The Righteous Sentences of Julia Ward Howe

Nicknamed the “Queen of America” in the nineteenth century, Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910) goes often unremembered in ours. Elaine Showalter’s new biography , The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe, aims to recollect reasons for her public acclaim while uncovering her private marital distress.   The most beautiful and accomplished daughter of a New York banker, Julia married Samuel Gridley Howe (1801-1876) in 1843. Howe was pretty estimable himself, a Bostonian who fought for Greek independence in 1824 and came back a hero, thereafter amplifying his fame with establishment of the Perkins Institute, a school for blind and deaf students. In the 1850s Howe also was one of the Secret Six, New England men who supported John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. Julia Ward Howe circulated in that fascinating nest of antebellum East Coast culture-shapers. (Sometimes literally a nest, as it stretched romantic connections among writers and reformers, including Horace Mann, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and the Peabody sisters; Abigail May and Bronson Alcott; abolition couples like Henry and Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Theodore Dwight Weld and his wife Angelina.)  Julia Ward’s marriage to Howe made them one of the Boston area’s power couples.  But Samuel Gridley Howe quashed his wife’s ambitions, trying to stop her from writing and from giving public lectures, insisting that she should be glad to remain wife and mother.   Only after her husband’s death in 1876 did Julia embrace a vocation as writer and reformer.   As Showalter argues, the Howes’ domestic “civil war” paralleled the war going on in the United States, a “paradigmatic clash of nineteenth-century male and female ambitions.”

Treatment of Howe touches American religious history, though Showalter shows a tin ear for doctrine and denomination in recounting the religious shifts in Howe’s life. Like others in her era and social groupings, Howe went from a Reformed Christianity in childhood to Unitarianism later on.  Showalter has little to say for young Julia’s religious upbringing except in caricature, so that the girl “learned to parrot the stiff religious language of Calvinist sermons,” later taking up “severe Calvinism, maybe out of guilt” after her father’s death, then breaking “free of her religious chains” when she adopted the “liberal faith of the Unitarians” and “entered a period of pleasure.”  Even Unitarianism grew pale in contrast to Theodore Parker’s sermons, Julia declaring she would rather “hear Parker preach than go to the theater.”

Julia is mostly known as the poet composed words to “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”  As the familiar story goes, Howe visited Washington in 1861 with her husband and other New Englanders, including Unitarian minister James Freeman Clarke, and saw Union troops marching and singing “John Brown’s Body.” She was encouraged to give the melody—originally a campmeeting tune—more lofty lyrics than recalling the corpse a-mouldering in its grave. That night she had a vision and sprang from bed to before dawn write the song that became famous. From a marching tune memorializing liberated soul of John Brown (“He’s gone to be a soldier in the army of the Lord.”), Howe rather starkly sacralized the Union cause.  Her verses see God’s vengeance in the coming of the Civil War (“I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps”), anticipate divine reckoning (“He is sifting out the hearts of men before his judgment seat”), and liken the fight against slavery to the work of redemption itself (“As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free”).  Time and familiarity have perhaps mellowed  those words as the song has been folded into the canon of American patriotic music, a process evidenced when I heard it sung in a predominantly white Baptist church in Alabama last Fourth of July.

Beyond her participation in Boston-area religious and cultural trends and her famous set of verses, why is Howe worth fresh recognition? Julia Ward Howe did what people in her circle did, engaging in literary pursuits, following important political questions of the day, embracing reform movements, particularly abolition and women’s rights.

This biography fits with recent books about similar women, like Mary, Sophia, and Elizabeth Peabody, or Margaret Fuller, or Clover Adams, remarkable nineteenth-century characters. They learned foreign languages, wielded sharp pens, flaunted sparkling wit, then sank into comparative historical obscurity, either through absorption with marriage and motherhood or by the lack of worthy work appropriate for women in their time.  As Julia described her newlywed self, “The change had already been great, from my position as a family idol and the ‘superior young lady’ of an admiring circle to that of a wife overshadowed for the first time by the splendor of her husband’s reputation.”  Biographers of such women are right that these characters should be more broadly familiar to Americans now. But for what reason?  Heroes of 19th-century reform–temperance workers and antislavery petitioners and suffrage campaigners–are a tough sell to present-day general readership. I suspect a biography like The Civil Wars is offered as a kind of parable about what is lost when women are stunted.   Showalter implies that had Julia Ward Howe lived now, her talents would be recognized–as we in fact recognize by reading about her–but because she lived in an era of women’s subordination, when wives deferred to husbands, she was nearly lost to posterity.

I read the parable a different way.  What happened to Julia Ward Howe is neither a bygone tragedy nor the same struggle of twenty-first century women, but a conundrum wound through the democratic, egalitarian, and meritocratic priorities of her day and ours. “Superior young ladies,” naturally enough, are drawn to spouses of splendid reputation; those power couples sometimes rise together and sometimes do not. Sometimes the realities of embodied human life, especially children, change what counts as success. Samuel Gridley Howe seems to have done particularly poorly at partnership, but struggles come even when spouses best share work and family. The problem comes not just from traditional gender roles or social expectations, but in the difficulty that inheres in putting together, faithfully and well, the work that earns acclaim and the work of caring for family.  As Julia’s children recognized, “She had been a flower of the field, taking no thought for food or raiment,” but when she married, “life in its most concrete forms pressed upon her….Her thoughts soared heavenward; but now there was a string attached to them, and they must be pulled down to attuned to the leg of mutton and the baby’s cloak.”  There are particular features about this that belong more to women’s experience, but men increasingly engage the problem too.  What is bracing about nineteenth-century women like Julia Ward Howe is that they were able to articulate the problem so well, but did not have our sometimes misplaced sense of having solved it.

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