The executive editor of The New Yorker chronicles the revolutionary activities of Harriet Tubman, Frances Seward and Martha Wright—friends and neighbors in Auburn, New York—exploring their vital roles in the Underground Railroad, abolition and the early women's rights movement.
... epic and intimate ... Collective biography is a difficult business. The voice of each character needs to emerge distinctly, yet the ensemble should be richer than the sum of its solos...Wickenden confronts steeper obstacles. In no account of their own lives would Wright, Seward or Tubman have made one another principal characters. And the documentary record upon which The Agitators rests is uneven and sometimes precarious. Wickenden’s commitment to keeping her trio in the frame and in focus showcases prodigious narrative control. The Agitators is a masterpiece, not least, of structure, as each of the title characters dons her mantle, takes the stage and does a turn, usually at arm’s length from the others ... Entwining these three asymmetrical lives as deftly as Wickenden does proves illuminating. Tubman’s actions reveal the existential stakes of Wright’s and Seward’s agitations. Her freedom journeys made their words flesh. But for all the excellence of The Agitators, there is monumental work yet to be done about the 'She-Moses,' the hundreds she wrested from Pharaoh’s grip and their thousands of descendants.
In telling the stories of Martha Wright and Frances Seward, Ms. Wickenden relies heavily on their letters and diaries and those of close family members. The result is an intimate, detailed portrait of the women, including the effect that their activism had on their families ... Harriet Tubman, who was illiterate and left no written record, is nevertheless the one who comes most alive in the book’s pages ... One of the pleasures of The Agitators is the cast of supporting characters who pass through its pages ... carries no political message, but Ms. Wickenden’s assessment of the era leading up to the Civil War will resonate with readers in our own fractious age: 'The nation never had been so politically engaged—or so divided.'
Wickenden knows a thing or two about writing with grace and economy, and she seamlessly braids her subjects' stories together into a riveting book ... While Tubman's mythic labors personify the courage of the anti-slavery struggle, Frances Seward's conflicted conscience embodies the anguish of a country longing for peace but moving toward war. Wickenden draws heavily from Frances' correspondence with Henry Seward, and her letters, by turn affectionate and anguished, are an eloquent testament to her divided soul ... Wickenden distills the violence that consumed the country before the Civil War, its bloody progress and the toxic political divisions in its aftermath. But she never loses her focus on her subjects. She weaves their stories together with gravity and humor in a narrative so tightly knit it reads like accomplished literary fiction ... The Agitators will move you, and it will make you sad. So much of what convulsed the country in the 19th century remains with us: mob violence, virulent racism and an appalling disregard for human dignity. But there's another message: People of fierce and heartfelt principles can bend history to their will. If you're an agitator, even a quiet one, read this book.