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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. 1 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. 2 [End Page 243]

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. 3 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 perspective to a protagonist whom we only see second-hand through the prose of his amanuensis seems a shaky proposition at best and speculating on the narrative he might have written under other circumstances is even more problematic. But even in its present form, Twelve Years does in fact display a narrative strategy which is reducible neither to Wilson’s good story nor to the shared structures and figures of slave narratives in general. Northup’s narrative offers a critical vision of slavery which implicitly rejects two prevailing methods for understanding both the individual slave and the institution as a whole—the rational and the providential and their chief organizational schemes, the temporal and the spatial. Moreover, in offering his critique, Northup displays an understanding of the nature of justice and individual identity unlike almost anything else I have seen in contemporary narratives.

The nature of Northup’s originality is evident when seen in comparison to what is probably the best-known slave narrative. The philosophical underpinnings of Northup’s narrative couldn’t be farther from the rational moral idealism which structures Frederick Douglass’ Narrative. Criticism of Douglass’ first autobiography has repeatedly shown the extent to which it is complicit with individualist bourgeois thought both through its elevation of Douglass as a self-made man as well as its downplaying of the crucial role of the slave community. 4 However, beyond its politically problematic nature, this individualism is equally culpable from the standpoint of its effect on the narrative’s moral argument. Parallel to Douglass’ representation of himself as independent of community is the narrative’s representation of the just or the good as radically unconditioned, independent of any social or historical context. The relative isolation of Douglass as a moral agent denies the work the sort of nuanced and [End Page 244] complex moral vision possible only when the self is seen enmeshed in and mediated by an intricate network of social relations and contexts.

Northup’s story, by contrast, emphasizes not inherently meaningful form, but its absence. Twelve Years a Slave sets out from the beginning to contradict and question the archetypal plot for American autobiography: the Franklinesque rise from humble beginnings to prosperity through hard work and ability. Unlike those narratives such as Douglass’ where the subject’s vague antecedents both emphasize the cruelty of slavery as well as the subject’s absolute self-creation, what Olney calls the “sketchy account of parentage” characteristic of most narratives (153), Northup gives a comparatively extensive account of his forebears. Northup represents his family history as continuous and free from any violent breaks. Race, normally the source of discontinuity in such histories, is minimized in two different ways. Solomon Northup, black, continues to enjoy friendly relations with Henry Northup, a white man and the descendant of the family which owned Northup’s ancestors. Thanks to the “persevering interest” of the latter in Solomon’s well-being, Henry Northup will play a crucial role in obtaining Solomon’s release and return. Solomon Northup is able to relate with considerable precision the four places in which his father lived and worked after he was set free. Reinforcing this familial continuity, Solomon recounts the various ways in which his father molded the character of his two sons. Solomon tells of his father’s industry and integrity, the fact that he always remained a farmer without descending to those more demeaning occupations “which seem to be especially allotted to the children of Africa” (5). He gave his children more of an education than most Black children could expect. He owned sufficient property to entitle him to vote in New York. He taught his children morality and a degree of religion. More importantly in this context, while his father regretted slavery, he continued to express “the warmest emotions of kindness, and even of affection towards the family, in whose house he had been a bondsman” (5). Adding to the softening influence of his father’s lack of racial animosity is the racial origin of Solomon’s own wife, Anne Hampton, on which he places particular emphasis. He writes that

She is not able to determine the exact line of her descent, but the blood of three races mingled in her veins. It is difficult to tell whether the red, white, or black predominates. The union of them all, however, in her origin, has given her a singular but pleasing expression, such as is rarely to be seen. Though somewhat resembling, yet she can not properly be styled a quadroon, a class to which, I have omitted to mention, my mother belonged.


Both the accounts of his father and his wife allow Northup to situate his own early life in an unbroken network of family and society that contrasts dramatically with the chaotic family relations found in most other narratives as well as in the later portion of Northup’s own story.

The problem for the most familiar type of slave narrative is that slavery denies the slave the very stuff of which personal narratives are composed—origins, family [End Page 245] identity or name, education, and increasing self-determination leading up to the moment at which the narrator becomes capable of writing the narrative itself. In the archetypal slave narrative, these things are problematic. The slave has little sense of his origins, his first name is usually given him by his master, his true family name is unknown, he is denied education, and slavery itself restricts the extent to which the events of his life may be said to result from his own volition. The denial of these narrative building blocks is simply another aspect of the denial of the slave’s personhood. Keeping in mind Aristotle’s crucial definition in The Politics of the slave as one capable of obeying rational commands but, lacking reason himself, incapable of giving them, we can see how to be a slave is on a profound level to be defined as a creature whose life cannot be construed as a narrative, whose days and works are merely submoments of the master’s biography and cannot be, according to the ideology of the slaveholder, meaningful or coherent in themselves.

In the dynamic of most slave narratives, the absence of conventional elements of personal narrative is compensated for by making the slave story one of how those various elements had to be created by the subject. Douglass’ 1845 narrative offers the most brilliant and conspicuous example of this substitution and shows how, far from being the antithesis of Bildungsroman, this variety of slave narrative is arguably its highest form since the individual slave not only undergoes an education in self-mastery but must create both the education and himself. The act of writing the narrative becomes the ultimate act of self-redemption, for by writing of his own origins the ex-slave can make himself his own author in a sense and displace the onus of having been merely the effect of events and becomes instead the source of all the narrative moments. The act of reflecting upon and representing moments of victimization or subjection allows the author to master them, to make them, at least symbolically, the effects of his own consciousness. Moreover, he can bestow form and meaning upon events which were, because of their relative contingency and unwilled nature, previously without significance or meaning.

Yet here again, Northup’s narrative responds differently. Twelve Years a Slave opens with a detailed recounting of Northup’s early days in New York told with explicit attention to its fulfillment of cultural, usually white, stereotypes of hard work and social advancement. Ironically, the telos of most slave narratives, freedom and economic self-sufficiency, are the conditions from which Northup begins. Consequently, Northup’s kidnapping and descent into slavery undermines the stability implicit in both the basic narrative model as well as its slave narrative variant. A narrative like Douglass’ assumes that principles of justice are available anywhere, anytime to the rational mind. As a result, his sense of injustice grows in tandem with his developing sense of self. Implicit in this relationship is the idea that his self results from his rational apprehension of injustice. The Aristotelian definition of slave nature is denied through the exercise of reason. Northup’s narrative, however, directly challenges this association. Any hope of rational narrative form is shattered by his kidnapping. His descent into slavery brings with it a vision of the world as a place of contingency, illusion, and disorder, neither inherently rational nor irrational. Douglass shows through the exercise of reason, his unsuitability for slavery; Northup [End Page 246] shows the irrationality of slavery when he is torn from his rational existence. Douglass works to create his own identity; Northup must be brutally trained to deny his. Each time he fails to remember his new slave name or inadvertently says something that suggests his life before the kidnapping, he is punished with a beating.

Northup’s economic collapse similarly violates the narrative pattern characteristic of Douglass, whose first narrative operates to a large extent as a type of Franklinesque (or, to be anachronistic, Algeresque) rise from poverty to prosperity through the exercise of self-discipline, self-improvement, and hard work. Douglass’ economic conquest is paralleled by his mastery of linear time: to be a successful free man is to impose the linear narrative time as the shape or form of one’s life. Meaning is bestowed on one’s life by acting to guarantee that each moment of life contributes to the next advance. The achievement of such form triumphs in the evasion of history and contingency. Effaced in such a narrative is the possibility of further change, the return of history, the possibility that prosperity may be as fragile and temporary as poverty has proven to be. The stakes of such a return are immense since in the Franklinesque narrative form the self’s value derives solely from this narrative of economic transcendence just as the narrative is taken as the manifestation or realization of the subject’s intrinsic value. The loss of such value threatens to completely undermine the subject’s claim to meaning.

The first section of the narrative shows how seemingly stable and complete Northup’s prosperity was. His father, a freed slave in Rhode Island, “was a man respected for his industry and integrity” (5). He was an independent farmer and steadfastly refused “those more menial positions, which seem to be especially allotted to the children of Africa.” He acquired enough property to enable him to vote in New York, and he educated all of his children to a degree unheard of for a farmer’s children. He taught his children the work ethic: religion, morality, and hard work. Solomon, in turn, takes up “a life of industry” (7). He moves into a building which, as he specifically points out, had played a role in the Revolutionary War, thereby further implying his connection to American life and history. Similarly, when he tells us that he worked on the construction of the Champlain Canal, he implies a connection between his personal labor and success and the national prosperity. With these wages he buys a pair of horses and tows rafts of lumber along the canal. He lists in notable detail all of his economic vicissitudes from that time forward: cutting timber, buying a farm and livestock, planting corn and oats, part-time work as a fiddle player, his wife’s work in the kitchen of Sherril’s Coffee House, his relocation to Saratoga Springs to work as a driver for tourists, and eventually more fiddle playing, this time for the railroad workers. Even his financial setback in Saratoga Springs is put into service as a further example of the truth of the work ethic:

Though always in comfortable circumstances, we had not prospered. The society and associations at that world-renowned watering place, were not calculated to preserve the simple habits of industry and economy to which I had been accustomed, but, on the contrary, to substitute others in their stead, tending to shiftlessness and extravagance.


[End Page 247]

But in one respect this passage deviates significantly from the Franklin narrative model: Northup concedes the disastrous effect of environment upon character; he situates his failure in a specific cultural context rather than using the episode solely as evidence of value or lack of value in character. This is not just incidental; this is a way of thinking about character that will occur again and again in his story. We can only grasp the significance of Northup’s detailed accounting of his general economic prosperity when we see it in the context of the book as a whole, for where the narrative of economic transcendence usually ends, Northup begins. His is a catastrophic fall that raises questions not about his intrinsic worth but about the truth of such narratives as Douglass’ and the vision of selfhood they imply.

Moving even farther away from this association of selfhood and narrative time, Northup emphasizes how when he is drugged and kidnapped he loses all sense of time: “From that moment I was insensible. How long I remained in that condition—whether only that night, or many days and nights—I do not know” (19). By bringing together the loss of access to the standard narrative of economic progress and freedom, Northup’s lost sense of time, and ultimately the loss of his very identity, this passage demonstrates how the collapse of the conventional, teleological narrative destroys at once both conventional subjectivity and controlled, linear time.

Twelve Years is particularly good at showing the irrational and brutal nature of the slavemaster’s ostensible rationalization of time. 5 One of the greatest ironies of Northup’s account is that while production is rationalized to absurd and frightening lengths, the time of the slave’s world is increasingly disjoined from any standard sense of time. We see how the slave is initially beaten to produce the maximum amount of cotton and how that extreme quantity then becomes the standard against which all the slave’s subsequent pickings will be judged. Yet alongside such passages, Twelve Years also tells of how slaves are made to stay up all night dancing to entertain the master, work around the clock during the cane harvest, and work on the Sabbath. The slave is expected to labor in a rationally quantifiable, predictive manner, but, in his role as a thing or possession himself, he is treated without regard to any sense of time. Emblematic of this contrast between the rationalization of labor and the irrational life of the slave, his double role as a producer of commodities and a commodity himself, is Northup’s own work as overseer in which he is both the one who overworks and is himself overworked in the name of production. The absurdities and deceits practiced in the name of reason further dispels any sense of there being an objective order of rationality which can be appealed to in the name of justice. The steady unfolding of narrative time and the conception of an individual life as a matter of imposing meaningful form on that time are both explicitly undermined. Reason, both the formal and philosophical key to Douglass’ narrative, appears in Twelve Years as merely a mask for selfishness and injustice.

In fact, so thorough is the way in which slavery conflicts with conventional notions of time in Twelve Years and so thorough is the amount of coincidence and flashback and the highly literary way in which the significance of seemingly impertinent details—Northup’s trip to Montreal, his ability with rafts, the name of the store where he bought his children’s clothes—becomes apparent only as the story reaches its final [End Page 248] section that it makes one suspect that the crucial influence is not the linear timeline of Franklin or Douglass but the providential mode of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. 6

As is well known, Northup’s work exhibits an important awareness of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. This is explicit in Northup’s dedication “To Harriet Beecher Stowe / Whose Name, / Throughout the World, is Identified with the Great Reform; THIS NARRATIVE, AFFORDING ANOTHER KEY TO UNCLE TOM’S CABIN, / IS RESPECTFULLY DEDICATED” and only slightly less explicit in his challenge in the first chapter where he asks “whether even the pages of fiction present a picture of more cruel wrong or a severer bondage” (3). 7 If in Douglass’ Narrative, the central feature of the plot, escape from slavery, appears as a rational development, in Stowe’s work the plot reflects not reason but Providence. The diaspora-like effect in which Stowe’s black characters are scattered and at least some are eventually recollected to an extent recurs in Northup as do conspicuous echoes of Stowe’s own heavy irony. 8

Admittedly, in speaking of Stowe’s novel we are no longer strictly dealing with slave narratives. Stowe drew on the testimony and narratives of ex-slaves, written and oral, in the creation of both her great novel and her commentary on it in A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The important thing in this instance is not the authority of the novel in comparison to slave autobiography, but its representativeness of a certain mode of construing the experience of slavery and escape. That mode is, of course, providential; its cosmology, Christian. In a manner consistent with many other mid-19th century novels, Uncle Tom’s Cabin offers a dramatic picture of lives scattered then recollected, of virtue thwarted or ignored then vindicated, of relations lost then recovered. 9 Providence displays itself like a parlor trick, the message is written down on a piece of paper, folded neatly, shredded into a thousand pieces or tossed into the fire and then quite suddenly makes its miraculous reappearance whole and intact in the magician’s gloved hand. The working of Providence, its plot, proceeds inevitably, if at times mysteriously. In place of the fire or the shredding, Stowe’s characters, torn from family and home, live episodically, buffeted by a series of seemingly contingent events. They are regularly frustrated in their efforts to impose form or meaning on their lives—except in one crucial respect. Those characters which maintain a belief in God and assume a providential design at work in their lives are able to maintain some sense of purpose and direction in their lives in spite of their apparent chaos: the meaning or design is present but not visible because unlike secular narratives, here the significance is not a human creation. While it is not a particularly complex concept, the relevance and usefulness of the providential mode to narratives of slave life, fictional or true, is important enough to work out in detail.

Modern or bourgeois subjectivity is, on one crucial level, a narrative phenomenon. The life of an individual consists of a beginning, middle, and an end; the requirements of freedom and rationality are comprised of a series of causal relations between the events of a life. Self-determination is, within certain bounds, ultimately a matter of being able to write your own story. Part of the horror of slave life to the 19th-century imagination arose from the slave’s inability to do just this. The absence of such agency was, for an antislavery writer such as Stowe, a result of injustice; for proslavery [End Page 249] writers it reflected instead, the slave’s imputed lack of reason (and out of this, consequent denials of family feeling, maternal feeling, introspection, a capacity for abstract thought—in short, all the stuff of novelistic character). Those who would try to offer a sympathetic representation of the character of slaves while representing the chaotic circumstances of slave life were faced with the problem of how to show the presence of the very potentiality they were arguing had been repressed: that human dignity normally expressed in the ability to make one’s life an expression of one’s character. The providential mode characteristically shows the failure of conventional narrative subjectivity and its replacement with a non-secular understanding of identity. Souls are revealed precisely by their resistance or inaccessibility to narrative conventions. The significance of Tom’s life, for instance, is all the more dramatic for its triumph not merely over but through his apparent lack of control over his earthly destiny. The ability to work out one’s salvation with fear and trembling is not significantly compromised by one’s lack of control over one’s worldly fate. Paradoxically, slavery is well-suited to the display of Providence precisely because the slave exercises so little control over his own life.

Within providential narratives, slavery appears as a sort of anti-narrative, disrupting continuity and linear progress. Its disruption of human aims and desires helps to shift the emphasis onto religious concerns. Yet however much Uncle Tom’s Cabin influences Twelve Years, Northup’s narrative also does much to revise aspects of that novel. Stowe’s use of space or geography reflects her desire to tell Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a religious allegory. It builds on the familiar image of the spiritual journey as a physical one, life as a pilgrimage. Tom’s movement southward is a descent into a more and more sinful environment and greater and greater temptations. The rigors of this movement require a belief in providence; the author’s ability to miraculously resolve separations corresponds to the anticipated ultimate unveiling of providential design. In short, Stowe’s representation of life in spatial terms is religious and allegorical; Twelve Years is neither.

Just as we saw Northup raising questions about the distorting effects slavery has over conventional narrative time, the peculiar institution also has peculiar effects on the representation of space. Brown and Hamilton’s deception is couched in the language of freedom and pleasure. Northup tells us they are well-dressed circus performers out sightseeing in the north before they return to their troupe in Washington. As tourists, they present an image of absolute freedom as they move about the countryside at will. Crucially, however, this will prove to be merely a front. They invite Northup to come along and play his violin at their performances. He quickly agrees to accompany them both for the money and the chance to see something of the world, to share the absolute freedom they seem to represent. They continue to lure him away with the promise of easy money until finally they have him safely in Washington and the domain of slavery. Then the same surreptitious drugging which made him lose all sense of time, also makes him lose his ability to perceive physical space. Northup’s description of this event is remarkably vivid in its emphasis on the way the drugs distort his perceptions: [End Page 250]

I only remember, with any degree of distinctness, that I was told it was necessary to go to a physician and procure medicine, and that pulling on my boots, without coat or hat, I followed them through a long passage-way, or alley, into the open street. It ran out at right angles from Pennsylvania Avenue. On the opposite side there was a light burning in a window. My impression is there were then three persons with me, but it is altogether indefinite and vague, and like the memory of a painful dream. Going towards the light, which I imagined proceeded from a physician’s office, and which seemed to recede as I advanced, is the last glimmering recollection I can now recall. From that moment I was insensible. How long I remained in that condition—whether only that night, or many days and nights—I do not know; but when consciousness returned, I found myself alone, in utter darkness, and in chains.


Northup’s description of William’s slave pen is the first of his painstaking accounts of specific buildings and regions that he passes through. So meticulous are most of these descriptions that one could easily produce a map or architectural drawing from them. What is unique about William’s slave pen, however, is its invisibility to outsiders. Both physically and symbolically, Northup emphasizes how the structure defies the understanding both of geographic and ideological space:

It was like a farmer’s barnyard in most respects save it was so constructed that the outside world could never see the human cattle that were herded there . . . Its outside presented only the appearance of a quiet private residence. A stranger looking at it, would never have dreamed of its execrable uses. Strange as it may seem, within plain sight of this same house, looking down from its commanding height upon it, was the Capitol. The voices of patriotic representatives boasting of freedom and equality, and the rattling of the poor slave’s chains, almost commingled. A slave pen within the very shadow of the Capitol!


Faced with the lucidity and rationality of the enlightened values which lay behind America’s political rhetoric, Twelve Years represents American slavery as opaque and well-nigh impossible to map. The association of freedom with individual autonomy as symbolized by the two kidnappers proves to be a vicious deception. The Capitol, which pretends to be both the symbol of democracy and, as the seat of government, its literal substance, is tainted by slavery, the reality of which is hypocritically hidden behind a seemingly innocent housefront; The Capitol itself becomes a false front for corruption. Society as represented in Twelve Years is not composed of autonomous individuals and discrete institutions; rather, all individuals and institutions are contingent upon one another. Slavery, though ideologically invisible, nevertheless invades the space of democracy. The symbolic confusion is reinforced by the funeral pomp of William Henry Harrison’s funeral: [End Page 251]

The roar of the cannon and the tolling of the bells filled the air, while many houses were shrouded with crepe, and the streets were black with people. As the day advanced, the procession made its appearance, coming slowly through the Avenue, carriage after carriage, in long succession, while thousands upon thousands followed on foot—all moving to the sound of melancholy music. They were bearing the dead body of Harrison to the grave.


This daytime street activity foreshadows the evening street activity when Northup and the other slaves are led from the pen to the docks. In both instances, the streets are “black with people.” Similarly, the “tolling of bells” anticipates the tolling of the ship’s bell as it passes Washington’s grave at Mount Vernon carrying its slave cargo on to Norfolk. And the dead body, in the first instance Harrison, is to be the socially-dead Northup carried off down these streets to the grave of slavery. In case there should remain any doubt about the ironic juxtaposition, Northup melodramatically underscores the irony of the slaves slipping out of Washington that night:

So we passed, hand-cuffed 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!


The emphatic references to space and geography continue through the remainder of the narrative. Occasionally they simply amount to detailed descriptions and sometimes they reflect Northup’s need to hide or deny his own origins in the North (at one point he is severely beaten for telling a prospective buyer that he is from New York.) 10 More typical are those instances which stress the meaninglessness and mysteriousness of Northup’s movements, such as when his first letter back home fails to get him rescued because he has no idea where he is being taken and, consequently, cannot tell his friends where to find him. At the heart of Twelve Years’s exploration of spatial metaphors are two puzzles: the effects of all these disruptive movements on his character—typically leading at least one mistress to speculate that he has “seen more of the world than [he] admitted” (175); and the general inadequacy of spatial figures as a way of gauging or mastering life, specifically Northup’s confrontation with “the limitless extent of wickedness” (27).

Related to this questioning of the categories of time and space as structuring elements in narrative is the attention Twelve Years pays to the effect of environment on character. Perhaps because of its antecedents in spiritual autobiography, the slave narrative ordinarily emphasizes the ability of character to master environment or the innate superiority and independence of the individual subject to its surroundings. The strange modesty, even skepticism, of Northup’s vision here as elsewhere, breaks with the genre. From the early instance in which his determination and work ethic are undermined by the resort atmosphere of Saratoga Springs, Northup repeatedly [End Page 252] reflects upon the role in which the self, far from being discrete and self-mastering, is actually subject to innumerable external influences.

Of course, many others, black and white, who wrote about slavery mentioned the deleterious effects it had upon the moral character of whites. Northup certainly repeats these observations, but, more remarkably, he makes us see the moral blindness of slaveholders as itself the result of environment rather than innate evil or irrationality:

[I]t is but simple justice to him when I say, in my opinion, there never was a more kind, noble, candid, Christian man than William Ford. The influences and associations that had always surrounded him, blinded him to the inherent wrong at the bottom of the system of Slavery. He never doubted the moral right of one man holding another in subjection. Looking through the same medium with his fathers before him, he saw things in the same light. Brought up under other circumstances and other influences, his notions would undoubtedly have been different. . . . Were all men such as he, slavery would be deprived of more than half its bitterness.


Northup is equally clear, however, about the effect of environment on the character of slavers. Bass, the Canadian laborer who befriends Northup, clearly voices the antislavery view of Twelve Years as a whole when he says in his argument with Epps about slavery that

These riggers are human beings. If they don’t know as much as their masters, whose fault is it? They are not allowed to know anything. You have books and papers, and can go where you please, and gather intelligence in a thousand ways. But your slaves have no privileges. You’d whip one of them if caught reading a book. They are held in bondage, generation after generation, deprived of mental improvement, and who can expect them to possess much knowledge? If they are not brought down to a level with the brute creation, you slaveholders will never be blamed for it. 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.


One particularly strange aspect of Northup’s concern for the effects of conditions upon character is that Twelve Years frequently includes details about slave management, though perhaps not surprisingly, given that Northup himself served as an overseer for a period during his captivity.

Northup emphasizes that while conventional owners believe that beatings and other severities like constant malnourishment keep the slaves tractable and production up, his own experience suggests the opposite: “those who treated their slaves leniently, were rewarded by the greatest amount of labor” (70). The observation itself [End Page 253] is not as remarkable as the manner in which it is made. This, like most of his comments on discipline, is relatively free from overt moralizing.

Reflecting this general insistence on seeing character in context is the comparatively sophisticated way in which Twelve Years presents slavery as only one part of a vast set of social and economic arrangements. Northup does not simply describe the experience of picking cotton; he does not present cotton production as a process tangential to slave life. The cycle of cotton production is, instead, shown to shape the very contours of slave life on cotton plantations. Northup gives several pages to cotton production, from the initial preparation of the beds through the actual harvest beginning in August. The description, however, is distinguished by never being reified into a series of impersonal processes: each stage of cotton’s development appears as human, specifically slave, labor. Further underlining the inseparability of production and slave life, Northup’s fullest discussion of a slave’s nourishment appears at the end of the cotton production description ironically sandwiched between comments about the feeding of livestock:

This [the day’s picking] done, the labor of the day is not yet ended, by any means. Each one must then attend to his respective chores. One feeds the mules, another the swine—another cuts the wood, and so forth; besides, the packing if all done by candle light. Finally, at a late hour, they reach the quarters, sleepy and overcome with the long day’s toil. Then a fire must be kindled in the cabin, the corn ground in the small hand-mill, and supper, and dinner for the next day in the field, prepared. All that is allowed them is corn and bacon, which is given out at the corncrib and smoke-house every Sunday morning. Each one receives, as his weekly allowance, three and a half pounds of bacon, and corn enough to make a peck of meal. That is all—no tea, coffee, sugar, and with the exception of a very scanty sprinkling now and then, no salt. I can say, from a ten years’ residence with Master Epps, that no slave of his is ever likely to suffer from the gout, superinduced by excessive high living. Master Epps’ hogs were fed on shelled corn—it was thrown out to his ‘riggers’ in the ear. The former, he thought, would fatten faster by shelling, and soaking it in the water—the latter, perhaps, if treated in the same manner, might grow too fat to labor. Master Epps was a shrewd calculator, and knew how to manage his own animals, drunk or sober.


He goes on to describe the procedure by which slaves grind their own corn, the material they are given for bedding, their cabins, the horn that wakes them up a few hours later, and their breakfast of “cold bacon and corn cake” (128). Even the production of the corn for slaves and livestock is described. After the last cotton picking is completed in January, slaves must then turn to harvesting the corn. Northup additionally recounts the rounding-up of hogs from the swamps, hog-killing, preservation, cattle raising, and vegetable gardening. A bit farther on in the narrative, Northup gives an almost equally detailed account of sugar cane production and the form of slave life accompanying it (159–63). [End Page 254]

What is important about the full and complex picture of slave labor is the image it gives of slavery as a single practice taking place amidst a multitude of other practices. The same holistic perspective which refused to see individuals apart from their circumstances similarly refuses to see slavery as a discrete practice. This emphasis further distances Twelve Years from the theological allegory or the rational self-creation models. Neither Uncle Tom’s Cabin nor Douglass’ Narrative pays attention to slave life in relation to slave labor or specific practices of production.

What Northup’s representation of slavery suggests is that it exists as a practice related to, though not explicitly determined by, a network of other practices with which it exists. Such a broad perspective might seem to risk leading to a sort of relativism. After all, viewing slavery as only one part of a complementary set of social relations is virtually the very same defense many white southerners offered for the peculiar institution. This sense of the seeming naturalness of slavery when viewed by the customs and standards of the South went hand in hand with the ridicule they heaped upon the sort of absolutism reflected in higher laws or moral idealism.

But it is precisely in regard to this question that Twelve Years distinguishes itself from run of the mill antislavery writings. The insight in question is not developed fully, but what there is of it suggests a unique strategy for arguing the injustice of slavery. At three different points in the text, Northup asserts that slavers know slavery to be wrong and know the meaning and value of freedom, but only on the last occasion does he explain why he thinks this:

It is a mistaken opinion that prevails in some quarters, that the slave does not understand the term—does not comprehend the idea of freedom. Even on the Bayou Boenf, where I conceive slavery exists in its most abject and cruel form—where it exhibits features altogether unknown in more northern States—the most ignorant of them generally know its full meaning. They understand the privileges and exemptions that belong to it—that it would bestow upon them the fruits of their own labors, and that it would secure to them the enjoyment of domestic happiness. They do not fail to observe the difference between their own condition and the meanest white man’s, and to realize the injustice of the laws which place it in his power not only to appropriate the profits of their industry, but to subject them to unmerited, and unprovoked punishment, without remedy, or the right to exist, or to remonstrate.


Slaves, who were traditionally denied their freedom by virtue of being assigned to a position on the margins or entirely outside the community, demonstrate their membership in society, their contiguity with it, through the very fact that they know what freedom is. Consequently, their knowledge of freedom, precisely because it comes about through their de facto membership in society, proves their right to freedom. The relation of freedom to slavery, an intellectual problem for Douglass, a moral one for Stowe, is here both contingent and determining. Northup uses one undeniable and unavoidable aspect of slavery—its continuity with society—to refute another part of it, its relegation of slaves to a position outside society. 11 [End Page 255]

As this example shows, Northup can make an immanent critique of the peculiar institution because of his grasp of the way in which social practices loosely impinge upon one another. Northup represents social practices as contingent and potentially contradictory, and it is these qualities which make immanent critique possible. 12 This is not a philosophical perspective that reduces all social practices to a master code of, say, economics, and it is, as noted before, decidedly not one that calls the practice into judgment with a transcendent code of reason or religion. His picture of slavery as related to other agricultural and social practices, his destabilizing of those linear, rationalistic systems of space and time which conventionally structure individual lives, his narration of the chaotic, often disrupted, picaresque structure of his bondage instead of the focused, single-minded plot of most other slave lives, are all ultimately aspects of this uncommon perspective on society and slavery. All of these characteristics, which seem at first to undermine the narrative’s ability to offer sustained moral critique, are, in fact, essential to the type of critique it offers.

But abandonment of transcendent principles in moral justification is one thing and actually knowing how to live in a world in which right conduct must be interpreted, moral guidelines created and recreated, is another. Slave narrators who rely upon rational self-initiative and those who construct their experience in religious terms have a consistent basis for moral judgment and, consequently, a basis for a morally consistent identity. But while Twelve Years does have its own method of moral argument, the absence of an unchanging foundation for right action requires a different model for behavior. The fluid nature of experience results in a world in which moral judgment must be made on a case by case basis; the unavailability of absolute standards outside the flux of history means that the ethical life must be constantly recreated or improvised. As William James writes in describing such a pragmatic ethics,

Abstract rules can indeed help; but they help the less in proportion as out intuitions are more piercing, and our vocation is the stronger for the moral life. For every real dilemma is in literal strictness a unique situation; and our exact combination of ideals realized and ideals dissipated which each decision creates is always a universe without precedent, and for which no adequate previous role exists.


Arguably, the awareness of such an open universe is the central fact of Northup’s character. Northup’s identity consists not of his allegiance to a fixed transcendent order but in his creative powers, his ability to search out and even author a new moral stance in each changing situation. Again, comparison with our other two models will help. The characteristic actions in Douglass are reading and writing, specifically learning to represent or express himself. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the characteristic actions are listening and speaking, primarily the chain of evangelization and conversion, in order to turn one’s own life into a sort of representation of Christ’s life. But the action that epitomizes Northup’s relation to the world is not representative at all: his [End Page 256] violin playing. His ability to play triggers the ruse by which he is at first kidnapped and later is the means by which he augments his own value and gains a degree of mobility when he is permitted to play for dances at neighboring plantations. When he is called upon by the slavetrader to play in the slave pen for the other slaves, it foreshadows what is perhaps the best known moment in the narrative, when Northup, as slave overseer, must himself whip another slave. Northup specifically contrasts his compliance with the forbearance Uncle Tom shows in a similar situation:

At Huff Power, when I first came to Epps’, Tom, one of Roberts’ negroes, was driver. He was a burly fellow, and severe in the extreme. After Epps’ removal to Bayou Boeuf, that distinguished honor was conferred upon myself. Up to the time of my departure I had to wear a whip about my neck in the field. 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 to perform the office. In that way, only, I escaped the immediate martyrdom he suffered, and, withal, saved my companions much suffering, as it proved in the end.

. . . ‘Practice makes perfect,’ truly; and during my eight years’ experience as a driver I learned to handle my whip with marvelous dexterity and precision, throwing the lash within a hair’s breadth of the back, the ear, the nose, without, however, touching either of them. If Epps was observed at a distance, or we had reason to apprehend he was sneaking somewhere in the vicinity, I would commence plying the lash vigorously, when, according to arrangement, they would squirm and screech as if in agony, although not one of them had in fact been even grazed. Patsey would take occasion, if he made his appearance presently, to mumble in his hearing some complaints that Platt was lashing them the whole time, and Uncle Abram, with an appearance of honesty peculiar to himself, would declare roundly I had just whipped them worse than General Jackson whipped the enemy at New Orleans.

(172–73) 13

Ultimately, Northup’s heroism, if that is not too grand a word for it, consists of his adaptability, quick wittedness, and ingenuity. Whether trying to foresee the probable outcome of serving as overseer or cooperating with his captors or simply manufacturing ink from white maple bark and pilfering a sheet of paper, Northup exemplifies a practical and creative heroism that acts without the reassurance of foundations.

The open nature of Northup’s representation of experience is the chief cause of Twelve Years’s seeming lack of rhetorical or aesthetic control. The rambling nature of the narrative, which lacks the framing and condensation of classic slave narratives, merely expresses the unusual but deeply reflective perspective Northup brings to his experience of race and slavery. In other words, the very characteristics that have kept Twelve Years from receiving the attention given to better-known narratives are, in fact, signs of its greatest distinction.

Sam Worley

Sam Worley is an assistant professor at Pennsylvania State University. He is currently at work on a study of nineteenth-century white interpreters of African-American culture.


1. William Andrews, on the other hand, finds the second of Douglass’ autobiographies, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), the finest, due largely to its broader scope and greater complexity (218–19).

2. Valerie Smith writes that “the presence of an intermediary renders the majority of the narratives not artistic constructions of personal experience but illustrations of someone else’s view of slavery” (9). James Olney is perhaps the most extreme in his criticism of Northup’s narrative, questioning its status “as autobiography and/or literature,” largely on the grounds of what he sees as Wilson’s intrusive and unhelpful presence (Davis and Gates 163). Olney insists that aside from the “great one by Frederick Douglass,” all slave narratives are too conventionalized and cliché-ridden to be considered seriously as literature (168). Stepto, though less harsh in his judgments overall, similarly dismisses Twelve Years as autobiography: “Northup’s eye and ‘I’ are not so much introspective as they are inquisitive . . . Northup’s tale is neither the history nor a metaphor for the history of his life; and because this is so, his tale cannot be called autobiographical” (Davis and Gates 237).

3. Eakin and Logsdon are similarly persuaded that Wilson was drawn primarily to the story’s “publishing potential” (xiii).

4. Valerie Smith, for example, writes that “the plot of the narrative offers a profound endorsement of the fundamental American plot, the myth of the self-made man. His broad-based indictments notwithstanding, by telling the story of one man’s rise from slavery to the status of esteemed orator, writer, and statesman, he confirms the myth shared by generations of American men that inner resources alone can lead to success” (27).

5. For the effect of the capitalist rationalization of time on slave life, see Genovese 285–94.

6. Stowe, of course, is well aware of the double nature of the slave as the title on one of her chapters suggests: “The Man Who Was a Thing.”

7. Andrews sees Twelve Years as an example of “a new discursive contract” that emerges in post-Uncle Tom narratives in which “the further the new autobiographer placed himself or herself outside the conventions of the standard discourse on slavery, the more truthful this autobiographer claimed to be” (183). Andrews also discusses the relationship of Twelve Years, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Stowe’s A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (181–83). Robert Stepto also discusses the role of Stowe’s novel as an “authenticating document” for Northup’s story (232).

8. I am thinking in particular of the description of the slave trader Theophilus Freeman at the opening of chapter six or the bitterly ironic descriptions of the sadistic Epps in chapter twelve.

9. Only think of the 19th-century board game that came out in an effort to capitalize on the Uncle Tom craze. Players moved their pieces around the board through various hazards in an effort to reunite their slave family. See Gossett (164). This motif of the family providentially reunited recurs throughout post-emancipation fiction as well. Consider the almost comic opera series of improbable recognitions and reunions that occur in the postwar scenes of novels like Harper’s otherwise splendid Iola Leroy.

10. Another interesting reversal of the slave narrative paradigm is that where so many tell of a narrator who discards a false, white-imposed name and engages in a crucial act of self-naming, Northup starts out with a name, has it taken from him, and marks his return to freedom by, in part, reclaiming his original name. On the importance of names and self-naming in the narratives, see Sidonie Smith (19–22).

11. On the various ways in which slaves become aware of the nature of freedom in other narratives, see Foster (116–17).

12. My own understanding of immanent social criticism stems largely from Michael Walzer’s set of lectures published as Interpretation and Social Criticism. Walzer contrasts immanent criticism (which endeavors to interpret or model our existing morality with all its multiple and often contradictory demands) with the path of discovery (the search for and articulation of some sort of transcendent foundation for morality) and the path of invention (the attempt to create a new moral scheme without reference to the pre-existing one). See especially the first of the lectures, “Three Paths in Moral Philosophy” (3–32).

13. Northup’s own ambiguous position in this equation, both as the man who attempts to work the master’s will and, as much as he can, to look out for the well-being of Patsey compares interestingly with Deborah McDowell’s remarks in “Making Frederick Douglass and the Afro-American Narrative Tradition” concerning the sexual bias encoded in most slave narratives’ representations of female slaves being whipped.

Works Cited

Andrews, William L. To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760–1865. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986.
Davis, Charles T., and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., eds. The Slave’s Narrative. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.
Foster, Francis Smith. Witnessing Slavery: The Development of Ante-Bellum Slave Narratives. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1979.
Genovese, Eugene. Roll Jordan Roll: The World the Slaves Made. New York: Random House, 1974.
Gosset, Thomas. Uncle Tom’s Cabin in American Culture. Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1985.
James, William. “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life.” ‘The Will to Believe’ and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy. New York: Dover Books, 1956. 184–215.
McDowell, Deborah. “Making Frederick Douglass and the Afro-American Narrative Tradition.” African-American Autobiography: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. William Andrews. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1993. 36–58.
Northup, Solomon. Twelve Years a Slave. Ed. Sue Eakin and Joseph Logsdon. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1968.
Olney, James, ed. Studies in Autobiography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Smith, Sidonie. Where I’m Bound: Patterns of Slavery and Freedom in Black American Autobiography. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1974.
Smith, Valerie. Self-Discovery and Authority in Afro-American Narrative. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987.
Walzer, Michael. Interpretation and Social Criticism. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987.

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