Brow Beat

The Tricky Questions Raised by a Complicated Genre: The Slave Narrative

12 Years a Slave is based on an 1853 book by Solomon Northup, which was co-written by a white man named David Wilson.

Photo by Francois Duhamel – © 2013 - Fox Searchlight Pictures

In her New York Times review of 12 Years a Slave, Manohla Dargis praises director Steve McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley for defying Hollywood’s dishonest approach to slavery: “It may be the [movie] that finally makes it impossible for American cinema to continue to sell the ugly lies it’s been hawking for more than a century,” she writes.

Whether or not Dargis proves correct, McQueen’s film is, in at least one respect, a genuine Hollywood landmark: It is the first major feature film to stem from an actual slave’s own account of his experience. This lends the movie a particular force, but also raises tricky questions. Due in part to the frequent participation of abolitionists, academics have long disagreed about the veracity of such first-person stories. What’s more, the particular narrative that McQueen chose to adapt, written by Solomon Northup (with David Wilson) and published in 1853, is, in some ways, a highly unusual entry in the genre—and it poses particular difficulties and complications. For all these reasons, it is worth considering the new movie in the context of this major literary genre.

Northup’s 1853 book, Twelve Years a Slave—originally subtitled Narrative of Solomon Northup, a citizen of New-York, kidnapped in Washington city in 1841, and rescued in 1853, from a cotton plantation near the Red River in Louisiana—is one of hundreds of such narratives written by former slaves and published throughout the 19th century. According to Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (a credited consultant on the film version and editor of a recent edition of the book), 101 narratives appeared between 1750 and 1865. Following the Civil War, the number of autobiographies increased. A handful of these have received the bulk of the attention, and most of these were written by the subjects themselves. (One notable exception: The Confessions of Nat Turner, the 1831 account of Turner’s own words published by a lawyer.) Typically they were written in cooperation with an abolitionist.

The first widely-read narrative, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, appeared in 1789, and was written by a black Englishman. The first book-length narrative by an American fugitive slave was The Life of William Grimes: The Runaway Slave, published in 1825. Grimes’ master traced him to Connecticut, where Grimes had married and started a family, and demanded that he pay him $500 or return to the South as his slave. Grimes wrote the book to raise the money he needed to get free—and, as the scholar William Andrews pointed out to me, Grimes’ storytelling approach was unflinchingly raw. Consider the book’s final image:

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.

Such stridency was not uncommon in slave narratives. Harriet Jacobs, whose Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is one of the few accounts by a woman, condemned the “enormous lies” slave masters told their slaves regarding the conditions of free blacks in the South, and most stories confronted the sexual relationships masters had with their slaves. (As Gates notes, Jacobs was more explicit in her detailing of such matters than others; she eventually took a white man, Samuel Sawyer, as her lover.*) The details of the daily abuse of slaves were made startlingly clear by autobiographers. In a scene that closely resembles McQueen’s direction in the film version, Northup wrote of the horrific beating of a slaved named Patsey, saying that she was “literally flayed. The lash was wet with blood, which flowed down her sides and dropped upon the ground.”

The intended audience for the slave narrative was, undoubtedly, abolitionists (and potential abolitionists). Most slaves were unable to read or write, and the books wouldn’t have circulated in the South except, perhaps, via underground booksellers. Many of the books were published by anti-slavery societies—both Douglass’ 1845 biography and William Wells Brown’s two years later were published by The Anti-slavery office in Boston—looking to “touch people’s hearts,” as the historian Stephanie Camp explained to me.

This unabashed urgency to appeal to abolitionist sympathies has led some within the academic world to question the validity of these autobiographies, including Northup’s, which was co-written by a man named David Wilson. As the New York Times reported recently, the scholar James Olney has described the “fine writing” in Northup’s story as the fruits of Wilson’s labor. But other scholars, while acknowledging that some events may have been dramatized for effect, find slave narratives to be reasonably reliable documents of the period. Camp, for instance, does not believe that slave narratives are any less accurate than other historical sources. If “you read [slaveholders’ records] extensively,” she says, “they bear out what” narratives from the period show about the cruelty and violence of the peculiar institution.

With few exceptions, McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley hew closely to the details of their source material. But Solmon Northup’s book both echoes and departs from the slave narrative genre in important ways. His is one of the very few published accounts of a man born free and kidnapped into slavery; the majority of the narratives came from those who lived as slaves all their lives, and finally managed to escape. And one might suspect that this key difference is one of the reasons Northup’s narrative is the first to become a major feature film. Northup’s life was extraordinary, and having a narrative that begins with freedom makes it so that “readers can more powerfully understand the construct of liberty when you see how easily it can be taken away,” as scholar Elizabeth Alexander put it to me.

This may also be a factor in how well received the film has thus far been. And it seems to have helped make the book popular when it was first published as well: Twelve Years a Slave sold 27,000 copies in the first two years after publication, significantly more than William Wells Brown and Frederick Douglass sold of their first books in that same amount of time—combined.

Thanks to Henry Louis Gates, Jr. of Harvard University, William Andrews of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Stephanie Camp at the University of Washington, and Elizabeth Alexander at Yale University.

Correction, Oct. 20, 2013: This post originally misstated that Harriet Jacobs married Samuel Sawyer.