When Johnston was sixteen, she, her parents, and her four siblings—Eloise (b. 1872), Ann Alexander (b. 1875), John Alexander (b. 1875), and Walter Alexander (b. 1877)—moved to Birmingham, Alabama, and for three months the following year she attended the Atlanta Female Institute and College of Music (also known as Mrs. Ballard's School) in Atlanta, Georgia. This was her only formal education. In 1887, Johnston's youngest sibling, Elizabeth, was born, and two years later her mother died. According to the critic C. Ronald Cella, "Mrs. Johnston's death profoundly affected both her husband and daughter [Mary], particularly in establishing a special relationship which developed out of shared grief." Mary Johnston took charge of the household, cared for her younger siblings, and accompanied her father, a railroad executive who rose to become president of the Georgia Pacific Railroad Company, on numerous business trips both across the United States and abroad.
Set against the struggles of life in early Jamestown, To Have and to Hold is a gauzy romance between Captain Ralph Percy and Lady Jocelyn Leigh, who is among a shipload of women sent to the colony in 1621. The plot features pirates and famous Virginia Indians, including Opechancanough, and ends happily despite a bloody Anglo-Powhatan battle that serves as the novel's climax. To Have and to Hold was serialized in the Atlantic Monthly from June 1899 until March 1900, and became a commercial success after the book's publication in 1900. Selling 60,000 copies in advance and more than 135,000 copies during its first week of publication, it was the top-selling novel of 1900 and the biggest popular success in the United States between the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1852 and Gone with the Wind in 1936.
Johnston continued to write at a furious pace. Audrey, published in 1902, is another historical romance, this time populated by such well-known Virginians as Governor Alexander Spotswood and William Byrd of Westover. Sir Mortimer arrived in 1904 and follows the exploits of an Elizabethan sea captain. The critic C. Ronald Cella suggests the book was a critical "disappointment," and Johnston, in grief over the death of her father, waited four years before publishing her next novel, Lewis Rand. It proved to be one of her biggest critical success.
The title character is the son of an Albemarle County tobacco-roller and studies the law under Thomas Jefferson. After winning a seat in the House of Delegates, he flirts with revolution while in the orbit of Aaron Burr and eventually murders a romantic rival. A realistic historical novel that dispensed with swashbuckling romance, Lewis Rand received praise from both H. L. Mencken and the New York Times, which declared it "one of the strongest works of fiction that has seen the light of day in America."
Cease Firing (1912) concluded Johnston's story, which found room for a portrayal of her cousin, the Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston, allusions to her father's service, and discourses on the relative savagery of Union troops in the Shenandoah Valley and in Georgia. According to the critic C. Ronald Cella, the novel's didactic nature makes it far less successful than its predecessor. The critic Wallace Hettle has made the case that the earlier novel, at least, has been misread as promoting the Lost Cause, an interpretation of the war that glorified the Old South. To the contrary, it "reflected her loathing of war" and took advantage of Johnston's unimpeachable southern credentials to indict, rather than celebrate, the conflict. Both books were well received and mark the high point of Johnston's critical and commercial success as a novelist.
Although Johnston preferred using more conservative methods for winning the vote, she respected radicals such as Alice Paul of New Jersey, who engaged in civil disobedience and staged hunger strikes. On at least one occasion, Johnston served as mediator at a "peace conference" between Paul's militant Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage, founded in 1913, and the older, more mainstream National American Woman Suffrage Association. Johnston's support for suffrage came with a price. Her position put her in the minority among southern women, and according to her sister Elizabeth Johnston, Mary Johnston was the subject of "vicious attacks" in Virginia and a "bitter whispering campaign." In the end, though, she proved to be a critical asset to the suffrage movement, traveling across the South to rally activists. Her value, according to the historian Marjorie Spruill Wheeler, can be explained by the fact that she did not fit the mold of a traditional rabble-rouser: "She was both a respected—indeed, revered—southern lady and an advocate for women's rights."
During this time, Johnston authored four novels with overt political concerns, mostly dealing with women's rights: Hagar (1913), about the political awakening of a turn-of-the-century southern woman; The Witch (1914), about a woman in seventeenth-century England accused of witchcraft; The Fortunes of Garin (1915), a romance and adventure in eleventh-century France that includes a portrait of a progressive "Ugly Princess"; and The Wanderer (1917), a series of linked stories that Johnston told her agent were "meant to be a serious contribution toward" dealing with "relations between the sexes, and with evolutionary sociology generally." These novels were only modestly well received, with the New York Times complaining about Hagar's reluctance to dramatize its politics: "The novel reader 'must be shown'—he resents being told."
Race and Lynching
And yet, by 1915, with the publication of the medieval adventure The Fortunes of Garin, Johnston's sympathies for those once "wholly servile" had become evident. The attitude fit with her growing sense of herself as a socialist. (Johnston never publicly identified with the Socialist Party, but she made her sympathies clear in diary entries.)
Then, in May 1923, the Century magazine published Johnston's short story "Nemesis." It depicted the lynching of a black man in a small southern town, dramatizing the events following the murder, as well as its psychological impact on those involved. Walter White, assistant secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), wrote Johnston to say that he had never "read any story on this great national disgrace of ours which moved me as yours did."
"Nemesis" also suggested that Johnston was, in some respects, ahead of her time. The story appeared nearly seven years before Jesse Daniel Ames founded the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching. Ames, a Texas suffragist, is often credited as being one of the first white southern women to speak out against lynching. The Virginia Anti-Lynching Law, the first law in the United States to term lynching a state crime, was passed in 1928, five years after Johnston's story appeared. Still, Johnston did not always seek the role of activist. In fact, she rarely if ever spoke publicly against lynching and even declined a request to have the story read into the Congressional Record.
Johnston never married. In 1913, she and her sisters moved from their townhouse in Linden Row in Richmond to a substantial mansion Johnston had constructed for her in Warm Springs, Bath County. Designed by the Richmond firm Carneal and Johnston, Three Hills, as it was called, featured an Italian Renaissance exterior and a Colonial Revival interior. Its twenty rooms and accompanying cottages played host over the years to Johnston, her sisters, and numerous guests. They took boarders beginning in 1917 in part to pay for the substantial costs of the mansion's upkeep, and Johnston nearly lost the house in 1921.
In the meantime, Johnston's literary fortunes waned. After her father's death in 1905, she had what she termed a psychic experience. Coupled with her disillusionment with conventional religion, this spurred the author's interest in mysticism, a theme that became important in her later works. Foes (1918), Michael Forth (1919), and Sweet Rocket (1920) were all dominated by Johnston's meditations on the supernatural and what she called "heightened consciousness." The books, the critic C. Ronald Cella has written, "marked the low point of her popularity, and they remain today the most disappointing of her works."
Later novels, even The Slave Ship, continued to be influenced by mysticism, but Johnston's return to historical topics helped her regain at least a portion of her original acclaim. 1492 (1923) followed Columbus, Croatan (1923) the settlers at Roanoke, and The Great Valley (1926) a group of pioneers, including the young surveyor George Washington, in the Shenandoah Valley. As well reviewed as this last novel was, Johnston no longer commanded the attention of audiences or critics. Her final novel, Drury Randall (1935), "passed practically unnoticed," Cella has written, "a fate that soon thereafter would begin to be true of Mary Johnston's whole career."
Johnston died at her home in Bath County on May 9, 1936, of Bright's disease. She is buried in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond. In his eulogy, the playwright Arthur Goodrich reflected, "Each generation contributes to the world, too sparingly, its tiny few are the truly great. Mary Johnston was, I believe, one of those few in our time." Yet the critic Blair Rouse, writing in 1969, observed, "Scholarly critical study of Mary Johnston and her work is notable mainly for its scarcity." This did not change in the decades that followed, and Cella, writing in 1981, found only "mixed successes" in her body of work. Only those readers able "to see beyond the barriers erected by her commitment to causes, and to be tolerant of some faults in execution" would be rewarded.
Plays and Short Stories
November 21, 1870 - Mary Johnston is born in Buchanan, Botetourt County, the eldest child of John William Johnston and Elizabeth Dixon Alexander Johnston.
1886 - Mary Johnston and her family move to Birmingham, Alabama.
1887 - For three months, Mary Johnston attends the Atlanta Female Institute and College of Music (also known as Mrs. Ballard's School) in Atlanta, Georgia. This will be her only formal education.
1889 - Elizabeth Dixon Alexander Johnston, mother of Mary Johnston, dies.
1892 - Mary Johnston and her family move to New York City, where she begins work on her first novel.
1898 - Prisoners of Hope, a romantic novel by Mary Johnston, is published. Its dramatization of a conspiracy of servants is based on the Gloucester County Conspiracy of 1663. The hero, a man aptly called Landless, is portrayed as a proto–Founding Father.
June 1899–March 1900 - Mary Johnston's second novel, the historical romance To Have and to Hold, is published as a serial in the Atlantic Monthly.
1900 - Mary Johnston's To Have and to Hold is published in novel form and becomes her first major success.
ca. 1902 - Mary Johnston and her family move from New York City to Richmond.
1904 - Mary Johnston and her family spend the winter in Nassau and then travel to Sicily, Switzerland, France, Scotland, and England.
1905 - John W. Johnston, father of Mary Johnston, dies.
1909 - Mary Johnston travels to Europe and Egypt.
November 10, 1909 - The Richmond Times-Dispatch publishes "Miss Mary Johnston Outlines Her Views of Woman Suffrage," in which the novelist distances herself from "militant" factions of the movement.
November 27, 1909 - A group of women, including Kate Waller Barrett, Kate Langley Bosher, Adèle Clark, Ellen Glasgow, Nora Houston, Mary Johnston, and Lila Meade Valentine, found the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia.
June 11, 1911 - The New York Times publishes "Miss Mary Johnston: A Suffrage Worker," in which the novelist connects her suffrage activism to her belief in eugenics.
October 29, 1911 - In the New York Times and the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Mary Anna Jackson, widow of the Confederate general Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, attacks the novel The Long Roll by Mary Johnston. She contends it is not fair to her husband's legacy.
1913 - Mary Johnston and her sisters Eloise Johnston and Elizabeth Johnston move from Richmond to Warm Springs, where Mary Johnston has built a substantial mansion, Three Hills.
1921 - Mary Johnston, having been a member of the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia since 1909, hails the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which grants women the right to vote.
May 1923 - The Century magazine publishes "Nemesis," a short story by Mary Johnston that depicts the lynching of a black man in a small southern town.
March 14, 1928 - Governor Harry F. Byrd Sr. signs into law the nation's strictest antilynching measure and the first that directly terms lynching a state crime.
May 9, 1936 - Mary Johnston dies of Bright's disease at her home in Bath County. She is buried in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Brooks, C. M., & Menefee, S. P., & Wolfe, B. Mary Johnston (1870–1936). (2014, March 20). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Johnston_Mary_1870-1936.
- MLA Citation:
Brooks, Clayton McClure, Samuel P. Menefee and Brendan Wolfe. "Mary Johnston (1870–1936)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 20 Mar. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: October 8, 2008 | Last modified: March 20, 2014
Contributed by Clayton McClure Brooks, Samuel P. Menefee, and Brendan Wolfe. Clayton McClure Brooks is a National Governors Association post-doctoral fellow in residence at the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library in Staunton. She is the editor of A Legacy of Leadership: Governors and American History (2008). Samuel P. Menefee is a former Rhodes Scholar with degrees from Yale, Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge, and the University of Virginia. He is affiliated with the Center for Oceans Law & Policy, the Center for National Security Law, and World Maritime University, and is author of several pieces in the Dictionary of National Biography of Wives for Sale: An Ethnographic Study of British Popular Divorce (1981), and of Trends in Maritime Violence (1996). Brendan Wolfe is managing editor of Encyclopedia Virginia.