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Robert McNamara

Twelve Years a Slave

By October 19, 2013

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In January 1853 startling news stories appeared in American newspapers about a black New Yorker, Solomon Northup, who had been kidnapped into slavery. After more than a decade in brutal servitude on Louisiana plantations, he managed to write letters seeking help.

After being set free, Northup, with the help of an editor, wrote a memoir that shocked America. His book was titled Twelve Years a Slave: 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.

After more than 300 pages in which Northup described the horrific conditions into which he'd been cast, the book concluded with an appendix of legal documents.

Knowing the story would be met with skepticism, it was believed necessary to include legal papers prepared by the governor of New York as well as the document issued in Louisiana on January 4, 1853 establishing that Northup was in fact a "free citizen" of New York who had been "kidnapped and sold into slavery" and "would be restored to his freedom."

Northup's harrowing tale is the basis for the film "12 Years a Slave," which opened this weekend. David Denby, the critic for The New Yorker, hailed it as "easily the greatest feature film ever made about American slavery." Other reviews have been very positive, including those at the New York Times, Salon, and CBS News.

Reading the reviews of the film is a reminder of book reviews in 1853. Northup's book was compared to Uncle Tom's Cabin, which had been published a year earlier. Twelve Years a Slave sold well, and contributed to public attitudes in the tumultuous decade of the 1850s, when the issue of slavery became central in American life.

More: The Story of Solomon Northup

Illustration: Solomon Northup in a plantation suit, as depicted in his book/courtesy New York Public Library Digital Collections


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