Twelve Years a Slave - Solomon Northrup

Is it fit or can it bear the shock
Of rational discussion,that a man
Compounded and made up, like other men,
Of elements tumultuous, in whom lust
And folly in as ample measure meet,
As in the bosom of the slave he rules,
Should be a despot absolute, and boast
Himself the only freemen of his land?

Poem from the original 1853 publication.


Solomon Northup was a free citizen of New York State when he was abducted and sold into slavery in 1841. He went from the slave trading pens of Washington and New Orleans to service under several masters, finally spending ten years as a field hand and occasional carpenter on a cotton plantation in Louisiana. Northup's story is one of many accounts of injustice and human brutality during what is considered the darkest period in American history.  The true worth of Northup's narrative is primarily attributable to his recollection of slavery in Louisiana in stunning detail, creating a convincing authentic story. He vividly recounts the typical daily slave life; the horrifying observations of human degradation at the hands of their captors; the cruelty and severity of the slave system; its constant torture inflicted on the people ensnared by it.


"Throwing down the whip, I declared I could punish her no more. He ordered me to go on, threatening me with severer flogging then she had received, in case of refusal. My heart revolted at the inhuman scene, and risking the consequences, I absolutely refused to raise the whip. He then seized it himself and applied it with ten-fold greater force than I had. The painful cries and shrieks of the tortured Patsey, mingling with the loud and angry curses of Epps, loaded the air. She was terribly lacerated-I may say, without exaggeration, literarily flayed. The lash was wet with blood which flowed down her sides and dropped upon the ground." 


Northup makes compelling disclosures regarding the point of view of the slaves, their relationships with their masters,  and his own position: "There was not a day throughout the ten years I belonged to Epps that I did not consult with myself upon the prospect of escape." He definitively reports just how minute a sense of humanity was present in the structure of the system, despite the very few moments of human feeling.

After twelve years in bondage, he was finally able to sneak out a message that would, with the help of an abolitionist, lead to his freedom. His story was told to David Wilson who published the copy in 1853. It's in this 'ghostwriting' that I have my only misgivings of Northup's story. David Wilson, a New York State newspaperman, rendered Northup's experience with an exuberant literary flare, using verbiage and purple prose perhaps too sophisticated to reflect, I would imagine, Northup's daily manner of speech:


"No opportunity was omitted of addressing me in the language of approbation; while on the other hand I was certainly much prepossessed in their favor." 


"I come now to the relation of an occurrence, which I never call to mind but with sensations of regret. I thank God , who has since permitted me to escape from the thralldom of slavery, that through his merciful interposition, I was prevented from imbruing my hands in the blood of his creatures". 


"..was I passing only through the dismal phases of a long protracted dream? It was no illusion. My cup of sorrow was full to overflowing." 


"He sought to inculcate in our minds feelings of kindness towards each other of dependence upon God."


The list goes on. I felt in Wilson's earnestness to put out an important story as this, that his own voice of justice drowned out the originality of Northup's. The book did become an instant success in 1853 and a powerful tool for the abolitionists' cause.


Twelve Years a Slave would be still in obscurity today if not for the tenacity of Dr. Eakins, whose efforts to document Solomon Northup's life became a project that spanned over seven decades. It is one among many important accounts of the ruthlessness and brutality of slavery and now, thanks to Dr. Eakins, it is also immortalized on screen in the movies.