Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup, published in 1854, was somewhat of a sensation that year, selling over 30,000 copies.  It was one of a handful of books authored by escaped slaves and published in the decade and a half prior to the U.S. Civil War.  The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, had appeared in 1845 and The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave in 1850.  Douglass published a much expanded version of his story called My Bondage and My Freedom, in 1855. 1857 saw The Life and Narrative of William J. Anderson, Twenty-four Years a Slave.  The first slave narrative by a woman, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, written by herself, came out at the beginning of the war, in 1861, after resistance due to its sexual material.  The author was Harriet Jacobs, though published under the name of Linda Brent, due to her precarious position as an escaped slave in New York. The promotion of such books were encouraged by Abolitionists who provided editorial, writing and publishing help as well as organizing speaking tours for the sometimes reluctant authors.Interest in Northup’s book was most greatly aroused, perhaps, by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s mega-best seller, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published the year before and selling over 300,000 copies in the U.S.  the first year alone. Northup had read it and dedicated Twelve Years a Slave to Stowe, writing that his book afforded “Another Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

Of these early books, Northup’s was unique in several ways.  Unlike Douglass and Truth who had been born into slavery and had experienced it as children, he had not. His father had been given his freedom in New York State, and Northup had been born a free man in 1807 or 1808.  He was married with three children (marriage was not allowed to slaves, as “property” could not enter into contractual arrangements.)  He owned land enough to till. He was a skilled craftsman,  hired by many and able to make a comfortable living. Duped into joining a traveling entertainment duo because of his fiddling skills, and promised considerable wages, he was kidnapped and sold into slavery while in Washington D.C. in 1841.  He was thirty-four years old.  Thus, his experience of slavery was shaped against the lived, adult experience of freedom.

While all the books tell of first-hand experiences with the brutality of slavery, Northup’s is different in other ways. It was the first to tell in terrifying detail of being a field slave in the South. Continue reading »