In This Article Solomon Northup

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews of Slave Narratives
  • Primary Text
  • Biography
  • Critical Studies of Twelve Years a Slave
  • Critical and Historical Studies That Feature Twelve Years a Slave
  • Reception of the Narrative
  • Pedagogical Works

American Literature Solomon Northup
by
Sam McGuire Worley
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0177

Introduction

Solomon Northup is the author of only one work, the narrative Twelve Years a Slave. This work is remarkable in large part because of the experiences of its narrator, born a free man in the North, kidnapped, sold south, beaten and abused. In spite of hardship and isolation, he was able to contact friends in the North, who eventually sought him out. This trajectory from freedom to slavery and back again is one of the most obvious ways in which Northup’s story differs from most other slave narratives. The narrative is also remarkable for its detailed descriptions of slave markets, slave coffles, and slave life in the Red River region of Louisiana. Northup’s own background as a free man makes his descriptions of the lifelong slaves he encounters in captivity particularly interesting. The unique circumstances of Northup’s captivity and rescue, as well as the unsuccessful attempt to bring his kidnappers to justice, inevitably attracted attention. A widely reprinted New York Times interview with Northup upon his return came to the attention of Harriet Beecher Stowe, who found in his story a “striking parallel” to aspects of her hugely popular Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). A year later, in her A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, she cited Northup’s story in her effort to prove the veracity of her famous book. Back home in New York, Northup collaborated with David Wilson, a lawyer and occasional writer, on his autobiographical narrative. Soon after its publication in August of 1853, Frederick Douglass commented admiringly upon Twelve Years a Slave in his paper, and those comments were quickly quoted in The Liberator that same month. An advertisement on the front page of the New York Tribune on 19 August 1853 offered approving quotations from another dozen newspaper reviews originating not only in New York, but also Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Ohio. In the period immediately following the publication of his book, Northup began to make public appearances at various antislavery gatherings, at which he recounted his experiences. This activity was only interrupted by his involvement in two dramatizations of his story. In the first play, Northup played himself; in the second, an actor took the part, though Northup again made a personal appearance at the performances. Neither of the plays was successful, and the second, in particular, appears to have lost money. He resumed his public lectures but interest in his story faded in the following years, and there is no record of engagements after 1857.

General Overviews of Slave Narratives

A deepened understanding of Twelve Years a Slave requires an appreciation of the cultural and historical contexts as well as the literary dimensions of antebellum slave narratives more generally. Widespread academic recognition of the slave narratives as literature reached new levels of sophistication with the appearance of Foster 1984 and Andrews 1986. Both of these works remain reference points for scholarly discussion in the early 21st century and often continue to be the point of scholarly entry for students of the genre. Like much else in the profession during the last decade of the previous century, the study of slave narratives reflected both increasing critical awareness and new ways of historically interrogating the works. Hartman 1997 and McBride 2002 are outstanding examples of these new directions. In the second decade of the new century, studies of the narratives have proliferated to an extent once unimaginable. Good places to begin exploring this new range of work are the collections Fisch 2007 and Ernest 2014. Among the works which most powerfully offer new ways of thinking about slave narratives and the world of 19th-century African American writing in general is Ernest 2009.

  • Andrews, William A. To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760–1865. Urbana: Illinois University Press, 1986.

    E-mail Citation »

    Andrews’s book remains one of the most important histories of 19th-century American slave narratives. Surveying the development of the most important examples of the genre from its earliest forms up through the Civil War, Andrews presents the narratives as progressing toward freer and more authentic forms of expression. Although Northup’s narrative does not play a major role in Andrews’s history, he does briefly discuss Twelve Years a Slave in terms of its relationship to Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

  • Ernest, John. Chaotic Justice: Rethinking African American Literary History. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.

    DOI: 10.5149/9780807898505_ernestE-mail Citation »

    Ambitious in its scope, Ernest’s “activist history” of 19th-century African American literature emphasizes its character as an unsettled and unsettling “literature devoted to interrogating the social order, constructing community, and promoting concepts of justice beyond those imagined by most white sympathizers” (p. 8). Readers of Northup will be particularly interested in the second chapter, which examines the challenges antebellum African American autobiographers faced in writing their stories and the complex and multiple forms that writing assumed.

  • Ernest, John, ed. The Oxford Handbook of the African American Slave Narrative. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

    E-mail Citation »

    An introduction and twenty-five essays covering historical and archival questions as well as the more familiar literary and cultural questions raised by the narratives. The essays also range over such topics as hemispheric studies, Caribbean narratives, the transatlantic context, postbellum works, material culture, and environmental criticism. The range and quality of this collection make it an excellent introduction to the ways in which the narratives are currently studied and discussed.

  • Fisch, Audrey, ed. The Cambridge Companion to the African American Slave Narrative. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

    E-mail Citation »

    An introduction and fourteen essays which collectively provide an overview of some of the more significant areas of inquiry surrounding slave narratives. These topics include their origins and development, their politics, the narrative’s relation to the abolitionist movement, and their connections to both the Anglo and African American literary traditions, as well as other essays exploring topics such as authenticity, self-making, and gender.

  • Foster, Frances Smith. Witnessing Slavery: The Development of Ante-bellum Slave Narratives. 2d ed. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1984.

    E-mail Citation »

    Smith’s fine book was among the first to offer an extensive examination of the narratives as literary works. Her discussion of the typical plot structure of the narratives as well as her treatment of gender in the narratives remains exceptionally useful to readers.

  • Hartman, Sadiya V. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

    E-mail Citation »

    A challenging and groundbreaking work that explores the ways in which ostensibly progressive antebellum discourses of abolition and human rights instate new forms of racial domination, a process that continues in postbellum discourses of racial progress. For readers of Northup’s narrative, Hartman’s discussion of slave coffles, markets, and slave amusements is especially apt.

  • McBride, Dwight. Impossible Witnesses: Truth, Abolitionism, and Slave Testimony. New York: New York University Press, 2002.

    E-mail Citation »

    Explores the ways in which abolitionist discourse established the terms and possibilities within which the authors of the slave narrators wrote. The sixth chapter, examining the discursive reader implied by the rhetoric of Frederick Douglass’s Narrative, offers important insights for readers of all slave narratives.

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