Author: Samuel P. Menefee

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)

Mary Johnston (1870–1936)

Mary Johnston was a novelist, suffragist, and social advocate, as well as the first woman to top best-seller lists in the twentieth century. Born in Botetourt County to a businessman and Confederate veteran, she was largely self-educated. After the death of her mother and during a financial downturn, she began writing in order to help support her family. It worked. Johnston’s second and most famous novel, To Have and to Hold (1900), broke existing publishing records by selling 60,000 copies in advance and more than 135,000 copies during its first week of publication. A romantic tale of colonial Virginia, the book proved to be the biggest popular success between the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852 and Gone with the Wind in 1936. Two novels of the American Civil War (1861–1865) ran her afoul of some prominent southerners, including Confederate general Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson‘s widow, while her increased interest in mysticism puzzled readers and led to a critical and popular decline. Still, Johnston’s social activism may be of more lasting importance than her literary output. She was an early member of the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia, using her reputation as a “southern lady” to the movement’s full advantage. And in 1923, she wrote the influential short story “Nemesis,” depicting the horrors of lynching. Johnston, who never married, died at her home in Bath County in 1936.