12 Years A Slave by Solomon Northup — my take

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Just finished up 12 Years A Slave, and I was blown away. I've not watched the movie, but now I'm certainly going to. In terms of literary quality and construction, it's certainly in the top few of all slave narratives. (It's possible he had help in writing, but he appears to at least have been the primary author. Anyone know anything about the writing details? I'd love to hear.)

I found it to be more dramatic than Douglass' famous account. The kidnapping, the vivid descriptions of whippings (including his own flogging of Patsey), the serendipitous meeting of the man who help free him . . . much of it reads like a novel.

Most interesting to me, though, were the incredible descriptions of daily life as a slave. From the specifics of farming cotton and sugar cane, to the Christmas celebrations, to daily relations with owners. I haven't read a better account of what life as a slave was really like in the day to day.

I'm sure curious, too, if any of his fellow slaves at the Epps place survived to see their emancipation.

I'm very glad to have read it, and would love to hear your thoughts too.
 

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byron ed

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The movie, having to pack the story into under 2 hrs, was highly focused on the very worst incidents of the slave experience, one every 15 mins. or so in the movie as I recall. As such, I have to say, it's not the best source to derive what the day-to-say typical slave's life really consisted of -- it was just not that fiercely intense 24/7 for 52 weeks a year. Slaves were not killed by dogs at the drop of a hat, they were at a minimum worth money as livestock and if they became such a problem to a particular owner they would be whipped a bit (not to within an inch of their life) and sold off. Marks and scars devalued a slave on the market block.

Yes there were examples of torture and killing as an example to other slaves on the plantation, but those were rare. It so happens that more reasonable and successful neighboring plantation owners were known to report such abuses (which btw were technically illegal in many areas of the South, not that any slave could testify about it in court). The point here is that slave masters weren't typically all evil all the time -- but of course that would make for a boring book and movie.

If interested, there are scores of first-person former slave interviews done in the 1930s by the WPA, some republished as books. You soon realize how very un-typical and individual these slave accounts are ...not nearly all stories of grief and woe.
 
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matthew mckeon

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The movie, having to pack the story into under 2 hrs, was highly focused on the very worst incidents of the slave experience, one every 15 mins. or so in the movie as I recall. As such, I have to say, it's not the best source to derive what the day-to-say typical slave's life really consisted of -- it was just not that fiercely intense 24/7 for 52 weeks a year. Slaves were not killed by dogs at the drop of a hat, they were at a minimum worth money as livestock and if they became such a problem to a particular owner they would be whipped a bit (not to within an inch of their life) and sold off. Marks and scars devalued a slave on the market block.

Yes there were examples of torture and killing as an example to other slaves on the plantation, but those were rare. It so happens that more reasonable and successful neighboring plantation owners were known to report such abuses (which btw were technically illegal in many areas of the South, not that any slave could testify about it in court). The point here is that slave masters weren't typically all evil all the time -- but of course that would make for a boring book and movie.

If interested, there are scores of first-person former slave interviews done in the 1930s by the WPA, some republished as books. You soon realize how very un-typical and individual these slave accounts are ...not nearly all stories of grief and woe.
I feel that the sexual abuse, whippings, brutal racism and forced labor does tend to color the experience of enslaved people, making the "being a slave" thing a net negative. Edited by Moderator.
 
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lupaglupa

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Having both read the book and seen the movie I can praise both, though each follows the limits of its form and the experience of reading and watching are very different. I think what Northrup's book does best is show the degradation in the loss of freedom, which having been free he experiences in a different way than a lifelong enslaved person would. Not to diminish the experience of a person who had not been free, just to say Northrop's perspective changes his telling of his history. As Byron Ed points out, slavery was not day to day violence and cruelty. But the fact that such violence and cruelty were always possible and slaves had almost no options to avoid them made for a psychological torment that was almost as bad as the physical - perhaps worse.
 

dafiske

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Just finished up 12 Years A Slave, and I was blown away. I've not watched the movie, but now I'm certainly going to. In terms of literary
...
I'm sure curious, too, if any of his fellow slaves at the Epps place survived to see their emancipation.
Yes. A number of soldiers from the North found the Epps plantation, and spoke with some blacks who remembered Northup (as 'Plat').

In this brief article, I tell how Patsey left with Union troops:

- David Fiske
 

dafiske

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Having both read the book and seen the movie I can praise both, though each follows the limits of its form and the experience of reading and watching are very different. I think what Northrup's book does best is show the degradation in the loss of freedom, which having been free he experiences in a different way than a lifelong enslaved person would. Not to diminish the experience of a person who had not been free, just to say Northrop's perspective changes his telling of his history. As Byron Ed points out, slavery was not day to day violence and cruelty. But the fact that such violence and cruelty were always possible and slaves had almost no options to avoid them made for a psychological torment that was almost as bad as the physical - perhaps worse.
Yes. A number of soldiers from the North found the Epps plantation, and spoke with some blacks who remembered Northup (as 'Plat').

In this brief article, I tell how Patsey left with Union troops:

- David Fiske
And as to Northup himself, no definite information on his ultimate fate. After his book came out, he traveled around the Northeast giving lectures, etc. and reportedly was involved with the Underground Railroad around 1860-1862. I have been recognized as an expert on Northup (for example, by Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.) and provide some informed conjecture in this article:
 

John Hartwell

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In an interesting reminiscence Dr. Edwin C. Bidwell, Surgeon, 31st Mass., writes, "On our way up the Red River, some of our men who had seen the Northrop Narrative and remembered it, discovered the Epes’ plantation and, as it happened to us to camp one night very near it, they improved the opportunity to talk with some of the slaves then on the place, who remembered Northrop very well, and I think they talked with the proprietor also. One of the hospital attendants pointed out the place to me next morning."

Bidwell later also met the Parish Clerk who had handled the Court papers regarding the kidnapping charges, who told him "he had seen the book and that it was quite correct as to all matters of fact, and perfectly fair in all respects. In short, he had no criticism to offer."

Some other related threads:
https://civilwartalk.com/threads/louisiana-newspapers-on-the-solomon-northrup-kidnapping.128484/#post-1417105
https://civilwartalk.com/threads/free-blacks-kidnapped-into-slavery.149000/#post-1874795
 

TnFed

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The movie, having to pack the story into under 2 hrs, was highly focused on the very worst incidents of the slave experience, one every 15 mins. or so in the movie as I recall. As such, I have to say, it's not the best source to derive what the day-to-say typical slave's life really consisted of -- it was just not that fiercely intense 24/7 for 52 weeks a year. Slaves were not killed by dogs at the drop of a hat, they were at a minimum worth money as livestock and if they became such a problem to a particular owner they would be whipped a bit (not to within an inch of their life) and sold off. Marks and scars devalued a slave on the market block.

Yes there were examples of torture and killing as an example to other slaves on the plantation, but those were rare. It so happens that more reasonable and successful neighboring plantation owners were known to report such abuses (which btw were technically illegal in many areas of the South, not that any slave could testify about it in court). The point here is that slave masters weren't typically all evil all the time -- but of course that would make for a boring book and movie.

If interested, there are scores of first-person former slave interviews done in the 1930s by the WPA, some republished as books. You soon realize how very un-typical and individual these slave accounts are ...not nearly all stories of grief and woe.
Agree, one would either be a sadist or completely stupid to damage a valuable and expensive asset. Tragic as slavery is it would not be to the financial advantage of the slave owner to cripple his own slave. Unless he had an inexhaustible supply.
 

matthew mckeon

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Agree, one would either be a sadist or completely stupid to damage a valuable and expensive asset. Tragic as slavery is it would not be to the financial advantage of the slave owner to cripple his own slave. Unless he had an inexhaustible supply.
That is the argument often heard. Slavery, it weren't so bad(for black people)! But in fact slave owners used whipping as a standard business practice. Its how a forced labor system works. How do you think you get a lifetime of backbreaking physical work out of a "valuable and expensive asset?" Hint: it isn't the dental plan.
 

19thGeorgia

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After Northup made it back north, he gave a detailed account of his experience to a New York Times reporter.

IIRC some of those details differ quite a bit with the account given in the book.
 

TnFed

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That is the argument often heard. Slavery, it weren't so bad(for black people)! But in fact slave owners used whipping as a standard business practice. Its how a forced labor system works. How do you think you get a lifetime of backbreaking physical work out of a "valuable and expensive asset?" Hint: it isn't the dental plan.
I know how brutal slavery can be. My g g grandfather died fighting the Klan. That said, it would in my view still be very stupid to beat their slaves so they were crippled. Certainly slaves were whipped.
 

matthew mckeon

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I know how brutal slavery can be. My g g grandfather died fighting the Klan. That said, it would in my view still be very stupid to beat their slaves so they were crippled. Certainly slaves were whipped.
Certainly.

But its an old trope that because slaves were "assets" they were, in the phrase is usually "well treated." For some values of "well treated." But it was ill treatment that made the system work. If masters like Ford were reluctant to flog, the threat of being sold to someone who wasn't was always there.

In a system where one group exercises unbridled power over another, well things can get out of hand. In Out of the House of Bondage, one angry mistress beat a housemaid to death with a chair. One of Jefferson's relatives killed a slave for breaking a cup. In another incident described in Out of the House of Bondage, an angry mistress is stymied briefly. She wants to whip a maid for some reason, but can't because she is only leasing the woman, and the lease forbids whipping. The mistress chooses to whip another woman in front of the maid instead. Jefferson, in his Notes describes slavery as the uncontrolled exercise of "passion"(meaning rage or anger) He should know.
 

7thWisconsin

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I'm going to use a word to describe that book that I rarely use: riveting. One of the best slavery narratives I've ever read. I have not seen the movie, but when I saw stills from the production, I said to myself "Oh, I know exactly who that is and at what point in the story." I believe that to be high praise for any film adaptation. The little upstate NY town Northup was from hasn't changed much. You can still follow the directions he gives in the beginning of the book to the location of his home.
 

TnFed

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Certainly.

But its an old trope that because slaves were "assets" they were, in the phrase is usually "well treated." For some values of "well treated." But it was ill treatment that made the system work. If masters like Ford were reluctant to flog, the threat of being sold to someone who wasn't was always there.

In a system where one group exercises unbridled power over another, well things can get out of hand. In Out of the House of Bondage, one angry mistress beat a housemaid to death with a chair. One of Jefferson's relatives killed a slave for breaking a cup. In another incident described in Out of the House of Bondage, an angry mistress is stymied briefly. She wants to whip a maid for some reason, but can't because she is only leasing the woman, and the lease forbids whipping. The mistress chooses to whip another woman in front of the maid instead. Jefferson, in his Notes describes slavery as the uncontrolled exercise of "passion"(meaning rage or anger) He should know.
Yes, if they had been too well treated my ancestors' death would have been pretty much in vain.
 

Pat Young

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That is the argument often heard. Slavery, it weren't so bad(for black people)! But in fact slave owners used whipping as a standard business practice. Its how a forced labor system works. How do you think you get a lifetime of backbreaking physical work out of a "valuable and expensive asset?" Hint: it isn't the dental plan.
Torture was regular enough that most slaves on large plantations witnessed it every year.
 

Pat Young

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I'm going to use a word to describe that book that I rarely use: riveting. One of the best slavery narratives I've ever read. I have not seen the movie, but when I saw stills from the production, I said to myself "Oh, I know exactly who that is and at what point in the story." I believe that to be high praise for any film adaptation. The little upstate NY town Northup was from hasn't changed much. You can still follow the directions he gives in the beginning of the book to the location of his home.
I agree with your description of the book. The movie is very good.
 


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