The Agitators: Three Friends Who Fought for Abolition and Women's Rights (Hardcover)
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From the intimate perspective of three friends and neighbors in mid-nineteenth century Auburn, New York—the “agitators” of the title—acclaimed author Dorothy Wickenden tells the fascinating and crucially American stories of abolition, the Underground Railroad, the early women’s rights movement, and the Civil War.
Harriet Tubman—no-nonsense, funny, uncannily prescient, and strategically brilliant—was one of the most important conductors on the underground railroad and hid the enslaved men, women and children she rescued in the basement kitchens of Martha Wright, Quaker mother of seven, and Frances Seward, wife of Governor, then Senator, then Secretary of State William H. Seward.
Harriet worked for the Union Army in South Carolina as a nurse and spy, and took part in a river raid in which 750 enslaved people were freed from rice plantations. Martha, a “dangerous woman” in the eyes of her neighbors and a harsh critic of Lincoln’s policy on slavery, organized women’s rights and abolitionist conventions with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Frances gave freedom seekers money and referrals and aided in their education. The most conventional of the three friends, she hid her radicalism in public; behind the scenes, she argued strenuously with her husband about the urgency of immediate abolition.
Many of the most prominent figures in the history books—Lincoln, Seward, Daniel Webster, Frederick Douglass, Charles Sumner, John Brown, Harriet Beecher Stowe, William Lloyd Garrison—are seen through the discerning eyes of the protagonists. So are the most explosive political debates: about women’s roles and rights during the abolition crusade, emancipation, and the arming of Black troops; and about the true meaning of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
Beginning two decades before the Civil War, when Harriet Tubman was still enslaved and Martha and Frances were young women bound by law and tradition, The Agitators ends two decades after the war, in a radically changed United States. Wickenden brings this extraordinary period of our history to life through the richly detailed letters her characters wrote several times a week. Like Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals and David McCullough’s John Adams, Wickenden’s The Agitators is revelatory, riveting, and profoundly relevant to our own time.
About the Author
Dorothy Wickenden is the author of Nothing Daunted and The Agitators, and has been the executive editor of The New Yorker since January 1996. She also writes for the magazine and is the moderator of its weekly podcast The Political Scene. A former Nieman Fellow at Harvard, Wickenden was national affairs editor at Newsweek from 1993-1995, and before that was the longtime executive editor at The New Republic. She lives with her husband in Westchester, New York.
Praise for The Agitators
"An epic and intimate history. . . . 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. . . . . Entwining these three asymmetrical lives as deftly as Wickenden does proves illuminating."
—Jane Kamensky, New York Times Book Review
"Absorbing and richly rewarding . . . . [Wickenden] traces the Auburn women's lives with intelligence, compassion, and verve . . . [and her] assessment of the era leading up to the Civil War will resonate with readers in our own fractious era."
—Melanie Kirkpatrick, Wall Street Journal
"Riveting. . . . [Wickenden] weaves [these] 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."
—Mary Ann Gwinn, The Star Tribune
"New Yorker executive editor Wickenden (Nothing Daunted) expertly weaves together the biographies of “co-conspirators and intimate friends” Harriet Tubman, Martha Wright, and Frances Seward in this novelistic history... Through extensive research and fluid writing, Wickenden rescues Wright and Seward from obscurity and provides a new perspective on Tubman’s life and work. This is an essential addition to the history of American progressivism."
—Publishers Weekly, starred review
"She brings a reporter’s eye for detail to this complex history... [and] invites readers to take a closer look at the path of American progress and the women who guided it."
—Carla Jean Whitley, BookPage
"Told with literary flare, Dorothy Wickenden's The Agitators sheds some much-needed light on the lives and passions of a small circle of abolitionists: Harriet Tubman, Martha Wright, and Frances Seward."
"New Yorker executive editor Wickenden brings three fascinating women to life in rich, humanizing detail ... Wickenden pulls this history out of the dry dustiness of fact and adds color and warmth to its retelling. The women of our shared past deserve more treatments like this."
“An original portrait of three original women who muscled aside expectations, obligations, and neighborhood gossip for the sake of their consciences. Dorothy Wickenden not only resurrects these unlikely agitators but plunges us deep into their volatile world, with a supporting cast that includes Julia Ward Howe, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Abraham Lincoln. This is rich and rousing history, crisply and intimately rendered, its moral collisions vivid and vital on the page.“
—Stacy Schiff, author of Cleopatra and The Witches
“The Agitators tells the story of America before the Civil War through the lives of three women who advocated for the abolition of slavery and women’s rights as the country split apart. Harriet Tubman, Martha Coffin Wright and Frances A. Seward are the examples we need right now—another time of divisiveness and dissension over our nation’s purpose ‘to form a more perfect union.’”
"This is an extraordinary peek into the lives of three women who courageously pushed past the tight worlds that confined them to create the bones and muscle of the freedom movements that we now know. That they walked in a land of giants – Lincoln, Lee, John Brown – is no surprise. That they knew one another, were giants themselves, and accorded second class status is no surprise either. The treat is the refreshing decency, skillful ease, and extraordinary skill with which their stories are intertwined, showing how each pressed against the seams of imprisonment with such force and resilience that their collective song continues to resonate today. That is why Dorothy Wickenden is one of the deans of our game."
“When writing about the Civil War era, focus is everything: how it is seen depends entirely on who is seeing it. In The Agitators, Dorothy Wickenden has fortunately chosen three brilliantly engaging characters. The result is unexpected, original, and profoundly illuminating.”
—S.C. Gwynne, author of Hymns of the Republic and Rebel Yell
"Inspiring and important – and a rousing good read – The Agitators reminds us how, even in the darkest of times, there is light. And when a few fierce women join forces against that darkness, they can win."
—Jeannette Walls, author of The Glass Castle
"As a revolutionary, Harriet Tubman made many allies, none more important than her Auburn, New York, neighbors Martha Wright and Frances Seward. Wright, a middle-class Quaker, and Seward, the wealthy wife of a famous statesman, learned their activism from the abolition and women's rights movements that surrounded them, as well as from Tubman's incomparable example. This is a unique, lyrically written, exhaustively researched, triple biography of epic proportions about three women, mothers and organizers all, woven into a single narrative about their activist struggles before and during the Civil War. Their lives burst from these pages, as do the crusades that began the liberation of African Americans and women across the nineteenth century. Wickenden possesses a novelist's eye for detail and a historian's passion for story, in a book about women with no formal political rights who changed their world."
—David W. Blight, Yale University, author of Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom
"Dorothy Wickenden seamlessly weaves together the lives of her protagonists with the times that influenced them, and that they in turn profoundly affected. Vivid, enlightening, and engrossing, here is the story of three women who are fixtures of history but whose relevance to the present could scarcely be more apparent."
—Jelani Cobb, Professor at the Columbia School of Journalism and the author of The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress
Praise for Nothing Daunted
"A quintessentially American tale... An enchanting family memoir... the narrative positively glimmers."
—The Washington Post
"An exquisite book."
—The Boston Globe
“A superb, stirring book. Through the eyes of two spirited and resourceful women from the civilized East, Wickenden makes the story of the American West engaging and personal. A delight to read.”
—Susan Orlean, author of The Orchid Thief
“An enchanting family memoir…A brilliant gem of Americana.”
—Washington Post Book World
“Lovingly pieced together.”
—Los Angeles Times
“A rich narrative… Nothing Daunted is an extraordinary book.”
“Dorothy Wickenden’s recounting of her grandmother Dorothy Woodruff’s treacherous cross-country journey is as charming as it is rugged… This is Little House on the Prairie in petticoats, and it is enchanting.”
“A great story, with a richly appealing character at the center...a tale of the triumph of determination over adversity...wonderfully American”
“Dorothy Woodruff and Rosamond Underwood come alive in Nothing Daunted, Dorothy Wickenden’s fascinating slice of social history... Their story is blessed with a cast of supporting characters that novelists would envy.”
“Wickenden is a lucky and talented writer... Both women spring to life in this wonderful book.”