Julia Ward Howe’s not so perfect marriage

June 26, 2019 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism, Women writers and journalists, writers, writing.

When the Battle Hymn of the Republic’s stirring lines were first published in the Atlantic Monthly in February 1862, Julia Ward Howe seemed ideally position to receive the fame and accolades that she was about to receive for her poem. She was the mother of six children, and she and her husband, Samuel Gridley Howe, known by his family as Chev, had been prominent reformers and abolitionists before the war. Julia was the author of a well-received book of poetry, Passion-Flowers, and they both had many friends and connections among the New England intellectuals of the day.

That’s the way it appeared to outsiders. Inside the Howe household, a different story was playing out altogether.

Chev had a longstanding opposition to Julia’s writing and to her attempts to create a life, name, and career for herself. He deeply resented the publication of Passion-Flowers in 1853 because many of the poems dealt with the limited role that society had for women and the unhappiness of females in a restricted marriage.

Even though the book had been published anonymously, the identity of its author was an open secret. Chev felt the poems were a criticism of him and their marriage. At one point Chev demanded that Julia revise some of the poems and that she promise to stop writing completely. Otherwise, he would divorce her and take custody of the children.

Faced with that threat, Julia agreed, but she continued writing secretly, and one of those works was the Battle Hymn of the Republic. When she finished it while she and Chev were on an inspection trip to Washington, D.C. — he had been appointed to the U.S. Sanitary Commission — she did not show it to her husband. Rather she showed the point to a friend who urged her to send it to the Atlantic magazine.

The editors put the poem on the cover of the February 1862 edition.

As people read the poem and connected it to a popular tune of the day, it soon became a theme song of the soldiers in camp and a bold, patriotic statement for Americans within the Union. Its popularity changed the dynamics of the Howes’ marriage.

The acceptance of the poem emboldened Julia to continue her writing and to do so openly. Chev could hardly object, at least not in public, but he did so vehemently in private. It was to no avail. Julia had been affirmed as a writer, and she no longer needed her husband’s assent.

The couple remained married until Chev’s death in 1876, but the marriage was never a happy one, and Chev never resolved himself to the fact that his wife had a life of her own.




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