I can speak of Slavery only so far as it came under my own observation – only so far as I have known and experienced it in my own person. (p. 17-8)
So Solomon Northup begins his harrowing account of slavery from the inside. In Twelve Years a Slave, Northup, a free black man from upstate New York, describes how he was kidnapped and sold into slavery. For twelve years he was held as a slave on various plantations in the South before he was able to get word to his friends and family to affect his release. His book narrating this astonishing story was published in 1853 and became an instant bestseller, and exactly 160 years later, the Academy Award-nominated film 12 Years a Slave was released in 2013.
Northup’s book not only supplied the film’s narrative, it also provided the filmmaker’s motivation and inspiration. Both the director and star have revealed in interviews that reading a copy of the physical book Twelve Years a Slave made them determined to make the movie. Director Steve McQueen described how he was introduced to Northrup’s memoir by his wife:
“[My wife] found this book called 12 Years a Slave, and I read this book, and I was totally stunned. It was like a bolt coming out of the sky; at the same time I was pretty upset with myself that I didn’t know this book… I basically made it my passion to make this book into a film.” (Fresh Air interview, NPR, October 24, 2013)
Best Actor nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays Solomon Northup, described how he almost turned down the lead role:
“I just wondered whether I could tell the story. I felt the responsibility of it, and I felt intimidated by it, actually.” So what changed? “Well, in the end, what changed was, I read the book,” he said. (CBS Sunday Morning, February 2, 2014)
Ejiofor went on to describe being particularly moved by the frontispiece illustration:
“The look on his face is kind of strange, almost relaxed kind of way,” Ejiofor said. “To come out of that experience, and to write about it with such kind of gentility and poetry and absolute grace was something that really stunned me, and I realized that this was a person who had something to teach.” (CBS Sunday Morning, February 2, 2014)
What was it about this book that proved so inspiring?
One answer might be the true-to-life, insider perspective that gives such power to the narrative. As Frederick Douglass’ Paper described the book upon its release in 1853: “It is a strange history, its truth is far stranger than fiction.” This dichotomy between “truth” and “fiction” was at the center of Solomon Northup’s story, in part because of the direct corollaries between his narrative and the best selling novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which had first appeared in book form just the year before. The fact that most of Northup’s captivity took place in the same Red River region of Louisiana where Harriet Beecher Stowe had set her novel only served to reinforce the comparisons.
Another Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin
From its first appearance in print, the similarities between Solomon Northup’s narrative and Uncle Tom’s Cabin was noted. Even though the book Twelve Years a Slave was released only six months after Northup had safely returned to New York, it was not the first published account of his sensational story. Early newspaper reporting based on court records appeared in January 1853 in The New York Times. Quickly picked up across the country, it was largely reprinted verbatim, including the misspelling of his name as “Northrop.” The newspaper account described the location where Northup was held down South as a place “where slavery exists with features more revolting than those described in Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” and declares:
The condition of this colored man during the nine years that he was in the hands of EPPES, was of a character nearly approaching that described by Mrs. STOWE, as the condition of “Uncle Tom” while in that region.
The earliest appearances of Northup’s story in book form were taken directly from the New York Times’s original newspaper reporting. In these early instances, Northrup’s story is always told as one account among many that serves to validate the truth of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Northup’s story was told for children as “The Kidnapping Case” (in which he is named as “Northrop”) in the first volume of Uncle Tom’s Kindred [AAS Catalog record], published for Wesleyan Methodist Sabbath school children also in 1853.
Most notable of all, Harriet Beecher Stowe herself used the newspaper account of Northup’s story in her book: A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin [AAS Catalog record], published in April of 1853. In it, Stowe attempted to counter the critics’ claims (especially loud coming from the South) that her work misrepresented slavery. To accomplish this, Stowe recounted factual narratives to bolstered her depictions of slave life.
Twelve Years a Slave was published only months after A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin and was deliberately positioned as part of this debate. The book was dedicated to Harriet Beecher Stowe and described itself as “another Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. In later printings, the dedicatory page also included a direct quote from Stowe’s Key.
In this mutually reinforcing setup, Stowe borrowed truth from Northrup’s narrative to bolster her fictional novel, and Twelve Years a Slave attempted to capitalize on the popularity of the novel among anti-Slavery audiences. In other words, she needs his narrative facts and he needs her bestseller status. (Two key references to Uncle Tom’s Cabin and A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin within Northup’s narrative, see Heidi Kim’s fascinating article in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Feb. 17, 2014.)
The earliest advertisements and reviews of Twelve Years a Slave focused on its similarity to the incredibly popular international bestseller from the year before. One of the first notices predicted:
This volume is attracting considerable attention, and will probably achieve a popularity something akin to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. (Moore’s Rural New-Yorker for August 6, 1853)
Stay tuned: our next blog post will reveal if Twelve Years a Slave was able to rival Uncle Tom’s Cabin‘s level of publishing success!
Truth Stranger than Fiction
Northup was undoubtedly aware of these potential comparisons and took pains to emphasize his story was an example of the axiom, “Truth stranger than fiction!” (a headline that topped many of the advertisements and reviews of his book). He described his purpose at the beginning of his narrative as follows:
My object is, 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. (p. 17-8)
Over the years, people have doubted the veracity of the story told in Twelve Years a Slave and just how much of it was coming from the actual Solomon Northup. At the time of its initial publication, this concern was addressed by the book’s editor. David Wilson was from the same area of upstate New York as Northup, which may help explain his selection, since he had only published one earlier book. As editor, Wilson attests to Northup’s authorship and the truthfulness of his account in the preface:
He has invariably repeated the same story without deviating in the slightest particular, and has also carefully perused the manuscript, dictating an alteration wherever the most trivial inaccuracy has appeared. (p. xvi)
The question of white editors’ role in mediating black narrators’ voices has vexed scholars for years. In this case, Northup was a literate, educated man, so the editor’s claim that Northup had “carefully perused the manuscript” checking for inaccuracies seems reasonable.
Furthermore, the past few decades of scholarship since the 1960s (especially the work of Dr. Sue Eakin) have uncovered documentary evidence supporting the accuracy of Northup’s account. A free colored man from upstate New York, Northup was indeed lured to Washington, D.C. with the promise of work where he was drugged and sold into slavery. For 12 years he was enslaved on various plantations, including one in the very same Red River region of Louisiana where Harriet Beecher Stowe set her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. He was finally able to obtain his freedom, and legal documents and state records validate this fact. However the case against his kidnappers that followed highlighted the problems African Americans faced in a legal system in which they were not allowed to testify. The kidnappers were eventually released and no one was convicted for the crime.
While some may have found it difficult to accept his account as fact, Northup’s tragic story was certainly not unique: many free blacks were kidnapped and sold into slavery. What makes Northup’s life remarkable was that he was able to return to his life as a free black man, even if it was only for a few years before he disappeared again.
After Twelve Years a Slave was published, the next few years saw Northup frequently speaking in public and performing his own plays based on his story until he suddenly disappeared from the public record in the fall of 1857. To this day, no one knows exactly what happened to him. There is some evidence Northup may have been involved with the Underground Railroad, others speculated he was kidnapped again or killed, although the fact that his legal case against his kidnappers collapsed makes the latter seem unlikely. (For more details on his life, see the recent book Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave [AAS catalog record].)
A follow-up blog post later this week will present more information about the various editions and formats of the physical book that so inspired director Steve McQueen and actor Chiwetel Ejiofor. We hope you will have a deeper appreciation for the history behind Solomon Northup’s story. You’ll certainly have all kinds of insider knowledge to share at your Oscar viewing party this Sunday, March 2nd!
NOTE: A selection of the items described in these posts (along with some others) has been on display in the AAS reading room in honor of Black History Month. The display will remain up for at least the next few weeks and is accessible during our free weekly public tours Wednesdays at 3pm.