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Julia Ward Howe’s Civil Wars, by Elaine Showalter.

November 27, 2015

Julia Ward Howe’s Civil Wars: A Biography, by Elaine Showalter.  Simon & Schuster (2016), 320 pages.

4 stars

An excellent biography of a nineteenth-century poet, lecturer, and advocate for women’s rights who fought a personal civil war against her husband’s domination.

Julia Ward Howe is best known as the iconic author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” during the civil War. Less known is the story of her life and the difficult struggle she waged against her husband’s demands for her submission and isolation. Elaine Showalter is to be thanked for researching her personal as well as her public life and retelling it as an easily accessible narrative.

Showalter is an Emeritus Professor of English at Princeton. Beginning in the 1970s, she has been one of those who have created and defined Feminist Literary Criticism. With her knowledge of nineteenth-century literature, she is particularly qualified to write a biography of Howe. Her scholarship is impeccable and her use of the extensive Howe manuscripts is well documented. She also understands how nineteenth-century America defined and enforced gender definitions in ways that shaped the lives of many upper-class women. Yet her scholarship never overwhelms readers interested in how a specific woman, Julia Ward Howe, lived her life within those limitations and why she eventually rebelled against them.

Julia Ward was the daughter of a wealthy New York banker, a loving but controlling father. She later described herself growing up as “a princess in an enchanted castle,” beloved and pampered but not allowed to explore the world at large. While still a teenager, she married a dashing man eighteen-years her senior. Samuel Gridley Howe had already spent years fighting in the Greek Revolution and afterward was known to family and friends as “Chev”, a nickname for an honorary title he had received for his efforts. Returning home, he continued his heroic stance by founding a school to save deaf children from their afflictions. He was close friends with Senator Charles Summer, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and other political and intellectual leaders of pre-Civil War Boston.

While Showalter is careful not to demonize Julia’s husband, she makes clear that his expectations for his wife were totally in contradiction with hers. He believed a woman should be a creature, totally obedient and serving his every desire. Julia was accustomed to being a social “belle,” and had hoped that her marriage would bring her into New England’s literary world. Chev’s male friends, however, shared his image of women. Chev was quick to attack, verbally and physically, and shame Julia for any gesture directed away from him. When she managed to print her rather conventional poems, he was dismissive. Frequent childbearing also complicated her life. Although she repeatedly tried to please him, she was seldom successful. He threatened to divorce her and perhaps had affairs with other women.

Abolition was one cause the couple shared, and Julia accompanied Chev to Washington, D.C. when Civil War broke out. After hearing Union soldiers singing “John Brown’s Body,” she wrote words that have become “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” It was a work unlike her other writing and made her into a national icon, but it also increased her husband’s anger at her. She began to lecture and speak publicly. Soon she was caught up in the movement for women’s rights, where she gloried in new bonds with other women. She continued her activism in the long years after her husband’s death.

I found Julia Ward Howe a fascinating woman, and her story is well told by Elaine Showalter. I gladly recommend his book to anyone interested in nineteenth-century women, women’s rights, and the clash of gender expectations.

Thanks to Edelweiss for providing me with an electronic review copy of this book.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Pat Robbennolt permalink
    November 27, 2015 9:12 pm

    Sounds fascinating. I need more time to read. I love historical fiction. Pat

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