Samantha at the Centennial


Volume I, Number 3
Spring, 1977

The works of Marietta Holley are more likely to turn up at farm auctions than in libraries. One of America's most prolific writers in the years 1873 to 1914, she outsold Mark Twain and then sank into oblivion. Born in 1835, she lived her entire life of 90 years near Watertown, New York, turning out work after work that attacked social injustice in the United States, that crusaded for temperance, and for the rights of women, Blacks, American Indians, and children. She held up for ridicule the social pretentions [sic] of a rising industrial class as well as among the unthinking and uncritical citizens of Jonesville, the village that was home to Samantha Allen, the first person narrator of a series of novels that present Holley's criticism to a middle class readership of Victorian housewives. Holley herself never married, but she became famous as the creator of Samantha, who always refers to herself as Josiah Allen's wife, intrepid traveler, soldier in the cause of Right, do-gooder, searcher after truth, a late nineteenth century Poor Richard to much the same kind of audience that Franklin guided in how to live well. Marietta Holley's works offer a social history of small town, pre-industrial America headed away from agrarianism and into World War I and global status. Of particular interest today is the novel Holley wrote on the occasion of the 1876 Centennial, a novel with an initially baffling title: Josiah Allen's Wife as a P.A. and P.I.: Samantha at the Centennial. (Hartford, Conn.: American Publishing Co., 1877) It is not until pages 140-141 that we learn that P.A. stands for "promiscous advisor" [sic]. When the male members of Jonesville's Creation Searchers Society, a lyceum group, refuse to allow Samantha to be a regular delegate to the Centennial, they decide she can go with the Sanction of the Society only as a P.I., a private investigator. She appoints herself to go as a "promiscous advisor," vowing to do all she can in the cause of Right. Knowing that she will arouse enmity, she casts herself in the role of martyr, willing to go to the stake if necessary if it will help bring greater justice.

In this persona of Samantha, Holley has created perhaps the characteristic moral American. Traceable in the historical line from Cotton Mather to Franklin, through Natty Bumppo, Thoreau, Emerson, and Whitman and leading to Huck Finn, Samantha is a housewife and reformer, a composite of moral arrogance and abject humility, kind intent and insensitivity. She means overwhelming well, fearing that she might slight some nation at the Philadelphia exhibition by overlooking it and not visiting it, yet she can casually use an expression such as "rich as a Jew." She is egalitarian to a fault, with Ulysses Grant, King Pedro of Brazil, Governor Hawley of Connecticut, and in her admiration of Queen Victoria, chummily referred to as the Widder Albert. Yet her role as a "promiscous advisor" makes her morally superior, and when she uses the term "colored nigger" and assumes that the black waiters at her inn are likely to steal the silverware, class lines do seem to be drawn. Samantha can never really escape being white, middle class, and Protestant no matter how much she would like to see herself as free from bias. She expresses condescension rather than brotherly love, and self-importance rather than true egalitarianism. One of the critical problems in dealing with the novel is drawing a distinction between Samantha's views and those of the author. Samantha's gaffers and errors of understanding, her malapropisms and misquotations are part of her comic character, carefully contrived to keep a readership amused while getting its come-uppance. At other times, Samantha expresses a fervent sense of the mysterious sacredness of life, of its sorrow, its beauty and richness, as well as its paradoxical and obdurately foolish qualities. Samantha is philosophic by inclination, easily drifting into what she calls "episodin" - a Romantic propensity to find analogies between the world of flesh and the world of spirit, as in one section which projects heaven as the seeing, for the first time, of the right or face side of a tapestry we weave daily; or less interestingly, elaborating what is now the cliche of the sea of matrimony. In these matters, Holley seems to be speaking directly to the reader. But some confusion lies in that blurred area between comic character and authorial voice, as when Samantha urgently helps those who haven't asked for aid. Does Holley approve? As self-appointed "promiscous advisor" she risks becoming mildly tyrannical, lording it indiscriminately over anyone who gets in the way of her righteousness, or is it not finally self-righteousness? With the momentum of her more than 200 pounds of corpulence charged with Christian principle, she is not easily dissuaded in spite of Holley's efforts to show us a woman carried away with enthusiasm, an inheritance perhaps of her Methodist background. Because Samantha means well, we are to forgive her harmless intrusions into other people's affairs, and her attempts to correct other people's supposed errors. Samantha is shown as just another fallible human being. We agree with her ideals, but somehow there is a potentially fascist intensity to her will. Holley often undercuts these scenes when Samantha is loftily proclaiming higher truths by having Josiah respond that he is hungry as a bear, or by having Samantha discover that her listener has fallen asleep. Still, her message has been established.

Samantha at the Centennial, then, deals with social injustice in Jonesville and the nation on the one hand, and on the other with the meaning of the United States' experiment as seen in relationship with the global world represented by the international exhibits at the fair. The plot is simple: for about 400 pages of the novel, Josiah and Samantha prepare for and make a slow journey to Philadelphia, and then in fewer than 200 pages they spend their days on the exhibition grounds. Loose, episodic, and repetitious, Samantha at the Centennial is unified only by a moral fervor that derives from the attempt to make of America a New World Eden, for the Centennial itself is, for Samantha, Edenic. When she enters the fairgrounds, surprised and delighted, she can only recite, "Good land! and Good land! and Good land!" (page 383). This is hardly evidence enough to support an Edenic reading of the Centennial, but the succeeding pages also point that way. We are told that the exposition grounds are as spacious as the Sahara desert, "s'posen she, the desert, was fixed off into a perfect garden of beauty, free for anybody to wander round and git lost in" (page 383). As a band strikes up the Star Spangled Banner, she watches the flag which looks "as if all the blue sky and rainbows sense Noah's rainbow was cut into its glorious stripes, with the hull stars of heaven a shinin on 'em," (page 384) suggesting perhaps a covenent between God and America. After touring the grounds by railway, for four consecutive trips, Samantha and Josiah pause long enough for Samantha to collect her thoughts. She thinks, "Such sights as I see, such grand an imposin' grandeur, such beautiful and soarin' beauty; I wondered whether Paradise could have looked much better, and more foamin'; and if it did, I wondered more and more how Eve ( a distant relative of mine on my mother's side) could have done what she did do"(page 392). As it turns out, in this lesser New World Eden which can redeem man from the sins of at least political oppression, it is woman who will save man now, in the United States.

The duty of the descendants of Eve, if they are to redress her sin, is to commit good, rather than sin, and in Samantha's view, opportunities to commit good are everywhere. The United States, in 1876, believes in equality and freedom for men, but not for women; calmly sanctions corruption in government; guiltlessly exterminates the Indian population; spends more on saloons than on churches; callously imposes severe punishment on the helpless poor while accepting graft and embezzlement on the part of the powerful; perfunctorily believes in Christianity, but behaves worse than the heathen it missionizes; foolishly wants to aid Africans while ignoring the needy at home. Most capable of correcting these abuses are women, and they, unfortunately, are not franchised. And worse, according to Samantha, some women are opposing suffrage and accepting their bondage to male will. Instead of working for justice, they are willingly making themselves into hopeless fools by giving their major attention to fashion, whether it be in dress, dogs, or forms of indolence, and by hiding their intelligence and abilities. At the Centennial Samantha most admires the Woman's Pavilion because it is designed to honor the intellectual and artistic accomplishments of women and it holds out a promise for greater accomplishment in the future.

The rallying point for Samantha's moral indignation is a blend of common sense and "principle," the latter the more forceful source of her energy. The exact nature of her principles is not clear; but when combined with a sense of duty, principle appears to have the same force as divine command. That one must alleviate human suffering is an article of faith for Samantha. Enforcing morality is equally mandatory, and she attempts to get Governor Hawley to stop the sale of beer and wine at the Centennial. Principle derives from her sense of Right, loosely based upon the conviction that faith and good works are equally needed in a correct understanding of God. But in attempting to enforce Right, Samantha becomes stiff and inflexible, in spite of her efforts to allow dissenters their rights and opinions, even when in her heart she is sure they are wrong and misdirected.

As Samantha's understanding of Jonesville and society in controlled entirely by her high sense of right and justice, so is her experience of the Centennial interpreted in terms of America's probably superior relationship with Europe, South America and Asia, though in dealing with Asians and the American Indian, she is more generous and liberal than in her moral scheme. She is surprisingly an opponent of Manifest Destiny. Julia Grant (Mrs. Ulysses) explains the Indian problem easily. "It is Destiny; it is the wave of civilization and progress that is movin' on from the East to the West. The great resistless wave whose rush and might nothin' can withstand. Rushin' grandly onward, sweepin' down all obstacles in its path." Without hesitation, Samantha replies, "Julia, that is a sublime idee or yourn, very sublime, and dretful comfortin' to the waves; but let me ask you in a friendly way, haint it a little tough on the obstacles?" (page 543). She then asks that Julia interpret the question from the Indian side, the side of the "obstacles," in order to judge more fairly. In an earlier encounter with Ulysses Grant, Samantha doesn't know what to advise him about China, but she believes ". . . it seemed jest about as impossible to git a stun to keep company with a turnip, and make it its bride as to git a Chinee to fall in love with our institutions and foller em; and after a man had tried to git water and oil to mix in a friendly and sociable way - after he has sot and stirred 'em and sweat over 'em for weeks and weeks, I don't know as he would be to blame to empty the basin out for good; but then I would think again, I'd know it was cruel and awful to turn anybody out doors, (as it were) especially a heathen. And I knew I never could have the heart to do it, never in the world"(page 401). In making the tour of the world's exhibits, even though Samantha consciously tires to honor each nation equally, it is obvious that her ties with western Europe are far stronger than with eastern Europe or Scandinavia, that South America, with the exception of Brazil, attracts her minimally, and that the Far East is more bewildering and curious than admirable, with the exception of Japan, which is, according to Samantha, "a example to follow in lots of things. Her patriotism, her enthusiasm in learnin' is a pattern for Jonesville and other Nations of the world to foller. Better behaved, well-meaniner little men than the Japanned men (though dark complexioned) I don't want to see; they are truly gentlemen. To see em answerin' questions so patient and polite, impudent questions and foolish ones and everything, and they a bearin' it, and not losin' their gentle ways and courtesy, not gettin' fractious or worrysome a mite" (page 444). In short, they are models of perfect Victorian manners and are therefore admirable. In general, Samantha's evaluation of the nations of the world resembles the present day ranking.

But amidst the often bewildering differences, she finds unity as well, Just after a tour of the Main Building, she sits watching the throng of fairgoers. "I sot right there peaceful and considerable composed, though it give me solemn feelins to watch the crowd a passin' by all the time, no two alike, always a movin' on, never a stoppin'. They seemed like the waves of a river that was surgin' right on towards a sea whose name is Eternity; oh, how they kept a movin' on!. . . white men, and yeller men, and black men, and red men, and brown men. Oh! what a sight it was to see the endless wave and rush a settin' on and on forever. And as I see em, - though in body I was settin' there- I too was one of em a bein' carried on, and floatin' toward the ocian" (page 452-453). In this Whitmanian mode, Samantha briefly transcends her role of "promiscous advisor". Absorbed in her vision, she is unaware of political, religious, and cultural differences among mankind, and for a moment she has put aside moral indignation, has put aside Right and justice.

But in the day-to-day world of men and women, the role of women is central, for her capacity to express moral concern and right derives from her very nature. Samantha's view of the roles of men and women is fairly conventional. All babies are born romantically out of a Wordsworthian world of spiritual reality, but girls are apt to keep their angelic characteristics longer than boys. In Samantha's view, in spite of their angelic legacy, women became gossipy, backbiting, nosy about their neighbors, and frivolous. Ideally, a wife should be gentle, quiet, hardworking, loving, patient, kind, and concerned with imposing morality on men. Men, or as Samantha calls them, " the more opposite sex," having generally weak characters, are easily led into drunkenness and carnality, but they are also intelligent, inventive, and offer strength and comfort when they are good husbands. Unlike women, they don't gossip, they do mind their own business, and if it weren't for their waywardness, they would be at least moderately admirable. A husband expects to be fed well, promptly, and often, to have his clothes ready for wear on short notice. Love, of course, is the strongest of bonds between the sexes, and once soul mates find each other, their lives become, in Samantha's phrase, "as stiddy as a settin' hen." Unfortunately some women don't wait for a soul mate but marry in desperation, for "the dignity of marriage." Holley is impatient with these members of the sisterhood. Samantha and Holley affirm that marriage is the best condition for happiness, home is a sanctuary from the world's strife, and children are indeed a sacred duty and blessing since motherhood means God has entrusted this mortal with the care of an immortal soul. If women were granted the right to vote, their earthly goals would be complete, and presumably their other potentialities will be fulfilled as they participate equally in the welfare of the nation.

This happy domestic view stands as a contrast to questions of social injustice and international relationships. Holley's world is, in the last analysis, curiously static, as if time has developed to some terminus where good will now prevail, where life will be rich and rewarding, where evil can be overcome in some final skirmish. Samantha knows that there will be more change, but she is no prophet about its nature. The changes she does envision seem relatively few in number, and from the perspective of 1976, almost inconsequential. Because this novel is suffused with morning sun on the meadows and hills, and cleansing evening showers wash away the dust of life, it looks as if the fall from Eden was moderate indeed. Wickedness and cruelty exist, but remotely, and only foolishness abounds. Senator Vyse is a pure villain, having seduced a teen-aged orphan entrusted to his care. He then throws her out when she becomes pregnant, forcing her to become a prostitute. But most people, in Samantha's opinion, are merely pompous or lazy or short-sighted. Samantha plans to make a better world, not by major battles, but on the basis of guerilla attacks. It is implied in the novel that if everyone would just lend a hand to tidy up the world, things would be pretty well off. And it is Holley's expectation that America's women are the ones who must do this, for theirs is the moral force of that nation. As Samantha "corrects" Josiah when he strays beyond her guiding hand, so should the women of the nation join to correct our social faults, so that everyone might enjoy the happiness of a well-ordered home and pass on love and happiness from generation to generation. Sorrow, of course, is acknowledged, but often broadly, as in the term "suffering humanity," but one can take comfort from Christianity or Christianized nature created and governed by a kindly, loving Creator whose only apparent concern is man's happiness and welfare and comfort. Samantha is insistent upon the primacy of God over the nation, but strangely she says nothing about His relationship with the rest of the world, as if He is ours alone.

This sense of smugness and quiet calm which the novel generates derives from another ideal. In the face of turmoil one is to maintain outward calm. Excitement is not well bred. In some of the novel's details - of drunks losing their way in snow storms and freezing to death; of women overworked by brutish husbands; of husbands worked to death in order to appease their family's lust from frippery; of widows with large families and no means of support; of children browbeaten by parents - Samantha at the Centennial suggests a nation of brutality and boorishness, of destructive values and insensitivity, yet there is no call for drastic action. Rather, restraint, understood as a moral force, prevails overall, demanding both that one recognize all that is wrong, yet requiring one to take a decorous and patient view of it. Samantha vents her moral outrage, but Holley undercuts it always, to let her readership know that excess leads to buffoonery, that really maybe the problem is not as bad as Samantha sees it. Really strong criticism of American society comes from rather unpleasant characters: and English Lord points out the corruption of Tweed and railroad and wheat monopolies: an avowed man-hater expresses views on suffrage far more radical than Samantha's, by contrast showing off Samantha's common sense and moderation as more representative and acceptable. But in this, Holley presents a basic tension in American society between the will to correct and the will to keep things as they are; between an urgency to do right, to be helpful, whether in Jonesville or among nations, and a strong feeling that these changes should not directly interfere with the normal course of life. It is implicitly assumed that , given time, betterment will come about if enough people of right persuasion keep a mild pressure on society. Perhaps this is the dominant American way: long for a more equitable society, but have no clear-cut means for achieving it, other than exercising moral force whenever the occasion allows - or in some cases, whether it allow or not.

Most of all, we want peace and tranquility in our domestic lives. The novel ends with return to home - its warmth and comfort, its progression through children and grandchildren. But behind the comforts of house and home lies a discomforting unknown. Samantha expresses it this way: "There is a dark veil that drops down between us and future events; you can't lift up that curtain, or tear it offen it hooks, for it is as high up as Eternity, and solid down to the ground, as solid [as] can be. You can't peek round it, or tear a hole in it; tea-grounds haint a goin' to help you; planchettes and cards can't hist it up a mite; you have got to set down before the curtain that hides the future from you, and wait patiently till it is rolled up by the hand that put it there, but I am a episodin" (page 578).

Perhaps Holley ignores the future because after all, it will take care of itself. From the perspective of 1876 it looked obvious that America was a success. Having come from wilderness and political uncertainty in a short 100 years, only continued development seemed possible. The most one needed to do was straighten up a few messy rooms of the national house. But considered from the perspective of 1976, it looks as if most of the problems Holley deals with were not solved by moral indignation: the campaign for temperance was won with the Prohibition Amendment, with disastrous results; the battlement for suffrage was won with the 19th Amendment, but injustice and error continue; the position of minority races in American society remains unsettled; our handling of criminals may have worsened since 1876; our relations with other nations of the world remain fairly predictable; many of our elected officials resemble Senator Vyse; the search of men and women for good marriages continues. The Victorian Age wished to eradicate evil, as if evil were somehow alien to the human experience; it wished to legislate sin away. It failed, in spite of Holley's high hope.