Sojourner Truth (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
In this valuable work about the life and career of Sojourner Truth, Nell Irvin Painter performs the difficult labor of writing a biography about a woman who did not herself write. For all her famous eccentric eloquence and the existence of her Narrative of Sojourner Truth (dictated to the amanuensis Olive Gilbert, who lent Truth’s words her own interpretation, and first published in 1850), Truth was illiterate. Unlike other orators and prominent reformers, she left no diaries and only letters dictated through others. The challenge faced by the biographer is thus one of sorting through the various historical sources that have survived that were created by others about Truth (or, in the case of the Narrative of Sojourner Truth, by her, but filtered through the pens and opinions of others) in order to tell, as accurately as possible, the story of her long, varied, and amazing life.
In championing this process, Painter filters through and evaluates the checkered documentation of Truth’s life and helps lend meaning to Truth’s experiences by placing the events of that life—her enslavement, her attitude toward her master, her experience of sexual abuse at the hands of a woman, her understanding of the Bible, her laboring, her move from a rural to an urban environment, her dedication to abolition, and so forth—in larger cultural and political contexts. Painter uses interdisciplinary methods, drawing from the fields of art history,...
(The entire section is 1862 words.)
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Sojourner Truth (Magill Book Reviews)
In this many-layered study of Sojourner Truth, Nell Irvin Painter examines a woman who, as an itinerant preacher and lecturer, possessed an uncanny ability to seize an audience. She would rise to her feet in public gatherings and persuasively cut to the heart of divisive issues. Her power came in part from her muscular femininity and blackness combined with a working-class orientation that set her apart from the white middle-class reformers with whom she consorted. These qualities were part of both the reality of her life and the legend it engendered.
Painter presents a dynamic woman who changed and developed through time. She emphasizes that in each phase of Truth’s life—as slave, evangelist, and activist—Truth existed within relationships: with her master’s family and with her own, with other worshippers, within networks of fellow reformers. Painter takes care to correct common misconceptions. Among these is the routine association in the popular mind of Truth with slavery and thus with the plantation South. Painter also emphasizes aspects of Truth’s character that were most important to Truth herself, including Truth’s sustaining religious faith. In telling Sojourner Truth’s story, Painter chooses key events that are highlights of her public image and discusses the historical accuracy of conflicting accounts of these situations.
Painter successfully traces the ways that facts were embellished or re-created in the process of...
(The entire section is 361 words.)