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Book Review: The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe

By (March 18, 2016) No Comment

The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howejwh

by Elaine Showalter

Simon & Schuster, 2016

Elaine Showalter, in her scintillating new book The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe, rightly mentions that the 2-volume 1916 biography Julia Ward Howe, written by Howe’s daughters, “hid as much as it revealed.” That earlier biography won a Pulitzer Prize and still makes very good, very eloquent reading today, but Showalter is unquestionably correct in her implication that daughters can be protective. They utilized a portion of the Howe family correspondence in order to paint a picture of a “a woman as charming and funny as she was learned and thoughtful, as devoted to her large family as to public service,” and Showalter mines many of the same sources and many others in order to paint a far more detailed and far more interesting picture of the woman Henry Wadsworth Longfellow described in her youth as “a fine, young, buxom damsel of force and beauty, who is full of talent, indeed carrying almost too many guns for any man who does not want to be firing salutes all the time.”

As Showalter notes, Julia Ward Howe “had six children, learned six languages, published six books; she was prominent figure in the churches and intellectual societies of Boston … [she] was the first woman to be inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Born three days after Queen Victoria, she was sometimes called the Queen of America.”

She was an abolitionist and an indefatigable suffragist, but of course she’s best known to posterity as the author of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which she wrote in a passionate fit and sold to The Atlantic Monthly in 1862. Showalter’s book fills out this solitary achievement with a host of others in the busy life of a fiercely intelligent woman raising a family in South Boston and publishing volumes of poetry anonymously out of worry that her carping, somewhat ungenerous husband would disapprove (the work Showalter does on clarifying the prickly dynamics of the Ward Howe marriage is the running highlight of the book). These volumes began with 1854’s Passion-Flowers, and the whole collection of those volumes constitute something of an elephant in the room in any biography of Julia Ward Howe – in short, the awkward reality of fact that a woman now mainly remembered for a poem was in fact a dreadful sappy poet, even by the dreadful sappy standards of her day. Showalter raises the question directly, almost gesturing toward dismissing it:

How good a poet was Julia Ward Howe, and how important is Passion-Flowers? Most specialists in nineteenth-century women’s poetry would dismiss this question as irrelevant. They argue that the primary task of literary historians is recovery of the lives and texts of the scores of women who wrote, and that raising aesthetic questions means applying elite male standards to a group of writers whose intentions were different and for whom sentimentality was a technique like any other poetic mode.

But “Nonetheless, poetry is an artifact of language,” she writes. “We can judge its range and versatility, the originality of its images, its use of words and meter.”

We can indeed, but The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe is gentle in its dispositions. There are no popular Penguin Classics paperbacks of Howe’s collected verse and no clamor for them, and this book firmly grounds the power of her life elsewhere than the printed page, not only in the social struggles that filled her public life but also in the personal strivings that filled her private life. It’s a remarkably heartfelt vision of a woman who read Elizabeth Gaskell’s life of Charlotte Bronte and wondered if she would ever be famous enough for people to care about her life. “I can’t be C. B.,” she wrote, “but I may do a little something yet.”