UU History Convocation at the Espousal Center in Waltham, MA
Plenary II: Saturday, October 9, 2010, 2:00 pm
Untidy Narratives: No Need to be a Saint
Cynthia Grant Tucker
Like every year, 1910 was one of beginnings, endings, and new transitions. The 35-year-old Jamaican
Ethelred Brown, who would struggle for years to shepherd a Unitarian church in Harlem, arrived at
Meadville Theological School in Northwestern Pennsylvania to earn his credentials to answer his call to
the liberal religious ministry. In 1910, the youngest son in St. Louis’s prime Unitarian family, Thomas
Stearns, better known as T.S. Eliot, earned his Masters degree from Harvard and started setting his sights
on going abroad. This was also the year when the 91-year-old Bostonian Julia Ward Howe took a hard fall
and broke a rib, an injury that firmed her resolve to remain a living legend.
So go she did when Smith College wanted to give her an honorary degree. She was there to receive the
award in person when it was made on October 5
never imagining that her mortality would catch up
with her just a week later. On October 12
, she developed a cough that quickly turned into pneumonia,
and with difficulty, she breathed her last on October 17
. There’s a story worth probing in
all these events---Brown’s arrival at Meadville, the culmination of T.S. Eliot’s Masters
program at Harvard, and the unavoidable passing of Julia Ward Howe; but this last seems
especially useful when read as a cautionary tale for us whom others may look to as history’s
In the first place, whether we like it or not, Julia Ward Howe has been largely forgotten, her
name only known outside UU circles for having composed the words we sing to The Battle
Hymn of the Republic. In reality, as Joan Goodwin took pains to point out in her essay on
Howe---which appears on our UU biographical website---Howe was a poet and essayist, a
lecturer and biographer, whose literary production was prolific. Most importantly, despite
the sainthood accorded her long before she departed, Howe was a human and subject to all
that entails from start to finish.
Born to a wealthy family in New York City, tutored at home and at private schools, she
learned French and Italian, Latin, and Greek early on and continued throughout her life to
read history, literature, and philosophy. By the time she was 20, she’d written a number of
essays that were published anonymously in the New York Review elsewhere.
After her mother’s death, when Julia was five, her father’s strict Calvinist nature and
fiercely protective parenting prepared her to seek out, after he died, the kinder more liberal religion she
heard from William Ellery Channing, and the freer faith lifted up by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret
Fuller, Theodore Parker, and James Freeman Clarke.
But as fate would have it, the tyranny of her father’s control was soon replaced by the chains that the man
Julia married sought to impose. It happened that Julia was taken to visit the New England Institute for the
Blind (later the Perkins Institute) to meet Laura Bridgman, the blind, deaf-mute student of Samuel
Gridley Howe. Dr. Howe was eighteen years older than Julia, and when she saw him ride up on his
handsome black horse, she was instantly smitten. A courtship was set in motion, and the couple were
married the following April in 1843.
Julia’s folly in thinking the fairy-tale marriage could actually work was soon obvious. While she wanted
to keep on publishing and dreamed of becoming famous, Samuel wanted a wife who’d devote herself to
supporting his work and keeping a comfortable home for them near the Institute grounds in South Boston.
He hoped having children would cure her of other ambitions and reconcile her to her proper place, but
the reality of six young ones compounding her husband’s demands only strengthened her longing to enter
the public sphere: To write poetry, plays, philosophical essays, and theological treatises; to lecture and
reap the same respectful attention accorded to Samuel’s male friends like Charles Sumner and Theodore
Parker and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
In short, she wanted the one thing her husband refused to allow: a life of her own that was self-
determined and free to evolve independent of his . Needless to say, with these clashing wills, the marriage
was one endless nightmare, chronically fraught by resentments and outbursts so violent that each of the
partners feared for the other’s sanity.
Not surprisingly, without Samuel’s knowledge, Julia reentered the larger life she craved in 1854 by
publishing a book of verse she called Passion-Flowers. While the book was published anonymously, the
identity of the author was not hard to guess and became an open secret. The New York Tribune’s George
Ripley called the poems "a product wrung with tears and prayer from the deepest soul of the writer. . . . "
A solemn Ednah Dow Cheney called it "a grave thing” to publish such a book as this." Nathanial
Hawthorne summed it up when writing George Ticknor, Howe’s publisher: her volume “let out a whole
history of domestic unhappiness. . . . What does her husband think of it?" Hawthorne wondered.
The predictable answer, as Julia wrote to her sister, was that he “was so very angry " she thought he’d
make her insane, “so horribly did he behave." As for herself, as she wrote on their twentieth wedding
anniversary, in all the years, she had never known her husband to approve of any act of hers that she
herself valued. “Books—poems—essays—everything has been contemptible in his eyes because not his
way of doing things. . . . I am much grieved and disconcerted."
The couple considered divorce, but Samuel's demand to keep two of the children ended the matter for
Julia. She wrote to her sister that "his dream was to marry again—some young girl who would love him
supremely. . . . 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
Adjustments were gradually made on both sides of the troubled marriage, though a lingering problem was
Howe's management of Julia's Ward inheritance. "His tyrannical instincts," she wrote, "more than any
direct purpose, have made him illiberal with me in money matters, and if he can possibly place this so I
cannot easily use it, he will, only because money is power, and a man never wishes a woman to have any
which she does not derive from him."
Other activities followed, most notably after 1870, which Julia considered the turning point for her
conversion, to borrow her word, to the causes of woman suffrage and international peace. Julia Ward
Howe spent the rest of her life working for these and other reforms and becoming one of the most revered
women in the United States.
And this brings us back to Julia Ward Howe’s human nature, a common condition that caused her to work
as hard on perfecting a reputation as working for worthy reforms and the good of society. The fact is that
Julia Ward Howe was a much more conventional woman than she appeared and appears from a distance.
Despite her public ambitions and wish to be her own person, she prized her place in polite society, wanted
the public’s acceptance, and craved respectability.
And so it isn’t surprising that after her husband’s death, there was a decided change in the tone of her
diary entries and letters. Her voice was more temperate and sanguine now about the struggles of running
the household than it had ever been during the years when she was actually doing it. The impression that
she was tidying up her legacy by replacing her messy interior life with a more attractive version is
reinforced by the fact that she and her children were now rewriting their whole family history, generating
an endless stream of manicured memoirs and books and editions of their voluminous correspondence.
The daughters, who took the lead in this, painted their family as wonderfully happy. Letters they found
confirming that Samuel had been unfaithful to Julia were burned as was any record that didn’t conform to
the image they wished to present.
But the family’s hard work had already paid off before the turn of the century. As one scholar, Valarie
Ziegler, notes in her study called Diva Julia, what Howe was now saying in public began to matter less
than that it was she who was on the platform saying it. As one by one, her peers started dropping away --
-Lucy Stone, Elizabeth Peabody, Frances Willard, Susan B. Anthony---the reverence for that entire cohort
was naturally transferred to her. She became a kind of institution and people made pilgrimages to Boston
to see her. Her birthdays drew special attention, as when she turned 90. A journalist who was present
captured the level of adulation when describing how Mrs. Howe had arrived from her chambers upstairs
in an elevator the children had had installed:
“When we saw her in the regions above slowly mounting an electric lift which she manages just as
skillfully as the Wright brothers manage their aeroplane, it reminded one of Elijah’s celestial rapture,”
this gentleman marveled.
Nor did the hagiography end with Julia’s death the next year. Daughters Laura, Flossy, and Maud got to
work on writing their mother’s biography, and by using the same techniques of concealment and
calculated misrepresentation they turned out a book that brought them a Pulitzer Prize in 1917.
Looking back, I’d suggest this ironic award was a dubious compensation for the bruises the sisters
sustained in fighting each other throughout their conspiracy, even scrapping over who owned the
copyright and the lion’s share of the royalties. And in the end, without being able to know Howe in all
her humanity ---through her private anguish and demons as well as her genuine contributions---there was
no life-size, approachable figure to help the next generations get through the same experiences that Julia
and her family saw fit to remove from the record.
The sanctification of Julia Ward Howe holds some obvious lessons for us who are here. For our liberal
religious household has also been famous for conflict and whitewash, and this was true even before we
became a family of two proud and somewhat reluctant religious traditions. Given that both strands were
born from dissent and shaped by rejecting dark Calvinist dogma, it was to be expected that their societies
would be magnets to independent minds. As the mavericks outgrew their inherited faith and turned in
other directions for truth, some to empirical scholarship, some to the Transcendentalists, the Universalist
and Unitarian Christians built moats and dug trenches, unwilling to share their estate with false prophets.
What struck me in writing No Silent Witness---which covers 150 years and runs currently with the full life
cycle of the Unitarians--- was that the turf wars between the Christ-centered theists and the ethically
based or Humanist liberals were so unremitting that three generations of Eliot men who were deeply
averse to conflict were caught in the cross-fire time and again.
There ‘s a lot to be learned from internal struggles and conflict, and had the record been open about it
and left for the next generations to ponder, there still would have been disagreements but possibly less
of the animus and distrust that poisoned the pulpits and alienated the pews. Yet again, what I found in
my research---and this is one focus of No Silent Witness ---is that we have wanted, as Julia Ward Howe
did, on one hand, the freedom to be ourselves and do good in the world as we see it, and on the other, to
have the public’s approval by being respectable. And where these have seemed incompatible, our
yearning for public approval has trumped the will to maintain the record’s integrity.
Surely today, when wherever I look I see UU societies in transition---including my own in Tennessee---
and these congregations are being asked by their interims to taking stock of their past so they can define
who they are and what they want to become, today, a century after the saintly Julia Ward Howe took her
final bow, we need to be fearless in letting our untidy narratives speak for themselves, witnessing to our
humanity and relieving us from the need to be saints.