Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories
By Jean M. Humez, University of Wisconsin, 471 pp., illustrated, $45
Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero, By Kate Clifford Larson, Ballantine, 402 pp., illustrated, $26.95
Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom, By Catherine Clinton Little, Brown, 272 pp., illustrated, $27.95
A constant criticism of the way American history is taught in the nation's schools is that students end up knowing more about women and minorities than they do about the Founding Fathers. And in those "culture wars" criticisms, Harriet Tubman is invariably "exhibit A."
Beyond Tubman's heroic stature as the "conductor" on the Underground Railroad who led hundreds of her fellow African-Americans out of slavery and into freedom, a factor in her popularity would have to be the profusion of children's biographies and young-adult novels about Tubman that have been published in the past half-century -- some 35, by one count, in the past dozen years alone.
Curiously, there had not been a single full-length adult biography of Tubman since 1943. But now, in just the past few months, no fewer than three biographies have been published, all by professional scholars, all solidly researched -- and skillfully written.
Two of the books are biographies in the standard mold, "Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom" by Catherine Clinton, a visiting professor at Wesleyan University, and "Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero" by Kate Clifford Larson, a historian at Simmons College. Both Clinton and Larson track Tubman from her decision in 1849 to escape from slavery on Maryland's Eastern Shore and her dozen trips back to lead family members and acquaintances north on the Underground Railroad. Both detail Tubman's later exploits as a spy for the Union Army, including her role in planning and leading a raid on Confederate warehouses and plantations in South Carolina. And both recount her later years, active in the women's rights movement and living in upstate New York on property given her "on easy terms" by Senator William H. Seward, later, Lincoln's secretary of state. She died in 1913 at the age of 91.
While Clinton provides a broader view of conditions facing African-Americans in both the North and the South, Larson gives a fuller account of Tubman's interesting relations with John Brown and with Boston's abolitionists. Both are illustrated, but Larson's book includes several maps that help readers understand the workings of the Underground Railroad. And more importantly, both Clifford and Larson present a richly drawn portrait of Tubman as a deeply spiritual woman, a "Moses" and a "Joan of Arc," as contemporaries were wont to describe her.
Both also note that she frequently recounted her experiences in public performances. That is how she came to be known and that is the subject of "Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories," a highly original treatment of the subject by Jean M. Humez, a women's studies professor at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.
Tubman, writes Humez, "told stories, sang songs, and performed dramatic reenactments of many of the life experiences she considered most significant (and most entertaining as well)." Not only were they "memorable events for her listeners," but they also "helped create a market" for the biographies that appeared during her lifetime.
Humez provides a brief, but quite adequate, biographical sketch of Tubman, but the core of her book is a discussion of her career as "a life storyteller" with a selection of some 121 story texts as reported by people who attended her performances and another 64 letters and diary entries by her acquaintances. They constitute the vivid autobiography that Tubman herself could not write, as she was illiterate.
As a speaker/performer, Humez writes, Tubman incorporated scriptures and hymns she had heard in the South. One frequently told story concerned leading "Joe" and other slaves across the bridge at Niagara Falls to freedom in Canada, "which culminated in her imitating his performance of a joyful hymn when he touched Canadian soil" -- "Glory to God and Jesus too, One more soul is safe!"
One early biographer noted Tubman's "great dramatic power [in which] the scene rises before you as she saw it." That power impressed the historian Albert Bushnell Hart, who reported Tubman's description of the Union assault on Fort Wagner by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and his African-American 54th Massachusetts Regiment: "And then we saw the lightning, and that was the guns; and then we heard the thunder and that was the big guns; and then we heard the rain falling, and that was the drops of blood falling; and when we came to get the crops, it was dead men that we reaped."
While Humez's book may not be the obvious choice for the seeker of a standard biography, it indicates that Tubman is a worthy subject for academic study. That aside, the coincidental appearance of these three books removes the story of Tubman from consignment to the children's literature shelves. The life and experiences they recount should confirm her place in American history.