Elaine Showalter’s “The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe” is a beautifully crafted biography of the author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” whose proper image masked a life of conflict and determination.
“The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe”
by Elaine Showalter
Simon & Schuster, 320 pp., $28
For generations of Americans, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” has been the hands-down favorite in patriotic songbooks, thanks to its emphatic cadence, dramatic lyrics and rousing chorus. The author of that classic, Julia Ward Howe, was always portrayed as a little old lady wearing a lace collar, a quaint cap and a sober expression.
Now literary critic Elaine Showalter has blown that prim impression out of the water with “The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe.”
This meaty new biography traces the tumultuous life of a woman who had an immense intellectual appetite and corresponding literary ambitions. Born into a privileged household in New York City, Howe grew up “greatly covet[ing] an enlargement of intercourse with the world.” But society — and her widower father — had different expectations: She was “to become a belle first and a housewife after.”
Julia had no trouble fulfilling the first expectation. She was a redheaded beauty with a fair complexion, and her lovely singing voice prompted admirers to call her the Diva. Her father died when she was only 20, making her a beautiful and popular heiress.
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A few years later Julia met Dr. Samuel G. Howe, 18 years her senior and founder of what is now known as Perkins School for the Blind. Howe was a dashing figure who had spent many years in Europe — his nickname was “Chev” because the King of Greece had awarded him the title of Chevalier for his efforts in the Greek struggle for liberation from Turkey. After returning to the United States, Chev soon developed a reputation for his pioneering work in educating the handicapped. And it didn’t hurt that he was strikingly handsome.
From the start, the courtship between Chev and Julia consisted of admonitions on his part, and pledges of sacrifice and surrender on hers. The difference in ages and the conventional expectations of the time should not have made this surprising.
But the matter of Julia’s inheritance, which was managed by her brother, became an additional complication, and the struggles for power that began there only intensified into other areas throughout the course of their marriage.
Showalter is evenhanded in investigating the tribulations of this marital mismatch. Julia soon began to chafe under Chev’s authority, and diary entries and letters to relatives conveyed her growing resentment. For his part, Chev was aghast that Julia still insisted on pursuing literary ambitions and couldn’t find fulfillment in her role as wife and mother. The Howes’ marriage produced six children, but connubial relations were far from blissful.
In the end, Julia outlived her husband and their oppressive marriage by decades. She made the most of those years by campaigning ardently for reforms of all sorts — especially women’s rights.
Not only does this biography illuminate the abrasive psychological battles of this Victorian-era power couple, and Julia’s ultimate resilience — it also sheds light on a long list of other 19th-century American figures, from poets to statesmen to activists.
“The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe” is a marvelous book of substance.