Martin, Helen Reimensnyder

views updated

MARTIN, Helen Reimensnyder

Born 18 October 1868, Lancaster, Pennsylvania; died 29 June 1939, New Canaan, Connecticut

Wrote under: Helen R. Martin, the author of Unchaperoned

Daughter of Cornelius and Henrietta Thurman Reimensnyder; married Frederic C. Martin, 1899; children: son and a daughter

Socialist, feminist, and champion of the oppressed, Helen Reimensnyder Martin was born to an immigrant German clergyman. She attended Swarthmore and Radcliffe Colleges and taught school in New York City. After her marriage, she lived with her husband in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and had two children, a son and a daughter.

In her first published works, Martin wrote about society girls trying to make something of themselves, a theme she later returned to. She first met real success with the publication of Tillie: A Mennonite Maid (1904); thereafter, most of her books were set in Pennsylvania Dutch communities and depicted the self-improvement campaigns of Pennsylvania Dutch young women. Tillie went into many editions and made Martin a writer in demand, especially for the women's magazines, where many of her novels were serialized. As a picture of the Pennsylvania Dutch, Martin's novels are informed but very biased, at times melodramatically so. Martin was familiar with the colorful manners of her Mennonite, Amish, and other Pennsylvania Dutch neighbors. She created many positive Pennsylvania Dutch characters, especially her heroines, but her most memorable ones are the men: arrogant, mean, illiterate, miserly, and superstitious. Her fathers are usually brutes, while the bumptious youths, brothers or suitors of the heroine, are self-important boors who get what they deserve. Martin was criticized for her description of the Pennsylvania Dutch, but she claimed that she got many letters from them which testified to the truth of her portrayals.

Martin, a feminist, was active as a campaigner for suffrage. All her novels concern the drive for self-improvement, independence, and success of the heroine. She champions votes for women in her pre-1919 novels, but a more prevalent theme is the financial bondage of women. Martin was also a socialist, and her works abound in criticism of capitalism, industrialism, and the way in which established churches uphold the status quo. Many of her clergymen are prissy, self-interested hypocrites. Many of the young, reform-minded clergymen have to leave the church over some social issue. Martin's anger often shows in overdramatization bordering on caricature when she portrays those who enslave the female characters.

There is a good deal of repetition in Martin's books. The typical Martin heroine is a sensitive, intelligent girl, with a mild manner masking a strong will, who has to make her own way in the world, and the typical plot centers on the girl's fight for survival. Either the girl is an abused Pennsylvania Dutch daughter/sister/stepdaughter/wife who has to fight the Pennsylvania Dutch establishment, or she is a society girl who has to combat her mother or her husband. In the stories of married women, most often the husband wants to keep the wife silly and self-sacrificing while he torments her with money problems. In most of the novels, the woman eventually strikes out against the oppressor and wins; and those who don't win vow that their children will have it better.

Martin was not a very good writer, but the force of her feelings about the place of women makes the reading of her work rewarding. The very popularity of such books in the first 30 years of this century tells us something about American women of the time.

Other Works:

Unchaperoned (1896). Warren Hyde (1897). The Elusive Hildegard (1900). Sabina, a Story of the Amish (1905). The Betrothal of Elypholate, & Other Tales (1907). His Courtship (1907). The Revolt of Anne Royle (1908). The Crossways (1910). When Half-Gods Go (1911). The Fighting Doctor (1912). The Parasite (1913; film version, 1925). Barnabetta (1914; dramatization by M. de Forest and M. M. Fiske, Erstwhile Susan, 1916; film version, 1919). Martha of the Mennonite Country (1915). Her Husband's Purse (1916). Those Fitzenbergers (1917). Fanatic or Christian (1918). Maggie of Virginsburg (1918). The Schoolmaster of Hessville (1920). The Marriage of Susan (1921). The Church on the Avenue (1923). The Snob (1924; film version, 1924). Challenged (1925). Ye That Judge (1926). Sylvia of the Minute (1927). The Lie (1928). Wings of Healing (1929). Tender Talons (1930). Yoked with a Lamb, & Other Stories (1930). Porcelain and Clay (1931). Lucy Anderson (1932). From Pillar to Post (1933). The Whip Hand (1934). Deliverance (1935). The House on the Marsh (1936). Emy Untamed (1937). Son and Daughter (1938). The Ordeal of Minnie Schultz (1939).


Overton, G., The Women Who Make Our Novels (1922). Seaton, B., in Pennsylvania Magazine of History & Biography (Jan. 1980).

Reference works:

Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).

Other references:

NYT (30 June 1939).