Marietta Holley

By 1871 dairy farmers in southern Jefferson County had tamed the landscape that had formerly been the domain of black bear and panther.  There in the glare of summer mornings along the Salinas Road that ran from Syracuse northward through the North Country and beyond, a thirty-seven year old spinster sat writing in a farmhouse.  Marietta Holley, youngest child of a farm family that had planted itself between Pierrepont Manor and Adams had begun to have some success as a poet and writer of sketches.  After seeing her verse in the local newspapers with some regularity, she had cast her poems and stories farther afield.  Her poem “The Haunted Castle” had appeared in Peterson’s Magazine in 1867; two years later, the magazine published “4th of July in Jonesville,” a comic sketch.  The latter depicts some hard realities of women’s lives contrasted with bombastic but blind male patriotism of the holiday celebration.  It was an indictment.  The distance between the rights of men and those of women was infuriatingly clear on a North Country 4th of July.   What women needed to balance the poll was a vote.

Upstate New York had provided the place – Seneca Falls – and the people – Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, among others – for the movement to secure for women the right to vote.  The ideas about politics and pantaloons, rights and roles, faith and female identity that swirled around Marietta Holley had percolated in her developing consciousness.  She joined the Baptist Church which allowed women more freedom of participation than other sects.  For very private reasons, she would not speak publicly or mount a platform to expound on ideas about women’s place in the world, but her pencil was busy.  From some small success as a writer, she gained confidence to venture into the larger world of publishing. She sent off a sketch in North Country Yorker dialect with her new pseudonym attached:  Josiah Allen’s Wife.  Single and solitary, Holley knew that any expose of patriarchal faults needed a married woman’s experience and a man’s name behind it.  Elisha Bliss at The American Publishing Company, publisher of literary comedians like Mark Twain and Josh Billings as well as emerging regionalists like Bret Harte, urged her to begin at once on a novel in the dialect voice of “Josiah Allen’s Wife.”

At the peak of enthusiasm for rustic dialect humor, Bliss was looking – as publishers do – for the next Twain or Billings. The book was finished in August, that sultry, languid month before crisp September colors the sugar maples and elms.  My Opinions and Betsey Bobbet’s: Designed As A Beacon 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 was ready to be sold for the Christmas buying season.  Holley had drawn her title from the Declaration of Independence and embedded it in her manifesto just as Elizabeth Cady Stanton had done with the Declaration of Sentiments twenty three years before.

Bliss had been right about what his customers wanted.  In the first year, the book had gone through five editions and was going to be published in London.  Sections of the book appeared in Home Journal.  Holley depended for her humor on the habits of the good yarn spinners she had known while growing up as well as the tricks of the very successful literary comedians who had gone before her: misquoting scripture, incongruous pairings and catalogues, mixed metaphors, anticlimax and peculiar orthography.  Hers was a particularly oral style that encouraged public readings.  Betsey Bobbet Clubs sprouted up around the country: friends and family would informally gather to read aloud chapters from the book, taking the parts of Betsey, Samantha and Josiah, creating domestic dramas.

Susan B. Anthony and other reformers similarly recognized the value of having Samantha’s voice make their arguments.  Anthony invited Holley to testify before Congress about the consequences of patriarchal laws in the lives of women.  When Holley demurred, Anthony replied to least write something and include the catalogue of dreadful but legal injustices done to women.  Her strategy was to create a character who would win over male readers by making her patient with the foolish husband Josiah.  Samantha’s cast iron love for her husband and enduring friendship for the silly spinster Betsey tempers her ardent arguments about women’s rights and separates her from the strident suffragists of the time.

For the first half of her life, Holley refused to travel beyond the limits of her rural world.  Instead, the world came to her door.  Editors, publishers, writers, clergy and the merely curious called at her father’s farmhouse. In 1888, she built her modest Victorian mansion on the same land and turned her hand to growing flowers at Bonnie View with as much success as she had peas and corn. From the quiet comfort of her home in the North Country, she sent her character Samantha out on “towers” (tours) and adventures in the name of American democracy and equal rights.  In 1885, her bestseller Samantha at Saratoga confirmed that Americans had strayed far from the principles that guided life in the North Country and needed a firm reminder that they must regain their hold on the reins of the nation and lead it back into the “Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness” that Holley had articulated in her first book, My Opinions and Betsey Bobbet’s.  Holley’s death at nearly ninety stopped her pen but not Samantha’s vigorous pursuit of American righteousness.  One hundred years after Betsey Bobbet first appeared, Samantha’s voice was brought to the stage in a one woman show in which she “wrastles” the question of women’s rights.  Audiences of women and men still laugh aloud and nudge one another knowingly when Samantha tells us how it was then and implies how far we have come.

Presented by: Dr. Kate H. Winter

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