Marietta Holley Holley, Marietta (Feminism in Literature) - Essay


(Feminism in Literature)

Holley was a well-known regional novelist of late-nineteenth-century America. Her folksy, opinionated, and comic characters garnered much commercial success in her day, and she was often compared to Mark Twain. Her work explores topical issues such as women's suffrage, racial relations, class divisions, temperance, war, and the treatment of women in society.


Holley was born in Jefferson County, New York on 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 from 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 Jemymah. 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 home in Jefferson County on March 1, 1926.


Several of Holley's novels feature a comic protagonist named Samantha Smith Allen, a sensible, middle-aged 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 uses these characters as well as the traditional tools of the humorist—exaggeration, satire, vernacular language, malapropisms, and misspelling—to explore and expound on the salient issues of the day. For example, in My Opinions and Betsey Bobbet's she presents the case for women's suffrage and the need for economic independence for women. In Samantha Among the Brethren (1890) she questions the subservient role of women in the church. Samantha at Saratoga (1887), Samantha at the St. Louis Exposition, (1904), and Around the World with Josiah Allen's Wife (1905) explore 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 the sentimental style of late-nineteenth-century literature. In fact, Holley's work is often compared to that of American humorists such as Frances Whitcher 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 caricature of rural existence in late-nineteenth-century America, while others view her humor as weak and tiresome. Popular in her day, Holley's work fell into obscurity by the mid-twentieth century. With the increased attention to feminist issues and literature in the late twentieth century, critics reassessed Holley's fiction. Her treatment of controversial subjects—such as the suffrage movement, racial exploitation, and the exploitation of the American worker—is considered by some scholars as engaging social and political commentary. Feminist critics have also examined Holley's use of humor to advance the cause of women, to attack the sentimental tradition, and to challenge women's ideas about themselves.

Primary Sources

(Feminism in Literature)

SOURCE: Holley, Marietta. "'A Male Magdalene,' from Samantha vs. Josiah. "In The Oxford Book of Women's Writing, edited by Linda Wagner-Martin and Cathy N. Davidson, pp. 56-62. London: Oxford University Press, 1995.

In the following excerpt, originally published in 1906 in her Samantha vs. Josiah, Being the Story of a Borrowed Automobile and What Came of It, Holley addresses the issue of the double sexual standard.

I attended a beautiful party yesterday; it wuz a anniversary, and carried on regardless of style and expense. Over seven wuz invited, besides the happy folks who gin the party. And the cookin' wuz, I do almost believe, as good as my own. That's dretful high praise, but Miss Chawgo deserves it. It wuz to celebrate their weddin' day, which occurred the year before at half past two, and dinner wuz on the table at exactly that hour.

There wuz Josiah and me, Miss Bizer Kipp and Lophemia, she that wuz Submit Tewksbury, and her husband, and Widder Bassett and her baby. That made a little over seven; the baby hadn't ort to count so high as a adult. The party wuz all in high sperits, and all dressed well and looked well, though Miss Bassett whispered to me that Miss Kipp had flammed out a little too much.

She wuz very dressy in a pink flowered shally with lots of ribbins kinder floatin', but she felt and said that she wuz celebratin' a very auspicious occasion with very dear friends, which made us lenitent to her. Weddin' anniversaries are now and agin happy and agreeable, and the male party here, Nelt Chawgo, how much! how much that young man had to be thankful for! yes indeed!

And Id'no but I might jest as well tell about it now as any time while in history's pages the gay party is settin' 'round the bountifully spread table.

I'll make the story short as possible. Most three years ago we had a new arrival in Jonesville, a young grocery man by the name of Nelson Chawgo; the young folks all called him Nelt. He bought out old uncle Simon Pettigrew, his good will and bizness, though so fur as the good will went I wouldn't paid a cent fur it, or not more than a cent, anyway. Uncle Sime abused his wife, wuz clost as the bark to a tree, and some mentioned the word "sand" in connection with his sugar, and "peas" with his coffee, and etcetery, etcetery. But his bizness wuz what might be called first rate; he had laid up money and retired triumphant at seventy-one.

But to resoom. Uncle Sime Pettigrew's place of bizness wuz a handsome one, a new brick block with stun granite trimmin's, some stained glass over the doors and winders, and everything else it needed for comfort and respectability. He had a big stock of goods and whoever bought 'em and set up bizness in that handsome new block would have been looked up to even if he had been an old man with a bald head, rumatiz and a wooden leg.

But when it wuz a young, handsome, unmarried man, you may imagin he made a sensation to once, and he wuz as handsome a chap as you would often see, light completed with sort o' melancholy blue eyes and curly brown hair and mustash.

The Jonesvillians and Loontowners went into ecstacies over him the first day he appeared in meetin', he wuz so beautiful. They acted fairly foolish; they praised him up so and wuz so enthusiastick. But it is my way to keep calmer and more demute. I will try to restrain my emotions if I have to tie a string to 'em and haul 'em back if I find 'em liable to go too fur. I never could bear anybody or anything that slopped over, from a oriter to a kettle of maple syrup, and I kep' holt of my faculties and common sense in this case, and several of the sisters in the meetin'-house got mad as hens at me, and importuned me sharp as to why I didn't go into spazzums of admiration over him.

And I sez, "He is sweet-lookin', I can't deny that, but there is a kinder weak and waverin' expression to his face that would cause me anxiety if I wuz his Ma."

But when I promulgated these idees to the other sistern, sister Bizer Kipp especially, she most took my head off. She said his face wuz "Bea-utiful, just perfection."

But I still repeated what I had said in a megum tone, and with my most megumest mean, but I agreed with her in a handsome way that Nelt wuz what would be called very, very sweet and win-some, and would be apt to attract female attention and be sought after. And so he wuz. As days rolled on he grew to be the rage in Jonesville, a he-belle, as you may say. Groceries lay in piles on wimmen's buttery shelves and sickness wuz rampant, caused by a too free use of raisins and cinnamon and all-spice. They are too dryin'.

And still the wimmen flocked to his counters as if they couldn't buy enough stuff, and they priced peanuts, and got samples of cast-steel soap, and acted. No place of amusement wuz considered agreeable or endurable without Nelt Chawgo; no party wuz gin without his name stood first on the list, and when he got there he wuz surrounded by a host of the fair sect showerin' attention on him, anxious to win a smile from him.

He wuz doin' dretful well in bizness, and doin' well in morals so fur as I knew. He wuz payin' attention in a sort of a languid, half-hearted way, to Lophemia Kipp. She wuz a pretty girl, sister Kipp's only child. It wuz very pleasin' to her Ma. Folks thought she wuz the one that had brought it about; she acted so triumphant and big feelin' about it, and told everybody how active Nelt wuz in the meetin'-house, and how well he wuz doin' in bizness, and how strong and stimulatin' his tea and coffee wuz.

Folks thought, as I say, that she had more to do about his payin' attention to Lophemia than she did, fur it wuz thought that she had gin her heart to young Jim Carter, old lawyer Carter's youngest boy. He had gone west on a ranch, and it wuz spozed he carried her heart with him. It wuz known he carried her picture, took standin', with a smile on the pretty lips and a happy glow in the eyes, rousted up it wuz spozed by young Jim himself. He went with her to the photographer's; that wuz known, too. Miss Kipp had boasted a sight about him, his good looks and his good bizness and his attentions to Lophemia till Nelt come.

Sister Kipp hain't megum, she is one of the too enthusiastick ones whose motto is not "Love me little love me long," but "Love me a immense quantity in a short time." It stands to reason that if the stream is over rapid the pond will run out sooner; if the stream meanders slow and stiddy, it will last longer.

Well, 'tennyrate she wuz all took up with Nelt Chawgo, and praisin' him us as she had to the very skies you may imagin my feelin's when one day she fairly bust into my settin'-room, out of breath and red in the face, and sez: "I've discovered the dretfulest thing! the awfulest, the most harrowin'! Nelt Chawgo, that young he-hussy, shall never enter my doors agin!"

"Whyee!" sez I, "what's the matter?"

Sez she, "He's a lost young man, a ruined feller!"

"Whyee!" sez I agin, and I sunk right down in my tracts in a rockin'-chair, she havin' sunken down in one opposite; and sez I, "I hain't mistrusted it. He has acted modest and moral; I can't believe it!"

"But it is so," sez she. "He has been ruined. Angerose Wilds, a dashin' young woman up in the town of Lyme, is responsible."

"I have hearn of her," sez I. "She had quite a lot of money left her, and is cuttin' a great swath."

"Well," sez sister Kipp, "she has deceived and ruined Nelt Chawgo, and then deserted him; it has all been proved out, and he shall never speak to Lophemia agin, the miserable outcaster!"

Well, I wuz dumbfoundered and horrowstruck like all the rest of Jonesville, but I, as my way is, made inquiries and...

(The entire section is 3289 words.)

Kate H. Winter (Essay Date 1984)

(Feminism in Literature)

SOURCE: Winter, Kate H. “Prologue.” In Marietta Holley: Life with “Josiah Allen’s Wife,” pp. 1-10. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1984.

In the following excerpt, Winter offers an overview of Holley’s writing, touching on the author’s use of humor for feminist causes, her works’ historical and geographical context, and the literary traditions from which they emerged.

She was called the Female Mark Twain in the popular press, and it was claimed that she had as large an audience as Twain’s. From 1873 to 1914 Marietta Holley was one of America’s most popular writers, creating one of its most...

(The entire section is 3707 words.)

Gwendolyn B. Gwathmey (Essay Date 1994)

(Feminism in Literature)

SOURCE: Gwathmey, Gwendolyn B. “‘Who Will Read the Book, Samantha?’: Marietta Holley and the Nineteenth-Century Reading Public.” Studies in American Humor 3, no. 1 (1994): 28-50.

In the following essay, Gwathmey investigates the popularity of Holley’s writing on contemporary audiences.

One reviewer writing for The Critic in February, 1886, wrote patronizingly of Marietta Holley’s humor that “a little of it is really amusing” but that “it is, after all, the kind of humor which is ‘popular,’ though not destined to be immortal.” That reviewer, however, did not bargain on the feminist critics of the...

(The entire section is 8463 words.)

Further Reading

(Feminism in Literature)


Winter, Kate H. Marietta Holley: Life with "Josiah Allen's Wife." Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1984, 182 p.

Offers a critical biography that attempts to understand the forces that shaped Holley and her work.


Armitage, Shelley. "Marietta Holley: The Humorist as Propagandist." Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature 34, no. 4 (fall 1980): 193-201.

Analyzes Holley's use of humor, asserting that it exposes and challenges women's ideas about themselves.


(The entire section is 421 words.)