Although she wrote the words to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” words that are better known around the world than anything by her contemporaries Walt Whitman and Herman Melville, Howe has moved to the margins of literary history. Out of her poetry, the “Battle Hymn” is the only lyric that has outlived its author. But Howe was famous for much more than her writing. After the Civil War, she assessed and abandoned her poetic ambitions to become a leader of the women’s suffrage movement, an advocate for world peace, and a tireless worker for human rights. By the time she died, in 1910, she was far more famous in the US and internationally, and more widely and publicly mourned, than either of the two men.
In one of her most quoted lines, Margaret Atwood quipped, “Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them.” Her protégé Alderman takes this epigram seriously, to show readers how women’s lives would be different if they were not afraid. Yet she also forcefully dramatizes the futility of violence, and its inevitable escalation ending in Armageddon. So why this fantasy now? Alderman is reflecting and channeling the anger of a young generation of feminists who will not forgive, excuse, cover up, and accept male abuse.
One of the first things you see at “One Life,” the Sylvia Plath exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, is a long chestnut-brown ponytail tied with a blue bow. Plath’s mother cut it off when the poet was almost thirteen, and preserved it along with her letters and photographs. In the context of Plath’s deeply-documented life, this act seems like a ritual of female puberty, a cropping of the poet’s creative powers, and a shearing of their sexual potential. Plath believed that her mother, Aurelia, always disapproved of her poetic career and her marriage to Ted Hughes, and wanted her to choose a more stable profession, as well as a steady and sober husband.