Julia Ward Howe died a century ago today. Little remembered, she was well known in her lifetime as a writer and social campaigner, particularly against slavery, and for the early women’s movement. Two biographies, ninety years apart in their writing, quote extensively from her diaries. Only the newer of the biographies, however, uncovers the extent of her domestic unhappiness.
Julia Ward was born in New York City in 1819, into an established New England family. Her father was a banker, and her oldest brother, Samuel, would marry into the wealthy Astor family. In 1843, the by now accomplished socialite married the serious Samuel Gridley Howe nearly 20 years her senior. He was a hero of the Greek war for independence (which had led to his being known as The Chevalier or simply Chev), and had become a pioneer educator of blind and handicapped children. They had five children that survived into adulthood, but the marriage was always strained.
In 1848, some of Julia’s poems appeared in anthologies, and in 1854 she published, anonymously, her own collection under the title Passion Flowers. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote that the book seemed ‘to let out a whole history of domestic unhappiness. . . . What does her husband think of it?’ Indeed later, in her journal, she wrote: ‘I have been married twenty years today. In the course of that time I have never known my husband to approve of any act of mine which I myself valued. Books - poems - essays - everything has been contemptible in his eyes because not his way of doing things. . . I am much grieved and disconcerted.’
Julia continued to publish poems, as well as travel and biographical writing, and a play of hers was performed in 1857. During the 1850s, also, she was drawn into the anti-slavery movement, being a member of the short-lived Free-Soil Party. And when the civil war broke out, she joined the Sanitary Commission which had been formed to coordinate the volunteer efforts of women for the Union states. In 1862 The Atlantic Monthly published Battle Hymn of the Republic, an abolitionist hymn, for which she wrote the words, though not the music (composed by William Steffe in 1856). It was much sung during the war, and has remained a very popular American patriotic song - indeed, Wikipedia’s entry on the hymn is four or five times longer than the one on Julia herself.
In 1868 Howe founded the New England Women’s Suffrage Association, and the following year was involved in forming the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA). And the year after that she was the first to proclaim a Mother’s Day. For the next 20 years, she co-edited AWSA’s magazine, Woman’s Journal. In 1898, she became the first woman to be elected to the American Academy of Arts. She died 100 years ago today on 17 October 1910. Further biographical information is available from the websites of The Celebration of Women Writers or The Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography.
A recent biography published by Continuum in 2006 - Diva Julia: The Public Romance and Private Agony of Julia Ward Howe by Valarie H Ziegler - quotes often from diaries kept by Julia intermittently. Ziegler says: ‘Diary entries in the 1860s and 1870s continued to disclose scenes of fierce family warfare - of children loyal to their father and furious with their mother, of a wife so distraught with her husband that every moment in his home was filled with agony.’ And here is one example:
‘Diary entries in November and December 1865,’ Ziegler says, ‘give further insight into the squabbles that marked the Howes’ domestic lives. Their lease on their Chestnut Street house - where Sammy [a sixth child] had been born and died - had expired, and Julia noted with sadness her last day in the house on November 3. By November 4, she was already unhappy with Chev’s behaviour in their new residence at 19 Boylston. Her diary noted that she “was very angry with Chev, who is carrying out his plan of putting a hearth & grate in the parlour, entirely against my wishes.” This was a prelude to the battle of the furnace that would transpire in December.
On December 18, Julia observed in her diary, “I complained to Chev this morning of the severe cold of the parlour, last evening, with no unkind intention.” Chev was not sympathetic. “He retorted furiously, saying that it was all my fault, the result of my want of system. I told him these repeated chills wd shorten my life.” Chev answered that dirt in the house would shorten his life. Julia had had enough. “I said, ‘it does not seem to.’ He left, and Maud cried, and Flossy attacked me most severely.” . . .
Julia’s diary December 19 recorded that she was “very melancholy on account of yesterday’s disagreement.” ’
Further on in Ziegler’s book (available for view on Googlebooks) there is an entertaining description of how three of Julia’s children squabbled over the writing of their mother’s biography. This was published in two volumes some 90 years earlier, in 1916, by Houghton Mifflin with the title - Julia Ward Howe 1819-1910. Laura E Richards and Maud Howe Elliott are credited with being the authors ‘assisted by’ Florence Howe Hall. The books are freely available online at Internet Archive (as well as on The Celebration of Women Writers website), and also include extensive quotes from Julia’s diaries. (According to Ziegler, though, Laura’s early drafts of the book contained even more diary extracts but they were edited out for being less entertaining than Julia’s letters.)
Here are several diary entries (as they appear in the 1916 biography) from the last days of 1866.
27 December 1866
‘Let me live until to-morrow, and not be ridiculous! I have a dinner party and an evening party to-day and night, and knowing myself to be a fool for my pains, am fain to desire that others may not find it out and reproach me as they discover it.
Got hold of Fichte [German philosopher] a little which rested my weary brain.
My party proved very pleasant and friendly.’
29 December 1866
‘I read last night at the Club a poem, ‘The Rich Man’s Library,’ which contrasts material and mental wealth, much to the disparagement of the former. I felt as if I ought to read it, having inwardly resolved never again to disregard that inner prompting which leaves us no doubt as to the authority of certain acts which present themselves to us for accomplishment. Having read the poem, however, I felt doubtful whether after all I had done well to read it in that company. I will hope, however, that it may prove not to have been utterly useless. The imperfection of that which we try to do well sometimes reacts severely upon us and discourages us from further effort. It should not.’
31 December 1866
‘Ran about all day, but studied and wrote also. “Farewell, old Diary, farewell, old Year! Good, happy and auspicious to me and mine, and to mankind, I prayed that you might be, and such I think you have been. To you have brought valued experience and renewed study. You have introduced me to Fichte, you have given me the honor of a new responsibility, you have made me acquainted with some excellent personages, among them Baron McKaye, a youth of high and noble nature; Perabo, an artist of real genius. . . You have taught me new lessons of the true meaning and discipline of life, the which should make me more patient in all endurance, more strenuous in all endeavor. You have shown me more clearly the line of demarcation between different talents, pursuits, and characters. So I thank and bless your good days, looking to the Supreme from whom we receive all things.
The most noticeable events of the year just passed, so far as I am concerned, are the following: the invitation received by me to read at the Century Club in New York. This reading was hindered by the death of my brother-in-law, J. N. Howe. The death of dear Uncle John. My journey to Washington to get Chev the Greek appointment. Gurowski’s death. Attendance at the American Academy of Science at Northampton in August. The editorship of the new weekly. My study of Fichte’s ‘Sittenlehre’ and the appearance of my essay on the ‘Ideal State’ in the ‘Christian Examiner.’ My reading at Lexington for the Monument Association. My being appointed a delegate from the Indiana Place Church to the Boston Conference of Unitarian and other Christian Churches. My readings at Northampton, Washington, and elsewhere are all set down in their place.
The bitter opposition of my family renders this service a very difficult and painful one for me. I do not, therefore, seek occasions of performing it, not being quite clear as to the extent to which they ought to limit my efficiency; but when the word and the time come together I always try to give the one to the other and always shall. God instruct whichever of us is in the wrong about this. And may God keep mean and personal passions far removed from me in the coming years. The teaching of life has of late done much to wean me from them, but the true human requires culture and the false human suppression every day of our lives and as long as we live.’