The personal civil war of Julia Ward Howe

We remember Julia Ward Howe for genius in composing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” In the history of the English language, few poems have been repeated and sung as much this one — and perhaps none has generated so many book titles.

But Howe is far more than the author of this great piece of poetry.

She was a poet of extraordinary range, as well as a social and political thinker who was far ahead of her time.

She was also a Victorian wife and mother battled her own demons and at times her own husband to find her place in the world.

Howe was born in 1819 and raised in New York City. In 1843, she married Samuel Gridley Howe, a physician and reformer, and the Howes became prominent abolitionists. They had six children, the last born in 1859. The marriage, however, was never a particularly happy one, but Julia hid her unhappiness by concentrating on her children and on her writing.

She wrote plays and a novel, but her first published work was Passion-Flowers, a book of poetry, that was published anonymously — and without her husband’s knowledge — in 1853. Many of the poems dealt with the mid-19th century’s limited roles for women and the way that marriage suppressed women. Her husband, when he discovered her authorship, was enraged.

As Elaine Showalter, Howe’s biographer, writes:

He felt that she had betrayed and humiliated him, and he viewed Passion-Flowers as obscene. He threatened to divorce her and take custody of the two older children unless she agreed to his terms. First of all, she was to cut the verses that particularly offended him in a final third edition, and then abandon the book. Second, he ordered her to stop writing personal poems. Finally, he insisted that they resume their long-suspended sexual relationship. Howe capitulated.

Or so it seemed. She continued to write and even published another set of poems, this time covering her voice so that her husband would not know that she was the author.

In 1861, she went with her husband to Washington, D.C., to review some medical facilities, and it was there, after visiting some of the troops, that she composed the lines of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” She sent the poem to The Atlantic, and months after its publication, it became highly popular in Union Army camps.

The legend of Howe’s poetic creation became part of American literary history. But like all legends, it leaves out and obscures many elements of the full truth. Only a few people close to Howe knew that she was also fighting a civil war at home, struggling to assert her rights to independence, creative expression, and a public voice. The publication of the “Battle Hymn” was a turning point in her life. The song’s renown gave Howe fame and the power to emancipate herself from Chev’s control. It restored her literary confidence in herself, although, ironically, it came to overshadow all of her other writing. Everywhere she went until the day she died, audiences sang her poem to her, or demanded that she sing it to them in her trained contralto. She came to dread the sound of the band and chorus striking up as she entered the room. Source: Whitman, Melville, & Julia Ward Howe: A Tale of Three Bicentennials | by Elaine Showalter | NYR Daily | The New York Review of Books

Despite the poem’s popularity and success, Howe wasn’t finished with her writing career.

Next week: After the battle hymn.

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About Jim Stovall

Jim Stovall, a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker and beekeeper -- among others things.
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