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Julia Ward Howe published her first book of poetry on December 23, 1853, when she was thirty-four years old. It must have made a rather nice Christmas present for her husband, Samuel Gridley Howe, a distinguished doctor who had recently been rejected by the same press and who had no clue that his wife was shopping a manuscript of her own. And not just any manuscript: Passion-Flowers was an intensely personal airing of desires and grievances, the catalogue of a mutually unsatisfying union. The one that got everyone in Boston talking was “Mind Versus Mill-Stream,” in which a miller looking for a “mild, efficient brook” finds himself confronting an ungovernable and “perverse” river:

For men will woo the tempest,

And wed it, to their cost,

Then swear they took it for summer dew,

And ah! their peace is lost!

Subtle, no?

As Elaine Showalter’s excellent new biography, THE CIVIL WARS OF JULIA WARD HOWE (Simon & Schuster, $28), makes plain, the “apparent autobiographical nature and intellectual range” of Julia’s poetry was unusual for a time when most verses authored by women ran the gamut from simpering to sentimental. Passion-Flowers got some positive reviews — okay, Nathaniel Hawthorne did say that Julia “ought to have been soundly whipt for publishing” it — and sold out its first edition in a matter of weeks. Unsurprisingly, it proved less popular at home. Samuel — who went by Chev in homage to the Chevalier of the Order of St. Saviour that he was awarded for serving in the Greek war of independence, and who owned the plumed helmet Byron had taken to Missolonghi — was a handsome, domineering man eighteen years Julia’s senior. He issued two demands: that Julia revise the book for its second edition, and that she resume the marital relations that had been dormant for the previous eighteen months. Julia anticipated the birth of the resulting child, her fifth, in a letter to her sister: “My mental suffering during these nine months nearly past has been so great that I cannot be afraid of bodily torture. . . . I dread to see the face of my child, for I know I cannot love it.” This was not the only time that Julia conceived of motherhood as a punishment. She had referred to an earlier blessed event as “the unwelcome little unborn.”

Julia Ward Howe, circa 1900 © Corbis.

Julia Ward Howe, circa 1900 © Corbis.

On November 18, 1861, a parade that Julia was watching in northern Virginia was interrupted by a Confederate attack; that night, she wrote the poem that made her a celebrity, “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which put new words to the popular army song “John Brown’s Body.” (Chev had been a member of the Secret Six who funded Brown, though he later testified before the Senate that he had no knowledge of the plan to raid Harper’s Ferry.) Showalter argues that the “Battle Hymn” fused Julia’s feeling of domination by Chev with the Union cause: “During the Civil War, Julia understood that she was also fighting a domestic and personal civil war.” It’s a persuasive reading, but the phrase is icky, as if slavery and the oppression of women were fungible. What’s certain is that women made gains during the war because, as Julia herself wrote, they “found a new scope for their activities, and developed abilities hitherto unsuspected by themselves.” Her particular scope broadened to include the suffrage movement. In the 1880s, she campaigned for a bill that would guarantee widows half of their husband’s estate. She knew whereof she spoke: Chev, who died in 1876, had disinherited her.

Julia continued to write poetry, but none of it reached the heights of the “Battle Hymn,” or even “Mind Versus Mill-Stream.” She never got around to finishing the most interesting thing she started, a sensational novel about a hermaphrodite named Laurence that she drafted between 1846 and 1848. Showalter reads these fragments as an allegory of “the woman artist,” who is “not only a divided soul, but also a monster doomed to solitude and sorrow.” Solitude, however, was not Julia’s way. She wasn’t the kind of writer who scratched away in an attic room, holding out for posthumous glory; she was too busy organizing clubs and arranging speaking engagements. She wanted something more threatening to male power than mere artistic greatness — a public life. “I do not desire ecstatic, disembodied sainthood,” she wrote. “I would be human, and American, and a woman.”

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