated the remaining books: Samantha is presented with a problem that requires her to travel outside the confines of rural Jonesville; she takes with her a rustic sensibility and common sense that points out the absurdity of much of life in eastern America, especially politics and genteel society. Seven of Holley's novels were commissioned books about places or events as they might be viewed through Samantha's spectacles. Ironically, Holley rarely traveled, writing most of these books entirely from maps and guidebooks. She barely left the precincts of her farm home until her first trip when she was forty-five years old, preferring instead to live quietly among the people of her county. She led a circumscribed and singular life, avoiding publicity and glamor. Settled in a mansion built to replace her father's farmhouse, she lived quietly until her death at nearly ninety years.

Her conversion to the Baptist faith led to a lifelong concern with piety and spirituality that, yoked with her feminism, informed most of her adult writing. In all her fiction, including the travel books, Holley took on nearly every reform women agitated for. Temperance was Samantha's concern in most of Holley's fiction, but it was the central issue in Sweet Cicely: Josiah Allen as a Politician (1885), her most accomplished and well-crafted book, showing her at her best with rustic and dialect humor and the temperance and domestic novel genres. Her most commercially successful book, Samantha at Saratoga (1887), followed with its criticism of dress and morals. Her concern with women's subordinate status within the established churches, especially the refusal of the 1888 Methodist Conference to seat duly elected women delegates, was developed in Samantha Among the Brethren (1890). As her legacy to literature, Holley left the traditional threads of American humor woven into a tough and bristly new strand.

Kate H. Winter
State University of New York at Albany

In the Heath Anthology
from Samantha Among the Brethren
      Chapter XIX (1890)

Other Works
My Opinions and Betsey Bobbet's (1873)
Sweet Cicely (1885)
Samantha at Saratoga of Flirtin' With Fashion (1887)
Samantha on the Race Problem (1892)

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What Students Think is Funny
A teacher compares cultural responses to Woody Allen, Grace Paley, Marietta Holley, and James Thurber.

Women of Courage
A short biography that is part of a site devoted to North Country Pioneers.

Women's History Alive
Brief biography, a photograph, and a bibliography.

Secondary Sources

Jane Curry, Marietta Holley: Samantha Rastles the Woman Question, 1983

Jane Curry, Marietta Holley, 1996

Linda Ann Finton Morris, Women Vernacular Humorists in Nineteenth-Century America: Ann Stephens, Frances Whitcher, and Marietta Holley, 1978

Kate H. Winter, Marietta Holley: Life With "Josiah Allen's Wife," 1984