Jane Curry

"Finding Marietta Holley for my dissertation at Michigan really changed the entire course of my life."
Jane Curry
Jane Curry

Jane Curry was a CEW Scholar, receiving her award in 1973. Jane received her PhD in American Culture from the University of Michigan in 1975. She has authored three books and performs around the world in one-woman shows, using humor to educate, entertain, and address issues of gender equality. Jane describes herself as “living in Minnesota with her husband, two cats and a snow blower.”

Sometimes a simple thing can change the direction of a life. When Jane Curry was doing research at Michigan for her doctoral dissertation in American Culture, she happened upon a reference to Marietta Holley (1836-1926), a literary humorist who, during her time, was nearly as popular as Mark Twain. Jane made the study of how Marietta Holley used humor and satire to discuss and influence issues of gender equality as a central focus for her dissertation. This engendered an interest in life on the Mississippi River and led Jane to work as a cruise director on the steamboat Delta Queen and to later publish a book based on interviews with Mississippi riverboat pilots. For 30 years, Jane has been writing and performing one-woman shows, the first of which is called “Samantha ‘Rastles’ the Woman Question." In this production, Jane becomes Samantha Smith Allen, a character based on Marietta Holley’s books.

As Jane describes her experience:

“When reading for my dissertation, I read a book titled Horse Sense in American Humor. I discovered Marietta Holley, a 19th century feminist and humorist who wrote on women’s rights and suffrage who was compared at the time to Mark Twain. She wrote 20 books over 40 years. But, nobody had ever heard of her, even my dissertation advisor. So writing about her broke ground in the study of American Culture.

In 1974, just after leaving Michigan, I was a cruise director on the Delta Queen steamboat on the Mississippi. I talked the steamship line into letting me do this job. I felt that passengers on this ship would want to learn about the heyday of the steamboats and all the history on the river. While there, I always loved to watch the river, and listen to the stories the pilots told. These were people who had been on the river for 50 years or more.

After four years on the faculty of Lafayette College in eastern Pennsylvania, I wrote a grant proposal to get faculty leave for a semester to talk with riverboat pilots and write an oral history of the era of the river steamboat. Diesel technology had come to the river, and these people were going to disappear as the steamboats were replaced.

After my leave semester, I really wanted to keep working on this book rather than do all the things necessary to achieve tenure. I was also getting married and moving with my husband to Minneapolis. So with all that, I left academia and spent the next 3 to 4 years writing my book, The River’s in My Blood: Riverboat Pilots Tell Their Stories. I loved the research and took many trips to talk with the river people. They would talk to me because I had been on the river. Each person I interviewed led me to others, and it was great fun.

After getting married and leaving academia, I started acting in what has become a series of one woman shows, acting as one of the characters in Marietta Holley’s books. Now, I’ve been playing her for 30 years!

So, finding Marietta Holley for my dissertation at Michigan really changed the entire course of my life. I’ve made a career out of her humor and causes and from the joy of discovering and writing about life on the Mississippi River. It’s been great fun!"

Books by Jane Curry:

The River’s In My Blood: Riverboat Pilots Tell Their Stories (University of Nebraska Press)
Samantha ‘Rastles’ the Woman Question (University of Illinois Press)
Marietta Holley (Twayne Publishers, US Authors Series)