By Cliff McCarthy
It’s Oscar time. With its annual orgy of the end-of-the-year movies, Hollywood cashes in on the holiday vacation season and puts its best films on display for Academy Awards consideration. Last year at this time, the buzz was all about the film Twelve Years A Slave, which went on to win three Oscars, including Best Picture. The film recounts the true story of Solomon Northup [sometimes spelled “Northrop”], a freeborn person of color who is lured from his Saratoga Springs, N.Y. home to Washington, D.C. where he is sold into slavery in 1841. While most viewers realize the film is “based on fact,” not everyone knows that the book upon which it was based was historically important in its own right. The original book is in the public domain and one electronic version of it can be found here.
Northup’s memoir was told to, and edited by, David Wilson and was published in 1853 — eight years before the Civil War began. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the massive best-seller which was credited as contributory to the outbreak of the war, was published only one year before, in 1852. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book was a work of fiction. Twelve Years a Slave, which was dedicated to Stowe, sold 30,000 copies making it a best-seller in its own right. The book was recognized by major Northern newspapers, abolitionist organizations, and evangelical groups. Like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Northup’s book opened the eyes of the general public to the cruelty of slavery. But as a non-fiction memoir, Twelve Years a Slave gave credence to the earlier book and presented a factual basis that validated Stowe’s portrayal of the institution. Coincidentally, Northup’s real-life master resided in the same geographical area as Stowe’s fictional Simon Legree — a plantation on the Red River in Louisiana. Stowe herself wrote, “It is a singular coincidence that this man was carried to a plantation in the Red River country, that same region where the scene of Tom’s captivity was laid; and his account of this plantation, his mode of life there, and some incidents which he describes, form a striking parallel to that history.”
If you doubt the impact of the book, read E. C. Bidwell’s narrative, included at this website, about verifying Solomon’s story while on the Red River Campaign in Avoyelles Parish with the 31st Mass.
But Solomon Northup’s story does not end with his return to freedom in 1853. The rest of his life is shrouded in mystery. After his book was published, Northup was in demand as an anti-slavery speaker and toured around the northeast states. It is believed that he became a conductor on the Underground Railroad, secretly harboring and transporting fugitive slaves. He purchased property in Glens Falls, N.Y., but lost that property to foreclosure as his financial problems mounted. A play he wrote, based on his book, was a failure and his debts increased further. Sadly, after escaping from slavery and then contributing to its cataclysmic demise, Solomon Northup himself apparently failed to thrive. The last mention of his being seen in public was in 1857. By the time Bidwell set out to explore the facts of his story in 1864, Northup had dropped out of sight. (See Wall Street Journal blog post by Mark Robichaux.)
In spite of its importance at the time, Twelve Years a Slave dropped out of public consciousness after the war and was for many years out-of-print. In 1968, two historians separately re-discovered the book and together began investigating its fact pattern. Joseph Logsdon and Sue Eakin authored an annotated re-issue of the book, published by the Louisiana State University Press. In it, they wrote: “In the last analysis, [the] narrative deserves to be believed, not simply because [Northup] seems to be talking reasonably, not merely because he adorns his tale with compelling and persuasive details. At every point where materials exist for checking his account, it can be verified.” The researchers used trial records, correspondence, a diary, and slave sale records. Now, we can add to the list, Bidwell’s interviews with Northup’s contemporaries.