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Solomon Northup

(1808—1863)


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(1808 –1863), free-born resident of upstate New York, whose kidnapping, transport, and enslavement in the deep South are recounted in his 1853 slave narrative, Twelve Years a Slave. Solomon Northup's early life took an ordinary course, from youth on the family farm to marriage at age twenty-one to Anne Hampton, followed by the birth of three children. A farmer, semiskilled laborer, but also a part-time fiddle player. Northup accepted an offer in March 1841 from two strangers in Saratoga, New York, to provide music for their traveling circus. But when the tour reached Washington, D.C., the men had him seized, delivered to slave traders, shipped to New Orleans aboard an American coastwise slaver, and sold to a succession of Louisiana slave owners, for whom he worked until returning to New York and freedom in January of 1853.

Though literate, Northup dictated his narrative of captivity to a ghostwriter, David Wilson, who proved less intrusive than many other white amanuenses of slave narratives, allowing Northup to exercise final editorial decisions over the events narrated, but whose mannered style precludes the narrative from being as authentic as autobiographies written by their own subjects. While abolitionist journals had previously warned of slavery's dangers to free African American citizens and published brief accounts of kidnappings, Northup's narrative was the first to document such a case in book-length detail. Dedicated to Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose Uncle Tom's Cabin had appeared in 1852, Northup's narrative promised facts that would surpass Stowe's fiction. The narrative's immediate success (final sales exceeded thirty thousand copies) was boosted by such comparisons, especially that between the Red River region of Northup's enforced slavery and the territory where Uncle Tom suffers the cruelty of Simon Legree. When Stowe published her Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1853, she cited Northup's narrative to bolster her novel's credibility, and subsequent reprints of Northup's narrative in turn proclaimed it “Another Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin.”Although capitalizing on the popularity of Stowe's fiction, Northup's narrative nevertheless asserts its unique value. In its insistence upon telling the whole ugly truth of slavery it not only departs from Stowe's self-proclaimed rhetorical restraint but also illustrates slave narratives’ evolution during the 1850s and 1860s from earlier autobiographies whose authors had found it necessary to moderate their stories in order to win credibility from white audiences.

From The Concise Oxford Companion to African American Literature in Oxford Reference.

Subjects: Literature.


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