Ordinarily, we include in each month’s Reference Materials section, book reviews (if they exist) from the NY Times and Washington Post -- and the British press for books with international implications and The Wall Street Journal for books with financial implications.
This situation is unique because the autobiography is 160 years old and, although it was the centerpiece of the Abolitionist Movement for the 7 years leading to the American Civil War, it had fallen into obscurity for more than a century until it became the focus of the movie which won the 2014 Golden Globe for Best Picture and has been nominated for 9 Academy Awards including Best Picture.
There do not appear to any book reviews from 160 years ago.
Posted in this section are 4 hybrid reviews -- hybrid in the sense that they focus on the book as well as the movie. In order of relative focus on the book (vs. the movie), they are from:
The London Guardian
The London Telegraph
The London Mail
The New Yorker
Please also see the Original Proposal section above for: (1) a PBS Newshour interview of John Ridley, the author of the movie’s screenplay, and (2) an excerpt from a Wikipedia article summarizing the reaction of movie critics.
The London Guardian – 1/10/2014
12 Years a Slave: the book behind the film
By Sarah Churchwell who returns to the 1853 memoir that inspired it – one of many narratives that exposed the brutal truth about slavery, too long ignored or sentimentalised by Hollywood
In 1825 a fugitive slave named William Grimes wrote an autobiography in order to earn $500 to purchase freedom from his erstwhile master, who had discovered his whereabouts in Connecticut and was trying to remand Grimes back into slavery. At the end of his story the fugitive makes a memorable offer: "If it were not for the stripes on my back which were made while I was a slave, I would in my will, leave my skin a legacy to the government, desiring that it might be taken off and made into parchment, and then bind the constitution of glorious happy and free America." Few literary images have more vividly evoked the hypocrisy of a nation that exalted freedom while legitimising slavery.
The Life of William Grimes was the first book-length autobiography by a fugitive American slave, in effect launching a new literary genre, the slave narrative. (The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, published in 1789, is widely regarded as the first ever, but Equiano published his book in Britain.) Scholars have identified about 100 American slave narratives published between 1750 and 1865, with many more following after the end of the civil war. The most famous are those by Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, but the release of a new film has stirred interest in the account of a man named Solomon Northup. His book, Twelve Years a Slave, one of the longest and most detailed slave narratives, was a bestseller when it appeared in 1853. Directed by Steve McQueen and starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt and Benedict Cumberbatch, the film version, which opens in the UK today, has already been hailed as an Oscars front-runner.
This is something of an accomplishment for the first major Hollywood film to be inspired by a slave's account of his own suffering. America's vexed relationship with its legacy of slavery has always been reflected in its cinema; landmark films such as the virulently racist Birth of a Nation (1915), the first film ever screened at the White House, and the blockbuster apologia for slavery that was Gone With the Wind (1939), whitewashed in every sense popular images of institutionalised slavery. Slave narratives are the most powerful corrective we have to such distortions and evasions, firsthand accounts from some of the people who suffered the atrocities of slavery.
Unlike most authors of slave narratives, Northup was not a fugitive when he co-authored his book with a white man named David Wilson: he was a free man who had been kidnapped as an adult and sold into slavery. In 1841 the 33-year-old son of a former slave was living in upstate New York with his wife and children. He could read and write, was a skilled violinist, had done some farming and was working as a carpenter. One day he was approached by two white men who made him a generous financial offer to join a travelling music show. Without telling his wife or friends (thinking, he wrote, that he would be back before he was missed), Northup travelled to Washington DC with them, where he was drugged, had his free papers stolen, and awoke in chains on the floor of the notorious Williams Slave Pen (ironically now the site of the Air and Space Museum). Protesting that he was a free man, Northup was beaten nearly to death and warned that he would be killed if he ever spoke up again. He was a slave now, and had no rights. Describing his march through the nation's capital in chains, Northup delivers an embittered denunciation in the same spirit as that of William Grimes: "So we passed, handcuffed and in silence, through the streets of Washington – through the capital of a nation, whose theory of government, we were told, rests on the foundation of man's inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness! Hail! Columbia, happy land, indeed!"
Taken to New Orleans, Northup was sold at auction, and sent to the plantations of Louisiana bayou country. For the next 12 years, along with several hundred other local slaves, Northup was beaten, whipped, starved, and forced to work six days a week (with three days off at Christmas, "the carnival season with the children of bondage"), for a series of increasingly venal masters. Only on Sundays were slaves permitted to work for themselves, earning a few pennies to purchase such necessities as eating utensils. (Good Christian slave-owners would whip a slave and pour salt into the wounds, but wouldn't dream of breaking the sabbath.)
At first, Northup found himself in the comparatively benign hands of William Ford, a minister who never questioned the slave system he had inherited, but never abused his slaves either. But soon Ford was in financial difficulties, and sold Northup to the vicious John Tibeats, an irrational, violent man who nearly killed Northup more than once. After attempting to run away, and being passed to another merciless owner, Northup was sold to Edwin Epps, a drunken, sadistic bully, who ran the plantation where Northup would work until he was finally rescued.
Along the way Northup chronicles in some detail life on a plantation, cataloguing everything from the method for cultivating cotton and sugar cane to the proper handles for various axes. And he explains the penal system of torture and threat that all slaves endured. The barbarity of slave life was not limited to the large structural injustice of bondage: it also licensed masters to behave as unreasonably as they pleased. The daily unfairnesses that resulted were, in Northup's telling, often the most intolerable aspect of slavery. Once Tibeats flew at Northup with an axe, threatening to cut off his head for using the wrong nails, although the nails had been given to Northup by the overseer. He tells of a young slave doing a task as instructed, then sent on another task, only to be whipped for not finishing the first, despite having been ordered to interrupt it. "Maddened at such injustice," the young slave seized an axe and "literally chopped the overseer in pieces"; he continued to justify his action even as the rope was put around his neck.
For female slaves, bondage often included another agony: rape. Rape is a theme in most slave narratives; the 1857 autobiography of William Anderson (comprehensively subtitled Twenty-four Years a Slave; Sold Eight Times! In Jail Sixty Times!! Whipped Three Hundred Times!!! or The Dark Deeds of American Slavery Revealed) goes further, addressing the incest that often ensued: the slave south, he writes, "is undoubtedly the worst place of incest and bigamy in the world". Northup does not mention the endemic incest of slavery, but he does dwell on the torment of a fellow slave named Patsey, who was repeatedly raped by Epps. The narrative euphemises Epps's assaults with conventionally acceptable phrases such as "lewd intentions". But the implications are clear: "If she uttered a word in opposition to her master's will, the lash was resorted to at once, to bring her to subjection." Meanwhile Patsey was constantly attacked by her mistress, for "seducing" her husband. Northup tried to reason with Mrs Epps: "She being a slave, and subject entirely to her master's will, he alone was answerable." But Mrs Epps continued to persecute Patsey, resorting to such petty tyrannies as denying her soap. When Patsey ran to a neighbouring plantation to borrow some, Epps accused her of meeting a lover. He had her stripped naked, turned face down, tied hand and foot to four stakes, and whipped until she was flayed, at which point brine was poured upon her back. Patsey survived, but Northup writes that the ordeal broke her.
Eventually a Canadian named Bass came to Epps's plantation and was heard voicing abolitionist sentiments, a dangerous heresy in the slaveholding south. Northup's narrative stages a debate between Bass and Epps: Epps offers the standard justification for slavery, that black people were naturally bestial and ignorant, and thus deserved subjugation. Bass counters with the circular nature of this argument: "You'd whip one of them if caught reading a book," Bass points out. "They are held in bondage, generation after generation, deprived of mental improvement, and who can expect them to possess much knowledge? … If they are baboons, or stand no higher in the scale of intelligence than such animals, you and men like you will have to answer for it … Talk about black skin, and black blood; why, how many slaves are there on this bayou as white as either of us? And what difference is there in the colour of the soul? Pshaw! The whole system is as absurd as it is cruel."
This is one of the most surprising aspects of Northup's narrative: its clarity about the workings of the "peculiar institution" as a system. Chattel slavery, Northup writes, "brutalised" master and slave alike; this is why slave-owners behaved so monstrously, even against their best financial interests (a dead slave, after all, was lost money). Surrounded by appalling human suffering on a daily basis, slave-owners became inured and desensitised to it, "brutified and reckless of human life". Northup goes further, declaring: "It is not the fault of the slaveholder that he is cruel, so much as it is the fault of the system under which he lives." In the same spirit, he repeatedly insists that not all slave-owners were depraved, defending William Ford and others he encountered. These people were not inherently evil; rather, "the influence of the iniquitous system necessarily fosters an unfeeling and cruel spirit". Equally modern is the book's cogency about the madness of a race-based slavery in which so-called "black" slaves could in fact be lighter skinned than their owners. Northup pointedly describes one slave, who was "far whiter than her owner, or any of his offspring. It required a close inspection to distinguish in her features the slightest trace of African blood."
It was Bass who came to Northup's aid, risking his own life to get a letter to Northup's family and friends in New York. They took the letter to a white man named Henry Northup, a relative of the man who had owned and freed Solomon's father. Henry Northup travelled to Louisiana in early 1853, where he was assisted by the local authorities, who offered their support on the basis that the whole slave system depended on the "good faith" of distinguishing between free men and slaves. This is one way of putting it, although there was not much good faith evident in chattel slavery. A far more likely explanation relates back to the fact that many slaves had white skin: it was in the best interests of any free person in a slave country to protect the rights of other free people. Solomon Northup was liberated, and the two Northup men (sharing a name only by virtue of the system they were engaged in fighting), travelled together to Washington DC, where they tracked down the men who had sold Solomon into slavery and brought them to trial.
The defence offered by the slave-traders comes as a shock to the reader: they argued that Solomon Northup had voluntarily sold himself into slavery. As defences go, this may not sound convincing, but the argument was actually that Northup had agreed to engage in a scam with his "kidnappers": they would sell Northup into slavery, secure his release with his free papers, and then divide the proceeds. The case was never argued in the nation's capital, however: Northup was unable to testify in court because he was black.
The trial made it into the newspapers, fanning the flames of a heated national debate about the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Designed to mediate between the demands of slaveholders and the rights recognised by free states in the struggle over the status of runaway slaves, the law criminalised helping runaways and declared that if a person were accused of being a fugitive slave, an affidavit by the claimant was sufficient to establish title. Those identified as fugitive slaves had no right to a jury trial and could not testify on their own behalf, which unsurprisingly led to a great surge in the number of free black people who were conscripted into slavery. Like Solomon Northup, they could not testify in their own defence.
The blatant injustice of the new law, and the widespread feeling that slave states' rights had trumped those of free states, led to a great outcry. For the next decade, the papers were filled with stories such as that of Margaret Garner, an escaped slave who in 1856 murdered her baby rather than see it forced into slavery (the true story that inspired Toni Morrison's novel Beloved). When Garner was brought to trial, abolitionists used the case to argue that the Fugitive Slave Law was not only unconstitutional; it was so twisted that it had driven a mother to murder her own child in order to save it from "the seething hell of American slavery". But the law was clear: Garner and her family were returned to slavery. The presiding commissioner ruled that "it was not a question of feeling to be decided by the chance current of his sympathies; the law of Kentucky and of the United States made it a question of property".
Reading countless such stories in the newspapers, an abolitionist teacher named Harriet Beecher Stowe began writing a novel, which she based in part on an 1849 slave narrative called The Life of Josiah Henson. In June 1851 the first instalment of Uncle Tom's Cabin appeared in the Nationalist Era, an abolitionist magazine. Readers were gripped, and when the book was published in 1852 its sales were spectacular: 20,000 copies were sold in the first three weeks, 75,000 in the first three months; 305,000 in the first year. By 1857 Uncle Tom's Cabin was still selling 1,000 copies a week, and during the civil war the (probably apocryphal) story circulated that when Abraham Lincoln met Stowe he greeted her by saying, "So this is the little lady who started this great war."
Uncle Tom's Cabin was calculated to appeal to the conflicted emotions of 19th-century Americans, making them feel the suffering and injustice of slavery, rather than offering philosophical or legal arguments against it. Stowe uses the techniques of sentimental fiction to show the devastating effects of slavery on family life, charging that it is the Christian duty of every good woman in the nation to fight against it. In one key chapter, a senator's wife, "a timid, blushing little woman", challenges her husband explicitly on the Fugitive Slave Law, informing him that it's "downright cruel and unchristian" and chastising him for his support of it: "You ought to be ashamed, John! Poor, homeless, houseless creatures! It's a shameful, wicked, abominable law, and I'll break it, for one, the first time I get a chance … I can read my Bible; and there I see that I must feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and comfort the desolate; and that Bible I mean to follow." It was a brilliantly effective strategy, cutting across the divided heart of antebellum America and persuading white Christians across the country to join the abolitionist cause.
Unsurprisingly, Uncle Tom's Cabin was excoriated in the south as malicious propaganda; slavery advocates argued that theirs was a benign, paternalistic system. No one had ever heard of such viciousness as that shown, for example, by Stowe's villain, the cruel Simon Legree, who owns a cotton plantation in the Red River region of Louisiana. Determined to vindicate her depiction of American slavery, Stowe published A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1853, in which she listed a number of documentary sources that corroborated her account. One slave she contacted was the runaway Harriet Jacobs, who had been giving abolitionist speeches in the north-east; instead of letting Stowe tell her story, Jacobs decided to write her own, which was published in 1861 as Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. An account that Stowe did use in her Key was the story of Northup, which she had read about in the New York Times, and whose experience on a plantation near the Red River closely resembled her portrait of life on Legree's fictional plantation.
That same year, Northup and David Wilson, a white lawyer and aspiring author, published Twelve Years a Slave, which was dedicated to Stowe and marketed as "another Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin". It was a huge success, selling 30,000 copies in its first two years, three times as many as had The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass when it appeared in 1845. Several more editions followed, and the press continued to cover the story of Northup's ultimately fruitless efforts to prosecute the men who had kidnapped him. Meanwhile, he may have been working with the Underground Railroad to help fugitive slaves escape to Canada, and began travelling around the north-east making speeches in support of abolition. He was also involved in several theatre productions based on his book, but none were successful.
Over the years, Northup's book fell into obscurity; when slave narratives began to enter the American curriculum in the 1980s, they were generally represented by those of Douglass and Jacobs, which are both self-authored and stylistically superior to Northup's ghost-written account. There is some irony to this latter point, as both Jacobs and Douglass were initially accused of being incapable of writing such fine books, an assumption that owed something to racism but more to the denial of literacy to American slaves. As Henry Louis Gates Jr, an expert on slave narratives and consultant on the film 12 Years a Slave, has noted, literacy "was the very commodity that separated animal from human being, slave from citizen". Douglass writes in My Bondage of the moment when, having learned to read, he realised that his illiteracy was itself "the bloody whip, for my back, and here was the iron chain; and my good, kind master, he was the author of my situation". With literacy Douglass "now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty – to wit, the white man's power to enslave the black man … From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom."
Slave-owners understood this, too, and responded savagely to any slave's attempts to learn to read or write; a common punishment was amputation. As a result, literacy among slaves was very low and most fugitive slaves relied on white "amanuenses" to record their stories for them. Even the few who could write were still edited or endorsed by white abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison or Lydia Maria Child, a patronage system that offered insufficient challenge to the pro-slavery argument that slaves were incapable of learning. When slave narratives were rediscovered in the 20th century, the fact that most had been ghosted or edited by white people once again raised the question of their authenticity: many historians repeated the century-old charge that the narratives were exaggerated or fabricated by abolitionists. Unfortunately, much of the US coverage of McQueen's film has rehearsed these invidious questions, but the underlying truths of the atrocities of slavery are beyond dispute, and not altered by the fact that any narrative is, by definition, constructed.
In the case of Northup, his account was verified by the historian who recovered his story, a woman named Sue Eakin. Twelve years old when she discovered a copy of Northup's narrative in a local plantation in 1930, Eakin was intrigued to find it described the area in which she lived. Six years later, as a student at Louisiana State University, she found a copy of the book in a local bookstore. The owner sold it to her for 25 cents, telling her it was worthless: "There ain't nothing to that old book. Pure fiction." Eakin would devote her life, she later said, to proving him wrong.
Eakin set about discovering everything she could about Northup's life, tracking down its details, using the legal and financial records of the men who owned him to corroborate his account of his enslavement. (Northup himself quotes more than once from such records: "The deed of myself from Freeman to Ford, as I ascertained from the public records in New-Orleans on my return, was dated June 23d 1841.")
Unlike many slave narratives, Northup's named names: the people who mistreated him were still alive, and their own records substantiate the facts of his story. Eakin died in 2009; three years later amateur historian David Fiske published Solomon Northup: His Life Before and After Slavery. Between them, Eakin and Fiske established that Northup played a significant role in his book's composition, working closely with Wilson over the three months they wrote it. Fiske even found reports of corroboration made by Edwin Epps himself, from union soldiers who met him in Louisiana during the civil war: "Old Mr Epps yet lives, and told us that a greater part of the book was truth," they reported in 1866.
In her extensive notes to Twelve Years a Slave, Eakin adds some fascinating details to Northup's story. He alludes early in his narrative to habits of "shiftlessness and extravagance" into which he had fallen before his capture; Eakin remarks that such habits might help explain the court records showing he was convicted of three incidences of assault, as well as arrests for public drunkenness. His capricious decision to accompany his kidnappers to Washington also seems characteristic, and Eakin even hints that the conspiracy theory of Northup's abduction may not have been entirely implausible. She was unable to ascertain what happened to Northup after 1863; there were rumours that he was kidnapped again, or murdered, but Fiske found evidence that Northup was in Vermont in the 1860s, and reports that his lectures may have become viewed as a local nuisance. Northup may have "given up, resorted to drink, and sunk below the surface". Or perhaps he lit out like Huck Finn for the territory of the west.
These less than hagiographic details have not made their way into McQueen's film, and given that it was produced as a corrective to a century of Hollywood sentimentalising and glorifying slavery, this is neither surprising nor objectionable. It seems McQueen also underplayed Northup's insistence that not all his owners were cruel – again this is understandable, especially given that Northup's protestations may have been designed to placate white readers. But slaves don't have to be saints or their masters monsters in order for slavery to be an atrocity: our stories will remain trapped in simplistic pieties until we can admit that a man could be a rogue and still have been martyred by a barbaric system in a land that has yet to accept the terms of William Grimes's offer, and admit how bound its constitution is by the flayed skin of its victims.
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