Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe

Growing up in the Dark Ages of the 1950s I had to search hard to find female role models. Not that my teachers were not great; I admired them immensely. I longed for women who were heroic and brave--and not fictional. In junior high I read began reading biographies: Jane Addams, Clara Barton, Florence Nightingale, Joan of Arc. And I have been reading biographies of women ever since.

The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe by Elaine Showalter is a biography that, unlike the biographies of my childhood reading, portrays a woman both driven and intelligent and flawed and human. I liked it immensely.

Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910) is remembered today for writing The Battle Hymn of the Republic, a rousing anthem with powerful, Biblical inspired words. Otherwise most know little about her. Her poetry, plays, and failed opera did not pass the critical eye or become timeless. Her activism as an abolitionist and suffragette now is forgotten. She worked for abolition of the death penalty and prison reform, education reform, immigrant rights, Indian affairs, worker's rights, and was instrumental in the creation of Mother's Day and the Association of American Women. In her youth she was called the 'Diva' for her sparkling wit, beauty, and intelligence; in maturity she was the 'Mother Superior' of Boston philanthropy and 'the grand old lady of America'.

Julia was born to wealth and had a top-notch education. She studied French six hours a day. Her vocal teacher was from the Italian opera company. Her father had commissioned Thomas Cole for The Voyage of Life , a series of four allegorical paintings depicting the stages of life. Julia met the greats of her time including Longfellow, Dickens, Margaret Fuller, and Charles Sumner. Still, her father kept a strong hold on Julia and she felt bored and yearned for a fuller, freer life. She became a vegetarian, secretly read George Sand, and spent her nights writing. Julia's life altered with her father's death; she adopted his strict Calvinism and was depressed for two years. Finally her friend brought her to Unitarianism and freed from guilt she bloomed. At twenty-two she was a beautiful 'bluestocking', a Diva, an heiress. And unmarried, both longing for love and fearful of childbirth with it's threat of death and the chains that came with childrearing.

Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe came, literally, into her life 'a noble rider on a noble steed'. He was devastatingly handsome, a 'manly man', commanding and stern. He was eighteen years her senior, like Lord Byron was a hero in the Greek Revolution, had pioneered work in education of the blind, and was admired as a philanthropist. Samuel and Julia were both intelligent, passionate, idealistic--they should have been a perfect match. But the honeymoon ended on the honeymoon. Sam could never get past his image of woman as help-meet, mother, the angel in the house who should want for nothing more than house and home. And Julia chaffed against his tight hold, fighting for the right to a voice, artistic expression, and equality in every form. Their marriage was a failure.

Julia was an anomaly: her husband entertained John Brown in his home and she supported abolition, but also felt that slaves needed to be 'raised up' by European culture into civilization and wrote disparagingly of Southern slaves. During the Civil War she was part of a group that had gone to see the troops outside of Washington, D.C. On the long ride home she sang to entertain the men and her companions. A friend suggested she write new words to the song John Brown's Body, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Showalter's book was engrossing and fast reading; I devoured it in two days. Julia was a complex woman, the best kind to read about. I enjoyed learning how critics reviewed Howe's literary works during her life, then tracing changing views of her work across time. I was fascinated by Howe's secret manuscript about a hermaphrodite's life, now perceived as an expression of the angst and struggle that Howe and other Victorian age women endured.

I received a free ARC from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

Read Howe's works on the electronic archives at

The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe: A Biography
by Elaine Showalter
Simon & Schuster
$28.00 hard cover
Publication March 8, 2016

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