The Battles of Julia Ward Howe

Review: Elaine Showalter, 'The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe: A Biography'

Julia Ward Howe
July 24, 2016

To tell the truth, I was not prepared to enjoy this book as much as I did. I knew it was about Julia Ward Howe, who had written "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," and I had read she did not get along with her husband, but that was the extent of my knowledge. I also presumed that this would be the story of a creative woman oppressed by a male-dominated world, and that women would therefore be shown to be the "good guys" and men the "bad guys."

It was a pleasant surprise, then, to read and greatly enjoy Elaine Showalter’s book. Showalter, professor emeritus of English at Princeton University, can tell a good story, and though the story she tells is indeed at least partly about a creative woman oppressed by a male-dominated society, Showalter’s telling is nuanced and human. She has barbs for both Julia Ward Howe and her husband, Samuel Gridley Howe. Not all the men are oppressive, not all the women the oppressed.

Julia Ward (1819-1910) was born into the wealthy family of a New York banker, Samuel Ward. She was like a princess in a castle tower: privileged, well educated, but also confined—taught that, despite her excellent education and desires to be a writer, especially a poet and literary critic, she could only aspire to being a good wife. As she later wrote, she was confined to "the dispiriting prospect of a secondary and decorative existence, with only so much room allowed them as may not cramp the full sweep of the other sex."

Yet Julia probably received a better education than her brothers who learned by rote at boarding schools. They hated their studies; she, having "a group of extraordinary gifted and accomplished teachers," loved hers. Although she had some success as a writer and poet before she married, in general she was discouraged from literary aspirations that extended beyond the family.

Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe "rescued" Julia from the castle tower. Howe was a hero to the Greeks, second only to Lord Byron himself, for his years spent fighting for Greek independence from Turkey. Returning home, he started the Perkins Institute for the Blind in South Boston. Howe was a man who needed a quest, and at that period in his life it was to help blind children—his first success was educating the deaf-blind child Laura Bridgman, a sort of precursor to Helen Keller. Julia Ward and her sisters, along with Howe’s best friend Charles Sumner and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, visited Howe at Perkins; he and Julia met again a year later and, after a siege, Howe won Julia’s hand.

A few relatives and friends warned her against Howe, and Julia herself had misgivings at times because he was such a charismatic figure, demanding total devotion from her. Most people thought it was a wonderful match, however, and Julia hoped that Howe, in his devotion to her, would allow her more freedom as the years went by—freedom to write and pursue her interests, which, when she was young, mainly consisted of fancy-dress balls; later came the cause of women’s suffrage.

But when Dr. Howe rescued her from Samuel Ward’s castle tower, he brought her to his own. What ensued was a stormy marriage, to say the least, featuring screaming matches, hysterics (on both sides), deception, adultery (on his part, of course), power struggles, separations and separate lives, reconciliations, and competition for the love of their children. Dr. Howe, also known as "Chev," short for the "Chevalier," wanted Julia to live for him, his projects, and the children; Julia did not want to be limited to those roles.

Showalter writes that it would be easy to make Chev "the heartless villain in the marriage and Julia as the helpless victim," but to her credit she does not do so. Julia comes out looking better—Chev was an insecure egoist—but Showalter does not excuse her for leaving her two oldest children with Chev for a year while she lived in Paris.

In a fair assessment comparing Julia and Walt Whitman, born the same year, Showalter writes:

Howe was a poet with the irresistible force of her talent, the subversive intellect of an Emily Dickinson, the political and philosophical interests of an Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and the passionate emotions of a Sylvia Plath ... But Chev was an immovable object in her path, a powerful censor, her worst critic; and mid-nineteenth century America did not allow her to grow.

She is remembered, however, after Samuel Gridley Howe has been forgotten. "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" is not a bad legacy.

Published under: Book reviews