Reminiscences of Julia Ward Howe: I. Earliest Years

I HAVE been urgently asked to put together my reminiscences. I could wish that I had begun to do so at an earlier period of my life, because now, well on in my seventy-eighth year, the lines of the past are somewhat confused in my memory. Yet, with God’s help, I shall endeavor to do justice to the individuals whom I have known, and to the events of which I have had some personal knowledge.

Let me say at the very beginning that I esteem this century, now near its close, to have eminently deserved a record among those which have been great landmarks in human history. It has seen the culmination of prophecies, the birth of new hopes, and a marvelous multiplication both of the ideas which promote human happiness and of the resources which enable man to make himself master of the world. Napoleon is said to have forbidden his subordinates to tell him that any order of his was impossible of fulfillment. One might think that the genius of this age must have uttered a like injunction. To attain instantaneous communication with our friends across oceans and through every continent; to command locomotion whose swiftness changes the relations of space and time ; to steal from Nature her deepest secrets, and to make disease itself the minister of cure; to compel the sun to keep for us the record of scenes and faces, of the great shows and pageants of time, of the perishable forms whose charm and beauty deserve to remain in the world’s possession, — these are some of the achievements of our nineteenth century. Even more wonderful than these may we esteem the moral progress of the race ; the decline of political and religious enmities, the growth of good will and mutual understanding between nations, the waning of popular superstition, the spread of civic ideas, the recognition of the mutual obligations of classes, the advancement of woman to dignity in the household and efficiency in the state. All this our century has seen and approved. To the ages following it will hand on an inestimable legacy, an imperishable record.

While my heart exults at these grandeurs of which I have seen and known something, my contribution to their history can be of only fragmentary and fitful interest. On the world’s great scene, each of us can only play his little part, often with poor comprehension of the mighty drama which is going on around him. If any one of us undertakes to set this down, he should do it with the utmost truth and simplicity; not as if Seneca or Tacitus or St. Paul were speaking, but as he himself, plain Hodge or Dominie or Mrs. Grundy, is moved to speak. He should not borrow from others the sentiments which he ought to have entertained, but relate truthfully how matters appeared to him, as they and he went on. Thus much I can promise to do in these pages, and no more.

The attention bestowed upon impressions of childhood to-day will, I hope, justify me in recording some of the earliest points in consciousness which I still recall.

I remember when a thimble was first given to me, some simple bit of work being at the same time placed in my hand. Some one said, “Take the needle in this hand.” I did so, and, placing the thimble on a finger of the other hand, I began to sew without its aid, to the amusement of my teacher. This trifle appears to me an early indication of a want of perception as to the use of tools which has accompanied me through life. I remember also that, being told that I must ask pardon for some childish fault, I said to my mother, with perfect contentment, “ Oh yes, I pardon you,” and was surprised to hear that in this way I had not made the amende honorable.

I encountered great difficulty in acquiring the th sound, when my mother tried to teach me to call her by that name. “ Muzzer, muzzer,” was all that I could manage to say. But the dear parent presently said, “ If you cannot do better than that, you will have to go back and call me mamma.” The shame of going back moved me to one last effort, and, summoning my utmost strength of tongue, I succeeded in saying “ mother,” an achievement from which I was never obliged to recede.

A journey up the Hudson River was undertaken, when I was very young, for the bettering of my mother’s health. An older sister of hers went with us, as well as a favorite waiting-woman, and a young physician whose care had saved my father’s life a year or more before my own birth. After reaching Albany, we traveled in my father’s carriage ; the grown persons occupying the seats, and I sitting in my little chair at their feet. A book of short tales and poems was often resorted to for my amusement, and I still remember how the young doctor read to me, “ Pity the sorrows of a poor old man,” and how my tears came, and could not be hidden.

The sight of Niagara caused me much surprise. Playing on the piazza of the hotel, one day, with only the doctor for my companion, I ventured to ask him, “ Who made that great hole where the water comes down ? ” He replied, “ The great Maker of all.” “ Who is that ? ”

I innocently inquired ; and he said, “ Do you not know ? Our Father who art in heaven.” I felt that I ought to have known, and went away somewhat abashed.

Another day, my mother told me that we were going to visit Red Jacket, a great Indian chief, and that I must be very polite to him. She gave me a twist of tobacco tied with a blue ribbon, which I was to present to him, and bade me observe the silver medal which I should see hung on his neck, and which, she said, had been given to him by General Washington. We drove to the Indian encampment, of which I dimly remember the extent and the wigwams. A tall figure advanced to the carriage. As its door was opened, I sprang forward, clasped my arms around the neck of the noble savage, and was astonished at his cool reception of such a greeting. I was surprised and grieved afterwards to learn that I had not done exactly the right thing. The Indians, in those days and long after, occupied numerous settlements in the western part of the state of New York, where one often saw the boys with their bows and arrows, and the squaws carrying their papooses on their backs.

The journey here mentioned must have taken place when I was little more than four years old. Another year and a half brought me the burden of a great sorrow. I recall months of sweet companionship with the first and dearest of friends, my mother. The last summer of her life was passed at a fine countryseat in Bloomingdale, which was then a picturesque country place, about six miles from New York, but is now incorporated in the city.

I remember this summer as a particularly happy period. My younger brother and I had our lessons in a lovely green bower. Our French teacher came out at intervals in the Bloomingdale stage. My mother often took me with her for a walk in the beautiful garden, from which she plucked flowers that she arranged with great taste. There was much mysterious embroidering of small caps and gowns, the purpose of which I little guessed. The autumn came, and with it our return to town. And then, one bitter morning, I awoke to hear the words, “ Little Julia, your mother is dead.”Before this my father had announced to us that a little sister had arrived. “ And she can open and shut her eyes,” he said, smiling.

His grief at the loss of my mother was so intense as to lay him prostrate with illness. He told me, years after this time, that he had welcomed the physical agony which perforce diverted his thoughts from the cause of his mental suffering. The little sister of whose coming he had told us so joyfully was for a long time kept from his sight. The rest of us were gathered around him, but this feeble little creature was not asked for. At last my dear old grandfather came to visit us, and learned the state of my father’s feelings. The old gentleman went into the nursery, took the tiny infant from its nurse, and laid it in my father’s arms. The little one thenceforth became the object of his most tender affection.

He regarded all his children with great solicitude, feeling, as he afterward said to one of us, that he must now be mother as well as father. My mother’s last request had been that her unmarried sister, the same one who had accompanied us on the journey to Niagara, should be sent for to have charge of us, and this arrangement was speedily effected.

This aunt of ours had long been a caretaker in her mother’s household, where she had had much to do with bringing up her younger sisters and brothers. My mother had been accustomed to borrow her from time to time, and my aunt had threatened to hang out a sign over the door with the inscription, “ Cheering done here by the job, by E. Cutler.” She was a person of rare honesty, entirely conscientious in character, possessed of few accomplishments, but endowed with the keenest sense of humor. She watched over our early years with incessant care. We little ones were kept much in our warm nursery. We were taken out for a drive in fine weather, but rarely went out on foot. As a consequence of this over-cherishing, we were constantly liable to suffer from colds and sore throats. The young physician of whom I have already spoken became an inmate of our house soon after my mother’s death. He was afterward well known in New York society as an excellent practitioner, and as a man of a certain genius. Those were the days of mighty doses, and the slightest indisposition was sure to call down upon us the administration of the drugs then in favor with the faculty, but now rarely used.

My father’s affliction was such that a change of scene became necessary for him. The beautiful house at the Bowling Green was sold, with the new furniture which had been ordered expressly for my mother’s pleasure, and which we never saw uncovered. We removed to Bond Street, which was then at the upper extremity of New York city. My father’s friends said to him, “ Mr. Ward, you are going out of town.” And so indeed it seemed at that time. We occupied one of three white freestone houses, and saw from our windows the gradual building up of the street, which is now in the central part of New York. My father had purchased a large lot of land at the corner of our street and Broadway. On a part of this he subsequently erected a house which was considered one of the finest in the city.

My father was disposed to be extremely careful in the choice of our associates, and intended, no doubt, that we should receive our education at home. At a later day his plans were changed somewhat, and after some experience of governesses and masters I was at last sent to a school in the near neighborhood of our house. I was nine years old at this time, somewhat precocious for my age, and endowed with a good memory. This fact may have led to my being at once placed in a class of girls much older than myself, especially occupied with the study of Paley’s Moral Philosophy. I managed to commit many pages of this book to memory, in a rather listless and perfunctory manner. I was much more interested in the study of chemistry, although it was not illustrated by any experiments. The system of education followed at that time consisted largely in memorizing from the textbooks then in use. Removing to another school, I had excellent instruction in penmanship, and enjoyed a course of lectures on history, aided by the best set of charts that I have ever seen, the work of Professor Bostwick. In geometry I made quite a brilliant beginning, but soon fell off from my first efforts. The study of languages was very congenial to me ; I had been accustomed to speak French from my earliest years. To this I was enabled to add some knowledge of Latin, and afterward of Italian and German.

The routine of my school life was varied now and then by a concert and by Handel’s oratorios, which were given at long intervals by an association whose title I cannot now recall. I eagerly anticipated, and yet dreaded, these occasions, for my enjoyment of the music was succeeded by a reaction of intense melancholy.

The musical “ stars ” of those days are probably quite out of memory in these later times, but I remember some of them with pleasure. It is worth noticing that, while the earliest efforts in music in Boston produced the Handel and Haydn Society, and led to the occasional performance of a symphony of Beethoven or of Mozart, the musical taste of New York inclined more to operatic music. The brief visit of Garcia and his troupe had brought the best works of Rossini before the public. These performances were followed, at long intervals, by seasons of English opera, in which Mrs. Austin was the favorite prima donna. This lady sang also in oratorio, and I recall her rendering of the soprano solos in Handel’s Messiah as somewhat mannered, but on the whole quite impressive.

A higher grade of talent came to us in the person of Mrs. Wood, famous before her marriage as Miss Paton. I heard great things of her performance in La Sonnambula, which I was not allowed to see. I did hear her, however, at concerts and in oratorios, and I particularly remember her rendering of the famous soprano song, “ To mighty kings he gave his acts.” Her voice was beautiful in quality and of considerable extent. It possessed a liquid and fluent flexibility, quite unlike the curious staccato and tremolo effects so much in favor to-day.

My father’s views of religious duty became much more stringent after my mother’s death. I had been twice taken to the opera during the Garcia performances, when I was scarcely more than seven years of age, and had seen and heard the Diva Malibran, then known as Signorina Garcia, in the roles of Cenerentola (Cinderella) and Rosina in the Barbiere di Seviglia. Soon after this time the doors were shut, and I knew of theatrical matters only by hearsay. The religious people of that period had set their faces against the drama in every form. I remember the destruction by fire of the first Bowery Theatre, and how this was spoken of as a " judgment" upon the wickedness of the stage and of its patrons. A well-known theatre in Richmond, Virginia, took fire while a performance was going on, and the result was a deplorable loss of life. The pulpits of the time “ improved ” this event by sermons which reflected severely upon the frequenters of such places of amusement, and the “ judgment ” was long spoken of with holy horror.

My musical education, in spite of the limitations of opportunity just mentioned, was the best that the time could afford. I had my first lessons in musical notation from a very irritable French artist, of whom I stood in such fear that I could remember nothing that he taught me. A second teacher, Mr. Boocock, had more patience, and soon brought me forward in my studies. He had been a pupil of Cramer, and his taste had been formed by hearing the best music in London, which then, as now, commanded all the great musical talent of Europe. He gave me lessons for many years, and I learned from him to appreciate the works of the great composers, Beethoven, Handel, and Mozart. When I grew old enough for the training of my voice, Mr. Boocock recommended to my father Signor Cardini, an aged Italian, who had been an inmate of the Garcia family, and was well acquainted with Garcia’s admirable method. Under his care my voice improved in character and in compass, and the daily exercises in holding long notes gave strength to my lungs. I think that I have felt all my life through the benefit of those early lessons. Signor Cardini remembered Italy before the invasion of Napoleon I,, and sometimes entertained me with stories of the escapades of his student life. He had resided long in London, and had known the Duke of Wellington. He related to me that once, when he was visiting the great soldier at his country-seat near the sea, the duke invited him to look through his telescope, saying, " Signor Cardini, venez voir comme on travaille les Francais.” This must have had reference to some manœuvre of the English fleet, I suppose. Mr. Boocock thought that it would be desirable for me to take part in concerted pieces, with other instruments. This exercise brought me great delight in the performance of certain trios and quartettes. The reaction from this pleasure, however, was very painful, and induced at times a visitation of morbid melancholy which threatened to affect my health.

While I greatly disapprove of the scope and suggestions presented by Count Tolstoi in his Kreutzer Sonata, I yet think that, in the training of young persons, some regard should be had to the sensitiveness of youthful nerves, and to the overpowering response which they often make to the appeals of music. The dry practice of a single instrument and the simple drill of choral exercises will not be apt to overstimulate the currents of nerve force. On the other hand, the power and sweep of great orchestral performances, or even the suggestive charm of some beautiful voice, will sometimes so disturb the mental equilibrium of the hearer as to induce in him a listless melancholy, or, worse still, an unreasoning and unreasonable discontent.

The early years of my youth were passed in the seclusion not only of a home life, but of a home most carefully and jealously guarded from all that might be represented in the orthodox trinity of evil, the world, the flesh, and the devil. My father had become deeply imbued with the religious ideas of the time. He dreaded for his children the dissipations of fashionable society, and even the risks of general intercourse with the unsanctified many. He early embraced the cause of temperance, and became president of the first temperance society formed in this country. As a result, wine was excluded from his table. This privation gave me no trouble, but my brothers felt it, especially the eldest, who had passed some years in Europe, where the use of wine was, as it still is, universal. I was walking with my father one evening when we met my two younger brothers, each with a cigar in his mouth. My father was much troubled, and said, “ Boys, you must give this up, and I will give it up, too. From this time I forbid you to smoke, and I will join you in relinquishing the habit.” I am afraid that this sacrifice on my father’s part did not have the desired effect, but am quite certain that he never witnessed the infringement of his command.

At the time of which I speak, my father’s family all lived in our immediate neighborhood. He had considerably distanced his brothers in fortune, and had built for himself the beautiful house of which I have already spoken. In the same street with us lived my music-loving uncle, Henry, somewhat given to good cheer, and of a genial disposition. In a house nearer to us resided my grandfather, Samuel Ward, with an unmarried daughter and three bachelor sons, John, Richard, and William. The outings of my young-girlhood were confined to this family circle. I went to school, indeed, but never to dancingschool, a sober little dancing-master giving us lessons at home. I used to hear, with some envy, of Monsieur Chariot’s classes and of his “publics,” where my schoolfellows disported themselves in their best clothes. My grandfather was a stately old gentleman, a good deal more than six feet in height, very mild in manner, and fond of a game of whist. With us children he used to play a very simple game called “Tom, come tickle me.” Cards were not allowed in my father’s house, and my brothers used to resort to the grand-paternal mansion when they desired this diversion.

The eldest of my father’s brothers was my uncle John, a man more tolerant than my father, and full of kindly forethought for his nieces and nephews. In his youth he had sustained an injury which deprived him of speech for more than a year. His friends feared that he would never speak again, but his mother, trying one day to render him some small assistance, did not succeed to her mind, and said, “ I am a poor, awkward old woman.” “ No, you are not ! ” he exclaimed, and at once recovered his power of speech. He was anxious that his nieces should be well instructed in practical matters, and perhaps he grudged a little the extra time which we were accustomed to devote to books and music. He was fond of sending materials for dresses to me and my sisters, but insisted that we should make them up for ourselves. This we managed to do, with a good deal of help from the family seamstress. When I had published my first literary venture, uncle John showed me in a newspaper a favorable notice of my work, saying, “ This is my little girl who knows about books, and writes an article and has it printed, but I wish that she knew more about housekeeping,” — a sentiment which in after years I had occasion to echo with fervor.

Julia Ward Howe.