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Julia Ward Howe pictured on her honeymoon.
Julia Ward Howe pictured on her honeymoon.The Yellow House Papers: The Laura E. Richards Collection, Gardiner Library Association and Maine Historical Society

It appears to be a universal law that any discussion of Julia Ward Howe must begin with her waking from a dream in a Washington, D.C., hotel and composing the “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” in 1861, the night after witnessing Confederate soldiers attack a parade of Union troops in Virginia. In “The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe,” a biography with the verve and pace of a delicious novel, renowned feminist literary critic Elaine Showalter obeys the law. But she does so not to celebrate the anthem as the apex of Howe’s career nor to hail her as First Mother of the Civil War. Rather, Showalter calls the song’s success “the turning point in her life,” the moment that liberated the ambitious poet from stifling domesticity and an oppressive marriage and lifted her into the public sphere, where she devoted the rest of her life to writing, public speaking, and activism for women’s rights, working to support herself, and free other women from the constraints she had faced.

Showalter begins Howe’s story as a fairy tale. Young Julia was born into early New York power and privilege: Her father was one of the first American bankers, and her family’s mansions occupied much of Bond Street. Wealthy, beautiful, talented, and entitled, she grew up like a princess in a castle, albeit under the tyrannical rule of her religious and over-protective father, then, after his death, the slightly more gentle control of her brothers. The knight in shining armor who rescued her was Samuel Howe, an American hero of the Greek Revolution and first director of the Perkins School for the Blind.

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The newlyweds headed north, and Howe became a Bostonian, with all the righteousness and sniping that entails. The couple moved in society circles, mixing with Lowells, Cabots, and our renowned cadre of intellectuals and activists, from Longfellow, Emerson, and Alcott (both Bronson and Louisa May, who couldn’t stand her) to Horace Mann, William Lloyd Garrison, and the Fuller sisters. Abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner was her husband’s best friend, and Isabella Stewart Gardner had a scandalous maybe-affair with her nephew. She met Dickens on his famous trip to America, and decades later had Oscar Wilde over for lunch, then dinner, then as a house guest.

Howe wrote from childhood, beginning with poetry and plays, moving on to philosophical papers, an unpublished novel about a hermaphrodite, a biography of early feminist Margaret Fuller, and travel books, not to mention the copious journals and letters of the age. She was initially a hesitant (and racist, like many of her peers) abolitionist, though she eventually embraced the cause and later spoke out for integration and against lynching. “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in February 1862, suturing her poetic career and her activism. A popular and powerful “contribution to the union struggle,” it also solidified her public presence.

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After the Civil War and her husband’s death, she flung herself wholeheartedly into the women’s right’s movement: stumping for suffrage and other political measures with fellow feminists like Lucy Stone; leading numerous organizations, clubs, and projects, such as the New England Woman Suffrage Association and the Woman’s Department for the 1884 New Orleans Cotton Centennial; and lending her name to other progressive causes.

Showalter recounts this public life with entertaining detail — “Twelve Zuni chiefs in full regalia came to lunch’’ in 1880 — but she focuses particularly on Howe’s private life, especially her marriage, convincingly termed her “other civil war of emancipation.” Samuel Howe was known to his familiars as Chev, short for Chevalier of the Order of St. Saviour, which the king of Greece bestowed on him in 1835. The nickname also fit his chivalric image, both public — he saved Greek soldiers and children, as well as Laura Bridgman, the adoring deaf-blind girl for whose education he became famous — and self — he was “very sure that his way was the right way.” (As this phrasing suggests, Showalter takes pains to demolish this image, and though she is not the first to do so, she may be the most delightfully snarky.)

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Although the dashing young doctor and striking young poetess seemed an ideal match of talent and panache, the marriage was difficult from the start. Howe was desperate to maintain her creative life and independence, while Chev, a firm believer in 19th-century gender roles, assumed her father’s place as domestic dictator. Using letters, journals, and poems — including Howe’s scandalous marital allegory “Mind versus Mill-Stream” published in 1853, “a barely veiled summary of the courtship, honeymoon, and marriage, with Chev’s insistence on damming up Julia’s creativity and shutting her up in isolated houses” — Showalter presents convincing evidence that the marriage was rife with conflict and mutual unhappiness, much of it Chev’s fault.

But Howe also bore some responsibility. Although Showalter underscores “her determination, commitment, indefatigability, personal charm [and] good manners,” she also details her whines and complaints, along with how she insulted Elizabeth Barrett Browning, secretly published poems that damned her husband, wrote a “nasty unsigned review” of a rival’s poem, and more.

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That Howe flourished for nearly 35 years after Chev’s death in 1876, points further to the limitations of her marriage — and of Victorian marriages writ large. Although the couple came to a degree of reconciliation in his last years, she came fully into her own after his death, continuing her own domestic and international travels, furthering her writing and activism, and maintaining an active social life. Though she never lost her edge, she nevertheless became the beloved old lady of the nation, bearing a striking resemblance to her contemporary Queen Victoria, in her signature black dress and white cap, and “American journalists increasingly compared [her] to the monarch, one of them boasting after her eightieth birthday gala that ‘when Vic celebrated her 80th birthday . . . she got no ovation equal to that given this octogenarian.’ ”

“The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe” is a polemic and a pleasure. Showalter deploys her prodigious research and narrative skills, acerbic wit, and feminist commitments to reveal 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 CIVIL WARS OF JULIA WARD HOWE

By Elaine Showalter

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Simon and Schuster, 303 pp, illustrated, $28


Rebecca Steinitz is the author of “Time, Space, and Gender in the Nineteenth-Century British Diary.” She can be reached at rsteinitz@gmail.com.