February 15, 2004
he Post Office has issued not one but two Harriet Tubman stamps; the National Standards for United States History have named Tubman as a figure who should be familiar to students by the fifth grade; Google lists more than 90,000 entries under her name; Amazon.com offers more than 1,200 results in its book category, including one entitled ''Girls Who Rocked the World . . . From Harriet Tubman to Mia Hamm.''
Tubman is far better known in American popular culture and among schoolchildren than she is in the serious historical literature. There has been no adult biography since 1943. Now three scholars have published studies almost simultaneously. Who is Harriet Tubman and why should we care about her? What can we know of her life, how can we know it and how should it shape our understanding of American history?
Tubman was born a slave on Maryland's Eastern Shore sometime in the early 1820's. She saw her sisters sold, bore scars of whippings all her life and suffered permanent disability from a head injury incurred when an enraged overseer hit her with a weight hurled at another slave, who was trying to run away. In 1849, fearing she would be sold, Tubman fled north, connecting with antislavery activists through what came to be known as the Underground Railroad. She returned to the South more than a dozen times to lead her brother, parents and, ultimately, about 70 individuals to freedom. By the late 1850's, Tubman was appearing on the antislavery lecture circuit and was widely hailed as a heroine across the North. John Brown, who visited her in Canada to seek her help in planning his abortive 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, called her ''General Tubman.'' During the Civil War, Tubman served as teacher, laundress, cook, spy and scout for the Union forces, helping to connect Northern troops with networks of slave information. In June 1863, she played a crucial role in a Union raid in South Carolina that liberated more than 700 slaves.
After the war, Tubman settled in Auburn, N.Y., where she struggled economically the rest of her life, undertaking domestic work and public speaking to support herself and dedicating much of her energy to philanthropic efforts on behalf of the freed people. She also became a regular speaker at woman suffrage gatherings, demanding to know if women's wartime deeds ''do not place woman as man's equal, what do?'' Tubman sought government acknowledgment of her own wartime service -- ''as nurse and cook in hospitals and as commander of several men . . . as scouts,'' as her pension application attested. Her claim was rejected, and she was provided instead with a monthly widow's pension, raised from $8 to $20 in recognition of her work as a nurse. Even the intervention of her congressman did not win official validation of her role as a scout and spy. Deeply spiritual, Tubman died in 1913 with clergymen at her side and a profession of Christian faith on her lips: ''I go away to prepare a place for you.''
Tubman led a remarkable life, one that her race, her sex and her origins make all the more extraordinary. Even in her own time, her heroism was recognized as the stuff of legend, larger than life and her historical circumstances. Children's literature, with its affinities for the fabulous, the celebratory and the exemplary, has seemed a more comfortable environment for such a story than professional historical writing that endeavors to be critical, contextual and analytic and to build its interpretations on a rich documentary record.
Tubman remained illiterate her entire life. She left not a single document in her own hand. To find, as Jean M. Humez seeks to do in ''Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories,'' ''the private woman whose life has virtually disappeared behind the heroic public icon,'' is no small challenge. Humez, who teaches women's studies at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, cites the ''advantage of a much larger number of primary sources'' than earlier students of Tubman. Indeed, she and Kate Clifford Larson, in her first book, ''Bound for the Promised Land,'' have both done extensive and imaginative research in local historical sources that tell us almost more than we want to know about the Eastern Shore in the mid-19th century; in the papers of antislavery activists who interacted with Tubman; in the correspondence of an earlier Tubman biographer who in the 1940's interviewed individuals who had been alive long enough to remember her.
Catherine Clinton's ''Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom'' is much less richly researched and less detailed, but draws on the extensive historical writing of recent years about slavery and Civil War to place Tubman's life within its times -- through descriptions of the black Philadelphia in which she found herself after her escape in 1849, of the history of the Underground Railroad, of the impact and aftermath of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, of the experiences of war in the coastal South. Clinton, whose books include ''Fanny Kemble's Civil Wars,'' frequently speculates about what she cannot know, with such interjections as ''one can imagine'' or ''there is every reason to believe.'' Larson and Humez tend to conjecture less and instead to supply the reader with the considerable information they have collected -- sometimes, it seems, more because they have found it than because it adds significantly to our understanding of Tubman's life.
Having eluded slave catchers and Confederate soldiers so successfully, Tubman -- or at least the ''private woman'' Humez seeks -- largely eludes us still. But Humez spends less than half her book on a biographical treatment of Tubman. The final 200 pages consider the contemporary stories and texts through which we know Tubman, with most of this space devoted to excerpts from the documents themselves. Humez has compiled what she calls Tubman's ''core stories,'' accounts of her life Tubman told regularly in her public appearances, and descriptions written by those who interacted with her. Presented as a chronology of her life, these materials paint a far more vivid portrait than any biographer's account. The reader gains not just glimpses of Tubman, but sees how she confounded even those admirers who still could not comprehend a black woman who behaved like the bravest of men. John Brown, for example, could not conceive of her as a woman and referred to her not just as ''General'' but with a masculine pronoun: ''He is the most of a man, naturally, that I ever met with.''
And the racism of even the most progressive of antislavery figures appears unmistakably, illustrating some of the obstacles to Tubman's ready incorporation into the historical record. Franklin Sanborn, a Boston editor and one of the Secret Six who conspired with John Brown to overturn slavery, wrote after the Civil War: ''I regard her as . . . the most extraordinary person of her race I have ever met. She is a Negro of pure or almost pure blood, can neither read nor write, and has the characteristics of her race and condition. But she has done what can scarcely be credited on the best authority, and she has accomplished her purposes with a coolness, foresight, patience and wisdom, which in a white man would have raised him to the highest pitch of reputation.'' Unable to deal with her complexity, her inherent challenge to every expectation of race and sex, history in the early 20th century all but forgot her. An era of growing racial equality rediscovered her only to reduce her to myth.
These three biographies leave us still searching for Harriet Tubman, still unsure how this particular slave woman was able to transcend the constraints her era and her society placed upon her. But we now have help in our pursuit. Read with the care Humez's introduction to the documentary section of her book prescribes, the collection of Tubman sources she has assembled provide the basis for a far fuller and more complex portrait than has hitherto been available. These contemporary observations and descriptions present Tubman at once in her ordinariness and her extraordinariness, render her as both real and impossibly heroic, and offer us the best opportunity to begin to understand how and why Harriet Tubman ''rocked the world.''
Drew Gilpin Faust is dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and the Lincoln professor of history at Harvard University.