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Campus News

Marietta Holley's Wit and Spunk Revisited

By Greta Petry(April 8, 2005)

Kate Winter at Holley's writing desk, her writing jacket in the background right, at the Jefferson County Historical Society.


Kate Winter at Holley's writing desk, her "writing jacket" in the background right, at the Jefferson County Historical Society. 

Marietta Holley is making a comeback, if Kate Winter has her way.

Holley was the "female Mark Twain" of Jefferson County, N.Y., in the 1800s who combined wit and humor with the colloquialisms of the North Country to become a best-selling author.

Kate Winter of the UAlbany Department of English is on a mission to bring back Holley's works to English classrooms in high schools and colleges around New York State and beyond.

Toward that end, Winter scripted, appeared in, and completed work on a one-hour WPBS documentary about Holley. That documentary was aired on the Watertown public television station March 28. The DVD may be purchased through the WPBS Web site, and is now being distributed to other local PBS stations around the country.

Winter plans to set up an Albany premiere of her film on Holley to get the word out to teachers that materials are available so that Emily Dickinson isn't the only female 19 th century author whose picture graces the walls of the English classroom.

Winter, a full-time lecturer at UAlbany who joined the English department in 1981, has written several books, and recently finished a novel about Mark Twain's time in Hawaii. Winter has also taught at the University of Hawaii.

Mary Ellen Shevalier, shown here in a Saratoga Springs garden, plays the elder Marietta Holley in the WPBS documentary. Kate Winter made Shevalier's hat.


Mary Ellen Shevalier, shown here in a Saratoga Springs garden, plays the elder Marietta Holley in the WPBS documentary.  Kate Winter made Shevalier's hat. 

Winner of a 2004 Excellence in Teaching Award, Winter each spring teaches a 300-level writing course, and a 400-level American Literature course, and teaches three courses in the fall. She runs the English department internship program as well as the departmental honor society.

Holley's style comes across loud and clear in the short story Unmarried Female, in which she describes Betsey Bobbet "a neighborin' female" of character Josiah Allen's wife.

Holley writes that Betsey "is awful opposed to wimmin's rights – she thinks it is wimmin's only spear to marry, but as yet she can't find any man willin' to lay holt of that spear with her." Holley describes Betsey's physical appearance: "Time has seen fit to deprive her of her hair and teeth, but her large nose he has kindly suffered her to keep, but she has got the best white ivory teeth money will buy, and two long curls fastened behind each ear, besides frizzle on the top of her head; and if she wasn't naturally bald, and if the curls was the color of her hair, they would look well."

One "couldn't squeeze a laugh out of her with a cheese-press," and Betsey believes the only right a woman needs is the right to marry.

"For take the men that are the most opposed to wimmin's havin' a right, and talk the most about its bein' her duty to cling to man like a vine to a tree, they don't want Betsey to cling to them; they won't let her cling to ‘em," Holley writes.

Winter is the author of Marietta Holley: Life With "Josiah Allen's Wife," which won two awards, and The Woman in the Mountain, about the relationship of the Adirondacks to the region's women writers.