Johnston was born on November 21, 1870, in Buchanan, Botetourt County, the eldest child of John William Johnston and Elizabeth Dixon Alexander Johnston. Major Johnston, as her father was called, was a lawyer, a businessman, a cousin of Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston, and a Confederate veteran. “We lived in a veritable battle cloud,” Mary Johnston wrote about her childhood, “an atmosphere of war stories, of continued reference to the men and to the deeds of that gigantic struggle.” She described herself as “shy and awkward, easily wounded and then too proud to show that I was wounded.” Due to frequent illnesses, Johnston spent much of her childhood alone, reading Shakespeare, the popular adventures of Sir Walter Scott, and the socially conscious novels of Charles Dickens, as well as English poets and historians and “an infinite variety of odds and ends.”
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.
In 1892, the family moved to New York City, where the always sickly Johnston suffered a bout of illness. This, coupled with the economic panic that lasted from 1893 until 1897, motivated her to seek extra income through writing. Keeping her efforts a secret from her family, Johnston submitted various short stories for publication and burned the rejection notices. She also began work on her first novel, Prisoners of Hope, using Central Park as her writing studio. About 1902, after she published at least two novels, including the best-selling To Have and to Hold, the family moved to Richmond. There Johnston lived with her father, who handled her finances; her brother Walter Johnston, who suffered from various illnesses; and her sisters Eloise Johnston and Elizabeth Johnston. After John W. Johnston’s death on May 21, 1905, Mary Johnston’s earnings as a novelist became an important source of support for the family. Of the Johnston daughters, only Anne married. Mary Johnston lived with and supported her sisters Eloise and Elizabeth for the rest of her life.
Illustrations in Mary Johnston’s To Have and to Hold
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.
With only a few reservations, critics loved the novel, and rather quickly the shy and retiring Johnston was transformed into a literary celebrity. Although she declined to speak for publication, the New York Times still managed to file a fawning profile describing the author’s “wondrous strength and sweetness” and comparing her to her character Lady Jocelyn. To Have and to Hold not only made Johnston famous; it also made her rich. She earned $50,000 from the book in 1900 and more than $70,000 total. She also benefited from the novel’s adaptation for the stage, in 1901, and for the silent screen, in 1916 and again in 1922.
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.”
The Long Roll, published in 1911, was intended to be the first in a trilogy of novels set in Virginia during the Civil War. Interweaving a romantic triangle in Johnston’s home of Botetourt County, the progress of the war from 1860 until 1863, and the rise of Confederate general Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, the novel was hailed by some as a masterpiece and criticized by others, including the New York Times, which thought it not sufficiently admiring of Jackson’s character. On October 29, 1911, the Times gave two-thirds of a page to Jackson’s widow to attack the novel. The piece appeared on the same day in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
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.
Contemporary politics began to intrude on Johnston’s interests as a writer. On November 10, 1909, Johnston told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that she was not interested in associating with “‘militant’ partisans of the woman’s suffrage movement,” and that, in fact, suffrage was not necessarily her top concern. Just two weeks later, however, she became a founding member of the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia. She served as an honorary vice president of that group and the Southern States Woman Suffrage Conference, from which she later resigned because of what she considered to be the group’s racist rhetoric. Still, on June 11, 1911, Johnston told the New York Times that her advocacy for suffrage coincided with her belief in eugenics. The question of women’s right to vote was important “not only to the women but to the race,” she said. “The race cannot be emancipated until all its members are emancipated.”
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.”
After ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920, Johnston declined an invitation to serve on the Organizing Committee of the League of Women Voters. In a letter to Edith Cowles, the executive secretary of the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia, Johnston stated that she supported the extension of suffrage leagues in newly enfranchised states for informative purposes only and was “against any re-segregation of women in the political and social life of the country.”
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
Johnston’s views on race appeared to change over her career. Her depictions of African Americans and Virginia Indians in her early novels rely heavily on traditional, racist stereotypes. In Prisoners of Hope, slaves are described as taking in their surroundings with “a bland and childlike content.” In To Have and to Hold, Indians are described as violent and deceitful (“That dark, cold, still face is a mask”). Lewis Rand was no less dismissive of its nonwhite characters, and Johnston’s attitudes might in part be attributed to her close association with the Old South. Referring to the first national flag of the Confederacy (the so-called stars and bars), Johnston wrote to a friend in 1905, “In spite of all reason and merely [as] an ingrained and hereditary matter, Virginia (and incidentally the entire South) is my country, and not the stars and stripes but the stars and bars is my flag.”
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.
In 1924, Johnston’s novel of the Middle Passage, The Slave Ship, devoted itself at great length to issues of race. Its hero, a runaway indentured servant named David Scott, rises to become the captain of the slave ship Janet. After witnessing and even participating in the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade, he has a change of heart and joins the abolitionist movement, only to end up in servitude at the end. As in all of Johnston’s historical novels, The Slave Ship reflects extensive research; nevertheless, Johnston consistently underestimates the grim realities of the Middle Passage and emphasizes a theme in which master and servant are both slaves.
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.
- Prisoners of Hope (1898)
- To Have and to Hold (1900)
- Audrey (1902)
- Sir Mortimer (1904)
- Lewis Rand (1908)
- The Long Roll (1911)
- Cease Firing (1912)
- Hagar (1913)
- The Witch (1914)
- The Fortunes of Garin (1915)
- The Wanderers (1917)
- Foes (1918)
- Michael Forth (1919)
- Sweet Rocket (1920)
- Silver Cross (1922)
- 1492 (1923)
- Croatan (1923)
- The Slave Ship (1924)
- The Great Valley (1926)
- The Exile (1927)
- Hunting Shirt (1932)
- Miss Delicia Allen (1933)
- Drury Randall (1935)
- The Goddess of Reason (1907)
- The Collected Short Stories of Mary Johnston (Edited by Annie Woodbridge and Hensley C. Woodbridge, 1982)
Plays and Short Stories
- Pioneers of the Old South (1918)
- The Status of Women (Equal Suffrage League of Virginia, 1909)