'Imagining' Tubman

Writing in 1868, Frederick Douglass informed Harriet Tubman that except for the martyred John Brown, "I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people than you have." While Brown fought slavery openly, Douglass wrote, Tubman's clandestine activity "has been witnessed by a few trembling, scarred, and footsore bondmen and women, whom you have led out of the house of bondage."

Tubman (c. 1822-1913) ranks as the best known female slave in American history and folklore. The subject of many biographies (including three since 2003), she has been canonized by writers as a slave runaway, abolitionist, conductor on the Underground Railroad, nurse, scout and spy for the Union Army, and pioneer feminist. Legend holds that Tubman, armed with a rifle and selfless determination, made as many as 19 covert trips to the South and freed almost 300 slaves.

Abolitionists and generations of African-Americans dubbed Tubman "the Moses of her People," the "Queen of the Underground" and "General Tubman." Twice the U.S. Postal Service honored her with stamps. Today Tubman's name adorns schools, streets, and public and private institutions. Recently promoters lobbied to have a holiday dedicated to her on the state and national levels. According to historian Louise P. Maxwell, "perhaps more than any other figure of her time, Tubman personified resistance to slavery, and she became a symbol of courage and strength to African Americans -- slave and free."

In "Harriet Tubman: Imagining a Life," novelist Beverly Lowry reconstructs Tubman's life "on the fly." Lowry's undocumented work of creative nonfiction examines vivid scenes from Tubman's life, emphasizing visual elements -- "what things looked like, places and clothes, faces, plants, the sky."

According to Lowry, Tubman's illiteracy and the fact that she worked alone render it impossible to write her definitive biography. "Having taught herself to develop and maintain an indifferent, almost casual attitude toward circumstance -- a rare skill and perhaps the real test of a genuine hero -- she ran too fast to catch up with, listening only to the voices inside her head ... operating beyond sense, reason, and the boundaries of community, family, and marriage."

In 1849, for example, Tubman left friends and her free black husband, John Tubman, in Dorchester County, Md., for freedom in Philadelphia. "Everything becomes new," Lowry writes of Tubman's first impressions of the North. "Even the light seems to change. She looks down at her hands to make sure that she is the same person."

Two years later, returning to Dorchester to bring John back to Philadelphia, Tubman discovers that in her absence he has remarried. "Humiliated, Harriet blows her top," Lowry explains, "revealing a volatility she otherwise suppresses."

By the mid-1850s, Tubman's success at leading slaves to freedom had established her as the Black Moses. Assessing her aptitude for liberating slaves, Lowry credits Tubman with "great instincts and a natural head for logistics, unusual peripheral vision, an irresistibly engaging manner, a great sense of humor, a fearless and single-focus temperament." These qualities served Tubman well as a Union nurse and spy during the Civil War.

While Lowry presents "one version of what life might have been like for the American hero Harriet Tubman," unfortunately her numerous asides, flashbacks and suppositions distract rather than focus. She accepts blindly many myths and exaggerations associated with Tubman and regrettably adds little to assessing her broad meaning. Recent Tubman biographers Jean M. Humez, Catherine Clinton and Kate Clifford Larson are more insightful.

So too is historian Milton Sernett, whose exceptionally well-researched "Harriet Tubman: Myth, Memory, and History" underscores Tubman's durability, pliability, resilience and symbolic importance. Following historian David W. Blight, who termed her "a malleable icon of America's antislavery past," Sernett sorts fact from fiction in Tubman's image in the popular imagination. "By learning of Harriet Tubman and her place in the American memory," Sernett concludes, "we learn about ourselves as the American people."

White and black abolitionists and reformers, including the famous ex-slave herself, carefully crafted Tubman's persona. "When various groups with causes of their own to advance needed a symbolic figure to represent the great struggle for freedom that eventually brought on the Civil War and then victory for the old abolitionist crusade," Sernett explains, "she was there to tell her story." "Harriet Tubman," he adds, "could be whatever an author wanted her to be, or needed her to be." Reality and mythology commonly intertwine for "Tubman pilgrims" engaged in "Tubman tourism."

Sernett succeeds admirably in exposing "the heroic and heavily mediated" Tubman. Exaggerated claims include that a master whipped her at age 5 for failing to keep a baby quiet, that at age 7 she ran away to avoid punishment for stealing a lump of sugar and that as a child she performed the unpleasant task of breaking flax.

Drawing upon Humez and Larson, Sernett sets the record straight regarding Tubman's rescue missions. Instead of 19 trips and 300 rescued bondsmen, she probably made 13 Southern forays, freeing probably 70 or 80 slaves and possibly assisting 60 others to escape. Other blacks also "risked their lives to bring out freedom seekers by doing as Tubman did." And Sernett notes that "Tubman's contributions to the suffrage and women's rights movements were more symbolic than substantial."

Sernett nevertheless does not diminish Tubman's importance. Her courage, self-sacrifice and strength remind us of the active role African-Americans played in their own emancipation and of the uses and abuses of history.