Solomon Northup Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Solomon Northup 1808-1863

(Surname also rendered as Northrup and Northrop) American autobiographer.

Northup's only written work is his autobiography, Twelve Years a Slave. Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New-York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853, from a Cotton Plantation Near the Red River, in Louisiana (1853). Northup's slave narrative, the tale of a free African American man who is kidnapped, sold into slavery, and lives as a slave for twelve years, was a best-seller for its genre and time. Twelve Years a Slave is praised for its detailed examination of slavery and plantation society, particularly in its contrast to his previous life as a musician and citizen of New York. Northup's narrative also has been cited as illustrative of slavery's horrors and has been used to support the depictions in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. As slave narratives relating such detail are relatively rare, Northup's story is used as an example of the kidnapped slave narrative sub-genre. Though considered of value mainly for the accurate description of his experiences, Northup's narrative has come to be recognized as a complex account of slavery that eschews many of the recognized conventions of the slave narrative.

Biographical Information

Solomon Northup was born in July, 1808, in Minerva, New York. The son of Mintus Northup, a freed slave who bore his former owners' last name, Northup learned of slavery through his father's experiences but grew up an educated and literate free man. Northup also maintained contact with the white Northup family and particularly with Henry B. Northup, in part because they lived in the same region. In 1829 Northup married Anne Hampton with whom he had three children. Between 1829 and 1841, Northup lived near Lake Champlain and Saratoga Springs, New York. He supported his family through various positions, including that of raftsman, farmer, and hack driver, earning extra money as a musician at social gatherings. In March, 1841, Northup was approached by two strangers who convinced him to accompany them to Washington City by offering him employment as a musician in the circus with which they claimed to be connected. Once they had traveled out of the state of New York, Northup was drugged, stripped of his free papers, shackled, and whipped. He was then delivered to a slave trader and taken to New Orleans where he was sold. Renamed Platt, Northup lived in Louisiana as a slave for twelve years, belonging to several different owners during that time. Despite the fact that Northup kept his real identity secret for fear of repercussion, his previous life as a free man—particularly his education, work experiences, and abilities as a musician—set him apart from other slaves both in terms of perspective and in value to his masters. In 1852 Northup met a white carpenter named Samuel Bass who agreed to help Northup gain his freedom by secretly contacting Northup's New York acquaintances. Upon learning of Northup's situation, Henry B. Northup traveled to Louisiana and secured the legal help of John P. Waddill. Together they found Northup, established his true identity, and secured his liberty. Northup was reunited with his family in New York in January 1853 and the news of his kidnapping, slavery, and release generated considerable attention in the news and in his community. Soon after his return David Wilson, a local lawyer, approached Northup about collaborating on his memoirs, and Twelve Years a Slave was published later that year. Northup's narrative led to the trial of his kidnappers, which generated a significant amount of public interest, though the charges were eventually dismissed. Northup did not publish any other writings about his experiences but moved to Glens Falls where he lived out the rest of his life as a carpenter. It is believed that Northup died in 1863, but little information exists on how he spent his final years.

Major Works

Although Northup was literate, Twelve Years a Slave was written with David Wilson serving as Northup's amanuensis. The prose style of Northup's account is attributed to Wilson, but the narrative is considered to be Northup's own. Twelve Years a Slave is unusual in that it is considered to be a well-balanced account of slavery, recounting many of its horrors but also discussing aspects of plantation life that made slavery more tolerable. The narrative is noted most often for its wealth of details, many of which were easily verified by public records and eyewitness accounts. Northup's observations supported his analysis of Southern life and critique of slavery. This balance enabled a public response to the narrative as an anti-slavery document of great historical worth. Because Northup's experiences were both sensational and true, the narrative enjoyed an immediate commercial and critical success. Its initial release and subsequent reprints sold over thirty thousand copies, and the narrative was favorably compared with Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin by critics and reviewers alike. Later reprints of Northup's narrative capitalized on this comparison by including a dedicatory page to Stowe and the novel.

Critical Reception

Northup's slave narrative has been acknowledged as having significant value for many reasons. Northup's contemporaries used his narrative as an illustration of slavery's wrongs or, as Harriet Beecher Stowe's reaction demonstrates, as a validation of their own writings on slavery. Sue Eakin and Joseph Logsdon succinctly expressed the narrative's continuing worth in their introduction to their 1968 edition of Twelve Years a Slave. As a historical record, Northup's easily authenticated tale, with its details about slave life, information on the daily operations of plantations, and the depictions of Southern culture provides a complex examination of slavery. Critics also note that Northup's narrative demonstrates his unusual position as an outsider and an insider: Northup was a free, literate African American man from the North whose first-hand knowledge of slavery and the South began as an adult after he was kidnapped and sold. Northup's slave narrative reflects the complexities of both his own situation and the broader cultural context in which slavery existed in the United States. His narrative is considered by many critics to be a unique contribution to the body of slave narratives and it has been used as primary documentation for broad examinations of slavery and the South, including the work of scholars such as Charles H. Nichols and Karen Cole. As literature, however, Twelve Years a Slave has been evaluated generally as a slave narrative of secondary importance. Often it is compared unfavorably with other slave narratives, notably that of Frederick Douglass. This is in part due to Northup's less-unified and externally-focused narrative style, as well as his lack of overt self-construction. The narrative's debatable position as a work of literature is also attributed to the recognizable stylistic presence of David Wilson. Thus many critics, including Robert B. Stepto and James Olney, have questioned the status of Twelve Years a Slave as an autobiography and even Northup's categorization as an author. More recently, scholars have reasserted that Northup's descriptions and structure of the narrative supersede Wilson's contributions and clearly establish Northup as the author. Sam Worley suggests that Northup's tale, precisely because it breaks with commonly-held conventions for the slave narrative, serves as an example of an important literary and historical document.