Sojourner Truth: A Life, a Symbol

Nell Irvin Painter, Author
Nell Irvin Painter, Author W. W. Norton & Company $28 (370p) ISBN 978-0-393-02739-6
Paperback - 384 pages - 978-0-393-31708-4
Prebound-Sewn - 978-0-613-99768-3
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Because other biographies of Sojourner Truth, unusual even among ex-slave women as itinerant preacher and political activist, have been published in recent years, Painter's compelling life loses some of its edge. Yet it has additional strengths as 19th-century social history. Isabella Van Wagenen, a Pentecostalist domestic born into slavery about 1797 but who reinvented herself at 59 as an abolitionist orator, then into a fiery suffragist, is seen here through the prism of the religious, social and political movements that animated her. A striking presence on the platform, the subject of an as-told-to autobiography that went through many editions and helped sustain her financially, she seemed a born survivor, shedding slavery, abuse, poverty and prejudice during her 80-odd years (admirers claimed 110--she died in 1883). Shrewd, and with a commonsense wit, possessed of such a thundering voice that skeptics wondered if she were a man, she was never, Painter asserts, a quaintly exotic innocent. Relying on biblical allusions that her ""Bible-literate"" audiences could amplify, she was spellbinding. Still, Painter reminds us, ""Everything we know of Sojourner Truth comes through other people, mostly educated white women,"" for, despite decades of involvement with liberal, even radical, intellectuals, she remained illiterate. Cutting through the image-making of her contemporaries as well as later interpreters who envision Sojourner Truth as the symbol of the strong woman, ""black or not,"" Painter persuasively offers us the real woman behind the myth. Photos. Author tour. (Sept.)
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