A family photo of Harriet and residents of her home in Auburn, N.Y. (1887) Harriet stands guard on the left.
A family photo of Harriet and residents of her home in Auburn, N.Y. (1887) Harriet stands guard on the left.
Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Mass.

A Woman Called Moses

Reviewed by Fergus M. Bordewich
Sunday, July 1, 2007


Imagining a Life

By Beverly Lowry

Doubleday. 418 pp. $26

It's no wonder that we continue to be mesmerized by Harriet Tubman, this brilliant, bold, coarse-grained former field hand who brazenly defied 19th-century assumptions about what women -- especially black women -- were supposed to be. Although a latecomer to the Underground Railroad, she has become the paramount icon of the entire far-flung system, which spirited fugitive slaves northward in the decades before the Civil War.

Just the barest rendering of her life describes an astounding trajectory. She was born Araminta Ross in 1822, in the flat, marshy country of Maryland's Eastern Shore, and "grew up like a neglected weed," as she once told an interviewer. As a girl, she suffered a grievous brain injury when she was hit in the head by a lead weight. Ever afterward she experienced narcoleptic fits and intense visions, which she believed heralded direct messages from God. With assistance from the local underground, she escaped to Pennsylvania in 1849. Beginning barely more than a year later, she made at least 13 clandestine trips back to Maryland to bring away scores of enslaved members of her extended family, their friends and freedom-seeking strangers. Before the decade was out, she was a popular speaker on the antislavery circuit and well-known to many of the country's prominent abolitionists, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott and William Seward. The admiring John Brown dubbed her "General Tubman" and unsuccessfully tried to enlist her in his ill-fated invasion of the South. During the Civil War, she was believed to have been the first woman to direct American troops in battle when she led a Union raid on plantations in South Carolina, resulting in the liberation of some 750 slaves. She lived the remainder of her life in Auburn, N.Y., caring for the indigent poor of both races in her modest home, finally dying in 1913, at the age of 91.

In this ambitious but unsatisfying new biography, Beverly Lowry tries to have her Tubman both ways: salt of the earth and shape-shifting enigma. On one hand, she reminds us that Tubman was a woman with normal human frailties who "did not set out to become Moses or to be called that, but when people needed her to be the one, she knew she could do the job and took it on." On the other, Lowry succumbs to the temptation to mythologize her subject, writing of Tubman, "Just as she made it out of slavery, she dodges us now, however relentlessly we dog her footsteps or meticulously study what clues she left behind."

A generation ago, this would have been a fair statement. However, a great deal is now known about Tubman, thanks mainly to Kate Clifford Larson's definitive biography, Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero; Jean Humez's Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories; and Catherine Clinton's less original but quite readable Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom, all published within the last four years and cited in Lowry's bibliography.

Lowry's genuine admiration for Tubman shines through on every page. She has tried earnestly, if not always successfully, to bring emotional immediacy to her story by presenting events as she imagines Tubman may have seen and felt them. Lowry has also done some independent research, immersing herself in period texts and traveling to Tubman country in Maryland. Indeed, some of the book's more convincing sections are those that unpack the world of the white farmers who owned or employed Tubman and the members of her family.

But Lowry's hazy grasp of historical context undermines her authority. She attributes the Underground Railroad's creation to the effects of the 1850 Fugitive Slave law, when in fact its genesis goes back to the 1790s. She also asserts that any African American boarding a northbound train "will be searched and questioned" and that "most will be kidnapped and taken away." This is simply not true. Recaptures on northern railway lines were very rare, and Tubman herself traveled openly by rail beyond Philadelphia with her fugitive passengers. Similarly, when Lowry proclaims that no fugitives ever returned from Canada, she seems unaware that there was considerable movement back and forth across the border, of which Tubman, who kept a home in St. Catherines, Ontario, was a prime example.

At its best, Lowry's prose can be vivid. The diminutive Tubman is "compact, tightly wound." And of rivalrous slaveowners, she writes, "Like hungry possums thrown into a trash barrel, they scramble and draw blood." Too often, though, she lapses into portentous platitude: "A hero brooks no pause between information and action"; "Reunions can be awkward, filled with long silences. Families don't change much." Her most textured descriptions follow paths well trodden by Larson and others, adding little that is new apart from imaginative reconstructions of some of the more dramatic episodes in Tubman's life, such as her daring roles in the violent 1860 seizure of a fugitive from federal authorities in Troy, N.Y., and the 1863 Combahee raid in South Carolina, in which at least 750 slaves were freed and brought into Union territory.

Lowry would like us to trust her as a uniquely gifted interpreter of Tubman's heart and mind. Regrettably, when she strays from the moorings established by previous biographers, her attempts at insight drift out to sea. "She sees, hears, knows," Lowry all too typically writes of Tubman at one point. "Imagines a new life. Sees it, goes there." Whatever this means, it does not sound like the inner voice of Harriet Tubman.

A friend once offered to take Tubman to see a stage production of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" in Philadelphia. She declined, explaining, "I've seen de real ting, and I don't want to see it on no stage or in no teater." Lowry's biography, unfortunately, smacks more of "teater" than it does of the "real ting." ยท

Fergus M. Bordewich's most recent book is "Bound for Canaan: The Epic Story of the Underground Railroad, America's First Civil Rights Movement."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company