Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Jane and Julia (Ward Howe)

Rev. Jane Page
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Statesboro
February 28, 2010

In 1991, I spoke at a huge gathering of folks who had come to either protest or encourage a recent Bulloch County School Board consideration to move away from the stringent tracking procedures that began in kindergarten, with the result of virtually re-segregating the schools. Of course, I supported moving away from this extreme tracking and provided lots of evidence to counter arguments that had been made by the “citizens” group. Many of the folks that I had grown up with in Statesboro were in this very conservative group. After the meeting, one of my former classmates came up to me and said, “Jane – you were raised right here in Statesboro, Georgia with the rest of us – and you were taught the same things about society that we were taught – and you stayed here just like many of us did, so what in the WORLD happened to you?”

And I replied, “Well – I read.” And folks, that WAS the difference.

I thought about that when I was reading about Julia Ward Howe and her years growing up. Now Julia had a very different upbringing than I did – in that she was born in 1819 to a wealthy New York family. Here’s a picture of her with her two older brothers.
And here is one of the houses they lived in called "The Corner."

But Julia also was seriously limited in many ways. After another brother and two sisters were added to the family, her mother died. Julia was just five and her father was overly cautious and protective. He was also extremely religious -- a low church evangelical – and was determined to tightly control his children’s activities. Although he allowed his sons to attend a progressive boarding school, his intent had been to educate his daughters at home. After some experiments with in-house governesses and tutors, he did send his very bright eldest daughter Julia to some schools in the neighborhood under close watch. However, she says that her serious education came after she left her neighborhood schooling at 16 and was confined by her father to her house. While she could not attend the theater or opera, she had open reign on his library. She was already proficient in French, Latin, and Italian, and a scholar living with them tutored Julia further in German, allowing her to read even the most difficult German texts. So when her older brother Sam brought his books from Europe home to the library, her world opened up even more.

Julia began to read all kinds of philosophy, theology, poetry, and other literature – much that would make her father shudder if he had been aware of this self-devised curriculum. Her father had wished his daughters to have an education that would help them be a favorable companion to their husbands. But Julia went much further than that. Yes, something happened to Julia. She read, and read, and read. And she began to acquire an ambition of becoming more than a good companion to some future husband. Julia felt that she would one day produce an important literary work, “the novel or play of the age.” She was encouraged by her brother Sam and by his friend, Henry Longfellow.

Because she was not allowed to go out, Julia spent more and more time in her room alone, writing poetry and brooding over her father’s mistreatment of her. Her only relief was spending summers in Newport with her grandmother. One summer Mr. Ward decreed that Julia should keep him company in New York, where he could keep an eye on her, instead of going to Newport with her sisters. His son Sam wrote to him about this - -saying: "Poor Jule. You always expect too much of her in desiring that she should not only obey you but be happier in so doing than in following up certain wishes of her own. … Julia writes all day and half the night….She is murdering herself. Yet she is forced to do this. In the tedium and heat of a large solitude her restless mind must be at work."

Julia’s hard-working father’s health deteriorated and he died in 1839. Julia’s beloved brother Henry died a year later—and she later recalled that his death almost killed her, for they had become very close in the months after their father’s death. Then her brother Sam lost both his wife and baby. In her depression following the deaths of so many who had been close to her, Julia turned to religion for solace –and for a while, put aside her literary ambitions, knowing that it was her Christian duty “to avoid indulging in such worldly and therefore unfeminine dreams.” But she couldn’t remain miserable forever and gradually her preoccupation with sin and sorrow disappeared.

During this time she reread Milton’s Paradise Lost and indicated that this idea appeared to be impossible. She wrote, “I threw away, once and forever, the thought of the terrible hell which till then had always formed a part of my belief.” As Julia’s Calvinistic beliefs began to fade away, she began to turn to a more liberal Christianity, believing that human nature was inherently capable of reforming itself. She began to spend more time with her friend Mary Ward (no relation to her but a woman that had been engaged to her brother Henry). Now Mary lived in Boston and was friends with Unitarians and Transcendentalists. So Julia began to spend time with the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Theodore Parker, William Ellery Channing, Thomas Higginson, and Margaret Fuller – and that really opened her mind to new ways of thinking and believing. She even published a couple of literary reviews – anonymously of course, as many women published in those days. She finally had achieved the freedom to think, and read, and write – and love. And it was the loving that eventually confined her again.

Julia was charmed by a handsome man on a black horse, Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, who was twenty years older than she. He was nicknamed “Chev” by his friends because he had been honored by the Greek government as a “Chevalier of the Greek Legion of Honor” after participating in their war of independence against the Turks. He returned to America determined to reform the world. And he had made quite a name for himself in his efforts to educate the blind at his Perkins Institute. His most famous pupil was Laura Bridgman, the first blind/deaf student to be educated. According to various letters written about it, their courtship was rather stormy – and there were doubts about the marriage on both sides. Chev wanted his wife to give up her literary aspirations and independence – although her fine words and ways initially attracted him. But weren’t women of that era supposed to sacrifice all independence when they married? And even their common friend, Longfellow, was not enthusiastic about the match. Longfellow admired Julia’s work but found her to be very forthright, a thing not very becoming of a woman. He once described her to a friend as “a fine, young, buxom damsel of force and beauty, who is full of talent, indeed carrying almost too many guns for any man who does not want to be firing salutes all the time.” But, alas love – perhaps combined with a good dose of lust – won the day and they were married when Julia was 23.

They had a year long honeymoon in Europe where their first child, Julia Romana, was born in Rome. And it was here in an art museum that Julia visited The Hermaphrodite Room, referred to in some of her writing. The famous sleeping hermaphrodite is one of the images she refers to in her letters.
This image and the paintings on the walls, as well as the stories in Greek mythology, must have touched Julia in unusual ways—for she began to write a novel about one who was born – neither fully male nor female. This novel was neither finished nor published – well not until 2004!! The first page and last page are lost – and so it a big chunk in the middle, but it is quite good, and very revealing if you attempt any analysis at all with what all was going on in her life at the time. This may have been that groundbreaking novel that Julia had hoped to produce. But she was not in a position to even consider publishing it. She doesn’t even tell anyone that she’s writing it, although she provides hints about it in some of her letters. She closeted that writing just as she had closeted her reading of controversial works years before. (Ah, I know that practice well. I had a drawer in my bathroom when I was in my 40’s where I kept my contraband reading under the feminine sanitary supplies. Included were pamphlets about – Unitarian Universalism.)

What she DID publish during the early years of her marriage was a book of poetry – again without her name accompanying it. This book was entitled Passion Flowers and was published in 1853 by a publishing house in Boston without her husband’s consent or knowledge. Though this book of poetry was published anonymously, it quickly surfaced that she was the author – and it seems that she may have helped to spread the word, hoping that the knowledge would help sales in her home city of New York. I’m going to bring Julia back to read one of her poems from this collection, and you can see how she uses her own life as an inspiration for this poetry.

Mind versus Mill-Stream

A Miller wanted a mill-stream,
A mild, efficient brook
To help him to his living, in
Some snug and shady nook.

But our Miller had a brilliant taste,
A love of flash and spray,
And so, the stream that charmed him most
Was that of brightest play.

It wore a quiet look, at times,
And steady seemed, and still,
But when its quicker depths were stirred,
Wow! But it wrought its will.

And men had tried to bridle it
By artifice, and force,
But madness from its rising grew,
And all along its course.

‘Twas on a sultry summer’s day
The Miller chanced to stop
Where it invited to ‘look in
And take a friendly drop.’

Coiffed with long wreaths of crimson weed,
Veiled by a passing cloud,
It looked a novice of the woods
That dares not speak aloud.

Said he: ‘I never met a stream
More beautiful and bland,
‘Twill gain my bread, and bless it too,
So here my mill shall stand.’

And ere the summer’s glow had passed,
Or crimson flowers did fade,
The Miller measured out his ground,
And his foundation laid.

The Miller toiled with might and main,
Builded with thought and care,
And when the Spring broke up the ice
The water wheel stood there.

Like a frolic maiden come from school,
The stream looked out, anew;
And the happy Miller bowing said,
‘Now turn my mill-wheel, do!’

‘Your mill-wheel?’ cried the naughty Nymph,
‘That would, indeed, be fine!
You have your business, I suppose,
Learn too that I have mine.’

‘What better business can you have,
That turn this wheel for me?’
Leaping and laughing, the wild thing cried,
‘Follow, and you may see.’

The Miller trudged with measured pace,
As Reason follows Rhyme,
And saw his mill-stream run to waste
In the very teeth of time.

‘Fore heaven!’ he swore, ‘since thou’rt perverse,
I’ve hit upon a plan;
A dam shall stay thine outward course,
And then, break out who can.”

So he built a dam of wood and stone,
Not sparing in the cost,
‘For,’ thought our friend, ‘this water-power
‘Must not be lightly lost.’

‘What? Will you force me?’ said the sprite;
‘You shall not find it gain;’
So, with a flash, a dash, a crush,
She made her way amain.

Then, reeling all her pent-up soul,
She rushed, in frantic race
And fragments of the Miller’s work
Threw in the Miller’s face.

The good man built his dam again,
More stoutly than before;
He flung no challenge to the foe,
But an oath he inly swore:

‘Thou seest resistance is in vain,
So yield with better grace,’
And the water sluices turned the stream
To its appointed place.

‘Aha! I’ve conquered now!’ quoth he,
For the water-fury bold
Was still an instant, ere she rose
In wrath and power fourfold.

With roar and rush, and massive sweep
She cleared the shameful bound,
And flung to utterness of waste
The Miller, and his mound.


If you would marry happily
On the shady side of life,
Choose out some quietly-disposed
And placid tempered wife,

To share the length of sober days,
And dimly slumberous nights,
But well beware those fitful souls
Fate wings for wilder flights.

For men will woo the tempest,
And wed it at their cost,
Then swear they took it for summer dew,
And ah! Their peace is lost!

Well, in many ways – Julia wanted it all too, because she strove to be seen as a respected wife and mother, raising her six children in a variety of settings; first – in the doctors wing of Perkins institute, then in a country home they returned to often named Green Peace by Julia, while renting homes in Boston during “the social season.” Like the stream in her poem, Julia sometimes quietly turned the mill-wheel for her husband, like when she helped him with the publication of “The Boston Commonwealth,” an abolitionist paper. In fact, she was working as the woman behind the man when she traveled with him to tour a war camp in his role as director of the Sanitary Commission. And ironically, as a result of this trip, she finally realized fame as a writer – with words for “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” She received $5 for publishing the lyrics in the Atlantic Monthly.

Her work with the abolitionists was just the beginning of her involvement with organizations working for justice. In fact she started many herself. And much to her husband’s chagrin, in addition to more publications (this time under her own name), she began lecturing all over the country for various causes, especially those related to women’s rights. And not only did she lecture, with the encouragement of her friends who were Unitarian ministers, she began to preach. She never was formally ordained, but preach she did – from little wooden churches in Santa Domingo, to small prison chapels, to large stone Unitarian churches in New England.

Her letters showed how she worked hard to maintain a “good” marriage while answering her calling. Although “the stream and the miller” were constantly struggling, she stopped resisting and stayed by his side when he was ill before he died in 1876.

And then, in the first journal entry after her husband's death, Julia wrote, "Start my new life today," and indeed she did. For the next 34 years she was a strong force. That vibrant stream rose up knowing there were no more dams to thwart it. It was said that she answered to no one except herself and God. Though she faced financial instability after Chev’s death, Julia was resourceful and used her fame for not only promoting women’s rights, peace, and reform for prisons and schools, but also to make a living with her speaking for her remaining years – which were many, for Julia Ward Howe lived and worked till her death in 1910 at the age of 91.

And so we come back to the title of this sermon – “Jane and Julia.”

Near the end of the movie, Julie and Julia, Julie Powell shares how she and her hero Julia Child are alike. Yet she recognizes that she is just an admirer of a great star – and is happy to be able to have learned from her. Similarly, I share some attributes with one of my Unitarian heroes, Julia Ward Howe. We have both played the piano, and have loved singing, reading, writing, learning, teaching and preaching. We were both married during the first half of our adult years to charming husbands who had a difficult time accepting who we were. We both were pretty pitiful at our attempts with the domestic arts of housekeeping, cooking, and sewing; while we both have worked hard for peace, liberty and justice for all. And yet, I, too, am happy just to be an admirer of a great, though imperfect, star that shines with heroes, past and present, to illuminate my path.

I’m going to bring Julia back to close this sermon by sharing a little of a speech she made at the Parliament of the World's Religions at the 1893 Columbian Exposition, Chicago World's Fair.

What is Religion?

It seems to me very important that from this Parliament should go forth a fundamental agreement as to what is religion and as to what is not religion.

I think nothing is religion which puts one individual absolutely above others, and surely nothing is religion which puts one sex above another. Religion is primarily our relation to the Supreme, to God himself. It is for him to judge; it is for him to say where we belong, who is highest and who is not; of that we know nothing. And any religion which will sacrifice a certain set of human beings for the enjoyment or aggrandizement or advantage of another is no religion. It is a thing which may be allowed, but it is against true religion. Any religion which sacrifices women to the brutality of men is no religion.

From this Parliament let some valorous, new, strong, and courageous influence go forth, and let us have here an agreement of all faiths for one good end, for one good thing -- really for the glory of God, really for the sake of all humanity.

And to those words, I say, “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah!”


Anonymous. (1854). Passion Flowers. Boston: Tichnor, Reed, and Fields.

Clifford, D. P. (1979). Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Biography of Julia Ward Howe. Boston : Little, Brown, and Company.

Howe, J. W. (2004). The Hermaphrodite. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press.

Julia Ward Howe. (n.d.). Retrieved February 1, 2010, from juliawardhowe.org: http://www.juliawardhowe.org

Julia Ward Howe. (n.d.). Retrieved February 1, 2010, from UUA: http://www25.uua.org/uuhs/duub/articles/juliawardhowe.html

Williams, G. (1999). Hungry Heart: The Literary Emergence of Julia Ward Howe. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

Ziegler, V. H. (2003). Diva Julia: The Public Romance and Private Agony of Julia Ward Howe. Harrisburg, PA: Trinity International Press.