Humorist Marietta Holley on Man Logic

You would be hard-pressed to find an American who had never heard of Mark Twain, the famous 19th century writer and humorist.  It would be almost as difficult to find an American who had even heard of Marietta Holley, much less read her work.  And yet, in her lifetime (1836-1926), Holley was nearly as popular a literary humorist as Mark Twain was.

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She published twenty-four books between 1873 and 1914, many of them humor books written under the pseudonym “Samantha Allen” or “Josiah Allen’s Wife.”  In these works, Holley uses humor to advocate for women’s rights and temperance, the two issues about which she was most passionate.  A best-selling writer in her own time, she was forgotten after her death.

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Living as we do in a time period in which some people still openly claim women are not funny, or at least not as funny as men, I think it is important to keep the voices of past female humorists alive. (Click here and here for random examples of the women-aren’t-funny claim.)  Although we would all like to think the struggles women faced over a century ago are no longer relevant, unfortunately this is not the case.  The role of women in the Christian Church, for example, is still a hot-button issue, and Holley’s satire still rings true.  I will admit that her use of dialect is a little off-putting.  If you can get past the dialect, though, I think you’ll find her humor is still effective.

I am reproducing here an excerpt from Holley’s book Samantha Among the Brethren. In this excerpt from Samantha Among the Brethren, Samantha—a devout Christian—is frustrated with the way women are treated in her church.  In particular, Samantha grapples with trying to understand why women are not allowed to serve as delegates to a church conference.  Although Samantha does not understand the logic governing women’s status in the Church, her husband Josiah understands it perfectly because of his superior mind.   It has to do with how the words “laymen” and “men” are interpreted in official documents.   Women’s minds are too feeble to understand such fine legal distinctions, but Josiah happily tries to explain it to Samantha.

 

“Oh, yes,” sez Josiah in a reasonin’ tone, “the word laymen always means wimmen when it is used in a punishin’ and condemnatory sense, or in the case of work and so forth, but when it comes to settin’ up in high places, or drawin’ sallerys, or anything else difficult, it alweys means men.”

Sez I, in a very dry axent, “Then the word man, when it is used in church matters, always means wimmen, so fur as scrubbin’ is concerned, and drudging round?”

“Yes,” sez Josiah haughtily.  “And it always means men in the higher and more difficult matters of decidin’ questions, drawin’ sallerys, settin’ on Conferences, etc.  It has long been settled to be so,” sez he.

“Who settled it?” sez I.

“Why the men, of course,” sez he.  “The men have always made the rules of the churches, and translated the Bibles, and everything else that is difficult,” sez he.

Sez I, in fearful dry axents, almost husky ones, “It seems to take quite a knack to know jest when the word “laymen” means men and when it means wimmin.”

“That is so,” sez Josiah. “It takes a man’s mind to grapple with it; wimmen’s minds are too weak to tackle it.  It is jest as it is with that word “men” in the Declaration of Independence.  Now that word “men” in that Declaration, means men some of the  time, and some of the time men and wimmen both.  It means both sexes when it relates to punishment, taxin’ property, obeyin’ the laws strictly, etc. etc., and then it goes right on the very next minute and means men only, as to wit, namely, votin’, takin’ charge of public matters, makin’ laws, etc.

Josiah continued:  “I tell you it takes deep minds to follow on and see jest to a hair where the division is made.  It takes statesmanship.  Now take that claws, ‘All men are born free and equal. ‘ Now half of that means men and the other half men and wimmen.  Now to understand them words perfect you have got to divide the tex.  “Men are born.”  That means men and wimmen both—men and wimmen are both born, nobody can dispute that.  Then comes the next claws—‘Free and equal.’  Now that means men only; anybody with one eye can see that.”

“Then the claws, ‘True government consists,’” continued Josiah. “That means men and wimmen both—consists—of course the government consists of men and wimmen, ‘twould be a fool who would dispute that, “in the consent of the governed.’  That means men alone.  Do you see, Samantha?” sez he.

I kept my eye fixed on the tea kettle, fer I stood with my tea-pot in hand waiting for it to bile—“I see a great deal, Josiah Allen.”

The Kim Jong-un Weight-Loss Regime

Who wants to be fat when the apocalypse comes?

This post is part of my Live from America! series.  For information that series, click here.

Dear ALF:

I wish you and your fellow Advanced Life Forms a happy new year.  (Now that I think of it, though, I don’t know if your creatures have years—be they old or new.  Oh, well.  Whatever.  (“Whatever” is what my people say when they do not want to be required to use language to communicate.)

In today’s headlines are reports that North Korea has detonated its first hydrogen bomb.  Since the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, is bat-shit crazy and runs a bat-shit crazy regime, this news probably means the world will probably be coming to an end in the next few years.

You know what that means, right?  It means there is no time to waste in achieving our weight loss goals! Yes, ALF, I have made a New Year’s Resolution to lose some weight.  This is what my people do in early January of every year.   Statistics tell us that 70% of Americans need to lose weight and the other 30% believe they should lose weight.  That means everybody is either on a diet or should be on a diet or feels guilty for not being on a diet or is in such a Big Mac stupor that they do not know what the word “diet” means.

Our weight-loss obsession is actually excellent news because the diet industry is what keeps the American economy from collapsing under the weight of all of the McDonald’s arches.   According to ABC news “the annual revenue of the U.S. weight-loss industry, including diet books, diet drugs and weight-loss surgeries” is $20 billion.

$20 billion is a lot of money, ALF.  To give you some perspective, the annual gross domestic product of Namibia, a country in southern Africa, is $13.11 billion   Clearly, the Namibians need to go on more diets in order to increase their GDP.

But, I digress.  My point, ALF, is that I am doing my part to keep the economy alive by beginning my weight loss journey.  Knowing the world will end soon, thanks to people like Kim Jong-un, is a wonderful motivator for me.  Who wants to be fat when the apocalypse comes?

I do not mean to imply that Kim Jong-un is all bad.  In fact, I admire his leadership style in many ways and have implemented some of his ideas in my own job.  For example, I learned last year, that he requires his people to sport haircuts that mimic his own.

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Who wouldn’t want that haircut?

I think this is a great idea, and last year, I tried to enforce it on the minions in my department.  My hair looks like this, by the way.

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My people are not as docile as North Korea’s, though.  Some of the male members of the department muttered something about their baldness getting in the way of the requisite haircut.

But again, I digress. Back to weight loss.  I am focused and motivated to succeed on my Kim Jong-un nuclear weight loss diet.  Who wants to join me?  (You will need to copy my hairstyle, of course.)

Bewitched and Bedeviled: Salem

Stacy Schiff, The Witches: Salem, 1682

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When I was a child, my main source of knowledge on witches came from the TV series “Bewitched.”  In this show, Elizabeth Montgomery played Samantha, an attractive, likable witch who was married to a hapless mortal named Darrin Stephens.  Darrin hated that Sam was a witch and he made her promise not to use her witchcraft.  She could never completely give it up, however, and used it frequently.  She was a cute witch, though, who made magic by twinkling her nose, and who used her powers to make housework easier.  I was certainly on her side throughout the series, as I suspect most viewers were.  To me, then, witchcraft seemed like a cool party trick that was convenient yet benign.

I was a little confused later in life when I realized that historically speaking, witches were greatly feared and often killed.  They were considered wicked and ugly, not cute and sweet like Samantha.  Eventually, I learned in school about the Salem witch trials of 1692, which remain to this day a national embarrassment that we are hard pressed to explain.

Stacy Schiff, the noted biographer of Cleopatra,  is the most recent writer who attempts to explain the inexplicable in her recent history The Witches: Salem, 1692.    Her book is long and full of details about the many participants in the trials (the accused, the accusers, the judges, the townsfolk).  Some of the details, to be honest, are a bit tedious.  Nonetheless, the subject overall is fascinating (to me) and Schiff’s writing style is lively.

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Stacy Schiff

Here I have provided some excerpts from Schiff’s book in a question and answer format to give readers a taste of the Salem witchcraft story.

 What is a witch? Joseph Glanville, a distinguished, Oxford-Educated English academic literally wrote the book on witchcraft: Saducismus Triumphatus,  published in England in 1681.  Glanville’s treatise was considered authoritative and was the source that the learned men of New England consulted for knowledge on witches and wizards.

Glanville defined a witch as “one who can do or seems to do strange things, beyond the known power of art and ordinary nature, by virtue of a confederacy with evil spirits” (Schiff 60).

Witches could do all sorts of things, mostly of a troublesome sort.  They liked to torture innocents by making them convulse, putting them into senseless trances, paralyzing their limbs, giving them fits, making them froth, gnash, shake, and so forth.  In New England, they enjoyed drowning oxen, causing cattle to leap four feet from the ground, set pails crashing and kettles dancing, launched candlesticks through the air, flew on broomsticks and so forth.

Witches had the power to transform themselves into cats, wolves, or hares.  They really liked yellow birds.  Witches were most often female but could also be male.  English witches like to maintain a menagerie of “familiars,” demonic mascots that did her bidding, such as hots, turtles, weasels, cats, dogs and toads.

Witches worked their magic with charms or ointments.  To work her magic from a distance, a witch might resort on occasion to poppets—doll-like figures that represent a particular person on whom the witch wishes to cast a spell.

How does one become a witch? By consorting with evil spirits, who offered them bribes in return for the witch’s services.  Ideally, a witch should sign an agreement with the evil spirit in blood.    In New England, the evil master often bribed young women with promises of fine clothing, free time, and trips to beautiful or exotic locations.

How do you know who is a witch? In late 17th century New England, virtually everybody—including the highly educated–believed that witches were real. The only question was determining which particular people were witches.   Some things to look for:  the witch bore a mark on her body indicating her unnatural compact with the evil spirits.  Those marks could be blue or red, raised or inverted.  They might resemble a nipple or a fleabite.  They came and went.  Essentially any dark blemish qualified, though a mark in the genital area was particularly incriminating.  Another sign of witchcraft is the inability to speak the Lord’s Prayer out loud without stumbling.

Traditionally witches were marginal members of the community:  outliers and deviants, cantankerous scolds and choleric foot-stampers.  This was true of some of the Salem accused, but not all of them. Some were prominent members of the community, even a minister.

As the witchcraft craze played out in Salem, all it took to be convicted of witchcraft was testimony against a person.  Once a person was accused, there was no way to prove one’s innocence.  Most of the accused denied that they were witches, but they were not believed.  Not surprisingly, this tense situation made it easy for people to settle scores on their enemies by accusing them of witchcraft.  As the hysteria grew, it seemed nearly everyone was either a witch or bewitched by one.  Neighbors accused neighbors; husbands accused wives; parents and children accused one another.

How did the Salem witch craze start? It started when 11-year-old Abigail Williams and 9-year-old Betty Parris exhibited symptoms of prickling sensations; they reported being bitten and pinched by invisible agents.  They barked, yelped, shuddered and spun.  They went limp or spasmodically rigid.  They had convulsions and were so contorted they could not dress themselves.  Sometimes they were paralyzed.

Their guardian, Samuel Parris, was distraught and did not know what ailed the girls. Eventually, he brought a doctor to attend to them.  In 1692, no university-trained physician had yet arrived in either Salem town or Salem village, where the girls lived.  A basic medical kit of the time looked little different from an ancient Greek one, consisting as it did of beetle’s blood, fox lung, and dried dolphin heart.  In powders or plasters, snails figured in man remedies. Hysteria had appeared before 1692.  A Salem physician treated it with a brew of breast milk and the blood from an amputated tomcat ear.  Given the ignorance of doctors at this time, it is not surprising that the doctor’s visit was not helpful.

How did they know the girls were bewitched?  In an attempt to determine who had bewitched these girls, a woman named Mary Sibley made a “witch cake.”  This required mixing the girls’ urine into a rye-flour cake, baked amid the embers on the hearth.  Then she fed the concoction to the family dog.  It was unclear how the magic worked–possibly by drawing the witch to the animal or transferring the spell to it.  Whether or not it was because of the witch cake, Betty and Abigail soon named names. This started the seemingly endless chain of accusers (girls who had been bewitched) and accused—witches and wizards.

How many people were involved in the Salem (and surroundings) witch craze of 1692?

  • 55 people confessed to witchcraft. (This is not surprising, since it was the only way to save one’s life.  Confessed witches were spared their lives, while those who spoke out against authority and in favor of the accused were hanged.)
  • Somewhere between 144 and 185 witches and wizards were named in 25 villages and towns before the crisis passed.
  • Reports had it that more than seven hundred witches flew about Massachusetts.
  • The youngest of the witches was 5, the eldest nearly 80.
  • Before it was all over, 19 men and women were hanged and one elderly man was crushed to death.

What made Salem so unusual in terms of witches? What sets Salem apart is not the accusations, but the convictions.  At other times raving women had been said to be witches and men dreamed of the devil without anyone thinking twice about it.  Why the unsparing prosecution in 1692?  Schiff believes the reasons for so many convictions was ultimately political.  Hathorne, Corwin, and Gedney—the prime movers—acted in the interests of the orthodoxy, which happened to align with their personal agendas.   (Schiff 401)

Lieutenant Governor William Stoughton was the Chief Justice of the courts in charge of the witchcraft trials and the one ultimately responsible for the outrageous number of convictions. Schiff argues that he was so inflexible in his treatment of accused witches because he needed to prove his own constancy as a well as a new government’s legitimacy.  He was as aware as anyone that to the Crown the colony appeared lax, impertinent, disorderly.  They had paid a crushing price for having deviated from the laws of England.  In prosecuting witches he simultaneously redeemed himself at home and broadcast New England’s proficiency abroad; the colonists could govern themselves in an orderly, Old World way (Schiff 403)

After the witchcraft craze was over, did the Salem/Boston leaders take responsibility for their mistakes?  Not really.  A few prominent figures (such as Samuel Sewall) suggested in a roundabout way that perhaps some mistakes had been made, but there was no full scale acknowledgement of the guilt of the leaders in causing the deaths of so many innocent people.  It was not until more time had passed that later generations could look at the situation with more objective eyes.

 

What actually caused the “bewitched” girls’ symptoms?  We will never know what felled the girls, whether it had more to do with their souls or their chores, with parental attention or inattention.  The prickling sensations, the twitching, stammering, and grimacing, the  ulcerated skin and twisted limbs, the curled tongues and convex backs, the deliriums, the “furious invectives against imaginary individuals” do however conform precisely to what nineteenth-century neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, with Freud following him, termed hysteria.  Where the seventeenth-century authority saw the devil, we tend to recognize an overtaxed nervous system; what an earlier age called hysteria we term conversion disorder, the body literally translating emotions into symptoms.  When sublimated, distress will manifest physically, holding the body hostage.  Charcot’s drawings of convulsing hysterics agree in every detail with the scenes that left Deodat Lawson reeling (Schiff 387)

“What they developed sounds to have been a form of emotional laryngitis; a sense of suffocation tends to accompany hysteria.  The girls expressed in fits what they could not communicate in words, or what no one seemed to hear when they entrusted it to words. . . Hysteria prefers decorous, sober households, where tensions puddle more deeply; it made sense that the Salem minister wound up with more witchcraft victims under his roof than anyone else” (387).  Shiff points out that “Conversion disorder also favors backwaters, women (especially young women), and the fatherless.  It tends to break out in convents, schools, and hospitals, in tight-knit, emotionally charged environments. Freud noted that the especially visual, intellectually astute child will suffer first” (388).

Fortunately, our country has progressed well beyond the point where we could become hysterical about the demonic influence of any group of people.  We don’t need to worry this could ever happen again.  (Note the heavy sarcasm here.)

P.S.  For a gripping fictional account of the witch trials, read or watch Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.  His play is based on Marion Starkey’s history The Devil in Massachusetts, published in the 1940s.

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This blog post is my 1600-1699 entry for the When are you reading? challenge.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Live from America! What is Christmas?

Diary Entry 12/15/15  (For an explanation of the series Live from America! Click here.)

Dear Advanced Life Form (ALF):

Today I went out to lunch with some friends to celebrate Christmas.  Tomorrow I will go to a Christmas party with co-workers.  I have already been to a few other Christmas celebrations and plan to attend several more before the season is over.  I am in a sugar-induced coma from all the Christmas cookies I’ve eaten.  In a word, I am an American.

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If you wish to understand the Ways of My People, ALF, you will need to understand what Christmas is all about.  Christmas is a Christian holiday, and its purpose is to celebrate the birth of Christ.  Christians believe that Christ is the human incarnation of God and that Christ sacrificed himself on the cross so that our sins would be forgiven and we would have eternal life.  Christmas is all about love and an appreciation for our creator and redeemer.

Adoration of the Shepherds
Adoration of the Shepherds by Gerard von Honthurst, 1622

We Americans are a religious people, and we take all this Christmas stuff seriously.  We show our devotion by shopping–I mean serious, hard-core, shopping.  I’m not talking “Oh, I think I’ll buy an orange for little Mikey and put it in a stocking and he will be ever-so-grateful.”  I’m talking  $465 billion on Christmas gifts this year, or around an I-Pad and an X-Box per person.  We celebrate God’s love by stressing ourselves out.  We spending money we don’t have to buy gifts that our loved ones don’t need and sometimes don’t even want. We do this for Jesus.

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We do this because back in Bethlehem, where Jesus was born, they didn’t have much in the way of retail stores or gift certificates, and we feel bad about that.  We want to make up for the toy cars, video games, and gift certificates to iTunes that Jesus didn’t have when he was a boy.

Don’t get me wrong, though, ALF.  Christmas isn’t just about stuff.  It’s also about decorating fake pine trees with pretty, shiny things.  And it’s about music—glorious sacred music.  I know a lot of people think that Handel’s Messiah” is the bees’ knees when it comes to Christmas music.  I’m not so sure about that.  Handel was all right, but he doesn’t hold a candle to the real genius of Christmas music: Johnny Marks, the composer of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

Because ultimately, Christmas is about reindeer.  Whether black-nosed, brown-nosed, or red-nosed; whether from the Middle East, the North Pole, or Wisconsin,  reindeer are people, too.

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And that, ALF, is why we spend so much money on Christmas that our entire economy hinges on retail sales in December.

I hope this clears up any questions you may have about Christmas.  It’s really pretty simple.

Oh–and Christmas is also about Jingle Cats singing “White Christmas.”