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The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe: A Biography
The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe: A Biography
Elaine Showalter
Simon & Schuster, 2016
320 pp., 28.00

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Rachel Marie Stone

"Human, and American, and a Woman"

The modest but stifled ambitions of Julia Ward Howe.

When I was a relatively new wife and mother, I lived in a very remote town in the mountains of Northern California, populated mostly by retirees. I grew up in New York, and had developed the full range of allergies to pollen and mold common in that region. Even thinking too hard about the musty smell of dampness sets my sinuses to aching, so the aridity of my new home was a relief and a delight. I loved hanging wet clothing outside to dry, because it actually dried, and quickly, instead of moldering on the line as laundry in wetter climes has been known to do—and the smell of sunshine on sheets and towels and t-shirts was ample repayment for effort expended beyond tossing the wet mass into the dryer.

"What do you do with the unmentionables?" my father-in-law asked. "Hang them in the restroom?"

It hadn't occurred to me to hide our undergarments from public view, my assumption being that most people wear them and that there was nothing to be ashamed of in exposing our standard cotton, six-to-a-pack underclothes to the open air and the eyes of the half-dozen or so people who might pass our house on any given day. Even so, I knew that my father-in-law had grown up when women judged other women's housekeeping by the state of their laundry lines. Were their white things white or dingy gray? Did they snap the wrinkles out of the wet, clean clothing and hang it neatly, trousers with trousers and shirts with shirts, or was the line a jumble of clothes hastily tossed on the line without regard for order? These things mattered: more than the era of not airing dirty laundry, this was an era in which even clean laundry, in the event that it had literally to be aired, could be aired only selectively and with care, lest people talk.

Such fastidiousness now seems impossibly quaint and fussy. During his candidacy for the presidency, William Jefferson Clinton was asked whether he wore boxers or briefs, and he answered the question. My parents were aghast at the tastelessness of the question and at Clinton's dignifying it with a response. That episode seems almost innocent today; the public crudeness of certain political figures, to say nothing of the constant stream of "oversharing" enabled by social media, has eroded any sense that certain things are meant to remain private.

Despite these excesses, I wouldn't really want to live in a time or place where I wouldn't feel free to hang my laundry on the line, literally and otherwise, and to speak plainly and truthfully about the thornier matters of domestic life. Many if not most women experience depression and anxiety during or after pregnancy and childbirth; if the only storyline a woman knows is one involving complete satisfaction and joy, she's apt to think the problem lies with her. But if women sense that they are free to talk candidly and openly about the tedium and stress of life with babies and young children without being thought of as defective, they can find relief in knowing they are not alone.

Chev could not believe that any "true woman" would not be entirely fulfilled by domestic life.

Julia Ward Howe, best known for penning the lyrics of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," was born three days after Queen Victoria, and therefore belonged to an era in which 'unmentionables' really were unmentionable. A biography written by her daughters and published in 1916 portrays a woman "as devoted to her large family as to public service" and offers a cheerful, inspirational look at her domestic life, including her marriage to Samuel Gridley Howe, who was a famous doctor at Boston's Perkins Institution for the Blind. Elaine Showalter, emeritus professor of English at Princeton University, offers a new biography of Julia Ward Howe which, drawing from Julia's memoirs and an extensive body of letters and diaries, shows a vastly different picture, one in which Dr. and Mrs. Howe contributed substantially to one another's unhappiness. Lucid and flowing, with careful attention to theme and structure, it reads almost like a novel despite being grounded in scholarly rigor. Showalter's central argument is hardly controversial to anyone familiar with Victorian notions of 'separate spheres' for women and men: the conflict between the Howes is "a paradigmatic clash of nineteenth century male and female ambitions."

"What a man is is an arrow into the future and what a woman is is the place the arrow shoots off from," intones the fictional Buddy Willard's mother in Sylvia Plath's novel The Bell Jar. Despite coming more than a century after the publication of Julia Ward Howe's first book of poems, this line sums up the problem. Julia had literary ambitions. Her husband, an ambitious man himself, could not understand why domestic life did not satisfy all Julia's yearnings. Like Esther's beau in Plath's roman à clef, who insisted that after she had children she "wouldn't want to write poems anymore," Samuel Gridley Howe was baffled by his wife's dissatisfaction with her lot. She complained in her diary about her husband and his friend, Charles Sumner, pontificating about "the sorrow of unmarried women." They would "change their tune," she wrote, "if [they] could only have one baby."

Motherhood, that most exalted Victorian ideal, was a trial for Julia. Her own mother, Julia Cutler Ward, died of puerperal fever at age 27, after giving birth to her 7th child, when Julia was five years old. Showalter writes: "Julia … dreamed of her mother until the end of her life, and each of her own pregnancies was accompanied by depression and fear of death," noting also that when Julia turned nine, she was expected to give up her toys and dolls, leave childhood behind, and, as the eldest girl in her family, take up a quasi-maternal role. Her father sat her at his right hand at the dinner table, and, oddly, insisted on holding her right hand with his left as he ate, while she sat, unable to eat. For all three Ward daughters, "life was spent indoors"; Julia was very well educated by private tutors, but had little experience of life outside.

Samuel Gridley Howe, 18 years Julia's senior, was well-known as a philanthropist before they married. He traveled to Europe to study methods for educating the blind after fighting in Greece's war for independence (he was universally called "Chev" for the honor given him by the king of Greece: Chevalier of the Order of St. Saviour), after which he raised funds for relief and development and returned to Greece to establish a village school and help the villagers build a harbor, among other projects. "They let me have my own way," he wrote. "If I am good for anything," he wrote of his decision to work at the Perkins Institution, "it is as a pioneer in a rough, untrodden path. I want the stimulus of difficulty." A tall, handsome workaholic, Chev was regarded by a colleague as the "manliest man" he'd ever encountered; his deaf and blind student, Laura Bridgeman, idolized him and was completely in his thrall. He, in turn, exhibited and publicized her—Charles Dickens wrote about Bridgeman after visiting the Institution, which is how Arthur and Katherine Keller learned their daughter Helen could be educated.

Chev was an arrow shooting into the future, but Julia was not content to be "the place the arrow shoots off from." While, as Showalter notes, her acceptance of Chev's offer of marriage was full of the language of sacrifice and surrender," barely six weeks into her marriage Julia wrote, "Hope died as I was led / Unto my marriage bed." For his part, Chev could not believe that any "true woman" would not be entirely fulfilled by domestic life. In a letter to Charles Sumner, he wrote: "No true woman ever considered it a burden to bear her infant within her, to nourish it with her own blood." He was insensitive to or unaware of Julia's suffering, writing rhapsodically of her motherhood: "Only a year ago Julia was a New York belle… . [N]ow she is a 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."

Elsewhere, he accused her of being a hypochondriac when she expressed her fears of dying in childbirth and her discomfort in pregnancy; he dissuaded her from using chloroform, which was then coming into use to ease labor pains, declaring "the pains of childbirth are meant by a beneficent creator to be the means of leading [women] back to lives of temperance, exercise, and reason."

Julia tried to give Chev what he wanted in a wife, but she was a poor housekeeper, and having babies did not take away her desire to write poetry. She and Chev moved in influential Boston circles; when Julia anonymously and secretively published her first book of poems, Passion-Flowers (1853), it was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Chev's old friend, who helped her get it published. The 44 poems in Passion-Flowers are of uneven quality, Showalter says, but undeniably interesting as a peek into the Howe's 'civil' wars; many of them are about being dominated, isolated, and stifled. Despite Chev's strong disapproval (he called her literary and political activities an indulgence of her "passion for public appearance and display"), Julia continued to write and publish, and together, they erected a convincing faÇade of an American power couple. Her lyrics to "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," set to the tune of "John Brown's Body," helped unite abolitionist ardor with the Northern mission more generally; they appeared on the cover of the Atlantic Monthly in February 1862. ("I like this better than most things I have written," Julia noted.)

Julia and Chev converted together to abolitionism, playing a role in supporting Brown. With Chev's death in 1876, Julia was free to become active in the women's movement, which, for many observers, was akin to abolitionism. In a memoir, Julia talks about coming to terms with her identity as a woman: "during the first two thirds of my life, I looked to the masculine ideal of character as the only true one." She does allow that it was "a great distinction for me when the foremost philanthropist of the age chose me for his wife," but insisted that her desires were modest: "I would be human, and American, and a woman."

Perhaps because ours is an age more inclined to airing "unmentionables," the domestic dissatisfactions and creative struggles in The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe feel surprisingly contemporary even as they are emblematic of their own era. Harriet Beecher Stowe, a contemporary, also struggled as a housekeeper and mother, and, though she exalted domesticity in her writing, wanted most of all to write. One might locate 'mommy blogs' in this stream of influence: marriage and babies don't take away the urge to say something, if the urge is there, and ours is an age that does not demand that we keep the conflicted thoughts and feelings that make us human hidden from public view.

Rachel Marie Stone teaches English at The Stony Brook School in New York, and is the author of several books, including most recently the 40th anniversary edition of the More-with-Less cookbook, coming later this year from Herald Press.

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