Questions about the authenticity and authorship of Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave have been raised in the past, and have resurfaced following the release of the recent film version of his book.
Though an expert on Solomon Northup, his book, the contemporary reactions to his book in the 1850s, and his later life (which included several years spent traveling to talk about his experiences), I am not a scholar of slave narratives. I have consulted some of them in connection with my work on Northup, as necessary. I leave it for others to draw detailed comparisons between Northup’s narrative and the others.
What I can shed significant light on, is how Northup’s book was written and received, and how he expanded on its reach by traveling to states in the northeast giving lectures. This expertise was developed while researching a biography of Northup (which I co-authored, with Clifford Brown and Rachel Seligman) titled Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave.
I would like to make the following points: Northup‘s motivation was different from those of fugitive slaves; Northup’s narrative is rich with verifiable details; Northup had a significant role in writing the book; David Wilson, the book’s editor, was not an abolitionist; and Northup was entirely capable of telling his own story.
Northup’s Motivation Was Different from Fugitives
One of the things that most impresses readers of Twelve Years a Slave (before the Civil War as well as today) is the even-handedness of Northup’s account, especially as compared to other narratives. Northup, unlike the writers of most (perhaps all) of the other narratives, was not a runaway. The other narratives were done by slaves who had left their masters, and thereby they had violated the various Fugitive Slave Laws. They therefore had to provide some justification for having done so, and usually the reason given was that the cruelty and inhumanity they had experienced had become more than they could tolerate.
Northup, as a kidnap victim, did not have to justify his escape (i.e., rescue) from slavery. He should never have been a slave to begin with. His freedom was restored, not gained. Northup had less motivation than the others to portray slavery in as bad a light as possible. He had committed no crime–he was a crime victim.
Consequently, Northup’s book (and later on, his lectures) exhibited a surprising lack of bitterness. One reviewer, writing in the Rome [NY] Citizen (July 20, 1853) noted: “Its tone is much milder than we expected to see exhibited; a man who had spent twelve years of the best portion of his life in such servitude, would be excusable [sic] for giving expression to bitter feelings; but, while he seems to fully realize the magnitude of his sufferings, he does not condemn all.”
Northup surely had an anti-slavery agenda, but it was not so pronounced as those of other narrators. He related some of the less harsh aspects of slavery, along with the cruelties he suffered and saw. He also told of acts of kindness from which he benefited. A story in the Albany Evening Journal (reprinted in the Salem [NY] Press, on July 26, 1853) predicted that “NORTHUP will be believed, because, instead of indiscriminate accusations, he gives you the good and evil of Slavery just as he found it. All kindnesses are remembered with gratitude. Masters and Overseers who treated Slaves humanely are commended; for there, as here, were good and bad men.”
Such even-handedness carried through into his lecturing, and explains the odd reference to the “beauties” of slavery in an account of a lecture Northup gave at Buffalo. “His story is full of romantic interest and painful adventures, and gives as clear an insight to the practical workings and beauties of American Slavery….” (Frederick Douglass’ Paper, January 27, 1854).
A summary of another of Northup’s lectures, reprinted from the Vermont Tribune in Frederick Douglass’ Paper (March 3, 1854) noted the effectiveness of his balanced presentation. “Solomon Northrop, the rescued slave, related his experience of the tender mercies of slavery, at the Court House in St. Albans, on Saturday evening last. He talked pretty well for ‘a Chattel,’ ‘a thing,’ as our government regards him. His unaffected simplicity, directness, and gentlemanly bearing impressed us far more than many fervid appeals to which we have listened.”
Northup’s Book Is Rich with Details that Have Been Verified
Any reader of Twelve Years a Slave can hardly miss the level of detail Northup devotes to everyday life as a slave, as well as the workings of the various plantations where he labored. His narrative shows that he possessed a high power of observation and a strong sense of curiosity about things around him, even things unrelated to slavery. He devotes two detailed paragraphs, for example, to a fish trap he built as a way of augmenting his diet.
At some points, he becomes almost boring, telling us about the difference between axe handles used in Louisiana compared to what he’d known in New York. Such details couldn’t have added to the marketability of the book, had it had a strictly abolitionist agenda. He probably drove his editor/co-writer, David Wilson crazy by insisting on the inclusion of a myriad of details not critical to the story arc. Wilson, in his preface to the book, noted that when he’d started the project “he did not suppose it would reach the size of this volume. In order, however, to present all the facts which have been communicated to him, it has seemed necessary to extend it to its present length.”
The inclusion of all these facts, however, have enabled modern researchers to make independent verification of many of the individuals and events described by Northup. Joseph Logsdon and Sue Eakin, in their 1968 annotated edition of Northup’s book, and Sue Eakin, in her 2007 version, have confirmed much of what Northup told of Louisiana. Except for a few misspelled names (which Northup would have heard, but not seen in writing), his memory was excellent.
Even before these valiant researchers, the story received validation. Edwin Epps would seem to be an unlikely source, but Union soldiers located him while deployed in Louisiana. “Old Mr. Epps yet lives, and told us that a greater part of the book was truth….” (Elias Porter Pellet. History of the 114th Regiment, New York State Volunteers. Norwich, New York: Telegraph & Chronicle Power Press, 1866, p. 77)
A visitor to Central Louisiana (identified only as “T.A.”) wrote in 1857 that, after consulting with local residents, “I found that much of Solomon or Platt’s account of himself was true, that he was no doubt a native of New York and free.” He suggests that Northup had allowed himself to be sold, expecting some of the proceeds (an allegation that was raised at various times during Northup’s life, and which is considered and discounted in my recent book). Northup “is spoken of on the bayou as a very decent and generally well behaved negro.” Strangely, the writer then counters his assessment of Northup’s veracity, saying that “just enough truth has been worked up” for the book, and that a “scoundrel, possessed of considerable ability as a cross-examiner and writer, has led the negro on and has worked up his simple tale in the most plausible manner, without the slightest reference to actual truth.”
The only example of such prevarication given is that the local physician claimed to have examined Patsey sometime “six or twelve months before Solomon’s removal,” and found no evidence of a severe whipping on her back. What somehow escapes the writer is the possibility that her punishment might have occurred after that period (which would have equated to January 1852 to July 1852, since Northup left the Epps plantation in January 1853). Had Patsey’s whipping occurred in, say, September of 1852, there is no discrepancy between Northup’s and the doctor’s accounts. At any rate, only this one bit of evidence is proffered to contradict Northup’s story (“Letter from Mississippi,” Times-Picayune, May 26, 1857).
Northup’s Collaboration with David Wilson
I don’t think there has ever been a pretense that Northup, who had just a common school education, “wrote” Twelve Years a Slave singlehandedly. Though Wilson is sometimes described as a ghost writer, he is clearly identified as the book’s editor, and, in his preface, in effect takes credit for the book’s wording, by assuming the blame for its “numerous faults of style and of expression.”
But Northup’s role was significant. Wilson says that he “had an opportunity of detecting any contradiction or discrepancy in his [Northup’s] statements.” Working with Wilson, Northup “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.” The book’s phrasing is Wilson’s, but the facts are Northup’s.
Northup could read and write, and was therefore less dependent than some other slave narrative authors on abolitionist mentors to craft his story. It was his facts, preserved by his incredible memory (facts that he perhaps rehearsed continually in order to be able to tell his story after somehow escaping slavery) that enabled the book’s creation.
David Wilson Was Not an Abolitionist
Wilson is sometimes mistakenly described as an abolitionist. He was not. “I believe he never was suspected of being an Abolitionist–he may be anti-slavery–somewhat conservative” wrote John Thompson, in the Essex County Republican (August 13, 1853). Being anti-slavery (perhaps opposing the expansion of slavery, or merely disliking it) was not the same as being an abolitionist (actively seeking its elimination). Wilson authored several other books, none of them about slavery. His political affiliation was with the American Party (the Know-Nothings), which had no strong stand either for or against slavery.
Wilson denied in his preface that he had any agenda other than to record Northup’s experiences: “It is believed that the following account of his experience on Bayou Boeuf presents a correct picture of Slavery in all its lights, and shadows, as it now exists in that locality. Unbiased, as he conceives, by any prepossessions or prejudices, the only object of the editor has been to give a faithful history of Solomon Northup’s life, as he received it from his lips.”
Northup Was Fully Capable of Telling His Own Story
Northup in all likelihood did not do the actual writing–perhaps he was not skilled enough to have done so. But he could–and did– tell his own story without assistance. I have documented that he gave dozens of lectures, and but for a few (when he was accompanied by his rescuer, Henry B. Northup), he appeared alone. “In this lecture, we understand, he tells his own story, in his own way; and as he is a plain, uneducated man, it will probably be all the more interesting” (Syracuse Evening Chronicle, January 30, 1854).
“Northup tells his story in plain and candid language, and intermingles it with flashes of genuine wit. It is a sure treat to hear him give some hazardous adventure, with so much sans [sic] froid, that the audience is completely enraptured and the ‘house brought down’” (Frederick Douglas’ Paper, January 27, 1854). “He tells apparently an honest tale, without exaggeration,” wrote the [Montpelier, Vermont] Watchman & State Journal (January 26, 1855).
Though Twelve Years a Slave may have elements common to other slave narratives, it was an original, fact-based account of Northup’s experience with slavery, told by him and phrased with the assistance of David Wilson. The purpose of both Northup and Wilson was to relate an accurate history of slavery as experienced by Northup in Central Louisiana. Though the book by no means justified slavery or the toleration of slavery, neither did it strongly advocate its abolition. It confidently assumed that readers, apprised of the facts, would make their own determination on the matter.
Illustration of Solomon Northup in a Sketch from Twelve Years a Slave.
The essay first appeared on the New York History Blog on Nov. 13, 2012.