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Solomon Northup and the Sly Philosophy of the Slave Pen

From: Callaloo
Volume 20, Number 1, Winter 1997
pp. 243-259 | 10.1353/cal.1997.0035

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Callaloo 20.1 (1997) 243-259

Several rather sweeping assumptions about 19th-century slave narratives have made it difficult to fully understand or appreciate the significance of Solomon Northup's 1853 autobiography, Twelve Years a Slave. One assumption is that slave narratives must, as their formal telos, demonstrate "through a variety of rhetorical means that they regard the writing of autobiography as in some ways uniquely self-liberating" (Andrews xi). This romantic model of writing and selfhood, which elegantly conflates self-expression, self-mastery, and self-advancement, typically takes Frederick Douglass' 1845 Narrative as the foremost representative of the genre. Another assumption, to a degree consequent upon the first, is that those narratives which rely on a white amanuensis are inherently less interesting than those which do not. The argument in this latter case is that however honorable his intentions, the amanuensis will inevitably shape the narrative to some extent, thereby undermining its authenticity both as history and autobiography. The only other organizational scheme readers have proven capable of recognizing in slave narratives is the providential: that found in those religiously-driven narratives (and narrative-inspired novels) for which the misfortunes and accidents undergone by the self achieve significance through the unveiling of their spiritual significance or necessity. Unlike the Douglass' paradigm which is developed primarily through temporal figures, the providential mode chiefly utilizes spatial figures. Twelve Years a Slave conforms to neither of these models, and its reputation has suffered accordingly.

Northup's narrative, though well known, has often been treated as a narrative of the second rank, albeit one with an unusually exciting and involving story as well as, thanks to the research of its modern editors, Sue Eakin and Joseph Logsdon, one with considerable historical value. However, Northup's reliance on a white amanuensis, David Wilson, as well as the failure of the narrative to fulfill certain formal, generic expectations, has meant that analysis of the narrative patterns and philosophical perspective of the work have been almost entirely neglected. Its value has been seen as one of fact or historical record and not, as in the case of the so-called classic narratives, a matter of imposing meaningful, interpretive form on its subject matter. To the limited extent that the form of Twelve Years has been examined, it has been dismissed as a clichéd and none-too-skilled repetition of narrative motifs and figures from a hundred other slave stories. David Wilson, the amanuensis, too, is taken to task for the obtrusiveness of his stale, genteel diction and images.

Now Wilson is, admittedly, a problem. But in his defense let it be said that, in regard to slavery at least, Wilson appears to have had no particular political agenda to whose ends he manipulates the story. A small town lawyer, former school superintendent, and amateur writer, Wilson's only other works include The Life of Jane McCrea, with an Account of Burgoyne's Expedition in 1777, an account of an Indian massacre of that year, and Henrietta Robinson, an account of a notorious murder in 19th-century New York. There is no record indicating any activity on his part in antislavery. Instead, Wilson seems to have primarily seen Northup's adventures as merely an opportunity to tell and sell a particularly sensationalistic tale. His lack of tendentiousness allows Northup's own nuanced vision of slavery to be articulated within the work without polemical over-simplification. Twelve Years is convincingly Northup's tale and no one else's because of its amazing attention to empirical detail and unwillingness to reduce the complexity of Northup's experience to a stark moral allegory. Whereas the firm, confident teleological structure of Douglass' Narrative reflects his intention to persuade, the more problematic organization and emphasis of Twelve Years can be most usefully seen as reflecting Northup's own difficulty in making sense of his experiences. Even if Northup had possessed Douglass' rhetorical prowess, it seems doubtful that he would have constructed a narrative as assured in its judgments and analysis as Douglass'. Twelve Years moves toward an understanding of the ironies of slavery quite unlike that of Douglass or most other antislavery writers of the day.

Of course assigning an independent...


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