- Marietta Holley: Life with "Josiah Allen's Wife"
Who today, even among academics, knows the name of Marietta Holley? In her lifetime she was an enormously successful writer in the tradition of male literary [End Page 725] comedians such as Bill Arp and Artemus Ward. Known as the "female Mark Twain," Marietta Holley created Samantha, "Josiah Allen's Wife," who used upstate New York dialect to express her opinions in two dozen books and countless stories. "Episodizing" and "allegorizing," Samantha invented proverbs and maxims peppered with homespun phrases: "The great subject of Wimmen's Rites kept a goarin' me, and a voice kept a sayin' inside of me, 'Josiah Allen's Wife,' write a book givin' your views on the great subject of Wimmen's Rites."
And she did. Samantha addresses this and other "great" subjects in two dozen books with salty titles such as Widder Doodle's Love Affair and My Trials with Josiah, America, the Widow Bump, and Etcetery. Shielded by Samantha's ingenuous, cheerful, and unthreatening persona, Holley entertained her readers while educating them on some of the most critical social issues of her day (and ours): women's suffrage; the domestic tragedies caused by alcohol abuse; the injustices imposed on women by marriage, especially Mormon polygamy; women's clothing; and—perhaps most radical of all—the rights of children. Sharing both Twain's publisher and, for a time, his illustrator, Holley was, to quote Kate Winters, "from 1873 to 1914 one of American's most popular writers with an audience as large as Twain's."
Holley's life seems as striking an achievement as her literary production. Born to relatively poor farmers and plagued by respiratory illness all her life, she nonetheless gradually assumed the support of her entire family, first by giving piano lessons, later by writing. Eventually, she became a respected public figure. She had numerous suitors (though she maintained her "blessed singleness") and many women friends, some the stature of Clara Barton. She enjoyed the experience of "mothering" her niece Ella and a foster daughter named May Shaver. At Marietta Holley's death (she was nearly ninety), she left an estate valued at $100,000, including her home, Bonnie View, in northern New York.
Kate Winter's biography of Marietta Holley is a fine beginning in the recovery of a buried reputation and a neglected body of work. It is excellently researched and well written in a straightforward, natural tone.
Having finished reading it, one wonders—especially in light of the consistently favorable comparisons with Twain—why Holley and her works disappeared for so many years. What would Samantha say? "In the words of the sammist (slightly changed), there is a time for visitin' and a time for stayin' to home. A time to neighbor, and a time to refrain from neighborin', a time to talk, and a time to write sermons, wash dishes, and mop out the kitchen." Thanks to Kate H. Winter, Marietta Holley has at last a chance of regaining her place in a tradition she helped to create. [End Page 726]