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The Inventiveness and Inventedness of Identity Formation in History and Literature Nell Irvin Painter. Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol. New York: W. W. Norton, 1996. xi + 369 pp. ISBN 0-393-02739-2 (cl). Elaine K. Ginsberg, ed. Passing and the Fictions of Identity. Durham: Duke University Press, 1996. 298 pp. ISBN 0-8223-1755-9 (pb). Shirley J. Yee For the past decade or so, feminist scholars from a number of disciplines , including history, literature, cultural studies, and poUtical theory, have examined the ways in which identity and the self are mutually constructed in historical and contemporary settings by both scholar and subject. The phenomena of representation and self-representation in history and literature become strikingly clear in Nell Irvin Painter's Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol and in Elaine K. Ginsberg's anthology of essays, Passing and the Fictions of Identity. Both point to the simultaneous inventiveness and inventedness of identity formation. Blacks who passed as whites and whites who passed as black, women who passed as men and vice versa, and the life of historical figures such as Sojourner Truth all illustrate the creativity of individuals and their ability to act as agents in the invention and reinvention of themselves whether in real life or as fictionalized characters in novels. At the same time, historians and novelists have also constructed identities for their subjects, so that individuals become known in ways that writers want them to be known and understood . Thus, I would expand Samira Kawash's statement in her essay in Passing that "the distinction between true Jiistory and fictional narrative is not in the text but in the reader" (60) to argue that what is at stake is the very notion of what constitutes "true history" and that both the reader and the writer are comphcit in the construction and perpetuation of the narrative. The life of Sojourner Truth in an excellent example of the ways in which a narrative over time has come to represent the "truth" about an individual while at the same time obscuring her Ufe. Olive Gilbert's Narrative of Sojourner Truth, published by Truth in 1850, has served as the standard primary text on her life.1 Using this text as weU as other primary written documents and visual images of Truth, Painter seeks to uncover Truth, the person, and in the process deconstruct Truth, the myth. Painter's biography must be discussed within the context of her larger work on © 1998 Journal of Women's History, Vol. 10 No. 1 (Spring) 1998 Review Essay: Shirley J. Yee 175 Truth, which reveals the tension that often exists between representation at the hands of historians and self-representation.2 Painter traces Truth's life from her birth in 1797 to her death in 1883, unveiling the rich and complex life of the woman born Isabella Van Wagenen—a slave from Ulster County, New York, who on 1 June 1843 reinvented herseff as Sojourner Truth. Painter reveals little-known but critical aspects of Truth's life. She reminds readers that in many ways Truth was not unlike other rural African-American women of her time. As a slave, and later as a wage-earning free black woman, work defined her daily life. She learned to negotiate for her needs as much as she was able under the confines and uncertainties of institutional slavery. As the author points out, it was New York slavery, not southern slavery, that shaped Truth's slave experience, despite the connections abolitionists later made between Truth—the supposed symbol of slave womanhood—and slavery in the South. One of Painter's most important contributions, both to our knowledge of Sojourner Truth and to the history of the rural northeast during this period, is her extensive discussion of the religious influences in Truth's life. Painter reveals Truth as a deeply religious person whose faith provided her with spiritual strength throughout her life. She situates Truth's religious convictions within the larger context of the Second Great Awakening that swept the region during the 1820s and 1830s and her exposure first to the New York Methodists and Dutch Reformed Church and then her more active involvement with...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2036
Print ISSN
1042-7961
Pages
pp. 174-182
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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