...a riveting and frankly distressing new biography...Elaine Showalter insists that Howe, who was born in the same year as Walt Whitman, had 'the subversive intellect of an Emily Dickinson, the political and philosophical interests of an Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and the passionate emotions of a Sylvia Plath.'
The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe is a polemic and a pleasure. Showalter deploys her prodigious research and narrative skills, acerbic wit, and feminist commitments to reveal the entwining of Howe’s public and private lives, as she righteously battled her husband and society, and finally saw the glory she always believed she deserved.
Ms. Showalter presents no great revelations in The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe, no major discoveries to add to those of previous biographers. Nor does she fully explore Howe’s intellectual life—her religious views, for instance, are not fully developed. Although Howe herself complained that the world 'has neglected some good writing of mine in verse and prose,' Ms. Showalter exercises a good deal of restraint considering her own renown as a literary critic...The reader is left unsure what to make of Julia Ward Howe’s literary achievements.
...Showalter masterfully fits it all together – the domestic drama of her 'civil wars' with her husband; her complex relationships with her children; her role as an abolitionist, and advocate for women’s rights; her travels in the US and Europe, and, of course, her achievements as a poet. Settle in for an absorbing story.
As an accomplished critic, Showalter finds it hard to resist pausing in her story to offer analyses of Howe’s work and conjecture about things unknown...The reader who overlooks these minor complaints will find an engaging and, at times, moving account of a woman who used the power of her pen to win a modicum of freedom in an age when women were permitted little.