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Whitman, Melville, & Julia Ward Howe: A Tale of Three Bicentennials

Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images
Julia Ward Howe, circa 1900

This summer is a special season of celebration for American literature. Starting in June, there will be bicentennial exhibitions, conferences, and excursions—at the Library of Congress and at NYU, respectively—to recognize the lives, work, and influence of Walt Whitman and Herman Melville. But the bicentennial of a third important American writer will not be so honored. The oldest of the trio by four days, Julia Ward Howe was born in New York City on this day, May 27, in 1819.

Including Howe in this bicentennial list may startle readers unaccustomed to thinking of her as a major literary figure. Although she wrote the words to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” words that are better known around the world than anything by Whitman or Melville, Howe has moved to the margins of literary history. Out of her three volumes of 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. 

Whitman and Melville were profound and original writers who revolutionized American literature. But the difference between their careers and critical reputations and Howe’s is about gender as well as genius. As the literary historian Paula Bernat Bennett noted, “no group of writers in United States literary history has been subject to more consistent denigration than nineteenth-century women, especially the poets… Their writing has been damned out of hand for its conventionality, its simplistic Christianity, its addiction to morbidity, and its excessive reliance on tears.”

In fact, Howe’s poetry was neither pious, sentimental, nor morbid. She attempted to challenge expectations of women’s writing, addressing some of the very same controversial issues of language and sexuality that Whitman and Melville took on. But she was silenced by the demands of a dictatorial husband and the gendered conventions of the literary marketplace. It’s no accident that the most daringly original and critically acclaimed American woman poet of the nineteenth century, Emily Dickinson, was unmarried, did not have to ask permission to write, and avoided critical pressures by publishing only seven poems during her lifetime.

On the face of it, Julia Ward, growing up as the cherished daughter of a wealthy Manhattan banker, seemed to be blessed by opportunities to succeed. Her father hired the most accomplished European tutors in French, German, and music to teach her. As a young girl, she confidently dreamed of becoming an important American writer. “Through all those years,” she recalled in her memoir, “there went with me the vision of some great work or works which I myself should give the world.” She hoped to write “the novel or play of the age.” But her father was a strict Evangelical Christian who forbade his daughters (though not his sons) to read novels, go to the theater, or go out in the city unchaperoned. At the age of twenty, in 1839, she had read only a handful of novels, and had never seen a play. As she described herself, she was like “a young damsel of an older time, shut up within an enchanted castle.” 

Her father died that same year, but it was not until her 1843 marriage to the celebrated pioneer of education for the blind, Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, that Julia Ward encountered a wider world, beginning with a year-long honeymoon in Europe. Her husband, however, soon proved almost as domineering and confining as her father. He was a hero who had volunteered in the Greek war of independence from the Turks, a radical abolitionist, a lifelong reformer and champion of the oppressed from the handicapped to the enslaved. The one cause he did not support was the equality and emancipation of women. 

He decided where they would live, including, repeatedly, in the gloomy and isolated Perkins Institution for the Blind in South Boston. He decided that they should have six children, and would have preferred eight. He managed to wrest control of her large fortune from her brothers and uncle, sold all of her valuable real estate in Manhattan, and lost almost all of the money she’d inherited through his unwise speculation. He believed that married women should be fulfilled by their husbands, homes, and children, refrain from speaking in public, and only write poetry or perform music for the entertainment of family and friends. 

Despite her education and intellectual gifts, Julia’s writing was either secret or in defiance of his commands. By January 1846, pregnant with her third child, she wrote to her sister Louisa: “My voice is still frozen to silence, my poetry chained down by an icy band of indifference. I begin to believe that I am no poet, and never was one, save in my imagination.” 

In contrast to Howe, Whitman and Melville came from poor families and left school at twelve. With none of the financial and social advantages that Howe enjoyed, they nonetheless had freedom to develop in experience and confidence. Whitman started work as an office boy for a Brooklyn law firm, reading the novels of Sir Walter Scott in his spare time, and exploring every corner of New York. As he recalled, “I spent much of my time in the theatres… going everywhere, seeing everything, high, low, middling—absorbing theatres at every pore.” He avidly absorbed the slang and dialect in the streets, the bars, and the press. By the age of twenty, Whitman was a school teacher and an experienced journalist, already dreaming of his own literary career. “I would compose a wonderful and ponderous book… Yes: I would write a book!”

Melville began working at the age of thirteen, to help support the family after his bankrupt father’s sudden death. When he turned twenty, he signed on as a cabin boy on a merchant ship bound for Liverpool, and the following year joined the crew of the whaler Acushnet, which as he would write of Ishmael in Moby-Dick, would become his Harvard and his Yale. Back in Boston in 1844, after a stint in the navy, he declared the beginning of his life as a writer. Books based on life at sea and his exotic adventures and travels followed fast: Typee (1846), Omoo (1847), Mardi (1849), Redburn (1849), White-Jacket (1850), Moby-Dick (1851). He married and started a family. By 1853, Melville had published his seventh, much-derided novel, Pierre, and become a writer for short stories in the magazines. At the age of thirty-five, the age when Howe and Whitman were starting out as writers, Melville was heading into decline.

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In 1854, Walt Whitman was unmarried, unemployed, and living with his family in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. When he could not find a publisher for his poems, he typeset ten pages of the first edition of Leaves of Grass himself, at the printing shop of some Brooklyn friends, and had two hundred copies bound in green cloth at his own expense. Whitman’s initial efforts at finding a bookstore to sell the book failed, but he persuaded a firm that sold phrenological and health-fad books to take it on. It appeared anonymously on July 4, 1855. Still, the first edition did not catch on, and the copies remained in piles—as Whitman recalled, “none of them were sold—practically none—perhaps one or two, perhaps not even that many.” There were only a few reviews and many reviewers and readers found the book obscene in its use of sexual language and erotic feeling. The Criterion’s critic, Rufus Wilmot Griswold, called it “a mass of stupid filth.” 

But Whitman did not give up. He wrote three rave reviews of the book himself, publishing them anonymously. In the United States Review, for example, he began: “An American bard at last!… Self-reliant… assuming to himself all the attributes of his country, steps Walt Whitman.” He sent a copy of the book to Ralph Waldo Emerson, who responded with a glowing letter of thanks, congratulating Whitman on “the beginning of a great career,” and praising his “free and brave thought,” and “courage of treatment.” Whitman recognized the cultural bonanza of an endorsement from Emerson, but it was in a personal letter. After a few months, he gave it to the editor of the New York Daily Tribune, who printed it, without asking Emerson’s permission. It was the beginning of Whitman’s huge success, not only as a poet, but also a marketing genius and self-publicist. Whitman’s celebration of himself and promotion of his brand has drawn comparisons with the showman P.T. Barnum, the “Shakespeare of Advertising,” whose autobiography was published the same year as Leaves of Grass.

In addition to reviews and blurbs, Whitman commissioned a steel engraving of himself as a frontispiece to convey an image of the muscular, rough American poet. In the first edition, he is shown bearded, casually dressed in an unbuttoned workingman’s shirt, one hand in his pocket, the other on his hip, wearing a black slouch hat. As the scholar Ted Genoways has revealed, the changes Whitman requested in the original engraving also included “a significant enlargement of the bulge in [his] crotch.” As Genoways comments: “Just as Whitman had adopted the dress of a rough, so the frontispiece had to depict what he called in his preface ‘one goodshaped and wellhung man.’”

As far as we know, Melville made no such alterations to his photographs, although from 1846 to 1855, he was pictured with a full black beard. In Pierre, he had described the ambition of his literary protagonist to “sport a flowing beard which he deemed the most noble corporeal badge of the man, not to speak of the illustrious author.” The bard with a beard, if not a bulging crotch, was certainly a cultural stereotype of the writer when Howe began to publish. But women poets did not advertise themselves, or include promotional photographs in their books in the mid-nineteenth century. Indeed, pictures of Howe at this time show her with downcast eyes, a bonnet, and a shawl. 

She did, however, share with her two contemporaries the themes of sensuality, gender confusion, androgyny, and homosexuality that have engaged scholars reading Whitman and Melville since the late twentieth century. Between 1846 and 1848, she secretly wrote a novel about a person born with both male and female sexual organs who grows up to experience the lives of both sexes. Howe explored the confinement of sex roles, and the joy of women having “the right to go where they please, and the power of doing what they please.” But she was unable to finish the book or to show it to anyone, even one of her sisters. (In 2004, the manuscript fragments in the Houghton Library at Harvard were brilliantly edited by Gary Williams and published by the University of Nebraska Press under the title The Hermaphrodite.)

In the winter of 1853, Howe secretly began writing her first book of poems. By that time, having realized how unhappy she was in her marriage, she had gone to live near her sisters in Rome for a while, taking the two youngest children with her. But returning to Boston, after a year, she despaired of any change or improvement. In the poems she called herself “a comet dire and strange,” unable to control her orbit; and poked fun at her marriage to a stolid man who thinks he can force his tempestuous wife to be a mild companion. In October, the collection was accepted by the Boston publishers Ticknor, Reed, and Fields. As she wrote to her sister Annie, Howe had kept the book a secret from her husband and planned to tell him about it only on the morning it came out. “Then he can do nothing to prevent its sale in its proper form,” she reasoned. 

When the book was published anonymously, as Passion-Flowers, on December 23, 1853, she quickly sent copies to her family and to prominent Boston writers. On Christmas Eve, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who had advised her about it, confided to his journal that the book was “full of genius; full of beauty; but what a sad tone! Another cry of discontent added to the slogan of the femmes incomprises.” Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was in England but received a copy of the book from the publisher William D. Ticknor, agreed, ranking Howe, as other early reviewers did, “beyond all comparison the first of American poetesses.” But, he wondered, “what does her husband think of it?”

Well may he have asked. As she had planned, she showed the book to Chev, as he was called by his friends and family, just before Christmas. To Annie, she confided that he had taken the news “very hard.” But he said nothing more about it in the holidays after, and she felt reassured that the crisis was over. She even thought he took some pleasure in the book’s success, and hoped that it would establish her reputation as a serious American poet. Passion-Flowers was selling very well, and went into a second edition in just a few weeks. 

Bettmann/Getty Images
Julia Ward Howe, circa 1870

Reviewers guessed that the poet was a woman, but they were startled and impressed by the apparent autobiographical nature and intellectual range of the book. In the New York Tribune, George Ripley called Passion-Flowers “a product wrung with tears and prayer from the deepest soul of the writer… We should not have suspected these poems to be the production of a woman. They form an entirely unique class in the whole range of female literature.” Despite the author’s anonymity, everyone in Boston knew immediately that it was Howe’s work—the publishers themselves may have spread the word—and she hoped that news of her authorship would help sales in other cities.

At the end of January 1854, however, Chev erupted in a fit of rage. He felt that she had betrayed and humiliated him, and he viewed Passion-Flowers as obscene. He threatened to divorce her and take custody of the two older children unless she agreed to his terms. First of all, she was to cut the verses that particularly offended him in a final third edition, and then abandon the book. Second, he ordered her to stop writing personal poems. Finally, he insisted that they resume their long-suspended sexual relationship. Howe capitulated, as she explained to Louisa: “I thought it my real duty to give up every thing that was dear and sacred to me, rather than be forced to leave two of my children… I made the greatest sacrifice I can ever be called upon to make.” Before February was out, she was pregnant again with her fifth child. 

In other respects over the years that followed, Julia defied Chev’s commands by continuing to write and publish, but in an impersonal voice. In 1857, she published Words for the Hour, fifty-four occasional poems on topics that included Florence Nightingale and slavery. The new book received respectful but muted reviews; critics found it deeply sad, suffused with an “unnamed and perhaps unnamable woe.” She tried writing plays, which did not succeed. 

By 1861, as the Civil War began, and she, Whitman, and Melville were turning forty-two, Howe had accepted that she could never have a career as a writer. For his part, Melville, facing the decline of his career and reputation, had started drinking too much, and had taken a lengthy trip around Cape Horn on the clipper ship Meteor. Whitman was writing a preface to a new edition of Leaves of Grass, saying that “the most and the best of the Poem I perceive, remains unwritten, and the work of my life yet to be done.”

In October that year, Howe accompanied her husband and a group of friends to Washington, where he had been called as an officer of the sanitary commission. In her own telling, that moment was the lowest in her life. She was nursing her sixth child, while the contrast with her husband’s prominence as a doctor, abolitionist, and presidential adviser planning medical arrangements for the troops made her despair of ever being able to contribute to the life of the nation at its moment of great crisis: “I distinctly remember that a feeling of discouragement came over me as I drew near the city of Washington Something seemed to say to me, ‘you would be glad to serve, but you cannot help anyone; you have nothing to give, and there is nothing for you to do.’”

Returning with her friends, including her Boston minister, James Freeman Clarke, from a review of the troops outside Washington, she heard the soldiers singing the Army song version of the spiritual “Glory, Glory”: “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the ground; his soul is marching on.” The Reverend Clarke turned to Julia and asked, “Why do you not write some good words for that stirring tune?” He had given her permission to create and to serve. In a story she would often repeat, that night she woke before dawn and found the lines of a poem forming in her mind. She scribbled them down and returned to bed, telling herself, “I like this better than most things that I have written.’’ While her composition is sometimes belittled as automatic writing, she drew on Biblical rhythms and images she had long imagined and then made revisions when she wrote out a clean copy by daylight.

The next day, she showed the poem to Clarke—but not to her husband. In Boston, a few months later, she sent the verses to The Atlantic Monthly, which published them on the cover in February 1862, signed as the work of Mrs. S.G. Howe, and paid her $5. In her account, “small heed” was paid to it at the time, but gradually the verses found their way to the camps, and they won praise from a military chaplain who read the poem aloud at a public lecture in Washington. There is no record of what Chev thought of it. 

*

One hundred and fifty years later, in December 2012, the original manuscript of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” signed by Howe, was auctioned at Christie’s, selling for for $782,500. Over the centuries, the “Battle Hymn” has become both an unofficial national anthem, sung at gatherings from baseball games to barbecues, and an international song of mourning and remembrance, played at the funerals of Winston Churchill, Bobby Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan, as well as at memorial concerts for the September 11, 2001, victims around the world. It has been performed more rarely at the funerals of women, since so few are afforded state funerals, but it was sung for Nancy Reagan, and for Howe herself, who died in 1910. 

The legend of Howe’s poetic creation became part of American literary history. But like all legends, it leaves out and obscures many elements of the full truth. Only a few people close to Howe knew that she was also fighting a civil war at home, struggling to assert her rights to independence, creative expression, and a public voice. The publication of the “Battle Hymn” was a turning point in her life. The song’s renown gave Howe fame and the power to emancipate herself from Chev’s control. It restored her literary confidence in herself, although, ironically, it came to overshadow all of her other writing. Everywhere she went until the day she died, audiences sang her poem to her, or demanded that she sing it to them in her trained contralto. She came to dread the sound of the band and chorus striking up as she entered the room.

After the Civil War, Howe redirected her efforts into the women’s suffrage movement, and in this second chapter, became a leading campaigner and activist. As she wrote, approaching her fiftieth birthday in 1869:

During the first two thirds of my life, I looked to the masculine idea of character as the only true one. I sought its inspiration, and referred my merits and demerits to its judicial verdict. The new domain now made clear to me was that of true womanhood—woman no longer in her ancillary relation to her opposite, man, but in her direct relation to the divine plan and purpose, as a free agent, fully sharing with man every human right and every human responsibility. This discovery was like the addition of a new continent to the map of the world, or of a new testament to the old ordinances.

Howe outlived Melville and Whitman, both of whom died at the age of seventy-two, in 1891 and 1892 respectively. By then, Whitman had become an almost messianic figure in American letters; his enormous funeral concluded with his burial in the huge family tomb he himself had designed and commissioned. Although he was ever dissatisfied with the popular reception of Leaves of Grass, reissued in a so-called deathbed edition in 1892, Whitman died knowing that he had found his audience. By the time of Melville’s death, few remembered his books and a death notice in The New York Times misspelled the title of his most celebrated novel. But within a few decades, the Melville Revival was underway, beginning with a series of essays published for his centennial in 1919.

Before her death at the age of ninety-one, Julia Ward Howe had kept abreast with what she called the “new poetry,” as well as the rising social and political movements of her time. She became a friend and supporter of Oscar Wilde’s; she heard W.B. Yeats speak and recite his poems. And she was certainly familiar with Leaves of Grass, although, as she noted in her journal in 1888, she found it “overpraised.” She continued working almost until her final hours: writing poetry, speaking out for “pure milk” legislation at the Boston state house, and receiving an honorary degree from Smith College in October 1910, where she was greeted by a huge choir of white-clad women students who sang for her, once again, the “Battle Hymn.” At her memorial service in Boston, attended by thousands, a few months later, civic leaders acknowledged that she had eclipsed her illustrious husband’s reputation, hailing her as a figure who stands “for womanhood itself, for America, and for Boston.” Her biography, written by her daughters, was published in 1916 and won the first Pulitzer Prize in biography for “teaching patriotic and unselfish services to the people.” 

She, however, did not wish to be remembered as the “Dearest Old Lady in America.” To the end, Howe refused to conform to social expectations that she should play “Saint Julia.” As she wrote:

I do not desire ecstatic, disembodied sainthood, because I do not wish to abdicate any one of the attributes of my humanity. I cherish even the infirmities that bind me to my kind. I would be human, and American, and a woman.


An earlier version of this essay misstated the manner of death of Herman Melville’s father; he died insane but of natural causes, not by suicide. The article has been updated.