Harriet Tubman's 3 biographies

Few Maryland figures so enshrined in history have remained so enshrouded by myth as the woman called Moses: Harriet Tubman.

Frequent distortions have exaggerated the number of slaves she freed and the size of the bounty on her head, among other details. Countless retellings of her escape from slavery and forays back to Dorchester County to liberate her family display unabashed hero worship. Indeed, while at least 40 books written in a half-century rehashed her exploits for the juvenile market, there was a dearth of scholarship on her life.


So it's a welcome turn that significant new biographies present a more mature and complex portrait of the black abolitionist, Union spy and suffragist. And it's especially gratifying that as emerging facts supplant the tall tales, her heroism is amplified rather than diminished. No sensationalism is necessary to ensure Tubman's place in history.

Born in 1822 in Dorchester County, she made it to freedom in Philadelphia on her second try in 1849. Determined to rescue her family from bondage, she went back about a dozen times, eluding capture and leading an estimated 70 fugitives and relatives as far north as St. Catharines in Canada.


Later, as a laundress, cook and spy, she worked for Union forces during the Civil War. In a rare role for a woman, she led a Union raid on Confederate stockpiles in South Carolina; she nursed survivors of the assault on Fort Wagner by the 54th Massachusetts colored troops.

These three biographies offer compelling if conflicting insights into her life. Each has been hyped as the first major examination of Tubman since 1943, but there's no real competition.

After six years of turning over stones, the intrepid Kate Clifford Larson breaks the new ground on Tubman legacy and legend in Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero (Ballantine, 432 pages, $26.95). Larson's exhaustive study will be the steppingstone for future scholars of Tubman, and thus the best choice for students, teachers and history buffs. This often reads like the expanded dissertation that it is -- clunky with necessary footnoting and recapitulations, but bouts of dryness are more than compensated for by pearls of detail that bring Tubman and antebellum Maryland to life.

A National Park Service expert on Tubman, Larson credits major roles in slave liberation to a wide network of free and enslaved blacks, whose names often remained undocumented to protect their safety. And she notes that Tubman's father before her aided escaping slaves.

Readers interested in the cultural and political freight assigned to Tubman during and after her lifetime will prefer woman's historian Jean Humez's Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories (University of Wisconsin, 464 pages, $45). Humez emphasizes the woman amid the symbolism in a wisp of biography, all of 130 pages. She leaves much good reading, illuminating the detective work of separating Tubman fact and myth, for the appendices; readers will be richly rewarded if tempted to skip ahead.

Very impressive is Humez's compilation of nearly 150 pages of excerpted Tubman stories, quotes and documents: In the absence of a memoir in Tubman's own voice, these must suffice to reveal her maverick spirit, fears and triumphs, resolute independence and spiritual grounding. "I had crossed the line. I was free, but there was no one to welcome me in the land of freedom."

The superior writer, with several books under her belt, Catherine Clinton has produced a very readable summary of what's known and theorized about Tubman's life in Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom (Little, Brown, 288 pages, $27.95).

Unfortunately, it sometimes falls back on assumptions about Tubman that Humez and Larson take pains to flesh out or debunk. It's a shame, in some ways, that Clinton didn't wait for her colleagues' scholarship to come to the fore so she could cite it. Her volume would be improved by it.


Here's an example: In Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom, Clinton repeats the claim that up to $40,000 was offered for Tubman's capture, while noting that the figure has been disputed. Larson, in Bound for the Promised Land, details how a 19th-century biographer embellished the facts to improve on Tubman's reputation, presumably so the story would sell better. Humez relies on the figure Tubman herself gave: $12,000.

Another example: Clinton mentions unconfirmed reports of Tubman's failing in an early escape attempt. Larson digs up the date of this escape, and the runaway-slave ad that Tubman's owner placed in the Delaware Gazette offering $100 for her capture.

That's not to say Clinton's biography is without merit: As a historian, she has specialized in women of the old South and Civil War eras, so she deftly places Tubman's actions in the context of historical roles for women -- and for black women.

She ponders, for example, what a 22-year-old Tubman might have felt about her childlessness during her first marriage. She was a slave. He was free. Maryland law dictated that any child of such a union share the mother's status. When Tubman followed the North Star away from Maryland, her husband did not wait for her return. She came back for him, only to discover he had taken another wife.

Larson and Humez also note Tubman's likely heartbreak, and tell readers that later in life, at women's conferences, Tubman used her story of being spurned to make a light example of the differences between women's and men's strengths.

One very curious difference between the biographies is their conflicting assessments of Tubman's physical disability. She was prone to seizures, headaches and visions, and would sometimes nod off. As a teen, she had been struck in the head with a lead weight, thrown by an overseer but intended for another slave.


Larson theorizes that Tubman suffered the rest of her life from temporal lobe epilepsy, brought on by the injury. Clinton suggests that Tubman had an inherited disorder similar to narcolepsy, which may have predated the injury. Humez notes the head injury, but avoids diagnosing. It's all speculation: There are few references to Tubman's medical history.

The nature of her ailment, and many details of Tubman's personal life, continue to elude historians. Here's hoping it doesn't take another 50 years for chroniclers to pick up the trail of these biographers. Perhaps, as Clinton notes, they should remember this quote from Tubman: "If you're tired, keep going. If you are scared, keep going. ... If you want to taste freedom, keep going."

Jean Thompson, an associate editor in the editorial department of The Sun, collects African-American historical documents, books, prints and music. She was a reporter at The Hartford Courant and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale before joining the Sun staff in 1988.