'Like Blindness, Like Death, Like Exile': New Biography Explores the Life of Julia Ward Howe

Illustration for article titled 'Like Blindness, Like Death, Like Exile': New Biography Explores the Life of Julia Ward Howe

Julia Ward Howe is likely best known for penning Battle Hymn of the Republic. Hastily written in a Washington, DC hotel room during the early days of the Civil War, Howe’s patriotic lyrics became synonymous with the march of American soldiers. “As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,” Howe wrote, forever marrying religious martyrdom with the just cause of the war. Battle Hymn of the Republic was so successful that when Howe died in 1910, she was a revered matron known as the “Queen of America.”


Though the lyrics earned Howe national fame and enduring success, penning Battle Hymn of the Republic might be one the least interesting things about her. In her new biography, The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe, the highly regarded feminist critic Elaine Showalter traces Howe’s life, from unhappy wife to poet, abolitionist, and suffragette. Born to a wealthy New York banker in 1819, Howe, Showalter argues, had “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.” Howe, however, was foiled and frustrated by both a culture that devalued women’s creative output and by marriage. Showalter has produced here a surprisingly timely and particularly relevant biography, one which slyly addresses the often intertwining contemporary debates on marriage, motherhood, and creativity.

Laura Bridgman, 1855. Image via Getty.
Laura Bridgman, 1855. Image via Getty.

To say that Howe was deeply unhappily married might be an understatement. In 1843, she married Samuel Gridley Howe, a doctor and director of the Boston’s Perkins Institution for the Blind. Her husband (nicknamed Chev), eighteen years her senior, was already established in his field and highly regarded for his work with Laura Bridgman. The deaf and blind Bridgman was Chev’s greatest success story and, by the time Howe married the doctor, Bridgman had become world-famous, a good Victorian lesson in perseverance and social reform. Bridgman, in turn, brought Chev recognition as “the great teacher and emancipator of the blind and deaf.” But, as Showalter notes, Bridgman also became a kind of template for the doctor’s expectations of women in general; she was pliant, intensely devoted, and a ready student. In what was ostensibly a love letter, Chev told Howe that if she ever grew wings, “I shall unmercifully cut them off, to keep you prisoner in my arms.”

Unfortunately for Howe, she had a far more progressive view of marriage. She sought companionship, both mental and physical, from the union, an expectation that would prove continually disappointing. Howe, who had begun writing criticism and poetry at an early age, continued to pursue creative endeavors, much to the chagrin of her demanding husband. Chev, above all, valued the ideal of Victorian marriage—he wanted an angel in the home, a woman committed to the charms of domesticity. For all outside appearances, the Howes were a “power couple”— educated, wealthy, attractive—but at home, their marriage was contentious and unhappy.

“How beautiful, how wonderful is nature,” Chev wrote to his unusually close friend, later the famous abolitionist senator, Charles Sumner. “Only a year ago, Julia was a New York belle—apparently an artificial, possibly by some thought a beautiful one. Now she is wife who lives only for her husband and a mother who would melt her very beauty, were it needed, to give a drop of nourishment to her child.” Meanwhile, in private letters to her sister, Howe wondered whether or not marriage was an emotional trap.

Howe had become pregnant with the first of her six children shortly after the wedding. Her perception of motherhood was decidedly different from her husband’s. There is no question that Howe loved her children, but she struggled with the constraints of motherhood; both its strict guidelines and expectations. She also wrestled with maintaining her individuality—both her need for intellectual stimulation and continued creative engagement—within the often consuming work of mothering. “No woman is under any obligation to sacrifice the whole of her existence to the mere act of bringing children into the world,” Howe wrote to her sister. “I cannot help considering the excess of this as...degrading to a woman whose spiritual nature has any strength. Men, on the contrary, think it glorification enough for a woman to be a wife and mother in any way, and upon any terms.”

Julia Ward Howe, c. 1900. Image via Getty.
Julia Ward Howe, c. 1900. Image via Getty.

Stuck at home with numerous young children, with a husband who had little interest in her work and actively discouraged her intellectual pursuits, Howe rebelled in small ways. In the late 1840s, Howe secretly began to write a novel. She described the book as a “history of a strange creature,” and it tells the story of a Laurence, a scholar who lived as both man and woman. The book, which was published posthumously as The Hermaphrodite in 2004, is strikingly modern and daring. But Howe never published the novel (it was found in 1977 by a graduate student), likely understanding that the subject would shock society and permanently rupture what remained of her marriage.


By 1853, however, Howe was clearly tired of these small acts of rebellion and, without her husband’s knowledge, published Passion-Flowers, a rather scandalous book of confessional poetry. Many of the poems are about her terrible marriage, her struggles with motherhood, and a rumored affair she had during a long trip to Rome.

The poem that attracted the most attention was “Mind versus Mill-Stream,” a parable that Showalter suggests undoubtedly alludes to her unhappy marriage:

If you would marry happily

On the shady side of life

Choose out some quietly-disposed

And placid tempered wife,


To share the length of sober days,

And dimly slumberous nights;

But well beware those fitful souls

Fate wings for wilder flights!


For men will woo the tempest,

And wed it, to their cost,

Then swear they took it for summer dew,

And ah! Their peace is lost!

Howe’s poetry was angry and sometimes downright petty (she wasn’t above taking a few rhymed swings at the Barrett-Brownings whom she disliked), but it’s unusual for the time period when female poets, in particular, were expected to wax poetic about the beauty of domestic life. Howe’s dissatisfaction didn’t go unnoticed by critics—friends or enemies alike. The poet Nathaniel Hawthorne, who had once been friendly with the Howes, wrote that he admired the poems but expressed reservations over the intensity of Passion-Flowers. “The devil must be in the woman to publish them,” he wrote to his publisher. The poems, Hawthorne continued, “seemed to let out a whole history of domestic unhappiness.” He disdained Howe’s candor and openness, ultimately wondering, “What does her husband think of it?”


The answer, in short, was that Chev was furious. The publication of Passion-Flowers had surprised her husband who didn’t even know that Howe was working on the project. He threatened to divorce her and keep the children. Plus, Chev was in charge of the rather sizable fortune Howe had inherited from her father, and he had wasted much of it on bad real estate investments. In order to keep both peace and children, Howe edited later versions, removing poems and taming others, accepting an ugly bargain.

Cover for sheet music of Battle Hymn of the Republic, circa 1898. Image via Getty.
Cover for sheet music of Battle Hymn of the Republic, circa 1898. Image via Getty.

It was shortly after this that both Howe and her husband turned their attention to abolitionism. They had both met John Brown, and Sumner, Chev’s lifelong friend, brought them into the cause. Howe was impressed by Brown’s commitment and admired his zeal, but maintained that she was surprised by his actions at Harper’s Ferry. In 1861, Howe wrote Battle Hymn of the Republic; adapted to the tune of John Brown’s Body, it quickly became synonymous with the Civil War. Showalter argues that Battle Hymn was the turning point in Howe’s life. Its mainstream popularity, “gave [Howe] the power and the incentive to emancipate herself.” It helped that Howe was also in her forties by the time she wrote Battle Hymn, well past her child-bearing years, and she was no longer beholden to the care of an infant or her husband’s interests.

After the war, Howe became dedicated to the passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments. Later, she joined the “militant” Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and was active in the National Woman’s Suffrage Association. Tellingly, the day after her husband’s funeral in 1876, Howe wrote, “Began my new life today.” She would spend her remaining 34 years campaigning for women’s suffrage. Howe died in 1910, ten years before the 19th Amendment was passed.


The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe trails off at the end. Showalter seems less interested in the familiar history of Howe (the abolitionist, the suffragette) and more committed to a nuanced portrayal of her emotional endurance. In this respect, Showalter renders an impressionistic portrait of mid-century American women bound by forces—the expectations of marriage and motherhood—well outside of their control and, in particular, Howe’s determination to pursue art making in spite of them.

Showalter’s book is a compelling entry into the debate over what modern marriage should look like, particularly what the institution holds for women. “Marriage, like death,” Howe wrote, “is a debt we owe to nature.”


Top image via Getty.