'The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe' tells of a woman's struggle for freedom

Howe, famous author of 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic,' despaired the toll of marriage – of submitting now to her husband’s will.

The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe: A Biography By Elaine Showalter Simon & Schuster 320 pp.

Americans may remember Julia Ward Howe for writing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Composed during the early months of the Civil War, these rousing stanzas have stirred patriotic feelings ever since. “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord....”

In this biography by Elaine Showalter, Mrs. Howe becomes far more than a woman who happened to author a landmark anthem. She emerges as a woman readers will know intimately, and admire for her resoluteness as an early feminist.

Of course Ms. Showalter enjoyed a big advantage: By the time Howe passed away in 1910 at age 91, she had left a legacy of poetry, journals, letters, and other material. Meanwhile, Ms. Showalter, a prominent writer herself, has authored a number of other books about literary women.

In The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe, Showalter masterfully fits it all together – the domestic drama of her “civil wars” with her husband; her complex relationships with her children; her role as an abolitionist, and advocate for women’s rights; her travels in the US and Europe, and, of course, her achievements as a poet. Settle in for an absorbing story.

Howe’s father, the abundantly successful New York banker Samuel Ward, was the first man to both love – and limit – Howe. Showalter quotes Howe in words that could apply to her youth: “Boys have ... the healthful hope held out to them of being able to pursue their own objects, and to choose and follow the profession of their choice. Girls have 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.” 

Societal restrictions and expectations aside, Howe, in her youth, experienced a privileged lifestyle. Showalter begins her book by stating “Julia Ward grew up living like a princess in a fairy tale.”She, her three brothers, and two sisters lived in a succession of opulent Manhattan mansions.

But these homes became prisons as her father placed boundaries on her activities; much of her schooling, for example, was provided by visiting tutors.  “Writing was the one amusement she was allowed, and since poetry was considered respectable and ladylike, she began to write poems.” 

Then, at 23, she married the dashing Samuel Gridley Howe and moved to Boston.  Eighteen years her senior, he was renowned for spending six years fighting for Greek independence, and for playing a central role in founding, then presiding over, the Perkins School for the Blind.

Soon she despaired the toll of marriage – of submitting now to her husband’s will. She had not anticipated, she wrote, “how little he would adapt [his life to hers and] felt betrayed by [his] inability to show his love, neglected by his workaholism, perplexed by his failure to understand her loneliness and her need to have a life as full as his own.” 

Motherhood came early; ultimately, she bore six children.  This highly intelligent young woman – this aspiring writer – was living, as she described it, “in a state of somnambulism, occupied principally with digestion, sleep, and babies.” 

Of course domestic struggles became material to later examine in verse.  Meanwhile, in a number of ways, Howe experienced extraordinary liberties compared to other 19th-century women.  For example, in the early 1850s she and two of her children spent a year in Rome, away from the rest of the family, where she pursued a friendship with writer Horace Binney Wallace, with whom she was infatuated.

Ultimately, Howe became much more famous than her husband. Her first book of poetry – "Passion-Flowers" – she managed to publish in late 1853 without her husband’s prior knowledge. Its success, and references to marital strife, widened their rift.

Then, famously, in November 1861, while staying in a Washington, D.C, uncomfortably close to Civil War fighting, having visited troops and war hospitals, she woke up in the middle of the night in her hotel room with the words to what Showalter calls “the greatest American war anthem in history.”

Howe engaged in sad soul-searching when her husband died in early 1876. Nonetheless, freed from strictures of married life, with her children grown, she was at liberty to move “more and more into leadership positions” in women’s organizations, to travel extensively, to continue to write, and to give lectures. 

This final third of Howe’s life is provided in comparatively short order.  Nonetheless, these pages demonstrate her career climaxing to where she becomes “a national treasure.”

Showalter concludes this powerful biography by commenting “[Howe] won her civil wars, and she earned her place in American history.”Indeed.

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