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.
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.
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.
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.