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Twelve Years a Slave, a chronicle of the amazing ordeal of a free African-American kidnapped from Washington, D.C., and impressed into slavery in Louisiana, is one of the most compelling and detailed slave narratives in existence. Although a best-selling book in its time, Solomon Northup’s narrative has existed in the shadow of more academically prominent and popularly celebrated narratives like The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845). Nonetheless, Northup’s account of his kidnapping and enslavement is a masterpiece of historical detail, and the narrative has been noted for its easily researched and widely corroborated elements. The text and story were virtually unchallenged by Southern apologists or partisans of the era. Northup resists the urge to laud himself as an exemplary character or focus solely his own experience, giving contemporary readers a remarkable account of the lives of the slave community as a whole. As an educated man, torn from freedom and plunged into slavery, he brings into horrible and tantalizingly exact clarity the life and labor of slaves in the antebellum American South, the complex economic choices and ironic moral concessions of slaveholding, and the calamitous effect of slavery on the foundations of civilization.
Born in 1808 to an unnamed mother and Mintus Northup, a former slave who was freed on the death of his master, Solomon Northup lived the life of a free man and educated tradesman in New York. Beginning with his childhood, he was early acquainted with voting and civic life through his father, and he developed a strong sense of his own liberty and dignity. Like his father, he maintained a cordial relationship with the white family that had previously held his own family in bondage, an association that would help secure his freedom. Northup and his wife, Anne Hampton Northup, were engaged in a quintessentially American quest for social and economic advancement when he was enticed away from the safety of Saratoga Springs, New York, with the promise of work and kidnapped into slavery in 1841. Upon his escape in 1853, Northup resolved to tell his story, first to the New York Times and later in a book through his editor, David Wilson. Although his sensational story showed great commercial promise, Northup insisted in its first pages that his primary aim was to “give a candid and truthful statement of facts: to repeat the story of my life, without exaggeration, leaving it for others to determine, whether even the pages of fiction present a picture of more cruel wrong or a severer bondage.”
Northup’s life before slavery was notable because of his industriousness. He worked on the repairs of the Champlain Canal, navigated rafts of supplies from Lake Champlain to Troy, New York, engaged in woodcutting, purchased property, farmed for profit, and worked in railroad construction. In addition, he plied his trade as a violinist during the tourist season. It was in pursuit of work that Northup found himself drugged, kidnapped, and enslaved, and for twelve years he labored in the grinding agricultural netherworld of Southern bondage. After returning to his family, Northup not only published his narrative but also pressed his legal case against his abductors. With the help of Thaddeus St. John, a New York county judge who had witnessed Northup traveling in the company of his abductors, and Henry B. Northup, of the family who had formerly enslaved the African-American Northups, Solomon Northup was able to seek redress in the courts. His abductors, Alexander Merrill and Joseph Russell, were captured and faced trial in 1854. By 1856, the case had meandered through the New York legal system to the state supreme court and the court of appeals, only to be remanded for action in the lower courts. Ultimately, the delays and technicalities of trial exhausted the interest of the state, which did not retry the abductors.
For all of his misfortune and his resulting celebrity, Solomon Northup’s end remains a mystery. He returned to his family, who settled in Glen Falls, New York, purchased property, and lived in the area until his death. His wife and family sold their property and moved from the town. The circumstances and date of his death are unknown, but the city of Saratoga Springs still commemorates his life and narrative with an annual “Solomon Northup Day.”
Commentary on Northup’s penchant for detail punctuates any evaluation of his narrative, and well it should. His descriptions of nineteenth-century cotton production and sugar manufacturing are amazingly detailed historical gifts to scholars of the antebellum era, and they provide revealing texture to the brutal and onerous labor involved on Southern plantations. Given recent questions about the veracity of portions of Olaudah (Olaudiah) Equiano’s famous narrative, Northup’s exactness and well-supported facts about people and places in his narrative have new contemporary importance. Northup also notes variations in the personalities, characters, attributes, and fortunes of the slaves and slaveholders and even finds space for irony and faint humor amid the considerable pain of slave life. Northup also possesses an egalitarian gaze, and where other escaped slaves have been faulted for selective or manipulative recollection in their narratives, Northup is circumspect.
While scholars have faulted Frederick Douglass for his one-dimensional and largely physical representations of women (in near-nakedness and under torture or sexual abuse) and the primacy of his own struggle, Northup labors over the details of life in the slave community and gives personality and depth to the varied men and women who were enslaved and abused. He recounts the deceptive appearance of ease and satisfaction Southern slaves and slaveholders presented when traveling North, but he reveals both their true yearnings for liberty and his own early exhortations to them to escape. He also follows the life of the slave Eliza from her treacherous sale, to the loss of her children, to her end as a mere shadow of her once lively and elegant womanhood.
Remarkably, Northup relates what is likely a new version of the story of American slavery for even contemporary readers—a world of plantation life where the backbreaking work is done exclusively by African-American women. Northup writes compellingly of the labor of slave women who are not only caretakers and cooks and cotton hands but also horse-riders and lumberjacks. He describes the exceptional physical strength of Patsey with a remarkably liberated eye, marking no impediment of gender and describing her intellect and acquisition of horsemanship and teamster-talent with ease. At the same time, he takes pains to describe her additional burden as a woman who is the object and victim of her master’s lascivious designs and her mistress’ infernal jealousy.
Northup’s narrative is no less an account of the physical horror beyond the bloodstained gate of Southern slavery than others in the genre. The shrieks of pain so familiar to readers of slave narratives are in the air of Northup’s plantations, resonating for miles, as they do in so many narrative accounts. But his report of the physical abuse native to slavery is raised to superlative form by his analysis of the psychological, sexual, economic, and personally capricious horrors that accompanied the crack and pain of the lash. Northup distinguishes the lash itself as not just the tool of forcing labor or of venting vicious anger, but also the tool of caprice or a recreational device for slaveholders’ drunken gamesmanship.
Few, if any, slave narratives relate uplifting and celebratory stories of slaveholders and overseers, but central to Twelve Years a Slave is a careful and nuanced analysis of the slaveholders of the South, Louisiana in particular, that could stand alone as a significant text. The slave civilization Northup describes is a crumbling ruin of the Western world, its rulers fallen creatures largely bereft of virtue. Yet, Northup is evenhanded and scrupulous in his attempt to relate slaveholding culture. He records the ironies and complexities of slaveholding, the notable qualities of those preserved by Christian faith in a modicum of civilization, like William Ford, and the acts of those who are uncommon angels, like Mary McCoy. Little of Southern gentility or the region’s historic pretension to being the inheritor of the classical republics exists in Northup’s narrative. The slaveholders of Northup’s South are largely distinguished by their coarseness and ignorance. Northup sees the plight of slaves and the fault of slaveholders through educated eyes, and he presents the world of antebellum Louisiana with the judicious equanimity of a man of virtues (although not untouched by the evils of slavery). In a stunning reversal of stereotype, he is often a man among beasts. However, he is just as often a man among those trapped by the economic realities of Southern society, struggling to sustain faith and virtue against the slaveholding system, propelled to vice by jealousy and fear, consumed by avarice, or themselves enslaved by alcohol addiction.
Noting the deeply human challenges and pains that shape slaveholders and slaves, Northup still recoils at the more bestial evils threatening to collapse what there is of civilization in the Deep South. Antebellum Louisiana is a realm where white men with personal quarrels can be seen circling and slashing with Bowie knives, and even the most aristocratic cotton lords can be found stalking around the bodies of their murdered victims in the midst of their homes. Northup’s brief account of his mistress’ attempt to have him murder Patsey in a contract killing is as chilling as any passage among the many slave narratives of his era.
Although some scholars attribute the narrative’s diction to Northup’s editor, David Wilson, it is widely accepted that the story, the analysis, and much of the tone are the products of Northup’s life and mind. In his story, he displays many of the attributes of the Victorian man of reason and, ironically, the qualities of the Jeffersonian polymath. He details his mastery of carpentry, shipping, and inventive technology, from moving freight to manufacturing superior axe-handles to creating fish-traps and weaving looms, but he continually makes careful observations of the South’s backwardness and slaveholders’ frequent surprise at his Yankee ingenuity.
Solomon Northup shared the literary landscape of slave narratives and novels about slavery with a number of notable contemporaries. Among them, Frederick Douglass was the acknowledged master of the narrative tradition and remains chief among those to whom even contemporary scholars compare Northup. Solomon Northup was abducted in the year that Douglass began his notable lecture tour in Lynn, Massachusetts, with William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionists, and Douglass was among those to note the double tragedy of Northup’s loss of freedom and harrowing experience in slavery. In addition, William Wells Brown escaped from slavery in 1834 and published his narrative in 1847. He followed with the provocative novel Clotel in 1853. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin ignited an antislavery furor in 1851 and 1852, and similarities between Northup’s experience and the novel amplified interest in the narrative. Stowe reacted to Northup’s New York Times interview and his tale in The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1853). In contrast to some in this formidable group of writers, Northup presents not merely an example of the traditional motif of the slave narrator-picaro “orphan” Henry Louis Gates, Jr., described but something more.[i] Northup is neither an orphan nor an outsider; he is a man of the world drawn into the underworld of slavery. He has as much in common with Dante as he does with Frederick Douglass, and though his narrative feeds the mid-nineteenth century’s desire for insider stories and sentimental accounts of the ordeals of the slave and the free, the tale also suggests that many more of the free observers and readers might find themselves unwittingly and unwillingly made part of the terrible tale of American slavery.
Ultimately, Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave is a stunning American odyssey and a worthy narrative for study in classrooms and private study in the contemporary era. It provides intricate detail of a period in America more economically, psychologically, and morally complex than regularly reported. Similarly, the narrative details a system of slavery more insidious than ordinarily imagined. Northup elegantly and poignantly delivers his personal tale of cruelest wrong and severest bondage while never forgetting the community of African-American sufferers that shared his plight.
Eric Ashley Hairston is an Assistant Professor of English at Elon University. He holds a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature from the University of Virginia and teaches and writes on American Literature, African-American Literature, Western literary history, Classical literature, and Asian-American Literature.
[i] Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the “Racial” Self. (New York: Oxford, 1987), 81–83.