Marietta Holley (pseud. "Josiah Allen's Wife") (1836-1926)
Contributing Editor: Kate H. Winter
Classroom Issues and Strategies
It is helpful to read the early part of the chapter aloud so student readers can catch the rhythm of the language and see the humor in the odd spellings. Equally helpful is Jane Curry's recorded rendering of Samantha's voice in the tape cassette that accompanies Samantha Rastles the Woman Question.
Have students list the unfamiliar language usages and colloquialisms they encounter in their college community. Discuss what is amusing and/or revealing about these, what values are implicit in their use, and their use as a means of establishing community. Students often want to know whether Holley's audience found it difficult to read dialect and whether they took pleasure in it.
Ask students to examine the Declaration of Independence before reading the Holley selection. A journal or freewriting assignment could follow in which students respond to what they understand to be the values implicit in that document. Or you might ask students to rewrite the Declaration of Independence in their vernacular.
Students often have difficulty understanding how women might feel religiously disenfranchised, so we do some quick exercises demonstrating the power of exclusion--for example, not allowing anyone with blue eyes to speak in class for a set period. In addition we discuss briefly the patriarchal structure of Christian religious practice and its impact.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Much of the book is taken up with Samantha's descriptions of how the local church women are refurbishing and maintaining the church counterpointed with her disagreements over Josiah's wrong-headed interpretations of Scripture. Samantha uses feminist arguments to explain away or circumvent the difficulties in biblical texts that excluded women: There may have been an error in translation; or the context within which the Scriptures were written rendered the literal meaning irrelevant to modern times; or the writer (St. Paul, for example) was just one man giving his personal opinion. The chapter included here extends the disagreement to interpreting the Declaration of Independence, thereby linking religious with legislative hypocrisy.
The language issues inherent in this text also provide an excellent opportunity to have students look at sexism in language, the significance of dialect (which students are apt to be familiar with from their own usages), and the standardization of English. Most classes can address questions about the ability of language to exclude or include privileged groups.
Through Samantha, Holley tackled the prevailing ideas of what gifts, responsibilities, and rights "Nater" and law had given women and men.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
In addition to showing the faults in the logic of the brethren, Holley was attempting to reproduce phonetically the patois of upstate New Yorkers. Holley captures the style and character of much upstate New York fiction as does Philander Deming, whose Adirondack stories are gems of local color writing, and Irving Bacheller, whose novels of New York's North Country preserve an era and place long since lost.
Holley's audience often thought her spellings were the result of her being an uneducated country woman; only more sophisticated readers recognized that she, like Twain, adopted a persona for the distance it provided between audience and writer and the comic effect of the naive commentator. Vernacular humor often opposed the assumptions of gentility. It would be useful to ask which aspects of genteel society are being attacked. How does her humor seem to reinforce stereotypes? How does it subvert them?
As the headnote indicates, Holley's work blends several American literary traditions, including the verbal play of the male literary comedians. She also turned humorist Ann Stephens's vernacular humor and Frances Witcher's humorous modes to her own ends. Her style includes the elements of anticlimax, misquoted Scripture, decorative spelling, puns, malapropisms, comic similes, mixed metaphors, extravagant images, language reversals, and proverbs and maxims. She handles these techniques with the same flair and assurance that the male writers who dominated the tradition did. Furthermore, there is the comic irony of her saying one thing, doing another, and having Josiah deny the reality or validity of both. While the literary and social value of the satiric humor of the male writers in the tradition has rarely been debated, Holley's place in the canon of American humor--because of her subject matter--has been small and narrow.
In addition to the work described above, I sketch for students the political background. In 1888, the National Methodist Conference (the "Brethren" of the title) had refused to seat four duly elected women delegates. Holley's response to the outrage was this book, which is dedicated to "All women, who work trying to bring into dark lives the brightness and hope of a better country." The author's intimate friend within the church hierarchy, Bishop John Newman, and his wife, provided her with most of the background material and arguments that informed the debates. At the back of the first edition, the publishers append six of the speeches delivered in deliberation at the conference. Students may wish to contrast the rhetoric in them with Samantha's.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Two other texts included in this collection make useful corollary reading for this chapter. In Mary Wilkins Freeman's "A Church Mouse," we see the local colorist's use of dialect and dialogue that also marks Holley's work and a similar struggle between patriarchal habit and the newly feminized Christianity of the late nineteenth century. The conflict that Freeman depicts is underlaid by the bedrock of prejudice that Josiah represents in Holley's work. Students may want to consider what assumptions about gender differences form the basis for Josiah's and the townspeople's arguments. Holley's fiction is particularly subversive because of Samantha's willingness to work at the role of country wife while she chips away at the granite convictions about male superiority that her husband Josiah clings to. A look into Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland, especially chapter 10 on religion, also provides parallel material for discussion.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
I attempt to give writing tasks that invite the students to connect their own experience with what is in the text so that they begin to "own" the ideas and feelings. For example: have students write imitations of a short piece--even a paragraph--to approximate stylistic features; have them rewrite a piece in their own words to help them see the importance of the language community in shaping a text; ask them to transform a text by rewriting it in another genre--perhaps a news story, poem, dialogue, letter, etc. With any of these methods, the students get a glimpse of the decisions informing the author's choice of language and genre and contribute to their understanding of the creative process in a cultural context.