Twelve Years a Slave, The Book: Truth Stranger than Fiction

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)

Twelve Years a Slave frontispiece titled “Solomon Northup in his Plantation Suit”

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)

Closeup of frontispiece

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

A few of the more than 100 editions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin available at AAS
A few of the more than 100 editions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin available at AAS

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.

From Uncle Tom's Kindred, or The Wrongs of the Lowly. Mansfield, Ohio: E. Smith, for the Wesleyan Methodist Connection of America, 1853.
From Uncle Tom’s Kindred, or The Wrongs of the Lowly (Mansfield, Ohio, 1853).

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.

AKey_toUTC_0001Twelve 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.

Published by

Elizabeth Watts Pope

Curator of Books, American Antiquarian Society

5 thoughts on “Twelve Years a Slave, The Book: Truth Stranger than Fiction”

  1. I enjoyed reading your essay on the book, ‘Twelve Years A Slave’, written by Solomon Northup, my great, great grandfather. Yes, words like inspiration and motivation are but a few that have been used to identify a memoir now over 160 years old. Amazing! My only hope is much like that of Solomon’s is that the viewer takes away some sense and feeling of what that time and his experience was during the 12 years of his enslavement. For one to make their own assessment. In so doing, perhaps, this may influence others here in America and globally to make a change when instances of slavery then and prevalent today are overlooked but supported. Most importantly using this book as a teaching tool may grab the attention of some of our Black and White children to persuade them to remain in school. The harshness of the life living as a slave versus the 12 years needed to complete school is no less a hardship. Struggling to survive or struggling to live are keys that will be found between these pages….to come out on top and to go forward in life with courage and a deep seated belief that you can do it regardless of any hardship, I think the toughest of all things to teach. Perhaps, the movie and the book will permit our youth to give themselves that same courage and tenacity….a belief deep inside…an empowerment.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment. Your great, great grandfather was a remarkable man. Hope you enjoy the follow-up post tomorrow!

  2. Critique of Henry Louis Gates Jr. Interview with Steve McQueen,
    Director of the Movie 12 Years A Slave

    By Delroy Constantine-Simms

    “Slavery is like the elephant in the room, and what you do is sprinkle flour over it and makes it visible.” – Steve McQueen.

    12 Years a Slave has received wide critical acclaim, and was named the best film of the year by several media outlets. It also proved to be a box office success, earning over $140 million on a production budget of $20 million. The film has won three Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress for Nyong’o and Best Adapted Screenplay for Ridley. It was awarded the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Drama, and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts recognized the film with the Best Film and the Best Actor award for Ejiofor. 12 Year a Slave.

    However, little mention has been made of the fact that 12 Years a Slave is a REMAKE! What’s more, the original television film was directed by the often celebrated Gordon Parks. The screenplay was written by Lou Potter and the noted playwright-actor Samm-Art Williams, who were also, inspired by Northrup’s 1853 book Twelve Years a Slave. Why this fact has not been mention by film critics or film historians is a bit of a mystery. In fact I would call it another case of historical and media amnesia on an industrial scale. As I said before, 12 Years a Slave is a remake of a TV series first aired on PBS in 1984 as Solomon Northup’s Odyssey. In 1985 it was repeated as an instalment of American Playhouse, and made its video debut under the title Half Slave, Half Free starring Avery Brooks as the free man sold into slavery.

    While the accolades are still being lauded over Steve McQueen’s remake of Gordon Parkes Solomon Northrup’s Odyssey, It’s also noticeable that very little mention is made of the mini TV series Roots entitled Roots: The Saga of an American Family, based on Alex Haley’s 1976 novel, first aired, on ABC-TV, in 1977, which received 37 Emmy Award nominations and won nine. Roots also won a Golden Globe and a Peabody Award. Most interesting, Roots received an unprecedented Nielsen ratings for the finale, which still holds the record as the third-highest-rated US television program in history. Neither is there any mention of The Next Generations, first aired in 1979, and a second sequel, Roots: The Gift, a Christmas TV movie, starring Burton and Louis Gossett Jr. first aired in 1988 by Steve McQueen in any interviews that I am currently aware of…If he has made any reference to these films in any interviews, I apologize in advance for making assumptions by way of not qualifying comments before they are made, but to date, I haven’t seen any comments so far.

    In terms of character representation in Roots, Solomon Northrup’s Odyssey and 12 Years a Slave, I am intrigued by the choice of characters and how they have been represented in terms of physiology, in respect of skin shade.

    According to Alex Haley’s Novel Roots Chicken George is the product of a sexual encounter between his enslaved mother Kizzy and her white plantation owner Tom, but in the TV adaptation of the novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family the character Chicken George is played by dark skinned actor Ben Vereen. I am not sure why this is the case. Did the casting directors have issues finding light skinned actors to play Chicken George or was it just more acceptable to have a dark skinned person playing such a central role albeit a slave?

    In respect of the screen play 12 Years a Slave, little reference is made regarding Solomon Northrups family background in terms of race, but I do recall such references in his autobiography where Solomon Northrup describes his mother as mixed race, and his wife as Quadroon, yet in Gordon Parkes film Solomon Northrup’s Odyssey the lead actor Avery Brooks who is Dark skinned in complexion. So my question is again, could they not find a light skinned actor to play this role, or is it simply a case that light skinned actors where not chosen, or simply did not apply for the role. In my opinion, there are stereotypes associated with what a slave looks like and sadly, this is often played out in Hollywood in so many ways. I am of the view that the Roots and Solomon Northrups Odyssey are victims of this trend.

    What I do find refreshing about 12 Years a Slave Chiwetel Ejiofor is that the lead character is light skinned in complexion and a truer representation of Solomon’s’ Northrup’s true physical features as opposed to the usual dark skinned images of slave which does make sense, because the majority of slaves were dark skinned on a arrival from Africa to the US shores. But in this instance, the casting director’s choice of using Citadel Ejiofor play the part of Solomon Northrup in 12 Year a Slave was perfect for this film.

    It is accepted that during slavery, that there was an internal social stratification system among slaves based on the type of work done by respective slaves, but the film has subtlety sidelined the issue of Shadism and social snobbery within the African-America community and how that possibly impacted on Solomon Northrup view of himself in relation to other African-American who were still enslaved.

    In many respects it could be just that Solomon Northrup is a Violin playing Uncle Tom, who had no interest in the abolishment of slavery or the plight of other slaves until he found himself in the position of getting his ass whipped, put in chains, auctioned off and made to pick Cotton with the rest of the darkies, who he once ignored. In modern day parlance, it’s like those people who say they have never experienced racism or suggest that such matters do not concern them until they find themselves victims of such racism of discrimination. Sadly, such people only realize what racism is when it hits them left right and centre. I call it the “ Born Again Black Syndrome”. I fear that Solomon Northrup was a man that had adopted a similar mindset and consequently changed after he had drugged, captured, sold, whipped and nearly hung to death. It’s said that he had to go through this, but he did.

    In an interview with Henry Louis Gates, Steve McQueen, the director of 12 Years of Slave, and featured in the Root, McQueen described slavery as an elephant in the room everybody knows about, but does not want to talk about. There are obvious reasons people do not want to talk about slavery. Unfortunately McQueen answers barely scratches the surface and offers no in-depth answers to explain why people feel so are uncomfortable when the issue of slavery arises.

    There are several reasons why people are uncomfortable talking about slavery. Nobody wants to talk about slavery for reasons that the subject raises old feelings of hurt and guilt. Hurt on the part of descendants of slavery who are still dealing with the effects of 400 years of slavery on almost all aspect of their lives, no matter how we feign ignorance or sweep the emotional, psychological and economic consequences under the carpet.

    When discussing slavery with the descendants whose parents benefitted from the economics of exploitation, from (despite slavery happening centuries past), do not want to be reminded that their parents are either participants or beneficiaries of heinous brutality and exploitation inflicted on other humans because it was considered culturally and morally acceptable at that point in time. Similarly, slavery and talking about it, is a subject that breeds unending hate and animosity between people, not just the descendants of former slaves but also children of former slave owners that are suffering from the pains of slavery. There is a growing voice for restitution for a variety of legal and moral reasons, but such an open debate for slavery reparations may polarize the nation.

    Another avoidance technique when discussing the issue of slavery on the part of the state, unlike the cross section of descendants or beneficiaries of the evil trade of slavery that wanted answers to the question of slavery; the government would want the contentious issue of slavery laid to rest since it does not want to disrupt peace and tranquillity it needs to deal with numerous compounding political and socio—economic problems facing the state. Problems that need strong collaboration of its diverse citizens to overcome. On both sides the issue, the victims and perpetrators, waking up the elephant in the room may also bring into question, the subject of extreme violation of human rights, and who should be held accountable for slavery, Africans or White Slave owners – knowing too well that 400 years of slavery has economic paybacks that some are still benefiting in terms of companies built by slave labour and reaping billions of dollars in profit. Some of these companies still expand the inequity in the distribution of wealth by policies that are similar to the exploitation of slave labour in the 18th and 19th centuries.

    There have been calls for reparations to be made to victims of slavery, which is something I do not agree with for the simple reason that giving money to descendants does not absolve the crimes of slavery, most importantly, I would feel extremely uncomfortable accepting blood money for something that I did not experience in my own right, so in many respects, taking any such money would be an absolute insult to our ancestors. At the same time, I am from the school of thought that the focus of acquiring reparations from the guilty parties and their beneficiaries, does not go far or wide enough. That is the reparation movement should not exclude seeking compensation from Arab countries that have been associated with slavery as fully fledged participants and beneficiaries. There is ample evidence that the Europeans were involved in the slave trade, but from my perspective history has airbrushed African and Arab involvement in the slave trade and as such, those countries should be made to pay compensation for the atrocities inflicted on Africans during the slave trade, most importantly, the Arab involvement as described in historical accounts of slavery should be adjusted to ensure that Arabs and other communities involved in the African slave trade in full and in detail.

    It understandable that there are fears on the part of some companies or groups have…..

    That they could be liable to pay massive compensation and punitive damages for the price of their involvement in the slave trade is the best motivator and incentive to ensure the story of slavery and their participants is swept under the carpet. Most importantly, many are wary that there are some post-colonial abolitionists that are prepared to take the matter to the United Nations Human Right Committee for reparations or the International Criminal Court of Justice for justice.

    Rest assured there are so many other reasons why there is a massive conspiracy of silence regarding slavery. There is also a clear metaphorical issue in that the Elephant in the room is as big as it has ever been and the Hot Potato is considered way too hot to handle. From my perspective, the Henry Louis Gate Jr. Interview did not address this aspect of the hot potato (slavery) for reasons that I have stated earlier. Of course, there are other missing links between 19th century and 21st century slavery that Henry Louis Gates Jr. interview with McQueen did not address. For instance, I expected Louis Gates Jr. to bring to the interview’s forum what needs to be done to stop modern-day (21st century ) slavery considering that in 2014, there are estimated 20 to 30 million people around the world still held as slaves.

    Reading the interview, I was also wondering why Professor Gates Jr. refused to bring this reality to the surface. In Britain, for example, where he (Steve McQueen) resides, there are thousands held as slaves which CNN Network Anti-Slavery/Human Trafficking project has been exposing. He owes his audience an explanation of what he plans to do in order expose the “elephant in the room is his back yard. “Yes, across Africa, Asia, South America, and North America and the Middle East, there are slaves whose stories are also untold. It remains to be seen, who will tell their stories – who will give voices to about 30 million people held as slaves around the world and generating more than $80 billion dollars in revenue annually for their owners.

    On another perspective, I assumed that as a consultant to the film project, McQueen and Gates Jr. may be silent about modern day slavery as a way not to give out more information about their next project. Not talking about modern-day slavery may be a way to keep his next project under wraps and not giving out more information. If that is not the reason, personally, I will think that it is absolute hypocrisy on McQueen’s part that he is exposing the past (Northrup’s experiences) when modern – day slavery, very close to his backyard in Britain; even more brutal in terms of economic gains and disparity of incomes among the poor and the rich using slave labour is going on in his neck of the woods.

    As a critic, there is one thing that I could explain may be the drive for the 12 Years A Slave – the bottom line (money) and also the timing (opportunity). McQueen admitted Solomon Northrup’s book would not have made the impact it did (through drama) if not for fact that the United States has a black president in the “White House.” According to him, President Obama being the first black American president and considering that after slavery, the United States showed sign of healing from the evils of slavery or the past by electing the first black president to the White House, this he revealed made the idea of selling the movie to sponsors/financiers possible.

    Black Londoner Steve McQueen also made history as the first black director to win the top prize in 86 years of the Oscars with his upfront and in your face portrayal of American slavery. Just for the record he did not get the Oscar for best director that accolade went to Alfonso Cuarón Orozco for his film Gravity. The other question that comes to mine is this, how can a film get the best film award but not an award in any of the key elements which typically is accepted as making the film best Director or screenplay editing, leading actor these four elements make a film best? Just some food for thought. Accepting the Oscar with producer Brad Pitt, McQueen said: “Everyone deserves not just to survive but to live. I dedicate this award to all the people who have endured slavery.”

    However, I do think McQueen tried to pacify white audiences with his at the speech at the Oscars by mentioning modern day slavery which CANNOT be compared with Black slavery captivity it just does not compare in terms of the psychological and sociological impact of slavery on the mind-set of African American during and after the abolition of Slavery. I think McQueen for me spoke subtly of the need NOT to be complacent, on that point he is absolutely spot on. However, there can be no comparison with modern day slavery and African slavery absolutely none, a historical fact that cannot be airbrushed for the purpose of easing the conscience of those who have a vested interest in setting the side the African experience as a thing of the past and as such not worthy of further discussion, because others of a different generation are experiencing slavery today.

    Regardless of my perceptions, Steve Mc Queen did an excellent job with his version of 12 Years a Slave and deserves the accolades despite the concerns raised. However, 12 Years A Slave reminds of another epic story of slavery that needs to be on a silver screen. It is the story of the British Slave abolitionist, Olaudah Equiano. Named Gustavus Vassa by his captives, he overcame his bondage as a slave, regained his freedom and told his story in his autobiography, “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equino or Gustavus the African man” (1789). Born: c. 1745. His birthplace is Isieke, Ihiala local government area in present Anambra State in Southeastern Nigeria. An Igbo by birth, Equiano was kidnapped and sold into slavery as a teenager. His book and story is another project waiting be explored in a drama or movie.

    Film Critic is based on interview granted to director of 12 Years a Slave by Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. Interview source: The Root – premier news, opinion and culture site for African-American influencers. Online Magazine on

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