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Marietta Holley

      by Roxie Holmstead

Marietta Holley, popular authoress of the nineteenth century, has been
one of the best kept secrets in the field of American Literature. Called
“a female Mark Twain,” because of similar wit and success as a writer,
in 1887 she sold more books than Mark Twain. Twain is still well known
and his books still read. One must ask why so few ever heard of Holley
or her books.

Holley, the youngest of seven children, was born in 1836 on the family
farm in Jefferson County, New York. Her family described Holley as a
small, frail child who suffered shyness because of a lisp and merciless
teasing of her three brothers. Her entire life was affected by the shyness.

Holley’s formal education at a district school ended when she was
fourteen. About that time her brothers left home to go west and her
efforts were needed to support the family income. Though reading matter
at home was scarce, lively discussions about religion and politics were
brought up often at their supper table.

In matters of religion Holleys traditionally favored the Episcopal
Church. Her father, however, became a Universalist. At sixteen Holley
joined the Baptist Church after her conversion at a revival meeting.
Significantly, women in the Baptist Church were given the right to vote
in church matters and the opportunity to participate fully in all
Baptist meetings except formal Sunday services.

In politics Holley’s family members believed in the cause of both
abolition and temperance, but debated strategies to those ends. Even
when she didn’t have the admission price, she read accounts in the local
paper of the lectures on temperance, abolition, suffrage, and other
topics given by Lyceum speakers booked at the nearby opera house.

Holley’s father died in 1861 leaving a household of Holley, her mother
and her sister Sylphina. Sylphina was a ghostly presence in their house
which she never left. She would quickly rustle out of sight if
unexpected visitors arrived. The family simply said she was peculiar
from birth. Sylphina died in 1915.

Early on Holley contributed to the family economy in a way considered
acceptable for an unmarried woman by engaging in another of her passions
– music. She learned to play the piano through the generosity of an
uncle who paid for her lessons. She became proficient enough to accept
students, buy a melodeon on which to give lessons and brought in much
needed cash. She continued giving lessons even after publishing poems
and short pieces in magazines until finally with the publication of her
first book her income derived from writing alone.

After composing verses since the time she could first read and write she
saw her first words in print when she was twenty-one. Two poems,
“Welcome to Summer” and “Phair and Phalse,” were published in the
Jefferson County Journal under the pen name, Jemyma. In keeping with her
intense need for privacy and fear of ridicule if rejected, she told no
one about submitting the poems and did not declare herself even to her
family until she knew they praised the poems without knowing she was the

In the next issue of the Jefferson County Journal her first prose sketch
entitled, “Piety,” was published. In it she addressed many of the
subjects she would continue to wrestle with for the next sixty years;
the vanity of fashion, work over worship, the value of class status, the
absurdity of the ‘cult of true womanhood’, the evils of drink, and the
importance of staying close to the land.

Her cousin Henry Holley advised her to write stories instead of poems
and essays. She followed his advice and built her reputation on her
“dialect sketches.” With the publication of “Fourth of July in
Jonesville” in the July 1869 issue of Peterson’s Magazine, her
vernacular character and new pen name, Josiah Allen’s Wife, made their
first appearance. Peterson’s Magazine published everything she offered
from then on and she never lacked for a publisher again.

Holley became possessed with the idea of writing something wherein she
endowed principles with personality. To absolute practicality she gave
the name “Samantha” and to the opposite principle of weak sentimentality
she gave the name “Betsy Bobbit.” All her other characters sort of grew
up around these two. “Samantha” was altogether practical, but she knew
that love is the greatest thing in the world. So she loved and married
“Josiah,” and while lacking in sentiment her love was nevertheless so
solid that she was willing to take second place before all the world as
plain “Josiah Allen’s Wife.”

Holley’s ambition went beyond magazines of the day. She wrote to
president of the American Publishing Company whose authors included Mark
Twain and Brett Harte. She sent a poem previously published in 1872 in
the New York Home Journal, and for contrast a sketch in dialect by
“Josiah Allen’s Wife.” She boldly asked whether he would like her to
write a book for him. To her delight, he answered, “Yes, begin at once.”
To her dismay, he wanted it written in the Samantha dialect despite her
pleas that the other work held more literary merit and a Samantha book
would be a “dead failure” and “none would ever want to read it.” He held
firm of his conviction that, “Josiah Allen’s Wife could reach a new and
immense public.” An example of the dialect is the substitution of “sez”
for “says,” “wuz” replaced “was” and “medium” became “megum.”

When American Publishing Company published _My Opinions and Betsey
Bobbet’s_ in 1875 it was shown as written by Josiah Allen’s Wife. On the
first page is printed:

Designed as A Beacon of Light, To Guide Women to Life Liberty and the
Pursuit of Happiness, But Which May Be Read By Members of The Sterner
Sect Without Injury to Themselves Or The Book

In her book, _Samantha Rastles the Woman Question_, Jane Curry
wrote,“Only Holley wrote consistently from a pro-women’s rights point of
view and exposed as foolish the various arguments against the
development of full human potential for women.”

Holley’s mother served as her protector, advocate of her talents, and
confidante from childhood on. Shortly before publication of her second
book in 1877, her mother died of pneumonia. Only her sister Sylphina now
lived in the household.

It seems as though Holley created Samantha as her direct opposite. She
was not like Samantha in appearance, culture or status. Samantha was a
plain, homely character; Holley was described more like a Grand Duchess.

Holley used her character Samantha with much wisdom to humorously get
her points across regarding women’s issues of the day. She dealt largely
with the questions of suffrage, temperance, women’s right of economic
dependence, lack of political power, double standards, traditional
roles, and outright discrimination.

A vehicle Holley used in her writing were discussions between Samantha
and husband Josiah. In her book, _My Opinions and Betsey Bobbet’s_,
Samantha and Josiah were having a heated discussion on women’s right to
vote. Josiah had commented that women were “too fraguile (sic), too
delicate” to vote. This caused over-worked Samantha to respond with:
“Josiah Allen, you think that for a woman to stand up straight on her
feet, under a blazin’ sun, and lift both her arms above her head, and
pick seven bushels of hops, mingled with worms and spiders, into a
gigantic box, day in, and day out is awful healthy, so strengthenin’ and
stimulatin’ to wimmin, but when it comes to droppin’ a little slip of
clean paper into a small seven by nine box, once a year in a shady room,

you are afraid it is goin’ to break down a woman’s constitution to
once.” These conversations between Samantha and Josiah usually ended
with Josiah having to leave her presence because of some pressing need

Though Samantha, her main character, was a married woman, Holley never
married. Her character Samantha married Josiah, a widower with two
children. She reared his two children, but never had any of her own.
Holley had no children, but at the age of fifty-eight she took May
Shaver, an eight-year-old daughter of one of her subscription book
agents to rear. She never legally adopted May, but treated her as a
daughter – rearing and educating her until May married and left home.

Samantha was well traveled. Other than a trip to Saratoga and Coney
Island, Holley never visited the places she wrote about. She studied
maps and reference material then wrote about places without actually
visiting them. Samantha’s society was made up of country folk, but
Holley’s society was people of prominence.

Frances Willard and Susan B. Anthony, Holley’s contemporaries,
recognized the propaganda value of her writing and invited her to be a
delegate at the 1877 Women’s Christian Temperance Union Convention. Then
Anthony urged her to attend the 1878 National Woman Suffrage
Association. Holley never attended any conventions. Even at the height
of her popularity, shyness kept her from making public appearances.

Twenty-one books of Holley’s were published from 1873 to 1914. The 1880s
success of Holley’s writing brought so many requests from publishers of
magazines and weeklies that she could not oblige them all. She became a
shrewd businesswoman, securing ever more money as she negotiated her own
book contracts.

Not until 1881 at age forty-five did she venture for the first time
outside her world on the farm nearby Watertown. She finally accepted an
invitation from the persistent Dr. Alonso Flack, president of Claverack
College on the banks of the Hudson River, for an extended visit with him
and his wife. In 1885 she began making yearly visits to New York City,
staying at the Murray Hill Hotel, writing, seeing her publishers,
attending readings and receptions, and meeting friends. Over the years,
she traveled to Washington D.C., Virginia and Chicago and met many of
the prominent people of the day including two presidents and four first
ladies. She visited for weeks at a time with newfound friends.

In 1887 she was invited to the White House to meet President and Mrs.
Grover Cleveland. On the same visit to Washington, D. C. she met Clara
Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, who became one of her closest
friends until Barton’s death in 1912.

Though she visited and traveled more than once she could imagined, she
still preferred the quiet home life, where from the window of her
writing room she could see the woods, plants, flowers and streams of
nature. With financial comfort now ensured, she decided to have a house
built to replace the small cottage to which her mother had been brought
as a bride. The 15-room Victorian house she constructed on the homestead
in 1888, later was called Bonnie View.

Holley’s home was a museum in the summer of 1994. The sign posted on the
property at that time read: BONNIE VIEW, Birthplace of Home of Marietta
Holley, 1840 – 1926, Author “Samantha” Novels, Pen Name “Josiah Allen’s

You will note the error on her birth year. It was actually 1836. The
post office returned a letter addressed to the museum curator in 1997
marked “Undeliverable – Out of Business.” Today the property is
privately owned.

In spite of her success, by the time of her death in 1926 at the age of
eighty-nine, Holley’s books were no longer read. The ideas and issues so
relevant to late-nineteenth-century America had become by then
commonplace and lacked the urgency and appeal that had preceded the war
and the Nineteenth Amendment. Women obtained the right to vote in 1920.
There is no record as to whether Holley voted.

Holley was asked to write about her life. By an agreement made while she
lived, she wrote “The Story of My Life” and it was published
posthumously and serially in 1931 in the Watertown Daily Times.

Roxie Olmstead began writing in her late fifties and had her first article published at the age of sixty.  Now at the age of eighty-four, she's had 192 items published in a variety of genres.

Born and reared in Kansas, she  was used to prairie scenes. After she was
widowed three years ago, she moved to Wyoming to live near a daughter. She
lives at the foot of the Big Horn Mountains and sees the beautiful mountains every day.

In spite of her husband's thirty-three year illness, she thanks God for a happy, full life. Her writing opens doors for her and she is  never lonely.







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