Elaine Showalter on Julia Ward Howe, a poet against all the odds of her era

Book of the week: For the poet told to lay down her pen on becoming a wife, writing was freedom, finds Catherine Clinton

March 24, 2016
Julia Ward Howe writing at desk, 1906
Source: Alamy
Marital roller coaster: Julia’s writing drew the disapproval of Samuel Gridley Howe, who was the sun, moon and stars to Laura Bridgman

It is a tale crying out for a Hollywood treatment: once upon a time in the 19th century, Julia Ward, a Titian-haired beauty and aspiring poet who will be known to posterity as the author of The Battle Hymn of the Republic, meets her match in the powerful patrician Samuel Gridley Howe.

Raised a princess and pining for her prince as she rolls around Manhattan in her family’s lemon-yellow carriage, the heiress nicknamed Diva catches the eye of Samuel just as his Boston cronies suggest that he settle down and marry. Known to his friends as Chev, he sports the Greek chevalier of the Order of St Saviour, and seduces the younger woman with tales of a dashing past spent fighting alongside the Greeks for their liberation in 1824 before heading home to build a medical career at the Perkins Institute, a pioneering school for the blind in Boston.

For propriety’s sake, Samuel requests Julia lay down her pen when he slips a ring on her finger. On her honeymoon in London in May 1843, she writes in her diary: “I feel my varied powers all depart/Was scarce a hope they maybe born anew/And naught is left, save one poor, loving heart,/Of what I was – and that may perish too.”

Small wonder Samuel wanted his wife to give up writing poetry, in light of such revelations within her autobiographical verse. Julia would not easily shift into her husband’s orbit, and William Wordsworth’s daughter Dora complained that she was a “horrid, rude clever radical woman of a wife”.

Long accustomed to being at the centre of the universe, Samuel expected others to revolve around him. He had been the sun, moon and stars to his adolescent protégée Laura Bridgman, chosen as an attractive blind child to put on display at the school. Laura’s worship of her mentor and the constellation of adoring women he encouraged meant that Julia had a tough time convincing her husband to be a partner rather than a dictator.

Elaine Showalter has a knack for embedding vivid phrases and images in her prose as she lays out the drama of Julia’s marital roller coaster – from pampered belle to miserable wife and even more ambivalent mother who, at one point in 1849, would refer to her third child as “the unwelcome little unborn”. She was startled to be so frequently abandoned by her husband, and over the decades his neglect created waves of resentment and rage, retreat and reconciliation. Julia felt that “her marriage had turned out to be another imprisonment with her husband as the jailer”. Showalter deftly demonstrates the misunderstandings and obstacles, and the parade of children, that contributed to periodic meltdowns. Julia counselled her difficult spouse: “For our children’s sake, for our own, we must strive to come nearer together, not live such a life of separation.” During more than 30 years of marriage, she would learn to cope with emotional distance and repeated cold shouldering.

Showalter skilfully highlights “how desperately each of the Howes needed comfort, compassion, tenderness and trust, and how little they were able to get from each other”. Julia’s writing became a form of therapy. After the birth of her third child, she began a work of fiction with a hermaphrodite as the central character. Her female Gothic portrayed the woman artist as “not only a divided soul, but also a monster doomed to solitude and sorrow”. Unfortunately, this protagonist never resolves his/her sexual ambiguity, and Howe never completed the manuscript, which would finally be published as The Hermaphrodite in 2004.

In December 1853, Julia published her first book of poetry, Passion-Flowers, over her husband’s strenuous objections. Showalter’s chapter on this period is stellar, weaving the personal with the political and the literary with the illuminating. She frames Julia as a contemporary of Walt Whitman’s, and suggests the impossibility of a female poet creating songs for herself within 19th-century America. In critiquing the dismissal of her subject’s poems by previous biographers, Showalter does not overplay her hand, but deftly interweaves analysis of texts while dissecting the critical reception of Julia’s work and her literary legacy.

Any illusion of happily ever after would be shattered by gossip and scandal in 1850 as Julia moved out of her sister’s home in Rome and into her own flat while Samuel was away temporarily. She would later become smitten with a younger man, and drew attention to her infatuation. (The hapless fellow ended up committing suicide in Paris two years after their flirtation.) She detested life back at her husband’s Perkins Institute (“I cannot swim about in this frozen ocean of Boston life”), and became increasingly alienated from family routines. Samuel’s attempts to control his wife led to constant friction, as Julia confessed to feeling bereft of hope, love or courage.

She branched out into composing plays and essays. Her most difficult pregnancy, in 1859, coincided with Samuel’s abolitionist radicalism against a backdrop of John Brown’s raid on a military arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. When the Civil War broke out two years later, Julia travelled with her husband to Washington DC for his work on the Sanitary Commission. Encouraged to take up her pen to compose patriotic poetry, she wrote verses late at night on Sanitary Commission notepaper. Her editor came up with the title of The Battle Hymn of the Republic, paid her $5 and in February 1862, published the verses anonymously on the cover of The Atlantic Monthly. Showalter’s account of the song’s creation is handled effectively, and further appreciation of its impact can be gleaned from consulting John Stauffer and Benjamin Soskis’ 2013 study The Battle Hymn of the Republic: A Biography of the Song that Marches On.

After the Civil War, Julia sought money by delivering philosophical lectures and going on the road, a career path that elicited fury from her husband and two elder daughters. She closed every performance with The Battle Hymn of the Republic. By 1869, aged 50, she converted to the suffragist cause and joined the American Women’s Suffrage Association, and other feminist groups. Upon Samuel’s death in 1876, she threw herself into her speaking career and embraced the community of women who admired and inspired her. By 60, she had begun a biography of the journalist and women’s rights activist Margaret Fuller and became a pillar of the Boston Brahmin literary establishment. By her 70th birthday in 1889, the “public rituals of veneration” had blossomed. Of her very active schedule, her daughters complained: “Is there nothing worthwhile in life but the platform and the public?” She began to write her memoirs, and in 1908, nearing her 90th birthday, became the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. A week before her death in 1910, she was given an honorary degree at Smith College, with a chorus of 2,000 white-clad girls singing The Battle Hymn of the Republic at the ceremony.

This tour de force provides a compelling portrait of an era: Showalter plumbs the depths of motherhood and marriage, individuality and coupledom, as she chronicles the emblematic struggles of one compelling American iconoclast. The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe reminds us of Showalter’s wit, authority and extraordinary gifts as a scholar and writer, offering hope and courage as she allows our heroine Julia Ward Howe to step forward at last “to claim her own voice and her own power”.

Catherine Clinton is Denman chair of American history, University of Texas, San Antonio, and international research professor, Queen’s University Belfast.

The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe: A Biography
By Elaine Showalter
Simon & Schuster, 320pp, £20.00
ISBN 9781451645903
Published 8 March 2016

The author

The eminent literary scholar Elaine Showalter “was born and raised in Boston, a city welcoming to smart girls and intellectual women, even in the dire 1950s. I grew up in a city of universities.”

Now emeritus professor of English at Princeton University, Showalter lives “in Washington, DC and London as often I can, with English Showalter, a scholar of 18th-century French literature, my husband of almost 53 years. Two brilliant grownup kids: a filmmaker, Michael Showalter, and speechwriter Vinca LaFleur, and four grandchildren.”

As a child, Showalter recalls, she was “an insatiable reader, very studious. Almost no encouragement or attention from parents or teachers or other adults, but librarians let me sneak into the adult reading rooms.”

Her undergraduate days were spent at Bryn Mawr University, where she was “sociable, often bored by classes, getting interested in politics. I never expected to have a significant career but wanted to teach in a university.”

Of Showalter’s many acclaimed works of criticism, her 1979 study Toward a Feminist Poetics is arguably the most influential. What is her view, with the benefit of some decades’ hindsight, of the young scholar who wrote that work? 

“Being in the women’s movement gave me the courage to write what I really thought about subjects that I deeply cared about (ie, women’s writing), rather than try to produce criticism that looked like the prevailing style and values. I didn’t expect it to help my academic career, but I knew there would be an audience, primarily women, who would care about it too, and I had faith that they would use it and correct it and build on it. A wonderful time to be a young scholar!”

Since her retirement in 2003, she is “not trying to do scholarly research these days but I do a lot of writing and reviewing.

In her 2003 book Teaching Literature, Showalter made the case that teaching should be equal in esteem in the academy to scholarship and research. In recent years, she says, she is “pleased to see more discussion of the importance of teaching, but I don’t think it is taken as seriously as scholarship, or even as an intellectual problem and concern.”

Showalter insists that although the subject of her current book faced many challenges and setbacks, Julia Ward Howe “was anything but depressing to write about. So full of life, so funny, so intelligent and curious and daring. And of course I knew the ending.”

Asked to name an early career academic whose work has impressed her, Showalter replies, “I greatly admire the work of Ann Heilmann at Cardiff [University], not exactly early but brilliant. Also Anne Boyd Rioux of the University of New Orleans. Sarah Churchwell, who was a graduate student at Princeton when I was there, and was one of my teaching assistants, has had a career I respect and admire and learn from.”

What gives her hope? “My children, my grandchildren, my students who are now doing great things in the world.”

Karen Shook

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Print headline: The heroine of her own life

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