Friday, April 1, 2016

by Elaine Showalter 

The lyrics for the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" were written in 1861 by Julia Ward Howe while staying in a hotel in Washington, DC. (She had gone to sleep but then awoke with these lines in her mind, for which she had to quickly write them down.) It was actually a poem that she called "Battle Hymn" and sent it to the Atlantic Monthly. Published anonymously (Howe was paid five dollars) it was renamed "Battle Hymn of the Republic." 
Julia Ward was an heiress from New York (her father had been a wealthy banker) and was instructed by tutors in music (she was a contralto and played the piano) and languages (she spoke six), an avid reader, plus always had an interest in writing (mostly poetry). (She would eventually write six books.)
When Julia met Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, a world-famous doctor who developed a method for educating blind children (Perkins Institution; Helen Keller would eventually be educated here), she thought she had met her match and would have an equal partnership. Alas, it was not to be starting off on the wrong foot after they became engaged. Julia wanted to wait for a couple of years and Howe was ready to get married in three months. The power struggle between them already began to assert its place. Their eighteen-year age difference didn't help. To outsiders, it looked like the perfect marriage. They traveled the world together, were both ambitious, had tremendous energy, were committed to public services, knew many political and intellectual people, and seemed to be united. The reality was that Julia was stifled by Howe. He did not approve of married women working outside the home and expected Julia to be fulfilled in her domestic and maternal roles. Howe tried to stop her writing (she tried to do it in secret) and when he discovered some of it, he was enraged. He made all of the decisions and expected her to abide by them. Julia defied him and after her husband died, she finally had her freedom and came into her own.
Elaine Showalter has done a tremendous job of bringing this incredible, strong woman into the light. The writing is wonderful and never bogs down with irrelevant information as so many other biographies seem to do. I never even knew who originally wrote the famous anthem and after reading this marvelous biography, you understand what made her write it in the first place. Julia rose above the strife in her life and was recognized, appreciated, and revered.
Highly recommended.