Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup

Posted on January 26th, 2014

#1 of my series on slave narratives

Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon NorthupTwelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup
Published by Derby & Miller in 1853
Genres: Memoir
Pages: 363
Location: Louisiana, USA
Read it here
At the age of 30, Solomon Northup, a free black man from New York state is kidnapped and sold into slavery. He is transported to a remote part of Louisiana where he spends most of the next twelve years on a cotton plantation. Soon after regaining his freedom he published this memoir of his experiences with the internal slave trade of the southern states and slave life on the plantations.

Verdict: a good book and a very interesting one.

Twelve Years a Slave is as memoir that’s as well-written and readable as many of the best 19th century novels. It even has the shape of a novel, with a hero for whom things just get worse and worse until the denouement. Once I started reading, I didn’t want to put it down.

northup-returns-homeI think one of the advantages of the book over the film is that it manages to avoid voyeurism by presenting violence and the abusive treatment of slaves through the viewpoint of a first-person narrator who is frequently sarcastic, quite analytic and in the worse cases, falls back on a kind of bitter philosophy. Sometimes the beauty of literature over more graphic art forms is that it doesn’t show, it tells. We’re presented with what a person who actually lived through these experiences is thinking and feeling, rather than being left with only our own reactions which we form as distant spectators.

One of the great pleasures of the book is cheering from the sidelines as Solomon Northup’s takes his revenge by sharing with a wide audience of his contemporaries his critical assessment of the character and appearance of several people he encountered, along with their names, addresses and occupations – rather like a 21st century ‘outing’ on the internet. For example:

 “EDWIN EPPS, of whom much will be said during the remainder of this history, is a large, portly, heavy-bodied man with light hair, high cheek bones, and a Roman nose of extraordinary dimensions. He has blue eyes, a fair complexion, and is, as I should say, full six feet high. He has the sharp, inquisitive expression of a jockey. His manners are repulsive and coarse, and his language gives speedy and unequivocal evidence that he has never enjoyed the advantages of an education. He has the faculty of saying most provoking things, in that respect even excelling old Peter Tanner. At the time I came into his possession, Edwin Epps was fond of the bottle, his “sprees” sometimes extending over the space of two whole weeks.”

Twelve Years a Slave as historical documentation: Northup’s memoir works incredibly well as a ‘history lesson’ on slavery in the American South for a simple reason. It was written for an audience in the northern states to whom plantation slavery was essentially foreign. It doesn’t take its readers knowledge for granted and sets out instead to educate and inform them, a mission that comes out particularly obviously in the chapters which explain the practical details of how cotton and sugar are farmed.

northup-OakAlleyA surviving plantation house in Louisiana, from a visit we made in 1999(?). The house and most immediate grounds are all that’s now left of this plantation.

Hopefully, it isn’t necessary to emphasize that as a historical document, Twelve Years a Slave existed to make a case for abolition and tends to structure and arrange Northup’s experiences around the abolition movement’s main arguments. That’s also why it provides so much information – how cotton is grown, what southerners say about the northern abolition movements, what slaves think about slavery and freedom, the consequences of the imperfect overlap between race and slavery, etc – so that the future abolitionists the book hoped to convert will have all the talking points at their fingertips. Northup was entering a contemporary debate on social justice of epic and often very heated proportions. Knowledge of the parameters of that debate is the one thing he does take for granted, in a way that 21st century readers probably can’t always do justice to.

northup_Years_a_Slave_film_poster12 Years, the film version – hyped to the hilt: I decided to give the film a miss so I can’t say much about it, but I was quite surprised, on re-reading its plot on Wikipedia to discover so many changes with respect to the original story as told by Northup, changes which would tend to invalidate the film as a historical document. There could be some misunderstanding on the part of the Wikipedia article’s writer, and fictionalization is in any case fair game for a movie writer. What’s worrying, is that in all the hype for the film, it’s obvious that many people don’t quite realize this process has taken place. I personally hope everyone reads the book as well as, or instead of, seeing the film.