Julia Ward Howe (1819 - 1910)

by Laura E. Richards

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Chapter IX - No. 14 Chestnut Street, Boston - 1864; aet. 45


Naked and poor thou goest, Philosophy!
Thy robe of serge hath lain beneath the stars;
Thy weight of tresses, ponderously free,
Of iron hue, no golden circlet bars.

Thy pale page, Study, by thy side doth hold,
As by Cyprigna's her persuasive boy:
Twin sacks thou bear'st; one doth thy gifts infold,
Whose modest tendering proves immortal joy.

The other at thy patient back doth hang
To keep the boons thou'rt wonted to receive:
Reproof therein doth hide her venomed fang,
And hard barbaric arts, that mock and grieve.

Here is a stab, and here a mortal thrust;
Here galley service brought the age to loss;
Here lies thy virgin forehead rolled in dust
Beside the martyr stake of hero cross.

They who besmirched thy whiteness with their pitch,
Thy gallery of glories did complete;
They who accepted of thee so grew rich,
Men could not count their treasures in the street.

Thy hollow cheek, and eye of distant light,
Won from the chief of men their noblest love;
Olympian feasts thy temperance requite,
And thy worn weeds a priceless dowry prove.

I know not if I've caught the matchless mood
In which impassioned Petrarch sang of thee;
But this I know,—the world its plenitude
May keep, so I may share thy beggary.

J. W. H.

After the two real homes, Green Peace and Lawton's Valley, the Chestnut Street house was nearest to our hearts; this, though we were there only three years, and though it was there that we children first saw the face of sorrow. It was an heroic time. The Doctor was in constant touch with the events of the war. He was sent by Governor Andrew to examine conditions of camps and hospitals, in Massachusetts and at the seat of war; he worked as hard on the Sanitary Commission, to which he had been appointed by President Lincoln, as on any other of his multifarious labors: his knowledge of practical warfare and his grasp of situations gave him a foresight of coming events which seemed well-nigh miraculous. When he entered the house, we all felt the electric touch, found ourselves in the circuit of the great current.

So, these three years were notable for us all, especially for our mother; for beside these vital interests, she was entering upon another phase of development. Heretofore her life had been domestic, studious, social; her chief relation with the public had been through her pen. She now felt the need of personal contact with her audience; felt that she must speak her message. She says in her "Reminiscences": "In the days of which I now write, it was borne in upon me (as the Friends say) that I had much to say to my day and generation which could not and should not be communicated in rhyme, or even in rhythm."

The character of the message, too, was changing. In the anguish of bereavement she sought relief in study, her lifelong resource. Religion and philosophy went hand in hand with her. She read Spinoza eagerly:[196] read Fichte, Hegel, Schelling; finally, found in Immanuel Kant a prophet and a friend. But it was not enough for her to receive; she must also give out: her nature was radiant. She must formulate a philosophy of her own, and must at least offer it to the world.

In September, 1863, she writes to her sister Louisa, "My Ethics are now the joke of my family, and Flossy or any child, wishing a second helping, will say: 'Is it ethical, Mamma?' Too much of my life, indeed, runs in this channel. I can only hope that the things I write may do good to somebody, how much or how little we ourselves are unable to measure."

Yet she could make fun of her philosophers: vide the following passage from one of her "Tribune" letters:—

"We like to make a clean cut occasionally, and distinguish ourselves from our surroundings. Else, we and they get so wedded that we scarcely know ourselves apart. Do I own these four walls, or do they own me, and detain me here for their pleasure and preservation? Do I want these books, or do their ghostly authors seize me wandering near the shelves, impanel me by the button-hole, and insist upon pouring their bottled-up wisdom into my passive mind? I once read a terrible treatise of Fichte upon the me and not me, in which he gave so many reasons why I could not be the washstand, nor the washstand I, that I began after a while to doubt the fact. Had I read further, I think I should never have known myself from house-furniture again. Let me here remark that many of[197] these gymnastics of German metaphysics seem to have no other office than that of harmlessly emptying the brain of all its electricity. Their battery strikes no hammer, turns no wheel. Fichte, having decided that he was not the washstand, smoked, took beer, and walked out to meet some philosophic friend, who, viewing himself inclusive, as the Germans say, thought he might be that among other things. Fatherland meantime going to the Devil—strong hands wanted, clear, practical brains,—infinitesimal oppression to be undermined, the century helped on. 'I am not the washstand,' says Fichte; 'I am everything,' says Hegel. Fatherland, take care of yourself. Yet who shall say that it is not a vital point to know our real selves from the factitious personalities imposed upon us, and to distinguish between the symptoms of our fancy and the valid phenomena of our lives?"

The Journal says:—

"At 11.53 [September 24] finished my Essay on Religion, for the power to produce which I thank God. I believe that I have in this built up a greater coherence between things natural and things divine than I have seen or heard made out after this sort by anyone else. I therefore rejoice over my work, ... hoping it may be of service to others, as it has certainly been to me."

Two days later she adds, "I leave this record of my opinion of my work, but on reading it aloud to Paddock,[49] I found the execution of the task to have fallen[198] far short of my conception of it. I shall try to rewrite much of the Essay."

The Journal of 1864 is a quarto volume, with a full page for every day. There are many blank pages, but the record is much fuller than heretofore.

"January 15. Worked all the afternoon at my Essay on Distinction between Philosophy and Religion. Got a bad feeling from fatigue. A sort of trembling agony in my back and left side."

Yet she went to the opera in the evening, and saw "Faust," a "composition with more faults than merits." She concludes the entry with "Dilige et relinque is a good motto for some things."

"Sunday, January 17. It was announced from the pulpit that an Essay on the Soul and Body would be read by a friend at Wednesday evening meeting. That friend was myself, that essay my Lecture on Duality. This would be an honor, but for my ill-deserts. Be witness, O God! that this is no imaginary or sentimental exclamation, but a feeling too well founded on fact."

After the lecture she writes: "Mr. Clarke introduced me charmingly. I wore my white cap, not wishing to read in my thick bonnet. I had quite a full audience.... I consider this opportunity a great honor and privilege conferred upon me."

"January 28. At a quarter before 2 P.M. finished my Essay on Philosophy and Religion. I thank God for this, for many infirmities, some physical, some moral, have threatened to interrupt my work. It is done, and if it is all I am to do, I am ready to die,[199] since life now means work of my best sort, and I value little else, except the comfort of my family. Now for a little rest!"

The "rest" of the following day consisted in paying eight visits between twelve and two o'clock and going to the opera in the evening.

She now began to read her philosophical essays aloud to a chosen circle of friends gathered in the parlor of No. 13 Chestnut Street. After one of these occasions she says: "Professor Rogers took me up sharply (not in temper), on my first statement and definition of Polarity. I suffered in this, but was bound to take it in good part. A thoroughbred dog can bear to be lifted by the ear without squealing. Endurance is a test of breeding...."

"May 27, 1864. My birthday; forty-five years old. This year, begun in intolerable distress, has been, I think, the most valuable one of my life. Paralyzed at first by Sammy's death, I soon found my only refuge from grief in increased activity after my kind. When he died I had written two-thirds of 'Proteus.' As soon as I was able, I wrote the remaining portion which treats of affection. At Newport I wrote my Introductory Lecture on 'How Not to Teach Ethics,' then 'Duality of Character,' then my first Lecture on Religion. Returned from Newport, I wrote my second and third essays on Religion. I read the six essays of my first course to a large circle of friends at my own house, not asking any payment. This done, I began to write a long essay on Polarity which is only partially completed, intending also to write on Limitations[200] and the three degrees, should it be given to me to do so. I have read and re-read Spinoza's Ethics within the last thirteen months. His method in the arrangement of thought and motive has been of great use to me, but I think that I have been able to give them an extended application and some practical illustrations which did not lie within his scope."

The next day she writes: "Dreamed of dearest Sammy. Thought that he was in the bed, and that I was trying to nurse him in the dark as I have so often done. I thought that when his little lips had found my breast, something said in my ear, 'My life's life—the glory of the world.' Quoting from my lines on Mary Booth. This woke me with a sudden impression, Thus Nature remembers."

She decided this spring to read some of her essays in Washington. There were various difficulties in the way, and she was uncertain of the outcome of the enterprise. She writes:—

"I leave Bordentown [the home of her sister Annie] with a resolute, not a sanguine heart. I have no one to stand for me there, Sumner against me, Channing almost unknown to me, everyone else indifferent. I go in obedience to a deep and strong impulse which I do not understand nor explain, but whose bidding I cannot neglect. The satisfaction of having at last obeyed this interior guide is all that keeps me up, for no one, so far as I know, altogether approves of my going."

Spite of these doubts and fears, the enterprise was successful. Perhaps people were glad to shut their ears for a moment to the sound of cannon and the[201] crying of "Latest news from the front!" and listen to the quiet words of philosophic thought and suggestion.

Side by side with work, as usual, went play. In January she records the first meeting of the new club, the "Ladies' Social," at the home of Mrs. Josiah Quincy. This club of clever people, familiarly known as the "Brain Club," was for many years one of her great pleasures. Mrs. Quincy was its first president. It may have been at this meeting that our mother, being asked to present in a few words the nature and object of the club, addressed the company as follows: "Ladies and Gentlemen; this club has been formed for the purpose of carrying on"—she paused, and began to twinkle—"for the purpose of carrying on!"

She describes briefly a meeting of the club at 13 Chestnut Street:—

"Entertained my Club with two charades. Pan-demon-ium was the first, Catastrophe the second. For Pan I recited some verses of Mrs. Browning's 'Dead Pan,' with the gods she mentions in the background, my own boy as Hermes. For 'Demon' I had a female Faust and a female Satan. Was aided by Fanny McGregor, Alice Howe, Hamilton Wilde, Charles Carroll, and James C. Davis, with my Flossy, who looked beautifully. The entertainment was voted an entire success."

We remember these charades well. The words

"Aphrodite, dead and driven
As thy native foam thou art ... "

call up the vision of Fanny McGregor, white and beautiful,[202] lying on a white couch in an attitude of perfect grace.

We hear our mother's voice reciting the stately verses. We see her as the "female Faust," first bending over her book, then listening entranced to the promises of Mephistopheles, finally vanishing behind a curtain from which the next instant sprang Florence (the one child who resembled her) in all the gayety of her bright youth.

The next day she was, "Very weary all day. Put things to rights as well as I could. Read in Spinoza, Cotta, and Livy."

It was for the Brain Club that she wrote "The Socio-Maniac," a cantata caricaturing fashionable society. She set the words to music, and sang with much solemnity the "Mad Song" of the heroine whose brain had been turned by too much gayety:—

"Her mother was a Shaw,
And her father was a Tompkins;
Her sister was a bore,
And her brother was a bumpkin;
Oh! Soci—oh! Soci—
Oh! Soci—e—ty!

"Her flounces were of gold,
And her slippers were of ermine;
And she looked a little bold
When she rose to lead the Germin;
Oh! Soci—oh! Soci—
Oh! Soci—e—ty!

"For my part I never saw
Where she kept her fascination;
But I thought she had an aw-
Ful conceit and affectation;
Oh! Soci—oh! Soci—
Oh! Soci—e—ty!"

New interests were constantly arising. In these days Edwin Booth made his first appearance in Boston. Our mother and father went to the Boston Theatre one rainy evening, "expecting to see nothing more than an ordinary performance. The play was 'Richelieu,' and we had seen but little of Mr. Booth's part in it before we turned to each other and said, 'This is the real thing!'"

Then they saw him in "Hamlet" and realized even more fully that a star had risen. He seemed

... beautiful as dreams of maidenhood,
That doubt defy,
Young Hamlet, with his forehead grief-subdued,
And visioning eye.[50]

Mr. Booth's manager asked her to write a play for the young tragedian. She gladly consented; Booth himself came to see her; she found him "modest, intelligent, and above all genuine,—the man as worthy of admiration as the artist."

In all the range of classic fiction, to which her mind naturally turned, no character seemed to fit him so well as that of Hippolytus; his austere beauty, his reserve and shyness, all seemed to her the personification of the hunter-prince, beloved of Artemis, and she chose this theme for her play.

The writing of "Hippolytus" was accomplished under difficulties. She says of it:—

"I had at this time and for many years afterward a superstition about a north light. My eyes had given me some trouble, and I felt obliged to follow my literary work under circumstances most favorable for[204] their use. The exposure of our little farmhouse [at Lawton's Valley] was south and west, and its only north light was derived from a window at the top of the attic stairs. Here was a platform just large enough to give room for a table two feet square. The stairs were shut off from the rest of the house by a stout door. And here, through the summer heats, and in spite of many wasps, I wrote my five-act drama, dreaming of the fine emphasis which Mr. Booth would give to its best passages and of the beautiful appearance he would make in classic costume. He, meanwhile, was growing into great fame and favor with the public, and was called hither and thither by numerous engagements. The period of his courtship and marriage[51] intervened, and a number of years elapsed between the completion of the play and his first reading of it."

At last the time seemed ripe for the production of the play. E. L. Davenport, the actor manager of the Howard Athenæum, agreed to produce it: Charlotte Cushman was to play Phædra to Booth's Hippolytus. Rehearsals began, the author's dream seemed close upon fulfilment. Then came a slip never fully explained: the manager suddenly discovered that the subject of the play was a painful one; other reasons were given, but none that appeared sufficient to author or actors.

"My dear," said Miss Cushman, "if Edwin Booth and I had done nothing more than stand upon the stage and say 'good evening' to each other, the house would have been filled."

Briefly, the play was withdrawn. Our mother says: "This was, I think, the greatest 'let down' that I ever experienced. It affected me seriously for some days, after which I determined to attempt nothing more for the stage."

She never forgot the play nor her bitter disappointment.

Many memories cluster about the gracious figure of Edwin Booth. He came often—for so shy and retiring a man—to the Chestnut Street house. We children all worshipped at his shrine; the elder girls worked his initials on the under side of the chair in which he once sat, which was thereafter like no other chair; the younger ones gazed in round-eyed admiration, but the great man had eyes for one only of us all. We gave a party for him, and Beacon Street came in force to meet the brilliant young actor. Alas! the brilliant young actor, after the briefest and shyest of greetings to the company, retired into a corner with eight-year-old Maud, where he sat on the floor making dolls and rabbits out of his pocket handkerchief!

This recalls an oft-quoted anecdote of the time. Our mother wished Charles Sumner to see and know Booth. One evening when the Senator was at the house, she told him of her wish. The next day she writes in her Journal: "Sumner to tea. Made a rude speech on being asked to meet Booth. Said: 'I don't know that I should care to meet him. I have outlived my interest in individuals.' Fortunately, God Almighty had not, by last accounts, got so far."

Sumner was told of this in her presence. "What a[206] strange sort of book," he exclaimed, "your diary must be! You ought to strike that out immediately."

She admired Charles Sumner heartily, but they disagreed on many points. He disapproved of women's speaking in public (as did the Doctor), and—with wholly kind intentions—did what he could to prevent her giving the above-mentioned readings in Washington. She notes this in her Journal.

"I wrote him a very warm letter, but with no injurious phrase, as I felt only grief and indignation, not dis-esteem, towards him. Yet the fact of having written the letter became extremely painful to me, when it was once beyond recall. I could not help writing a second on the day following, to apologize for the roughness of the first. This was a diplomatic fault, I think, but one inseparable from my character. C.S.'s reply, which I dreaded to read, was very kind. While I clearly saw his misapprehension of the whole matter, I saw also the thorough kindliness and sincerity of his nature. So we disagree, but I love him."

Mr. Sumner did not attend the readings, but he came to see her, and was, as always, kind and friendly. After seeing him in the Senate she writes: "Sumner looks up and smiles. That smile seems to illuminate the Senate."

Another passage in the Journal of March, 1864, is in a different note: "Maggie ill and company to dinner. I washed breakfast things, cleared the table, walked, read Spinoza a little, then had to 'fly round,' as my dinner was an early one. Picked a grouse, and saw to various matters. Company came, a little early.[207] The room was cold. Hedge, Palfrey, and Alger to dinner. Conversation pleasant, but dinner late, and not well served. Palfrey and Hedge read Parker's Latin epitaph on Chev, amazed at the bad Latinity."

In June, 1864, a Russian squadron, sent to show Russia's good-will toward the United States, dropped anchor in Boston Harbor, and hospitable Boston rose up in haste to receive the strangers. Dr. Holmes wrote a song beginning,—

"Seabirds of Muscovy, Rest in our waters,"— which was sung to the Russian national air at a public reception.

Our mother for once made no "little verse," but she saw a good deal of the Russian officers; gave parties for them, and attended various functions and festivities on board the ships. On Sunday, June 22, she writes:—

"To mass on board the Oslaba.... The service was like the Armenian Easter I saw in Rome.... It is a sacrifice to God instead of a lesson from Him, which after all makes the difference between the old religions and the true Christian. For even Judaism is heathen compared with Christianity. Yet I found this very consoling, as filling out the verities of religious development. I seemed to hear in the responses a great harmony in which the first man had the extreme bass and the last born babe the extreme treble. Theo. Parker and my dear Sammy were blended in it."

Soon after this the "seabirds of Muscovy" departed; then came the flitting to Newport, and a summer of steady work.

"Read Paul in the Valley. Thought of writing a review of his first two epistles from the point of view of the common understanding. The clumsy Western mind has made such literal and material interpretations of the Oriental finesses of the New Testament, that the present coarse and monstrous beliefs, so far behind the philosophical, æsthetic, and natural culture of the age, is imposed by the authority of the few upon the ignorance of the many, and stands a monument of the stupidity of all.

"Paul's views of the natural man are, inevitably, much colored by the current bestiality of the period. To apply his expressions to the innocent and inevitable course of Nature is coarse, unjust, and demoralizing, because confusing to the moral sense."

"I came to the conclusion to-day that an heroic intention is not to be kept in sight without much endeavor. Now that I have finished at least one portion of my Ethics and Dynamics, I find myself thinking how to get just credit for it, rather than how to make my work most useful to others. The latter must, however, be my object, and shall be. Did not Chev so discourage it, I should feel bound to give these lectures publicly, being, as they are, a work for the public. I do not as yet decide what to do with them."

Returning to 13 Chestnut Street, she found a multiplicity of work awaiting her. Ethics had to stand aside and make way for Poetry and Philanthropy. New[209] York was to celebrate the seventieth birthday of William Cullen Bryant; she was asked to write a poem for the occasion. This she did joyfully, composing and arranging the stanzas mostly in the train between Newport and Boston.

On the day of the celebration, she took an early train for New York: Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes was on the train. "I will sit by you, Mrs. Howe," he said, "but I must not talk! I am going to read a poem at the Bryant celebration, and must save my voice."

"By all means let us keep silent," she replied. "I also have a poem to read at the Bryant Celebration."

Describing this scene she says, "The dear Doctor, always my friend, overestimated his power of abstinence from the interchange of thought which was so congenial to him. He at once launched forth in his own brilliant vein, and we were within a few miles of our destination when we suddenly remembered that we had not taken time to eat our luncheon."

George Bancroft met them at the station, carried her trunk himself ("a small one!"), and put her into his own carriage. The reception was in the Century Building. She entered on Mr. Bryant's arm, and sat between him and Mr. Bancroft on the platform. The Journal tells us:—

"After Mr. Emerson's remarks my poem was announced. I stepped to the middle of the platform, and read my poem. I was full of it, and read it well, I think, as every one heard me, and the large room was crammed. The last two verses—not the best—were applauded.... This was, I suppose, the greatest[210] public honor of my life. I record it for my grandchildren."

The November pages of the Journal are blank, but on that for November 21 is pasted a significant note. It is from the secretary of the National Sailors' Fair, and conveys the thanks of the Board of Managers to Mrs. Howe "for her great industry and labor in editing the 'Boatswain's Whistle.'"

Neither Journal nor "Reminiscences" has one word to say about fair or paper; yet both were notable. The great war-time fairs were far more than a device for raising money. They were festivals of patriotism; people bought and sold with a kind of sacred ardor. This fair was Boston's contribution toward the National Sailors' Home. It was held in the Boston Theatre, which for a week was transformed into a wonderful hive of varicolored bees, all "workers," all humming and hurrying. The "Boatswain's Whistle" was the organ of the fair. There were ten numbers of the paper: it lies before us now, a small folio volume of eighty pages.

Title and management are indicated at the top of the first column:—

The Boatswain's Whistle.

———————— Editorial Council.

Edward Everett. A. P. Peabody.

John G. Whittier. J. R. Lowell.

O. W. Holmes. E. P. Whipple.

———————— Editor.

Julia Ward Howe.

Each member of the Council made at least one contribution to the paper; but the burden fell on the Editor's shoulders. She worked day and night; no wonder that the pages of the Journal are blank. Beside the editorials and many other unsigned articles, she wrote a serial story, "The Journal of a Fancy Fair," which brings back vividly the scene it describes. In those days the raffle was not discredited. Few people realized that it was a crude form of gambling; clergy and laity alike raffled merrily. Our mother, however, in her story speaks through the lips of her hero a pungent word on the subject:—

"The raffle business is, I suppose, the great humbug of occasions of this kind. It seems to me very much like taking a front tooth from a certain number of persons in order to make up a set of teeth for a party who wants it and who does not want to pay for it."

We should like to linger over the pages of the "Boatswain's Whistle"; to quote from James Freeman Clarke's witty dialogues, Edward Everett's stately periods, Dr. Holmes's sparkling verse; to describe General Grant, the prize ox, white as driven snow and weighing 3900 pounds, presented by the owner to President Lincoln and by him to the fair. Did we not see him drawn in triumph through Boston streets on an open car, and realize in an instant—fresh from our "Wonder-Book"—what Europa's bull looked like?

But of all the treasures of the little paper, we must content ourselves with this dispatch:—

Allow me to wish you a great success. With the old fame of the navy made bright by the present war, you cannot fail. I name none lest I wrong others by omission. To all, from Rear Admiral to honest Jack, I tender the nation's admiration and gratitude.

A. Lincoln.


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