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The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe

A Biography

About The Book

A “lively biography” (The New Yorker) of Julia Ward Howe, the powerful feminist pioneer and author of the Civil War anthem, “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

Julia Ward (1819–1910) was an heiress who married a handsome accomplished doctor who worked with the blind and deaf. But Samuel Howe wasted her inheritance, mistreated and belittled her, and tried to stifle her intellect and freedom. Nevertheless Julia persisted and wrote poetry and a mildly shocking sexual novel that was published to good reviews. She also wrote the words to probably the most famous anthem in the country’s history—the Civil War anthem, “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

After Samuel died when she was fifty-one, Julia lived another forty years as a dynamic, tireless, and successful activist for women’s rights, pacifism, and social reform. She became a groundbreaking figure in the abolitionist and suffrage movements, and a successful author and lecturer who fought her own battle for creative freedom and independence. In the “riveting” (The New York Times Book Review), “unfailingly vivid” (The Atlantic) and “invigorating” (O, The Oprah Magazine) The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe, esteemed author Elaine Showalter tells the story of Howe’s determined self-creation and brings to life the society she inhabited and the obstacles she overcame. The Civil War challenged nineteenth-century ideas of separate spheres for men and women. In Howe’s case, this transformation led to a rebellion against her marriage. She fought a second Civil War at home and discovered ways to combine domestic chores with creativity and politics, and she helped establish Mother’s Day to honor women and to recruit them to her causes. “A biography with the verve and pace of a delicious novel…Showalter reveals the entwining of Howe’s public and private lives, as she righteously battled her husband and society, and finally saw the glory she always believed she deserved” (The Boston Globe).


The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe

Julia Ward grew up living like a princess in a fairy tale. The daughter of a wealthy New York banker, the oldest of three devoted sisters, and the pet of three energetic brothers, she spent her childhood in a splendid Manhattan mansion where the finest tutors instructed her in music and languages, and her summers with her grandmother and cousins in Newport. She was cherished, indulged, and praised; but, she confessed in her memoir, she also felt like “a young damsel of olden time, shut up within an enchanted castle. And I must say that my dear father, with all his noble generosity and overweening affection, sometimes appeared to me as my jailer.”1 The combination was paradoxical and prophetic. As she grew up, Julia would often relive the experience of the princess in the castle—loved and admired, but also restricted and confined.

An avid reader, she dreamed from an early age of becoming a great writer herself and tried to prepare herself intellectually for the role: “A vision of some important literary work which I should accomplish was present with me in my early life, and had much to do with habits of study acquired by me in youth, and never wholly relinquished.”2 Her family tolerated her literary dreams, and supported her habits of study, but expected her to become a belle first and a housewife after. Her brothers were educated to be successful professionals; the sisters were trained to have all the feminine accomplishments. At the height of their youth and beauty, they were known as the Three Graces. Julia, the most beautiful and accomplished of all, was called the Diva.

Julia’s father, Samuel Ward, had made his own way to riches. He went to work at fourteen as a clerk in the investment banking firm Prime and King, which had handled loans for the construction of the Erie Canal. Even then he knew that he wanted to become “one of the first bankers in the United States.”3 By the age of twenty-two, he became a partner in the renamed Prime, Ward, and King. Ward was a disciplined, purposeful, serious young man, but his marriage in 1812 to sixteen-year-old Julia Cutler was a passionate love match. First to please her, and then to make up for the hard work and long self-deprivation of his apprenticeship, he set up an expensive household. Despite his pious Low Church upbringing, and his wife’s even stricter Calvinist beliefs in hellfire, sin, and damnation, Ward had no guilt about his wealth. Spending money on the family was not sinful, he believed, but proper and spiritually sanctioned. Banking was a “lofty and ennobling” profession, valued “for the power it confers, of promoting liberal and beneficent enterprises.”4

Within a decade of their marriage, the Wards had six children: Samuel, born in 1814; Henry in 1817; Julia on May 27, 1819; Francis Marion in 1821; Louisa in 1823; and Annie in 1824. (Another daughter, also named Julia for her mother, had been born in 1816 and died of whooping cough at the age of three.) Somehow, in the intervals of repeated pregnancy, childbirth, and nursing, Julia Cutler Ward did fund-raising for the Society for Promotion of Industry among the Poor, which helped to train impoverished mothers as seamstresses. She also wrote poems and published them anonymously in the newspapers. Although she joked that her husband was indifferent to her “effusions,” he expressed some pride when her poem on General Lafayette’s arrival in New York was published. In 1849, her poem “Si Je Te Perds, Je Suis Perdu” was included in Rufus Griswold’s anthology The Female Poets of America.5

By 1820, the Ward family was living in a big house at number 5 Bowling Green, at the tip of Manhattan, fast becoming the chicest address in the city and known as Nob’s Row. Ward enjoyed buying splendid furniture, gold cornices, and the grand pianoforte without which no society home was complete. He gave his wife extravagant gifts, most spectacularly a lemon-yellow carriage, which had bright blue cushions and a blue interior, and was pulled by a pair of bay horses with black manes. This luxurious vehicle, the Cadillac of coaches, cost $1,000 and was driven by a black coachman named Johnstone.

The young Wards had an active social life. In the winter, they went sleighing and entertained their friends at “caudle parties,” where steaming-hot whiskey punch was served and the guests got “red as roosters.”6 Samuel threw himself into the efforts to find husbands for his wife’s two unmarried sisters, Eliza and Louisa, hiring tutors and professors to train them in ladylike accomplishments and social graces, and buying them stylish gowns for their debuts. To inaugurate their Bowling Green home and introduce Louisa to eligible young men, the Wards invited seventy of the most fashionable people in New York, including Mrs. John Jacob Astor, wife of the richest man in the United States, to a lavish dinner dance. There Louisa met a suitable lawyer from Savannah named Matthew Hall McAllister and later married him. As Samuel Ward became richer and richer, he also worked harder and harder, and gave generously to New York universities and charities.

Bowling Green was a good place to raise small children. In 1823, the fort in New York Harbor protecting the city from invasion in the War of 1812 had been converted into a resort named Castle Garden, a popular destination for fireworks, picnics, and ice cream, with a big auditorium for celebrations and concerts. (It is now Castle Clinton National Monument, which gets three million visitors a year as the ticket office for the Statue of Liberty.) Every day, Julia’s Irish nurse took her for a walk to nearby Battery Park to watch other little girls playing, and every afternoon at three, Johnstone came to take the Ward children and their nurses for a sedate ride. Julia Cutler Ward tried to teach her little daughter to sew. Reflecting on the failure of her early indoctrination in needlework, especially her struggles with the use of a thimble, Julia Ward Howe blamed her own clumsiness; but she did not have memories of her mother as seamstress. She remembered her parents instead as a glamorous couple whose entertainments she was sometimes allowed to watch as a special treat, especially a night when they took her out of bed and dressed her in an embroidered cambric slip with a pink rosebud on the waist. Four-year-old Julia was taken down to the drawing rooms, “which had undergone a surprising transformation. The floors were bare, and from the ceiling of either room was suspended a circle of wax lights and artificial flowers. The orchestra included a double bass. I surveyed the company of the dancers, but soon curled myself up on a sofa, where one of the dowagers fed me with ice-cream.”7 This dreamlike party, with its illuminations, decorations, music, dancing, beautiful dresses, and sweet foods, was to remain her image of enchantment throughout her life.

The days of wine and roses were short. Julia Cutler Ward endured several bouts of inflammation of the lungs, or tuberculosis, was bled by leeches and blistered with poultices, and became so slender and pale that she drew attention as a fashionable beauty. As her sister Eliza observed, since her illnesses began, Mrs. Ward had “grown wondrous handsome.” Her complexion was clear and glowing, “her figure extremely slim and genteel, and the expression of her countenance . . . peculiarly interesting.”8 Genteel slenderness, however, gave way to sunken cheeks and persistent headaches and coughs. Faced with an early death, Mrs. Ward reverted to the Calvinist beliefs of her family, repented for her sins, and prayed for forgiveness.

On November 11, 1824, giving birth to her seventh child, Annie, she died of puerperal fever at the age of twenty-seven. Her relatives had gathered around her sickbed to pray for her salvation; as her granddaughters would write, “she was almost literally prayed to death.”9 In the middle of the night, the family woke the children to tell them their mother was dead and took them to the bedroom to kiss her cold cheek. Julia remembered very little of these early years, but she dreamed of her mother until the end of her life, and each of her own pregnancies was accompanied by depression and fear of death.

Samuel Ward was so devastated that he refused to see his infant daughter for weeks. In his grief, he became a convert to his wife’s Calvinist beliefs and a model of evangelical piety and sobriety. He never remarried. Soon after her death, he sold the Bowling Green house and most of its furnishings, and moved the family uptown to a house at number 16 Bond Street, then at the northern edge of Manhattan, just above Houston Street. In 1825, Bond Street was a remote, isolated, and risky neighborhood, but Samuel saw its potential, and he persuaded his family to buy property on the same street—his father at number 7, and two unmarried brothers, his brother John next door at number 8, and his brother Henry at number 14. By the 1830s, Bond Street had become a flourishing and exclusive neighborhood of more than sixty houses. The six motherless children were surrounded in the Ward compound by an enclave of affectionate aunts and uncles. Aunt Eliza, who had not yet succeeded in finding a husband, despite her brother-in-law’s best efforts, moved in to take care of them. She was used to being the family caregiver; after her own father’s death, when she was fifteen, she had taken over the management of the household and raised four younger siblings. Tall and awkward, with large uneven teeth and hairy moles on her face, she had good-naturedly put up with being the designated spinster and enduring the humiliating customs that went with the role; at the weddings of her younger sisters, she had to dance in her stocking feet. When her youngest sister died, she was available to supervise the upbringing of her nieces and nephews.

As Julia described her childhood, her father’s religious views ruled the household, and “the early years of my youth were passed in seclusion not only of home life, but of a home life most carefully and jealously guarded from all that might be represented in the orthodox trinity of evil, the world, the flesh, and the devil.”10 There would be no more parties or balls; Samuel Ward forbade dancing parties, the theatre, and concerts, and gave up his favorite pastimes of smoking and playing cards. To his worldly brothers’ dismay, he even became the president of the Temperance Society and threw away the bottles of fine Madeira in his cellar.

To protect his children, especially his daughters, from the “dissipations of fashionable society, and even the risks of general intercourse with the unsanctimonious,” Ward restricted socializing to the family circle.11 Their family routines were unvarying, austere, and strictly observed: simple meals, water to drink, and prayers twice a day. He also took a Puritanical view of Saturday evening, regarding it as the proper time to prepare for the marathon religious observances of Sunday, which started with the luxury of coffee and muffins, but then devolved into two church services plus two Sunday-school meetings. Julia got some pleasure from looking at the showy bonnets, all flowers and feathers, at the Grace Church, known as “the Church of the Holy Milliner.” In the intervals between sermons, the children were permitted to read pious books, and Julia was grateful for the didactic stories of Mrs. Sherwood, which passed Sabbath muster. Mr. Ward was a stern disciplinarian, whose displeasure cast a chill over the children, although he never spanked or whipped them. “My little acts of rebellion were met with some severity,” Julia recalled.12 She adored him but feared him as well.

For the Ward daughters especially, life was spent indoors, like the little girls of Victorian genre painting, who are often represented looking wistfully out the barred window. The older boys had a riding ring where they could ride their ponies, but the girls were discouraged from outdoor pursuits. When they were allowed to take walks, they were clothed in thin cambric dresses, white cotton stockings, and Moroccan kid slippers, even in the coldest weather, and often came down with colds, “proving conclusively to the minds of their elders how much better off they were within doors.”13 Much later, with daughters and sons of her own, Julia reflected on the fashions, activities, and health of boys and girls. “Boys are much in the open air. Girls are much in the house. Boys wear a dress which follows and allows their natural movements. Girls wear clothes which almost impede their limbs. Boys have, moreover, the healthful hope held out to them of being able to pursue their own objects, and to choose and follow the profession of their choice. Girls have the dispiriting prospect of a secondary and decorative existence, with only so much room allowed them as may not cramp the full sweep of the other sex.”14

Still, Mr. Ward, whose own education had been cut short, and who had never been to Europe, wanted his children to have the educational opportunities he had missed, to learn to speak foreign languages, and to be taught by the “best and most expensive masters.”15 The boys were sent to board at the progressive Round Hill School in Northampton, Massachusetts, directed by Joseph Cogswell and George Bancroft. Cogswell was a literary sophisticate who had spent years in Europe, where he became a friend of Goethe, got to know Sir Walter Scott, and even visited the celebrated lesbian couple the Ladies of Llangollen. Bancroft rose to become a distinguished historian and minister to Great Britain and Berlin.

The girls were mostly educated at home, but Julia had a group of extraordinarily gifted and accomplished teachers. Indeed, her private education may have been better than the rote learning her brothers received at boarding school, and was certainly more intense and tailored to her talents and interests. While her brothers often complained of the dullness of their studies, she considered the hours with her books the brightest of her day. As a little girl, she studied French six to eight hours a day for conversation, and read the fables of La Fontaine. A French dancing master came to teach the girls steps they were not permitted to practice outside their home. As Julia grew older, she studied piano and the works of Beethoven, Handel, and Mozart with a London-trained instructor. Professor Lorenzo L. Da Ponte, the son of the man who had written the librettos for Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Le Nozze di Figaro, taught her Italian, and Giovanni Cardini, who was affiliated with the Italian opera company in New York, worked with her on singing and voice training. She also studied mathematics, philosophy, and history.

Her reading, however, depended on which books her father would allow and buy for her. She dreamed of writing a great novel or play, but she knew very little about either genre. Low Church evangelicals like Samuel Ward suspected fiction of dangerous frivolity, and Julia mentions only a few novels—Paul et Virginie, Dickens, Sir Walter Scott, and Anna Jameson’s Diary of an Ennuyée. She always loved the theatre, or rather the idea of the theatre. At the age of seven she had been taken to the opera to see La Cenerentola and The Barber of Seville, but then her father cracked down, seeing the drama as “distinctly of the devil.”16 After that, she “knew of theatrical matters only by hearsay.”17 As a little girl, she dramatized and performed a sensational story called “The Iroquois Bride” from a literary annual, which ended with Julia and her brother Marion, playing lovers, stabbing each other. Her shocked father quickly put an end to nursery theatricals. Later she tried to write a dramatic adaptation of Scott’s Kenilworth, and then undertook an even more ambitious and preposterous subject, a play “suggested by Gibbon’s account of the fall of Constantinople.”18 These efforts do not survive.

While her brothers were widening their horizons, Julia’s life in the house of girls was increasingly conventional. Her ninth birthday marked the end of her childhood and the beginning of feminine propriety as the oldest daughter of the family. Her dolls were taken away, and she entered a neighborhood school, Miss Catherine Roberts’s Day School for Young Ladies, where she learned to parrot the stiff religious language of Calvinist sermons. When her ten-year-old cousin Henry was sick, she wrote him a formal letter notable for its total want of sympathy, affection, or concern: “I hear with regret that you are sick, and it is necessary as ever that you should trust in God, love him, dear Henry, and you will see Death approaching with joy.”19 Luckily, Henry recovered despite her helpful advice. In other respects, though, Julia was still a child, happily writing to her brother Sam in 1828 about her Christmas presents: a skipping rope, a sewing box, Indian moccasins, sugar plums, Heber’s Hymns, and a copy of the ladies’ sentimental annual The Keepsake.

On November 16, 1829, Aunt Eliza married Dr. John Francis, the Ward family’s physician. Dr. Francis was exuberant and gregarious; Edgar Allan Poe, one of his patients, described him as a man of “prodigious vitality” and a raconteur of rich humor, “a compound of Swift, Rabelais, and the clown in the pantomime.”20 Dr. Francis brought his friends, including musicians, actors, and Edgar Allan Poe, to Bond Street. Samuel Ward gave Eliza a white cashmere shawl and pearl earrings as a wedding present, and she looked almost handsome; the dentist had made her a set of false teeth, and a doctor had removed the hairy moles. After their honeymoon, for which Ward loaned them the blue-and-yellow carriage, the Francises lived at number 16 Bond Street, with their growing family of four sons. “Auntie Francis” became more playful, and even fashionable. She had the idea of dressing the Ward girls to match the family coach, and outfitted them “in bright blue pelisses . . . and yellow satin bonnets. This costume was becoming to Louisa and Annie, who had dark hair and eyes, but Julia thought it did not suit her as well.”21

When she turned twelve, Julia was sent to a more advanced female academy, Miss Angelina Gilbert’s School, which cost two hundred dollars a term. But it, too, was a disappointment; she had been promised that she could study chemistry, but having given her a textbook, Miss Gilbert forbade experiments. Julia started to feel the difference from her brothers, and if not to resent it, at least to long for more freedom: “I made rhymes and even dreamed of speeches and orations, often wishing that I had been a boy in view of the limitations on a girl’s aspirations.”22

Writing was the one amusement she was allowed, and since poetry was considered respectable and ladylike, she began to write poems. She had read a very limited and carefully censored amount of Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Shelley, and Byron, as well as hymns. At thirteen she presented her first gloomy little book of poems to her father, with a note solemnly explaining that “my object in presenting you with these (original) poems has been to give you a little memorial of my early life.” With titles like “All things shall pass away,” and “My heavenly home,” they were calculated to win Samuel Ward’s approval. She urged her sisters to take up poetry too; Louisa resisted, but Annie cheerfully produced a couplet:

He feeds the ravens when they call,

And stands them in a pleasant hall.23

Clearly Julia was the only daughter with poetic talent.

In 1832 a cholera epidemic struck New York, and the Ward children were sent to Newport to stay with their grandmother Cutler. The beach town was a respite from the supervision, surveillance, and solemnity of New York. But even on the beach, Julia faced special restrictions as a fair-skinned redhead. While her sisters and brothers played happily in the sand, she had to protect her complexion from the sun under a thick green worsted veil. When the children returned from the beach to their grandmother’s house, she would notice if “little Julia has another freckle today,” and the nurse would be reprimanded for forgetting to put on her charge’s veil.24

That fall, Sammy persuaded his father that he needed more advanced training in mathematics and departed for four years in Heidelberg, Berlin, and Paris. From the time he was fourteen, it was said, Samuel Ward Sr. had devoted himself to making a fortune, and from the same age, Sammy Jr. devoted himself to squandering it.25 In Paris alone, he managed to spend $16,000 on books, theatre, opera, ballet, restaurants, music masters, and gifts for flirtatious young women named Josephine, Florentine, Jeannette, and Rosalie. Sam’s alleged agenda in Europe was to write a history of mathematics, and for research purposes, he purchased and shipped home the entire library of Adrien-Marie Legendre, professor of mathematics at the École Militaire. Returning to Boston via Heidelberg again, he met the recently widowed Harvard professor Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, with whom he immediately bonded; “it was a case of love at first sight.”26 “Longo” became a lifelong friend and Sam’s connection to a circle of literary companions in Boston.

In 1835, the family moved to Samuel Ward’s final and finest enchanted castle, a large brick house at the corner of Bond Street and Broadway, which he designed and had built in the fashionable Greek revival style. Here Ward was free to experiment with his concept of a home that was secluded, protected, and a private sanctuary for family, but also offered the educational pleasures of art, literature, and science, and a community of lively and stimulating relatives and friends. The exterior of The Corner, as it became known, was austere, but the interior was decorated in bright primary colors. In the “house of my young ladyhood,” Julia recalled, there were three large drawing rooms called Red, Blue, and Yellow for their walls and draperies. The yellow and blue rooms featured marble mantelpieces designed and built by young Thomas Crawford, who would later become a distinguished and commercially successful sculptor. In the attic cupola, Ward installed a telescope, and in a thunderstorm he would take Julia there to show her the beauties of the skies. In the basement he built a medical office for Dr. Francis. He also built a magnificent private art gallery, the first in New York. His friend John Prescott Hall, the American consul in Madrid, shopped in Europe for Old Master paintings, buying a Frans Snyders and a Poussin as well as canvases reputedly by Rembrandt, Titian, Velázquez, and Vandyke, which turned out to be fakes.

Ward also paid $2,500 to the up-and-coming artist Thomas Cole, now regarded as the founder of the Hudson River School, for four large paintings. “I have received a noble commission from Mr. Samuel Ward,” Cole wrote, “to paint a series of pictures, the plan of which I conceived several years since, entitled The Voyage of Life . . . The subject is an allegorical one, but perfectly intelligible, and, I think, capable of making a strong moral and religious impression.”27 The paintings, titled Childhood, Youth, Manhood, and Old Age, showed the journey through life of a sensitive young man.28 In art as well as literature, the voyage of life was represented as male.

Julia’s personal study space in the house was the Yellow Room, where her desk and piano had been installed. At sixteen, her school days had ended, and she “began to feel the necessity of more strenuous application, and at once arranged for myself hours of study, relieved by the practice of vocal and instrumental music.”29 Joseph Cogswell from Round Hill, which had closed, was hired to tutor Julia in German. She found it more difficult than French and Italian; nevertheless, she ordered Louisa and Annie to tie her to the chair in the Yellow Room until she had completed her daily assignment, and soon was able to read Goethe and Schiller with ease. When she had opportunities to hear music performed, she felt intensely depressed afterwards; and when she performed in trios and quartets herself, singing or playing the piano or guitar, the aftermath was “a visitation of morbid melancholy which threatened to affect my health.”30 As she wrote to a family friend, “my mind seems to me to be a perfect chaos of different elements confusedly blended together.”31

Her depression and mood swings may well have been the result of puberty. She had reached her full height of five feet and a quarter inch, and was at the average age of menarche in 1830s America. Of course there is no mention of menstruation in Julia’s memoir or her official biography, nor in the diaries and letters of other nineteenth-century American women. How did they learn about it, how did they manage it, how did they feel about it? We can only speculate, because it was held in such secrecy; any public mention, even by a doctor, was considered shocking and indelicate. It must have been Auntie Francis who explained “the periodical function” to Julia. She would have had plenty of experience of all its phases, and Dr. Francis had written a well-regarded textbook on obstetrics.

After puberty, young women were even more restricted in their activities, and yet Julia wanted to go out and make friends: “After my school-days, I greatly coveted an enlargement of intercourse with the world. I did not desire to be counted among ‘fashionables,’ but I did aspire to much greater freedom of association than was allowed me.”32 Mr. Ward claimed he kept her sequestered because he wanted to protect her from her own sensitivity and vulnerability to social influences. Unconsciously, however, he may have wanted to keep her close to him as a companion and substitute for her mother. At the dinner table, he insisted on having her beside him, where he held her right hand with his left, eating his own meal while seeming not to notice that Julia was unable to eat hers.

In the fall of 1836, Sam came home, a liberator bringing into “the Puritanic limits of our family circle,” Julia remembered, “a flavor of European life and culture which greatly delighted me.”33 Sam’s friends came often to the house. A frequent guest was Charles Sumner, a brilliant and eccentric Boston lawyer who was extremely tall, thin, humorless, didactic, rude, and so absentminded that he was frequently targeted by pickpockets. He loved music, however, and Sam hosted musical parties with family members performing Beethoven, Mozart, and Schubert trios. Julia also had free access to Sam’s large library—his scientific and mathematical collection, which eventually became part of the New York Public Library, and his French novels, including Balzac, Hugo, and Sand. Julia knew of George Sand as “the evil woman, who wrote such somnabulic books,” and she had scarcely dared to imagine “the wicked delight of reading them.”34 But when Sam came back, she spent hours every day in his library. As she remembered, many young women read Sand in secret. “We knew our parents would not have us read her, if they knew. Yet we read her at stolen hours, with waning and still entreated light; and as we read, in a dreary wintry room, with the flickering candle warning us of late hours and confounding expectations, the atmosphere grew warm and glorious about us,—a true human company, a living sympathy crept near us—the very world seemed not the same world after as before.”35

Julia did not attempt to write fiction herself, but with the tacit approval of her father, she was writing reviews of European literature. At seventeen, with Cogswell’s help, she wrote a review of Lamartine’s poem Jocelyn, and published it anonymously in the Literary and Theological Review, edited by her father’s friend Leonard Woods. Her criticism was astonishingly confident for a young novice. “De Lamartine,” she admonished, “should study conciseness, and cultivate more concentration of thought.” Her uncle John Ward teased her about her superior scholarly tone: “This is my little girl who knows about books, and writes an article and has it printed, but I wish that she knew more about housekeeping.”36 Julia’s second review, of John Sullivan Dwight’s translation, Select Minor Poems of Goethe and Schiller, was more erudite and assured. Longfellow, who was the professor of modern languages at Harvard, was impressed. “Is it true,” he wrote to Sam, “that yr Sister Julia wrote the rev. of Gothe [sic] and Schiller? It is very good.”37 As she later recalled, “My earliest efforts in prose, two review articles, were probably more remarked at the time of their publication than their merit would have warranted. But women writers were by no means as numerous sixty years ago as they are to-day. Neither was it possible for a girl student in those days to find that help and guidance toward a literary career which may easily be commanded to-day.”38

There were few role models, female or male, for an aspiring adolescent. The biggest literary lion of New York was Washington Irving, then a pathologically shy and elderly bachelor who went to dinner parties but generally dozed off at the table for a ten-minute nap, like a highly esteemed Dormouse. When the travel writer and art critic Anna Jameson visited New York in 1835, Julia met her, relished her bold wit, and hopefully noted that she was a redhead, too, although her daring taste in fashion scandalized New York society matrons. Julia recalled: “I actually heard one of them say, ‘How like the devil she looks!’?”39 Women writers seemed either dull and devout like Mrs. Sherwood, or spirited and disreputable like Jameson and Sand.

In Newport in the summer of 1837, Julia at last made her first real female friend. Mary Gray Ward was a Bostonian and unrelated to the New York Wards, but she too was the daughter of a prosperous banker, who represented the London bank Baring Brothers. The young women had much in common intellectually and emotionally. Like Julia, Mary was literary and lonely, and in their friendship and correspondence each found a confidante she could trust with her deepest feelings of aspiration, frustration, and isolation. As Mary wrote in October 1839, “Before I knew you, Jules, I had no friend . . . I said to myself, ‘my life so far has been completely isolated and alone’ . . . Do you wonder that I love you as I do? No I think not, for you too know what it is to live alone.”40 They shared descriptions of their depressions, or “blue devils,” and Mary gave her very modern self-help advice about living for the moment and “investing it with as much of the golden light as it is capable of receiving.”41

Mary had studied foreign languages with Margaret Fuller and knew the transcendentalist intellectuals, to whom she introduced Julia: Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Channing, and Fuller. Boston, Julia wrote to Mary, was “an oasis in the desert, a place where the larger proportion of people are loving, rational, and happy.”42 People in Boston, she told Louisa and Annie, were “warm-hearted, intelligent, . . . not cold, carping critics.”43 She described herself to the sisters as “having the least dash of transcendentalism, and that of the very best description.”44 But the Bostonians were judging her too, and not as indulgently as she imagined. Margaret Fuller met her at Washington Allston’s art studio and found the “well known Julie” much less impressive intellectually than her own younger sister Ellen, and “as affected as she could be.”45

Meanwhile, Sammy had gone to work at Prime, Ward and King and became engaged to sixteen-year-old Emily Astor, granddaughter of John Jacob Astor. Chaperoned by Sam and Emily, Julia began to go to parties and to try out ways of being a woman. Emily, pretty and fashionable, was one role model, but Julia’s father still exerted considerable control over her appearance and behavior. When she was the first bridesmaid at Sam’s wedding in January 1838, he gave her a diamond ring and a jeweled headband called a ferronnière, the most stylish accessory of the year. The society hairdresser, Martel, “a dainty half Spanish or French octoroon,” who was “endowed with exquisite taste, a ready wit, and a saucy tongue,” came to arrange her hair in braids twisted into a low chignon at the back of the head and darkened with French pomade; red hair was still being treated as a flaw. But after all the anticipation, the ball was a disappointment. The ferronnière, she later realized, “was very ill suited to the contours of my face. At the time, however, I had the comfort of supposing that I looked uncommonly well.”46 The wedding ball was lavish, reminding her of entertainments in the Arabian Nights, but Samuel Ward ordered her to leave, like Cinderella, just as the party was at its height. He escorted her to a few other parties that season but always insisted they leave early.

After her brother’s wedding, Julia alternated between independent attempts at a social life and submission to her father’s demands. At nineteen, she made up her mind to have her own party at home, consulted with her brothers to decide on a guest list, and told her father only that she wanted to invite a few people to The Corner. Instead, she re-created the ball of her childhood, hiring the best caterer in New York, the most sought-after musicians, and a cut-glass chandelier. When Mr. Ward came down to greet the guests, he saw the jeunesse dorée of New York eating and dancing in a blaze of light. After the guests had departed, Julia went to apologize, but he was surprisingly kind and forgiving, and never mentioned it again. She had won the right to choose her own guests. Visiting Mary in Boston, she was invited to three parties in one week and wrote home asking for her mitts, her apron, and the sleeves of her lilac dress.

That summer, though, she was back in the old routine again, staying home in New York to keep her father company while her brothers and sisters frolicked in Newport. She tried to bake a gooseberry pie to please him, but it was a disaster. She joked that at least he was the one who had to eat it. In any case, the pie was a diversion from the dreary monotony of her days in New York: “One day is just like another, tomorrow will be as yesterday and the day before were. The same solitary morning, the same afternoon drive on the same road, the same dull evening and sleepless night.”47

Sam, in New York working at the bank, wrote to his father to protest that Julia was working too hard, following a vegetarian diet, and “destroying herself by eating vegetables,” and “writing all day and half the night . . . She is murdering herself.”48 Alarmed, Mr. Ward sent her to Newport, but even there she kept up her solitary pursuits. “Julia has locked herself up in her room this morning,” Marion wrote to Sam, “to write, for how long, I know not . . . Much does she seem revolving over some plan for literary distinction, but this, I hope, as she grows older and wiser, she will lay aside.”49 Both brothers were concerned that Julia was indulging her eccentric tastes rather than acting as a surrogate mother to her sisters.

In summer 1838, the Ward brothers decided to take control of their family lives. Aunt Eliza, Dr. Francis, and their four children left The Corner that fall for their own house at number 1 Bond Street, and Julia and Louisa took over the housekeeping. Their social flowering was cut off when Samuel Ward Sr. died on November 17, 1839, at the age of fifty-five. Like her father after her mother’s death, Julia took up severe Calvinism, maybe out of guilt. She had not been a religious girl, but Calvinist doctrines “now came home to me with terrible force, and a season of depression and melancholy followed.”50 Her depression lasted for the two years of prescribed mourning, during which she distributed religious tracts and intensified the sober regime of the household, insisting on cold meals on Sunday so that the Sabbath would not be profaned by cooking. To the family suffering under this spartan diet, she became “Old Bird” rather than “Jolie Julie.” She was also writing a series of devout poems and elegies about her father’s death.

In the spring of 1840, Mary Ward became engaged to Julia’s older brother Henry, and perhaps feeling the pressure to get married herself, Julia tentatively accepted the proposal from a minister named Kirk, which she had been pondering for six months. Henry strongly disapproved of her choice. Consider, Henry wrote to her, “the want of sufficient acquaintance, the disparity of years, the arduous duties of the wife of any clergyman & the want of a permanent settlement.”51 Mary disapproved as well, and Julia broke it off.

Then Henry died suddenly of typhoid fever in October, and both Mary and Julia were plunged into grief and depression. Mary recovered first, and lovingly questioned Julia’s religious extremism and urged her to look at the liberal faith of the Unitarians: “I want you to step out of the religious atmosphere in which so much of your life has been passed and for a moment, at least, to look abroad upon the Church Universal towards which the spirit of the age and of the best and most enlightened men of the age, is so strongly tending.”52 And then, prepared by Mary’s encouragement, and ready to shed the burdens of Calvinism, Julia read in an essay by the German poet Matthias Claudius a question that electrified her: “And is he not also the God of the Japanese?” It was an epiphany and “a great emancipation . . . I soon welcomed with joy every evidence in literature to show that religion has never been confined to the experience of a particular race or nation, but has shown itself at all times, and under every variety of form, as a seeking for the divine and a reverence for the things unseen.”53 Her insight freed her from the dark hold of Calvinist doctrine: “It seemed a great relief, afterwards, to have escaped from their dreary phraseology, their set patterns of conviction, their stereotyped way of salvation.”54 As she later summarized the experience, she had “studied my way out of the mental agonies which Calvinism can engender and became a Unitarian.”55 For the first time, and decisively, Julia’s studies had led her to action and autonomy.

Free of her religious chains, and free therefore to enjoy society with her sisters, Julia entered a period of pleasure. Her daughters wrote that “her red-gold hair was no longer regarded as a misfortune; her gray eyes were large and well opened; her complexion of dazzling purity. Her finely-chiseled features and the beauty of her hands and arms made an ensemble which could not fail to impress all who saw her.”56 Julia, Louisa, and Annie formed a trio of sisters named by Harvard professor Cornelius Felton as “The Three Graces of Bond Street.” Louisa was handsome and flirtatious. Annie, the prettiest, was elfin and demure. But Julia was acknowledged to be the most attractive to men. “From the first,” her daughters wrote, “she seems to have stirred the hearts of men. Her masters, old and young, fell in love with her almost as a matter of course. Gilded youth and sober middle-age fared no better; her girlhood passed to the sound of sighing. ‘My dear,’ said an intimate friend of the three, speaking of these days, ‘Louisa had her admirers, and Annie had hers; but when the men saw your mother, they just flopped!’?”57

At twenty-two, Julia was a bluestocking beginning to make a modest intellectual reputation as a reviewer. As the Diva, her operatic singing voice, musical abilities, beauty, and personality made her popular and admired. And she was a great heiress. Samuel Ward’s estate, divided among the six children, with Uncle John and Sam Ward Jr., as trustees, has been estimated at $6 million.58 Julia inherited stocks and bonds and other securities, plus significant real estate holdings: her own property on Pearl Street, Exchange Street, Beaver Street, Sixtieth Street, Third Avenue and Fifty-Eighth Street, Second Avenue and Seventy-Sixth Street, and, with her sisters and brothers, the entire block between Thirty-Fourth and Thirty-Fifth Streets and Eighth and Ninth Avenues.59

None of these assets was completely negotiable, however, without a husband and a home of her own, and none of her smitten suitors seems to have been serious contenders for Julia’s hand. Whether too old, like her tutor Joseph Cogswell; or comically unsuitable, like the elderly sea captain who walked out with her in Newport and handed her his card inscribed “Russell E. Glover’s heart is yours!”; or young and foolish, like Christy Leonidas Miltiades Evangeles, a Greek boy whose education at Columbia her father had subsidized, no man she had encountered was a remotely suitable partner or an appealing romantic conquest. Perhaps in secret Julia wondered if she would soon be the spinster dancing in her stocking feet at a younger sister’s wedding. Yet the death of her brother Sam’s wife, Emily, in childbirth in February 1841 was a frightening reminder of the fate that could await married women, and a memory, alongside the death of her mother, that would haunt her.

In the summer of 1841, Julia, Louisa, and Annie went to visit Mary Ward in Dorchester. Sumner and Longfellow came out from Cambridge to see them and suggested that they should all rent a carriage and drive over to nearby South Boston to visit the Perkins Institution for the Blind and meet their friend Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe and his famous deaf-blind student Laura Bridgman. When they arrived, Dr. Howe was away, but they toured the asylum and met Laura and another pupil. Then Sumner looked out of a window, and announced, “Oh! Here comes Howe on his black horse.” As Julia told the story in her old age, “I looked out also, and beheld a noble rider on a noble steed.”60 He “dismounted, and presently came to make our acquaintance. One of our party proposed to give Laura some trinket which she wore, but Dr. Howe forbade this rather sternly. He made upon us an impression of unusual force and reserve.”61 Sternness, force, reserve, command—these were qualities Julia had respected and loved in her father. She was swept away.

About The Author

© Morad Boroomand

Elaine Showalter, Emeritus Professor of English at Princeton University, combines scholarly expertise in English and American literature with a passion for a wide range of cultural subjects. She has written ten books, most recently The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe: A Biography and A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx, which was awarded the Truman Capote Prize for Literary Criticism. Her writing has appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, People, and Vogue.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (February 28, 2017)
  • Length: 328 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781451645910

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Raves and Reviews

“[A] finely rendered biography.”

* * *

“The book gleams with calm humor, but it is a serious work: a study of Howe’s evolution into a leader in the struggle for women’s rights, viewed through the lens of her marriage to the abolitionist and educator Samuel Gridley Howe, an admirable man in many ways but a vain, jealous, destructive and domineering husband.”

– The Wall Street Journal

“Fascinating are the personal tribulations that the feminist critic Elaine Showalter probes in her unfailingly vivid—and fair-minded—biography.”

– The Atlantic

“[An] invigorating feminist biography.”

– O: The Oprah Magazine

“An energetic new look at the author of the lyrics for “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” finds a modern feminist thread in the heroine’s frustrated marriage. . . . A rich life well deserving of reconsideration. Showalter provides a solid launching point.”

– Kirkus Reviews

"This lively biography of the author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic focuses on what her marriage expresses about the position of women in the nineteenth century."

– The New Yorker

“A robust and enlightening feminist portrait of a national icon.”

– Booklist, starred review

“Showalter proves there is much more to be known about Howe's achievements, political activism, and feminist commitment. . . . Showalter presents a new, multifaceted interpretation of Howe, the first woman to be inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In this highly readable and absorbing narrative, the author argues that Howe's “turbulent and unstable” marriage may be viewed as a clash of 19th-century male and female ambitions. . . . Showalter's appealing analysis of Howe's writings, and her arguments about the tasks of literary historians create a biography that is highly recommended to literary scholars; history students; and general readers interested in women's biography, literature, and history.”

– Library Journal

“Showalter has bravely taken on the task of examining the inner workings of a marriage that ended nearly a century and a half ago. That she succeeds as well as she does is a tribute not only to her scholarly diligence, but also to her proven historical curiosity and her fluent prose. . . . a model of fairness.”

– The New York Review of Books

“Showalter skillfully reveals the depths of Howe’s pain and talent…Howe’s resilience and success in light of her family’s efforts to thwart her ambition make her worthy of Showalter’s admiring biography.”

– Publishers Weekly

“Elaine Showalter is that rarity: a scholar, feminist historian, sharp-eyed cultural critic, with a knack for choosing subjects that are both entertaining and brilliantly illuminating. The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe is written with Showalter's usual witty, sparkling, and erudite style. This zestfully narrated life of an early, pioneering feminist, a tireless crusader for social reform and women's rights, would make an ideal PBS series—indeed, all the parts are in place for a felicitous adaptation of Showalter's gem of a biography of a truly remarkable American woman.”

– Joyce Carol Oates

“Famous as the author of Battle Hymn of the Republic, Julia Ward Howe had a memorable career beyond this single momentous achievement, as a poet, abolitionist, mother, lecturer, and feminist. Interweaving her public life with Julia's troubled marriage to the domineering Samuel Gridley Howe, this splendid biography shows how Julia emerged from her private tribulations as a stronger and more complete person.”

– James McPherson, author of The War that Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters

“In this gracefully presented biography of the woman we remember as the author of the nation’s signature hymn, we find ourselves fighting along with Julia Ward Howe as she wages her long struggle for independence as a 19th Century daughter, wife and mother. Only occasionally did she call retreat as she used the reach of the Battle Hymn and the responsibilities assigned to women during the Civil War to wage her own fight for freedom for herself and the women of America.”

– Cokie Roberts, author of Capital Dames, The Civil War and the Women of Washington

“Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! At last a full, fine, modern biography of the independent woman whose words reanimated the American Civil War and crowned Lincoln, its greatest hero, with a worthy anthem.”

– Harold Holzer, author of Lincoln and the Power of the Press, winner of the Lincoln Prize

An accomplished literary critic, Elaine Showalter draws on journals and letters to give us a true story worthy of fiction. This finely rendered portrait of the oppressive marriage and inner turmoil that fueled Julia Ward Howe's writing and her later activism on behalf of women's suffrage compels a feminist reinterpretation of the iconic Battle Hymn of the Republic. "Mine eyes have seen the glory . . ." takes on entirely new meaning.

– Ellen Chesler, author of "Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America"

“Showalter brings Julia Ward Howe alive as a fascinating and powerful woman rather than a legend on a postage stamp—a feminist pioneer who was as witty, engaging, and intrepid as she was scholarly, literary, and enlightened.”

– Wendy Martin, Professor of American Literature and American Studies, Claremont Graduate University

“Elaine Showalter has brilliantly narrated the life of Julia Ward Howe, with her unhappy marriage to the famed Samuel Gridley Howe, her dislike of motherhood, and the unpublished novel she wrote about a transgender man. This historical biography is timely, as it shows us the underside of a famed Victorian marriage and how patriarchal attitudes could trap even a powerful woman. The story of how she released herself form the emotional captivity of that marriage through becoming a leader in the woman’s movement is inspiring in our own day of considerable backlash against woman’s rights. The book is beautifully written—and a delight to read.”

– Lois W. Banner, Professor Emeritus, History and Gender Studies

“Elaine Showalter has produced a compelling portrait of an American literary luminary whose extraordinary career deserves just the kind of exacting reappraisal this biography offers. From a marriage marked by private domestic turmoil, Julia Ward Howe moved onto the public stage with the assertion that "A comet dire and strange am I," but by the time she died, at ninety, the poet of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" had become an impassioned feminist, a national celebrity, and—in the words of a 1940s admirer—one of the "Wonder Women of History." Showalter's introduction to the civil wars and triumphs of her life is utterly absorbing.”

– Sandra M. Gilbert, Distinguished Professor Emerita, University of California, Davis

“Fascinating, readable and beautifully done, Elaine Showalter offers us a deeply studied portrait of a nineteenth-century woman poet, Julia Ward Howe, who found herself imprisoned, her gifts stifled, in her marriage to an autocrat resistant to a wife’s right to publish her work. This biography, at once profoundly feminist and balanced, and rounded out with the full range of Howe’s achievements as a mother, visionary suffragist and reformer, fulfills Virginia Woolf’s ideal: to select for the facts that ‘suggest and engender.’”

– Lyndall Gordon, author of Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds

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