Twelve Years a Slave (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)
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Twelve Years a Slave (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

4.2 367
by Solomon Northup
     
 

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Twelve Years a Slave, a chronicle of the amazing ordeal of a free African-American kidnapped in the north, and impressed into slavery in Louisiana, is one of the most compelling and detailed slave narratives in existence. The text and story were virtually unchallenged by Southern apologists or partisans of the era. Northup resists the urge to laud

Overview

Twelve Years a Slave, a chronicle of the amazing ordeal of a free African-American kidnapped in the north, and impressed into slavery in Louisiana, is one of the most compelling and detailed slave narratives in existence. 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780760783344
Publisher:
Barnes & Noble
Publication date:
06/14/2007
Series:
Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading
Edition description:
New Edition
Pages:
240
Sales rank:
465,878
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x (d)

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Introduction

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.

Meet the Author

Born in 1808, Solomon Northup lived the life of a free man and educated tradesman in New York. 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.

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Twelve Years a Slave 4.2 out of 5 based on 4 ratings. 367 reviews.
Max23 More than 1 year ago
This book was about the life and Journey of Solomon Northup, who unfortunately was stolen from freedom and made a slave. Born in New York State in 1808 as a free man, he was well educated, learned how to swim (which is very rare to find in an African American at the time) and an exceptional worker. But in 1841 he was kidnapped in Washington D.C. where he was forced to work as a slave for the next twelve years on a Louisiana cotton plantation. This book is definitely going on my list of favorite books. It has such a detailed and vivid description of his experience that I almost felt like I was there with him. He incorporates sadness, depression,and death with happiness, excitement, and love. This is sometimes very hard to achieve when writing about slavery but somehow he brought it all together in the best of ways. One of my major "likes" about this book was that he showed a side of slavery that doesn't get recognized all too often; compassion. Solomon made friends with other slaves that stood by him and showed him sympathy whenever he needed it. But the major shocker is that one of his many masters, a man named Ford, treated Solomon with respect and even said that he was better than a white man (Tibeat), right to his face. Thats when I started to adore this book and wanted to keep on reading. My only real "dislike" was that after a while, not much was happening besides him being a slave and going through what they normal experienced, but that did not stop the fact that is was a great book. This book gives detailed descriptions of the fear, brutality, and hardships that slaves went through which makes it a must read book because people should know the history of our country and recognize the ones who were there.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book simply tells the story from the perspective of Solomon Northup. He successfully left out any preconceptions, assumptions and told the story from what he actually witnessed, heard, felt and thought. I could not put the book down reading about his feelings and thoughts on this horrific time in his life. A compelling story.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I grew up in the 60's and 70's near the area in which Northup was enslaved. I am amazed that such brutality once was accepted, even condoned, so near the peaceful places where I experienced childhood and young adulthood. We have much to learn from his story. I wish that this book had been required reading in our mandatory Junior High Lousiana History class, which typically presented only superficial discussions of slavery in our state.
Puli More than 1 year ago
I really knew nothing about live as a slave, or even life during that time period. I found the book fascinating and informative. The author is very detailed in his descriptions, so you can easily picture what he is describing. He was a great observer, and even adds some wry humor here and there. Hearing his thoughts as he goes through the different situations really helps you understand what it must have been like. Knowing that it is a true story makes it all the more compelling. It gave insight into lots of questions I had about life as a slave- how aware of their situation were they, why didn't they just escape, what kinds of freedoms did they really have, were all owners cruel, how could otherwise good people own slaves, what happened when slaves were smarter than their masters, how did they cope with families being separated? I really enjoyed the book and would highly recommend it. One thing I would like to know - did any of the author's former owners eve read the book, and what did they think?
Lolo10 More than 1 year ago
I've known of this story for many years. Not only bc it's depicting our history, but it's depicting my family's history. I'm Solomon Northup's 4x's great granddaughter, and I can't tell how completely proud and honored I am that my grandfather's story is getting so much recognition. The movie brought light to the book, which I'm so thrilled to see. The book is now being distributed to many schools. My family's history is making history. And I am so absolutely honored to be of the blood of this strong and intelligent man. The book is well written and the story is well detailed. If you've seen the movie, please read the book!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The story was presented in a moving way. I had no idea that free men were kidnapped and taken as slaves Everyone should read this book
Guest More than 1 year ago
The story of Solomon Northup's life, as a free man, a slave and then his struggle for justice against his kidnapper's, is a horrifying and detailed narrative. Unfortunately, his story is similar to other African Americans during this period of history. His strong will to fight, literally against a particular master, at any cost demonstrates his desire to take a stand against wrong doers. An attempt to make more money for his family cost him twelve years of freedom, pain and enslavement. I could not stop reading this book after I started. His words are realistically descriptive and brings the reader into the pages of the book.
nite-owlCP More than 1 year ago
This is an amaedzing true story of Solomon Northup who was born in the free state of New York. People befriended him and he is taken to Washington, DC under false prentences. He is kidnapped and sent to Louisiana to the cotton plantations. How Solomon kept the faith and endured one can only believe he was made up of a fabric of his fore fathers. He knew how to make the most of interacting with the other slaves and the plantation owners. Solomon Northup wasn't freed until after 12 years. This book should be manaditory reading for every school.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I'm not much of a reader. I haven't read a book since elementary school; I'm 25 now. Believe me when I tell you I couldn't put this book down. I created a Barnes and Noble account solely to post this review. I highly recommend this book!!! It is a must read!!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have read about 6 books dealing with slavery such as Booker T. Washington, H. Tubman, and F. Douglas,and I must say that I have enjoyed this title the best. Solomen gives an inside experience of slavery that I never knew existed.
LasVegasMia More than 1 year ago
This book is an amazing account of Solomon Northup’s 12 years as a slave. Solomon was born a free man but was kidnapped and tricked into slavery and spent the next 12 years as a slave on a Louisiana plantation. Solomon was well educated and it shows in his writing. I give this book my highest praise.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This artfully written masterpiece is raw in its honesty and disturbingly revealing about America's tragic history.
lvsbwy More than 1 year ago
Powerful auto-biography! Was very well-written.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is the story of Solomon Northup, in his own words, a citizen of New York kidnapped in 1841 and taken to Louisiana as a slave, where he was found twelve years later on a cotton plantation near the Red River. It is a story that will break your heart as Solomon was torn away from his family for over a decade. According to a quote from 1853, when Solomon first published his memoirs, 'Think of it: For thirty years a man, with all a man's hopes, fears and aspirations--with a wife and children to call him by the endearing names of husband and father--with a home, humble it may be, but still a home...then for twelve years a thing, a chattel personal, classed with mules and horses. ...Oh! it is horrible. It chills the blood to think that such are.' And indeed, this story will both chill--and boil--your blood.
Ibelis More than 1 year ago
Its a phenomenal book. Its a profound visual of what life was as a slave and his endurance through it all. Excellent! Please read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I thought the story was compelling and it was not hard for me to believe considering my parents are both from Louisanna. Have heard so many of these stories.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Have not seen the movie. But reading this book is a must for white, blacks, and any other nationailty. Raceisum should not ever be in a person's mind or vocabulary The saying goes, walk in my shoes for a day. Or no shoes. God made us to be what He wants us to be. Follow His leading and be blessed you live in freedom. Be sorrowful for those that don't have and be there to help if you are able.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was assigned to read a memoir for my AP Language & Composition class, so I decided that, due to the movie version’s critical success, it would be the perfect opportunity to read 12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northrup. Because the memoir was written in the 1800s, I was apprehensive at first that the language would be difficult to follow. However, I was pleased to see that Northrup used words that are still commonly used today. In addition to having accessible diction, the book was easy to read because it was very fast-paced; Northrup wasted few pages before he describes being kidnapped by the men who would sell him into slavery. He was brutally honest about the realities of slavery and confirmed many of the details that basic history classes only brush upon. His honesty made 12 Years a Slave a truly emotional memoir and had me engrossed in the story from cover to cover. While those who enjoy history should undoubtedly add this book to their shelves, I think it would appeal any other teen or adult as well.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
First off were you there to see or go through it.? You have no idea of how these people were treated but i do believe it to be true after what happened to my ansestors the cherokee indians taken from their land during the civil war days and were made to walk what was later called the trail of tears i have a picture of myself standing in front of the bronze plack telling the story when i was back in Mo, going thru the ozarks, no i do not believe for a minute this book is lies but i think in the minds of some this could bring the thought of racisim into thought only because they look back on how their own people were treated and in some instances still feel treated look up your own history and you might have a different thought hopefully gain the knowledge it takes to be humble and realize civil war era was quite different than now
JEGB More than 1 year ago
A first hand account during our darkest time in america history. Its shows the good and bad in people. Read it!
Anon-M More than 1 year ago
I saw the movie, then read the book. The book gave some insight that was not in the movie (even the flashback scenes). There were so many different copies online that I was uncertain which I should choose to read. It was quite interesting.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Slavery was a horrible thing. Read the book but will not watch the movie
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It covers the subject very well. There is a lot of evil people out there. No one should have been treated like this.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Be very careful if you buy this as a Nook e book. . My e book came as very, very small print. The B&N store could not change it either. B&N work do NOTHING to reimburse my money. To bad, so sad was their  response. I was able to read it with my iPad somewhat. Still small print but readable. Very good book however.
Books4Tomorrow More than 1 year ago
I purchased this book on a whim, following the Oscars, without knowing anything about the book or the movie except that the movie version was awarded the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture - Drama. Because I am fascinated by the history of slavery, and because it was made into a much talked about movie in which one of my favorite actors, Brad Pitt, has a role, I took a chance on Twelve Years a Slave, and have not regretted it once. In many ways it’s not an easy book to read and took me several weeks to finish, but once I got used to the narrative, it was nearly impossible to put down.  “What would become of me? Who would befriend me? Wither should I fly? Oh, God! Thou who gavest me life, and implanted in my bosom the love of life who filled it with emotions such as other men, thy creatures, have, do not forsake me. Have pity on the poor slave¬ - let me not perish. If thou cost not protect me, I am lost - lost! Such supplications, silently and unuttered, ascended from my inmost heart to Heaven.” As you can tell from the quoted text, Twelve Years a Slave isn’t a book you read in a rush. This type of narrative is the exact reason why I don’t read works by Shakespeare and other such classics of this kind. English is my second language, and this type of narrative is foreign to me and tends to deter me from reading such books. Yet, this novel, once I got used to the narrative, appealed to my humanity and I felt the suffering of Northup and others of his kind as clearly as though it was being done to me personally.   The second thing that made this book really hard for me to read was the injustices done to the slaves. The mere fact that they were treated and considered not as human beings, but as lowly, yet slightly more intelligent than wild animals, made me cry buckets of tears. I was appalled and alarmed at the horrific treatment, and the unjust and severe punishments bestowed upon these people. They were ridiculed, beaten to an inch of their lives, mistreated, underfed, tortured, oppressed, and weren’t even granted the most basic of possessions such as eating utensils. The last book I read about slavery in the American south was Sue Monk Kidd’s, The Invention of Wings, and as horrified as I was by her in-depth portrayal of slavery, the characters of that novel lived a fairly easy life compared to the one described by Solomon Northup. To compound my feelings of horror at the inhumane treatment endured by slaves at the hands of their malicious owners, was the realization that all of what Northup was describing really happened. To him, and thousands of others, this was real life. It made it so much worse. They lived a life I can’t imagine, but Northup, with understanding, gentle honestly, and fairness towards his enslavers, takes the reader into a world which, luckily for the reader, can be escaped by closing the book when the harsh reality of it all becomes too much, whilst, for the unfortunate slaves, there was no escaping their merciless and painful journey through life.  As a final thought, Twelve Years a Slave made me appreciate the freedom I have. Many times I’ve considered the fact that we are all slaves in one form or another. We aren’t one-hundred-percent free to do exactly as we please. We all have to conform to rules, regulations, or laws of some sort. Yet nothing, in my opinion, takes away our freedom of choice in the manner slavery did. Northup’s story touched me deeply, and my heart ached for every slave in this novel, and every slave that had to endure brutality in any form. This novel contains many scenes of heartbreaking cruelty, but it also makes it clear that not all slave owners were malicious and unjust, and that there were thousands of slaves who lived a good life with generous and kind owners. Still, this is not a book I’ll recommend to just anyone, but it’s definitely worth the time for those brave, compassionate, and open-minded enough to bear witness to the plight of the ill-treated masses on whose blood and sorrows the foundation of a prospering country was built.