The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe by Elaine Showalter

book jacket portrait of Julia Ward HoweThe Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe by Elaine Show, (2016) is a biography of a woman whose name you probably recall hearing but just aren’t sure why. Then I say, Battle Hymn of the Republic, and you may recall that her poem became the lyrics of this very American song. It nearly became our NATIONAL ANTHEM, but in part because America IS NOT A CHRISTIAN NATION, the Star-Spangled Banner was chosen instead. Plus I kind of am glad that the war-hawk anthem did not succeed in the ennoblement of war although there have been some necessary wars (the Civil War, WWII) and some of the people fighting in them were surely noble, I do not think war itself can ever be noble.

Julia Ward Howe was an almost Forrest Gump character in American history. This biography extensively details how many really now famous names she met, was friends with, acquainted with, or had family who married well (one to an Astor). She was a multimillionaire by inheritance, and unfortunately from one perspective she herself grew to see, would have an entirely much more remarkable life had she been a man or had a father who didn’t turn to the very unfortunate religious cult of Calvinism.

In fact, I would have loved to seen a timeline and the names of all the people she knew and associated with as an appendix, because it was ASTONISHING! Susan B. Anthony to Oscar Wilde! She was herself very accomplished, fluent in six languages, beautifully trained contralto, ambitious literary goals, some successes, but cursed by falling in love with a man who believed that the only purpose for a a married women was to be obedient and devoted to her husband and give her entire being over to the care of her children.

Her husband, “Chev” Howe, was himself a notable man in the public sense for his service to blind and deaf children (the name Helen Keller never comes up because she was 50 years in the future), another famous pupil was his, Laura Bridgman, whom he truly helped but unrecognized her love for him (the man who saved her intellectually and more) had grown more as she grew older. He was very strict about female sexuality: there should be none!

Astonishing to me was the massive amount of traveling they did together, principally for his career and efforts to help blind and deaf children around the world. Julia would come into her own after his death (Though he apparently spent much of her $6 million dollar inheritance — pretty sure there was NO ESTATE TAX (Wikipedia mentions 1898, so that would be after her father’s death) at the time, since her other 5 siblings got the same! Her father was, I bet you guessed, a banker.) especially with the women’s suffrage movement.

She had six children, and they were oblivious to the constant fights and disputes she and “Chev” had. Chev was the nickname after Chevalier because of something to do with his magnificent appearance on a horse or something like that when she first saw him. I missed the detail as to whether it was a nickname from others or her. Or perhaps it was from honors received for his medical service in the war for Greece from the Turks. Anyway, he was living in an alternate reality from Julia regarding her own autonomy and desires, which were always subordinate to his own will.

Fascinating story and reasonably well-written, but I still don’t feel like I actually understand how she fit in her time. Rather more time could have been spent on more details and perhaps some “creative nonfiction” elements to give more life to her. Just the passing mention of Oscar Wilde descending a staircase holding a lily and some peculiar remark about his butler was not satisfying. The author does not actually mention (as far as I recall) that Wilde was gay. So she met all these people but not clear why some of them didn’t help her get out from under the thumb of her husband. But I suppose the answer is that it is hard to understand why a woman would tolerate this from a contemporary context that would “allow” something different than subsuming your life to your husbands needs and his children.


Side note on looking up inheritance to discover first implementation was a Wikipedia article on how a low estate tax causes inequality. The previous link on inheritance tax cites the Thomas Piketty book that I am really going to have to read. It has been cited by a huge proportion of books I have been reading.

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