How Twelve Years a Slave was made, 150 years before "12 Years a Slave"

By Heidi KimFebruary 17, 2014

How Twelve Years a Slave was made, 150 years before "12 Years a Slave"

WHILE ADULATIONS currently ring out for the film 12 Years a Slave, some critics have questioned why British director, Steve McQueen, chose to make an American historical film. McQueen has cited, among his reasons for making this film, his desire to make a film “about slavery.” “I’m not an outsider at all, far from it,” he says. But when asked what he wanted to accomplish by publicizing Solomon Northup’s story of being kidnapped into brutal slavery in the antebellum South, McQueen gave a somewhat puzzling, half-hearted response. “This is not a passive movie,” he said. “It is a kind of call to arms, if only to call a friend to say that you are okay.” Producer and actor Brad Pitt voiced a similarly bland, universalizing sentiment, “Ultimately what [the movie] is reminding us is our responsibility to take care of each other.”

McQueen and Pitt are addressing a large sector of an ambivalent US audience, whose unwillingness to see “another movie about slavery” has been widely discussed as discomfort — or rather, the feeling that “it’s the message we knew going in.” McQueen and Pitt’s messages are similar to the reticence of some of the people who were responsible for bringing Solomon Northup’s story to the public in the first place. It took several people in addition to Northup to publish his true story of kidnapping and enslavement in 1853, and not all of them espoused the searing abolitionist convictions that we might expect — which did not lessen the political impact or importance of the narrative.

The publication of Northup’s memoir was deeply intertwined with the local literary and abolitionist scene of upstate New York, as well as the national and international attention that was still being paid to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, with which every subsequent slave narrative was compared. After his release, Northup had almost immediately started telling his story publicly at large local meetings with such notables as Frederick Douglass, and Twelve Years a Slave was published very soon after his return to his wife and children in upstate New York. Looking at Northup’s place in the complex landscape of the mid-nineteenth century publishing industry, abolitionist politics, and, above all, Stowe’s towering fame, sheds some light on the composition and reception of his narrative.

Twelve Years a Slave was published by interlinked publishing companies headed by the Derby brothers: James, George, and Henry. (They partnered with Sampson Low in England, a sensible precaution to ensure that the book would not be pirated since there was little or no international copyright protection.) The primary press was Derby & Miller of Auburn, New York, a hotspot of abolitionist activity. Today, Auburn has several historic houses that were used by the Underground Railroad, including Harriet Tubman’s house and other Railroad way stations or supporters’ homes.

At this time, antislavery narratives had appeared from a number of different presses, usually local ones that already had some personal tie to the author. Often, these publishers had already openly espoused abolitionist politics and were unafraid of losing Southern business. Frederick Douglass’s narrative had been published by the Anti-Slavery Society out of their Boston office; Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which had appeared in book form only a year before Northup’s narrative, was published by John P. Jewett, an abolitionist who had published many Congregationalist works, including those of Stowe’s husband, Calvin Ellis Stowe, and famous brother, Henry Ward Beecher.

As James Derby later described, the firm of Derby & Miller published “more than one hundred different books, consisting of school and law publications, standard histories, biographies, and miscellaneous works of a popular nature.” Unfortunately, the publishing house’s records do not seem to have been preserved; Derby, the senior partner, moved to New York City, published under other imprints, served the federal government, and eventually ended up working for the large publishing house of D. Appleton & Co. We have to rely on his autobiography, published in 1884, for his reasons.

What it tells us is, frankly, not striking from the standpoint of political conviction. Northup appears as a mere passing mention, a “colored man” rescued by a local man due to the high moral actions of a political figure:

While Mr. Seward was Governor of the State of New York, a law was enacted on his recommendation for the recovery of colored citizens of the State, kidnapped into slavery. It was under the provisions of this act, that in January, 1853, H. B. Northrup, of Washington County, N.Y., procured the liberty of Solomon, a colored man, formerly living as a member of his family, who twelve years previous had been inveigled to the City of Washington and there kidnapped and sold into slavery.

Derby’s memoir, organized by chapters on individuals rather than chronology or topic, might as well be called Famous People I Have Known, but Northup certainly did not make the cut. This is the only mention of Northup in the book: a mere footnote to the glorious accomplishments of William H. Seward, governor and senator of New York and Secretary of State under Lincoln, now remembered for the purchase of Alaska, “Seward’s Folly,” and the assassination attempt that occurred simultaneously with Lincoln’s. Seward was a longtime friend and patron of Derby’s and himself was an ardent abolitionist.

This is quite a strained mention of Northup’s narrative, however. Seward was not even governor at the time of Northup’s recovery, and it was really then-Governor Washington Hunt who empowered this H.B. Northup to recover Solomon. (The names are the same because Henry B. Northup was a descendant of the man who freed Solomon Northup’s father. In the film, Henry Northup was changed to Parker, probably to avoid necessary explanations.) Ironically, Seward had refused to appoint Henry Northup when Solomon’s first letter from captivity arrived in 1841, leaving Solomon to languish in slavery; scholars have speculated that this might have been for political reasons.

Derby & Miller seem to have had a fling with abolitionist politics around this time, mostly in connection with Seward. In 1852, they published the first of two antislavery books by Reverend William Hosmer, another Auburn dweller, also involved with the Underground Railroad (on one occasion, he was asked by another abolitionist to warn Tubman of slavecatchers in the area). Most likely, whatever Northup’s Railroad activities were after his rescue, he would have known and worked with Hosmer, perhaps also the Sewards when they were in residence, and/or Tubman. The book was entitled The Higher Law, in Its Relations to Civil Government: With Particular Reference to Slavery, and the Fugitive Slave Law, dedicated to William Seward. The title was inspired by Seward’s famous speech against the Compromise of 1850, which Hosmer discusses within the text.

Whether the desire to burnish Seward’s abolitionist accomplishments or to support one of his causes actually drove the initial publication of these books, as well as its mention in Derby’s memoir, there is now no way to know. Derby published many life narratives, both biography and autobiography, so Northup’s narrative suited his list. Since Northup’s story was of great local interest, it had probably caught Derby’s attention for its sales potential. In his memoir, Derby continues his mention of Northup with a one-sentence summary of the narrative and notes, “Solomon’s thrilling experiences caused quite a sensation among the reading community, the book meeting with a rapid and large sale.” Northup’s narrative sold over 25,000 copies within two years, making it a solid bestseller. But it paled in comparison to Derby & Miller’s real 1853 hit, Fern Leaves from Fanny’s Portfolio, a collection of the very popular sentimental newspaper columns by Fanny Fern (Sara Payson Willis), which sold over 80,000 copies within a year. Derby’s many successes meant that Northup was by no means his most prominent author, and perhaps accounts partly for the lack of attention given to him in the memoir.

Northup’s other life events apparently do not merit any mention comparable to the other figures in Derby’s memoir; if Derby ever met him, as seems likely, he did not trouble to describe the man himself, and they clearly developed no social ties. Condescension is clearly evident in Derby’s continual reference to Northup as “Solomon,” as opposed to the formal address that “Mr. Seward” and “Mrs. Stowe” receive. This address would not have been incompatible with abolitionist politics, but Derby’s language bespeaks no particular admiration of Northup, or even sympathy for his kidnapping.

From the beginning, Northup’s narrative was presented in relation to the international bestseller Uncle Tom’s Cabin. A snarky reporter wrote that he expected the forthcoming book to be called “Uncle Sol.” Possibly at the behest of the experienced and canny Derby, Twelve Years a Slave was “respectfully dedicated to Harriet Beecher Stowe,” and the book is described as “affording another key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Besieged by Southern naysayers, Stowe issued A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, largely a compendium of real-life anecdotes, advertisements, and articles aimed at proving the reality behind Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Some minor references to the Key also appear within Northup’s narrative; Northup’s letter to his friends in the North, asking for free papers and rescue, is followed by an explanation that the Key had reprinted this letter without its crucial postscript about the kidnapping, and had also gotten the friends’ names wrong. Derby and Northup were probably both well aware that far more people would be aware of Stowe’s work and that large numbers of readers might seek out the narrative based on its mention in the Key.

Northup’s rescue had attracted great publicity in the North, as Stowe notes in the Key. A long New York Times article in January 1853 on the trial of the kidnappers described Northup’s life under slavery to readers along familiar lines: “The condition of this colored man during the nine years that he was in the hands of EPPES, was of a character nearly approaching that described by Mrs. STOWE, as the condition of ‘Uncle Tom’ while in that region.” His poor housing and the brutality of his master Epps, particularly the whipping and near murder of Patsey, the unfortunate enslaved woman who catches Epps’ eye, were offered as concluding anecdotes to his “authentic record.”

In this instance, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was used as a device to ease the reader into the harsh realism of Northup’s narrative, but Stowe used this same article in reverse for her Key. In a chapter on “Kidnapping,” which proves the horrors of slavery and the brutal, immoral nature of slave traders, she excerpted large portions from the Times article, with little of her own commentary. However, like the Times, she draws a parallel between the two narratives: “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.”

While Stowe emphasizes the similarities of geography and events, Northup feels compelled almost to apologize for not having the interior qualities of Uncle Tom. Recounting how Epps, his violent and abusive owner, makes him the driver responsible for keeping the other slaves working at a sufficient pace, Northup writes, “If Epps was present, I dared not show any lenity, not having the Christian fortitude of a certain well-known Uncle Tom sufficiently to brave his wrath, by refusing.” This is the sole direct comparison between Northup and Uncle Tom, and it is not a flippant or superficial one. Northup alludes to the event which precipitates Tom’s first severe flogging at the hands of his sadistic master Simon Legree, the epitome of the evil slaveowner. “I mean to promote ye, and make a driver of ye,” Legree tells Tom, and orders him to flog Lucy, a delicate woman who cannot pick enough cotton for the daily weighing-in. Tom adamantly refuses, saying, “I’ll die first,” and further enrages Legree by telling him that he has bought his body but not his soul.

Northup not only excuses himself for not being Uncle Tom, but proceeds to justify his actions by explaining in great detail that he “saved [his] companions much suffering” by whipping them on to their work, since Epps was always lurking and watching them. If Epps spotted any of them being “backward or idle,” then “the offender not only was certain of receiving a castigation for his tardiness, but I likewise was punished for permitting it.” One presumes that his chastisement is somewhat lighter than the one Epps would deliver at the end of the day, since Northup also explains that he colludes with his fellow slaves when Epps is nearby to make a great show of whipping, while they groan and complain. It seems, then, that Northup was doing the best he could to subvert Epps’ tyrannical rule, and only mentions Uncle Tom because his audience has been trained by Stowe to expect a martyr.

But this also may be a piece of narrative modesty. Northup issues his apology early in his narrative, rather than at the dramatic whipping of Patsey, which would have been a more precise parallel to Tom’s refusal to whip Lucy. The description of Patsey’s whipping is particularly heartwrenching and graphic, but also unusual. Stowe does not depict whippings; she only describes the buildup and aftermath. Northup, focusing on Patsey’s sufferings, keeps himself largely out of the story as both participant and narrator. He was “compelled to obey” until he finally does revolt, Uncle-Tom-like, and says, “[R]isking the consequences, I absolutely refused to raise the whip.” However, as befits a first-person narrative, Northup’s goal is not to self-aggrandize, so his earlier reminder of the reader of Uncle Tom’s refusal to whip a woman may echo here without being too obvious — though, as with Tom, Northup’s principled refusal cannot save anyone, since Epps himself takes the whip and beats Patsey almost to death.

Patsey’s vivid portrayal in the film by actress Lupita Nyong'o highlights the joie de vivre and physical dexterity that make her an exceptional heroine, very different from the educated, ladylike, “tragic mulattas” of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and other antislavery works. She is described by Northup in positive but limited terms. Her spirit and physical prowess are admirable, but she lacks any civilized, womanly qualities that might evoke stronger sympathies. “Truly, Patsey was a splendid animal, and were it not that bondage had enshrouded her intellect in utter and everlasting darkness, would have been chief among ten thousand of her people.” Her limitations are not her fault, but they nonetheless prevent her from being a typically feminine heroine.

Eliza, the wealthily dressed woman who is sold with her two children to the slave trader at the beginning of Northup’s narrative, is a character more typical of antislavery fiction: beautiful, educated, indulged, but cruelly betrayed by her master and sold into a harsher slavery. These characters were easier for the presumed white middle-class readership to identify with; so were the well-meaning masters. Indeed, the descriptions of Mistress Epps, though also brief, are much more admiring than any descriptions of the enslaved women (“beautiful, accomplished, and usually good-humored”), dwelling on her kindness towards all of the slaves but one. Northup pities her cruelty toward Patsey and refuses to blame her for it in the least, instead saying, “An ill wind it was that blew her into the arms of Epps.”

The chivalrous tone towards Mistress Epps, which may reflect Northup’s feelings or his awareness of his audience, may also stem from Northup’s associate in the composition of the narrative. Questions about the authorship of Twelve Years a Slave have existed since its first reviews, since it was written with some degree of help from David Wilson, a local writer and editor of some small note, previously a lawyer (his most famous work is unquestionably this work with Northup). Northup had already been telling his story on the lecture circuit, and Wilson wrote in a note to the narrative that he “has invariably repeated the same story without deviating in the slightest particular, and has also carefully perused [this] manuscript, dictating an alteration wherever the most trivial inaccuracy has appeared.” This preface, which still appears in available editions of Twelve Years a Slave, serves both as self-credit and as an “authenticating letter,” a type of document that had a long history as the testimony of a respected white citizen supporting either the truth of the content of an African American narrative or the reality of its authorship (as in the case of Phillis Wheatley’s poems in the 18th century).

Wilson’s other works were chiefly the life histories of notable contemporary or historical figures, and often centered on beautiful, tragic white women, such as Revolution-era scalping victim Jane McCrea, “lovely to the sight, of virtuous character and amiable disposition,” “so graceful in manners, and so intelligent in features that she was the favorite of all who knew her,” or contemporary murderess Henrietta Robinson, with “a complexion fairer than art could imitate, and teeth whiter than the snows of her native north.” Highly romanticized and melodramatic, Wilson’s narratives commonly attributed the noblest motivations and attributes to his heroines. Even Robinson — a mysterious woman who, during her trial for poisoning two neighbors, never gave her name and always wore a black veil — is described in pitiable terms, a woman whose “frightful and fiery passions raged within her breast,” just as Mistress Epps is “possessed of the devil, jealousy,” with “seasons of calm.” In this characterization, as well as the overall structure of the narrative, with its detailed historical information and supporting appendices, a trace of Wilson’s authorship can be seen. (Wilson pays barely any attention to supporting characters of color, even the Native American villain who scalps Jane McCrea.)

Derby writes in his memoir that Northup “prepared a narrative,” making no mention of Wilson whatsoever, which suggests that Northup had the chief hand in the writing. It is possible that, for authenticity’s sake, Derby wished to preserve the appearance that Northup did the writing, but considering the length of time after the narrative’s publication, any revelation here was unlikely to effect sales. Twelve Years a Slave also bears no great resemblance in style to the aforementioned histories, which are in the unfortunate melodramatic style of writing in which particularly exciting sentences always end with exclamation points.

At the end of his narrative, Northup modestly expressed the desire for nothing more than an “upright though lowly life,” ending in the same churchyard in which his father sleeps. This wish almost certainly did not come true. When Northup died, and where he is buried, nobody knows. His career fell into obscurity after the war, and there are some indications that he died before his wife in 1876. Around this time, Stowe rose to unexpected notoriety thanks to her brother’s adultery scandal, and her health declined; she published very little from then until her death in 1896. Wilson, never an author of note, largely ceased to write and turned instead to a career in the beer industry. Of all these key players, it was the publisher who fared the best. After a long and storied, if not always wildly prosperous, career, Derby died at his daughter’s house in Brooklyn in 1892 at the age of 74. He is buried in the Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn, New York, within sight of Seward’s grave.

Had Northup gained a stronger personal footing among the abolitionists of Auburn, we might know more about his later life and death; why this did not happen is hard to say. As he was not originally a literary man, the fact that his slave narrative is his only work is not a surprise. Even career authors such as Stowe and Wilson, after all, did not always continue writing. But the mystery and relative isolation of his later life and death should not overshadow the small but important role his narrative played in the heated dialogue about slavery in the 1850s, as the evidence of its abuses and cruelty inflamed the nation to a civil war.

The best available text on Northup’s life and obscure death is Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave, by David Fiske, Clifford Brown, and Rachel Seligman. James Derby’s autobiography, Fifty Years Among Authors, Books, and Publishers, is widely available online, and contains his reminiscences about many famous figures of the day, including the Confederate ex-president and ex-vice president, Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens.


Heidi Kim is an assistant professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

LARB Contributor

Heidi Kim is an associate professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Follow her on Twitter at @HeidiKKim.


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