Born date unknown; died 1877
Wrote under: The Author of "Our Neighborhood," Mrs. Griffith
Very little is known of Mary Griffith's life. Records of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society show that she became an honorary member of the Society in 1830 and that she died in 1877. In response to Griffith's gift of her first volume the editor of the New England Farmer tells a little more about her. Griffith had "long been distinguished for her extensive, interesting, and valuable experiments as a practical cultivator of the soil." She was known also for her contributions to horticultural literature, although he does not tell us what they were. He does call her, in light of Our Neighborhood (1831), "the first female author on tillage." About her personal life he tells us only that she was left a widowed mother "in the prime of life" and boldly attempted to support herself at the practice of agriculture. She signs her address simply Charlies Hope, New Jersey, a place which does not appear in modern atlases.
Griffith's published books number four, one of which, Discoveries in Light and Vision (1836, reprinted in 1993 by the Classics in Opthamology Library), testifies to her interest in science. Her other three books are fiction, throughout which she often stops for a "scientific" observation about light, soil, or phrenology. Our Neighborhood and The Two Defaulters (1842) are novels, while Camperdown; or, News from Our Neighborhood (1836) is a collection of tales. All three works are lightly interconnected, being supposedly about the same "neighbor-hood," although there is only slight mention of people who appear in other stories to connect the works. Horticulture is not really a major feature of her stories, except as infrequent asides in Our Neighborhood, in which she tells how to plant grapes or potatoes while devoting most of the book to a silly romance between the narrator and a mysterious girl.
Griffith's writing style is weak in plot and organization; for instance, some of the tales in Camperdown are not at all clear, in plot or meaning, except as vehicles for her social concerns. One of the tales, "The Little Couple," tells of two very short people who marry and who are given money by a rich uncle who expects (and gets) the privilege of ridiculing their size and naming their first daughter Glumdalclitch. The punch line is that they have a happy life and six normal-sized daughters. Another story caricatures a man who has no regard for his 13 daughters and is bitterly disappointed not to have any sons.
Probably the most interesting story in Camperdown is "Three Hundred Years Hence," a utopian story in which her main character is frozen in a block of ice and awakens 300 years later in the same place. He finds all sorts of marvels: Griffith's 22nd-century America is powered by a mysterious sort of engine invented by a woman. Among other reforms, dogs are extinct, ending the threat of massive outbreaks of hydrophobia. Men are educated for business life, while women have the right to earn money and control their own property.
Griffith was very concerned with the economic security of women. She had no interest in politics or public life for women, only asking such things as they be allowed to clerk in retail stores and do tailoring. In Our Neighborhood she devotes pages to a lecture on "Woman" given by one of the characters who is obviously voicing Griffith's own opinions. Various other of her works show her constant concern with respect due to women and the needs of women to be economically independent. She was both a critic of the business community for its treatment of women and its dishonest practices, and a true believer in the opportunities offered by the American way.
A woman of strong opinions, Griffith despised dogs, bankers, society doctors, and any man who let women work to support him, such as young men who allow church women to raise scholarships for them to study for the ministry. Women's work, she felt, should benefit women. Her fiction gives a fascinating picture of contemporary life highly colored by her earnest solicitation of the reader's opinion. The three works of fiction by Griffith are well worth the attention of a student of early American fiction, especially her utopian romance. But perhaps the most interesting aspect of her work after all is its critical comment on woman's place in the business world.
Adkins, N., Introduction to Three Hundred Years Hence by M. Griffith (1950). Jones, L., F., and S. W. Goodwin, eds., Feminism, Utopia, and Narrative (1990). Rohrlich, R. and E. H. Baruch, eds., Women in Search of Utopia (1984).
Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).
History of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society (1880). New England Farmer (May 1831). Transactions of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society (1876, 1877). Women's Studies (1982).