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Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol Paperback – October 17, 1997

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Though she was born into slavery and subjected to physical and sexual abuse by her owners, Sojourner Truth, who eventually fled the South for the promise of the North, came to represent the power of individual strength and perseverance. She championed the disadvantaged--black in the South, women in the North--yet spent much of her free life with middle-class whites, who supported her, yet never failed to remind her that she was a second class citizen. Slowly, but surely, Sojourner climbed from beneath the weight of slavery, secured respect for herself, and utilized the distinction of her race to become not only a symbol for black women, but for the feminist movement as a whole. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

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.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition (October 17, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393317080
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393317084
  • Product Dimensions: 5.6 x 1 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #183,888 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Nell Irvin Painter is the award-winning author of many books, including Sojourner Truth, Southern History Across the Color Line, Creating Black Americans, The History of White People, and Standing at Armageddon. She is currently the Edwards Professor of American History, Emerita, at Princeton University and lives in Newark, New Jersey.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

37 of 41 people found the following review helpful By Carlos E. Davila on March 24, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol undertakes an interesting challenge as historian Nell Irvin Painter attempts to produce a "historically accurate" biography of a subject that left little evidence of her life. Moreover, Painter takes on another interesting challenge by attempting to analyze the meaning of Sojourner Truth the symbol-a task that requires her to analyze the layers of evidence produced by those who did document Sojourner Truth's life. Is she successful at producing a historically "accurate" biography? Does she successfully "peel back the myth and the legend" in the evidence left by those who documented Truth's life?
I think Painter is somewhat successful at presenting a historically accurate biography. I say somewhat because, on the one hand, she presents compelling evidence assembled from primary sources that document Truth's life-newspaper accounts, monographs, etc. And she obviously has a thorough command of the secondary sources related to Sojourner Truth. What is more, I think that her methodology-what she calls "more or less uncommon research methods"-allows her to reconstruct a version of Truth's life as best as possible. Assembling the pieces of an immense jigsaw puzzle such as this requires great patience and historical skill, both of which Painter exhibits in this work.
On the other hand, her command of the supporting sources, the sources that provide context for her analysis of the primary sources, is a little less complete. For example, as Painter acknowledges, religion-popular religion-is central to understanding American culture. And I think that in this case, one must have a thorough understanding of religion and the Bible to effectively document Truth's life.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By "peeatee" on July 5, 1998
Format: Hardcover
Ms. Painter does a complete job of culling an abundance of information and ascertaining the real Sojourner Truth from the mythologized one who has been passed down to most of us by way of cursory teaching and mentioning of in classrooms. This scholarly book is rife with interesting and, at times, disturbing facts about not only the woman named Sojourner, but also about the country named America with its racist and sexist policies and practices.
The book is written in a clear and cohesive style, notwithstanding its rigorous documentation. Anyone who is interested in African American history, women's history, and U.S. history will want to have a copy of Sojourner Truth, A Life, A Symbol in his or her library.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on November 10, 2003
Format: Paperback
Painter's biography is excellent. She puts Truth in perspective with the challenges of her time. She sheds light on complicated relationships with noteable Abolishionists and with her own children. This book clearly presents the difficult life of one incredible woman who struggles to do her part to free all slaves, gain respect as a woman and be accepted as a human being.
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14 of 18 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on July 23, 2000
Format: Paperback
When I read a book, I want to get a lot out of it, as I enjoy the reading of it. On the second point: this book is engagingly written. The author questions her own motives and information as she constructs a biography of a difficult life to document. We see Painter confront the challenges of performing biography. I found it a compelling literary device. On the first point, the book mixes biography with history and feminist criticism. This interdisciplinary focus produces a highly inviting book. Among other topics, we find out about the details of slavery in the North, 19th century religious cults, and the ways in which feminists and abolitionists of the time exploited Truth for their own gain, as well as how this appropriation of "Truth" continues to the present. On this point, we learn much about contemporary feminism and culture and its need for heroes-especially African American female heroes.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Steven D. Livengood on August 24, 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Painter makes unique recognition of the fact that Sojourner Truth was a self-created identity, and approaches her story through many layers: what do we know? We cannot know as much about Sojourner Truth as we can about other historic figures because Sojourner herself was illiterate. A unique figure -- an orator of historic power, but unable to write or in other ways preserve her own words. All that we can know is what other people wrote or quoted. Yet the written sources disagree: they quote her in black dialect that witnesses say she did not use! People hailed her as a uniquely talented African-born slave, when in fact she was born in New York speaking Dutch as her first language. She lived among African Americans only for short periods late in her life. Her own posed and widely-distributed photographs show only her black skin to differentiate her from any other middle-class matron.

So what is truth? Who is Truth? Is this person Isabella Van Wagenen, or is she really the myth she created. Painter recognizes these layers and sorts out Truth from myth and truth from reality, without concluding that one is more important than the other. Very well done.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By silversurf on February 23, 2007
Format: Paperback
For some reason, most Americans know, or think they know, quite a bit about the Civil War. But somehow the decades before the great drama of the 1860's are little known to most of us. It's almost as if everything between the Revolutionary War and the American Civil War happened under a cloud or in some shadowed universe that sends out very few signals to modern Americans. In reality, the country went through a time of near-chaos as competing political and religious movements battled for the minds and hearts of the American public.

Sojourner Truth, the subject of this biography, experienced a good bit of this social ferment, and the story of her life gives readers a good opportunity to get a grip on this very strange and fascinating period. The author starts with the odd fact that the name and face of Sojourner Truth became very well-known, yet the real story of her life was obscured by her status as a symbol of the Abolitionist movement. The real woman led a surpringly adventurous life, and she did it in the context of a society that supposedly kept slaves, women and rural poor people firmly in their pre-ordained place. The story of how a courageous girl named Katherine, born in slavery and poverty on a Dutch farm in rural New York state, became the free woman and independent thinker called Sojourner Truth, is worth reading for its own sake. But the book also sheds light on the wild side of American religious and intellectual life during her lifetime. While reading this book, I felt like I was really getting two books in one-I highly recommend this book!!
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