Marietta Holley Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Marietta Holley 1836-1926

American novelist, short story writer, poet, playwright, and autobiographer.

Although virtually unknown today, Holley is considered one of the more important female regional novelists of late nineteenth-century America. Her folksy, opinionated, and amusing characters garnered much commercial success in her day, and she was often compared to Mark Twain. Her work explores topical issues such as suffrage, racial relations, class divisions, temperance, war, and the treatment of women in society.

Biographical Information

Holley was born in Jefferson County, New York, July 16, 1836. The youngest of seven children, she grew up on a farm and had a special interest in music. As a young woman, she helped support her family by selling handicrafts and giving music lessons to young women of more prosperous families. Holley also wrote verse, and in 1857 she began to publish her work in the local newspaper, The Jefferson County Journal, under the pseudonym “Jemyma.” In 1872 Elisha Bliss, Mark Twain's publisher, commissioned her to write a humorous novel; My Opinions and Betsey Bobbet's was published in 1873. With the success of this book, she became a well-known public figure, despite the fact that she rarely left her home in Jefferson County. A strong supporter of the suffrage movement, Holley explored many controversial social and political issues in her fiction. She died at her home in Jefferson County March 1, 1926.

Major Works

Several of Holley's novels feature a comic protagonist named Samantha Smith Allen, a sensible, middle-age woman who acts as a counterbalance to her husband Josiah Allen, a diminutive and weak man with a penchant for crazy schemes. Another major character in these works is Samantha's friend Betsey Bobbet, a stereotypically skinny, ugly old maid who believes—unlike Samantha—that women are inferior to men and should be treated accordingly. Holley used these characters as well as the traditional tools of the humorist—exaggeration, satire, vernacular voice, malapropism, and misspelling—to explore and expound on the salient issues of the day. For example, in My Opinions and Betsey Bobbet's she presented the case for women's suffrage and the need for economic independence for women. In Samantha among the Brethren she questioned the subservient role of women in the church. Holley's travel novels, such as Samantha at Saratoga, Samantha at the St. Louis Exposition, and Around the World with Josiah Allen's Wife, allowed her to tackle such controversial issues as the obsession with fashion, the problem of racial discrimination, and the relationship between capital and labor in the early twentieth century.

Critical Reception

Critics maintain that Holley's novels and short fiction draw from several American literary traditions: the insights and details of the regional writer, the vernacular humor used by earlier humorists and literary comedians, and the sentimental style of late nineteenth-century literature. In fact, Holley's work is often compared with that of other American humorists such as Frances Whitcher, Grace Greenwood, and Mark Twain. Commentators have mixed opinions of her satirical depiction of the realities of country life. Some perceive it as an insightful and amusing picture of rural existence in late nineteenth-century America; others view her humor as weak and tiresome. Popular in her day, Holley's work fell into obscurity by the early twentieth century. With the increased attention to feminist issues and literature in the past few decades, critics have reassessed Holley's fiction. Her treatment of controversial subjects—such as the suffrage movement, racial discrimination, and the exploitation of the American worker—is considered by some scholars as engaging social and political commentary.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

My Opinions and Betsey Bobbet's (novel) 1873

Josiah Allen's Wife as a P. A. and P. I., Samantha at the Centennial (novel) 1877

Betsey Bobbet: A Drama (drama) 1880

The Lament of the Mormon Wife (prose poem) 1880

My Wayward Pardner, or, My Trials with Josiah, America, the Widow Bump, and Etcetery (novel) 1880

Miss Richards' Boy, and Other Stories (short stories) 1883

Sweet Cicely, or, Josiah Allen as Politician (novel) 1885

Miss Jones' Quilting (novel) 1887

Poems (poetry) 1887

Samantha at...

(The entire section is 195 words.)

Melody Graulich (essay date 1980)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘Wimmen is My Theme, and also Josiah’: The Forgotten Humor of Marietta Holley,” in American Transcendental Quarterly, Nos. 47-48, Summer-Fall, 1980, pp. 187-97.

[In the following essay, Graulich urges renewed critical and popular attention to Holley's fiction, in particular her first novel, My Opinions and Betsey Bobbet's.]

According to a 1905 article in the Critic, Marietta Holley “entertained as large an audience … as has been entertained by the humor of Mark Twain.” Today few readers are familiar with Holley's work, though her narrator, the outspoken and strong-minded Samantha Allen, was “one of the most popular characters in...

(The entire section is 5000 words.)

Shelley Armitage (essay date 1980)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Marietta Holley: The Humorist as Propagandist,” in Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature, Vol. 34, No. 4, Fall, 1980, pp. 193-201.

[In the following essay, Armitage analyzes Holley's use of humor, asserting that it exposes and challenges women's ideas about themselves.]

Walter Blair was quite right in calling Marietta Holley a propagandist.1 Born on the family farm in Jefferson County, New York in 1836 where she lived until her death in 1926, she confronted the nineteenth century's most urgent issues in the twenty novels which span a 41-year career. Racial and religious questions, women's rights, temperance, fashion, manners,...

(The entire section is 3639 words.)

Jane Curry (essay date 1983)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: An introduction to Samantha Rastles the Woman Question, University of Illinois Press, 1983, pp. 1-20.

[In the following essay, Curry discusses the feminist nature of Holley's novels.]

A writer for The Critic of January, 1905, said of Marietta Holley: “As ‘Josiah Allen's Wife,' she has entertained as large an audience, I should say, as has been entertained by the humor of Mark Twain.” That puts Holley and her folksy, common-sense character Samantha Allen in illustrious company. Marietta Holley made a special contribution to nineteenth-century American humor—not because of innovative comic style or technique, for even in her own time the...

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Kate H. Winter (essay date 1985)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Marietta Holley: ‘Josiah Allen's Wife,’ 1836-1926,” in Legacy, Vol. 2, No. 1, Spring, 1985, pp. 3-5.

[In the following essay, Winter provides a stylistic overview of Holley's work.]

She was called the Female Mark Twain, inheritor of the male tradition of the literary comedians—Mark Twain, Josh Billings, Artemus Ward and Petroleum V. Nasby. She depended for much of her style on the upcountry dialect, proverbs and maxims mixed with extravagant images that were the stuff of the “crackerbox philosophers.” Her creative orthography and country patois were actually a transcription of New York State's North Country speech. Marietta Holley's stories...

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Cheri L. Ross (essay date 1989)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Nineteenth-Century American Feminist Humor: Marietta Holley's ‘Samantha Novels,’” in Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association, Vol. 22, No. 2, Fall, 1989, pp. 12-25.

[In the following essay, Ross places Holley's fiction within the context of nineteenth-century American humor, and examines her work in relation to current feminist humor theory.]

Nineteenth-century American humor is not known for the contributions of women.1 The principal contributors are men who often used pseudonyms such as Mark Twain, Bill Nye, Josh Billings, and Artemus Ward. Though only Mark Twain has been admitted to the canon, hundreds of other male humorists...

(The entire section is 6457 words.)

Jane Curry (essay date 1996)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Soaring Into Eloquence for Wimmen's Rites: My Opinions and Betsey Bobbet's,”; in Marietta Holley, edited by Nancy A. Walker, Twayne Publishers, 1996, pp. 12-30.

[In the following essay from her book-length study on Holley's work, Curry discusses the defining characteristics of Holley's first novel.]

In her first published book, My Opinions and Betsey Bobbet's (1873), Marietta Holley introduces her favorite theme of “wimmen's rites” as well as the main characters and literary devices that would advance that theme in the coming decades. The inordinately long subtitle of the book signals the intended audience: “Designed as a Beacon Light,...

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Charlotte Templin (essay date 1998)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Marietta Holley and Mark Twain: Cultural-Gender Politics and Literary Reputation,” in American Studies, Vol. 39, No. 1, Spring, 1998, pp. 75-91.

[In the following essay, Templin traces the similarities between the work of Holley and of Mark Twain, and outlines the reasons for their disparate literary reputations.]

Marietta Holley (1836-1926) and Mark Twain (1835-1910) were contemporaries with remarkable similarities. They were not only highly popular writers of comedy in the tradition of the crackerbarrel philosopher, but they also had the same publisher, the same illustrator, and were marketed in the same way—by subscription—to the same public in...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Camfield, Gregg. “Home, Sweat Home.” In Necessary Madness: The Humor of Domesticity in Nineteenth-Century American Literature, pp. 91-119. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Contends that moral duty often ruins the humor and satire in the work of Mark Twain and Marietta Holley.

Ericson, E. E. “The Dialect of Up-State New York: A Study of the Fold-Speech in Two Works of Marietta Holley.” Studies in Philology XLII, No. 3 (July 1945): 690-707.

Provides a linguistic study of Samantha at Saratoga and Samantha at the St. Louis Exposition.

Toth, Emily. “A...

(The entire section is 227 words.)