The book was published in 1853 and according to Documenting the American South, the book “sold over thirty thousand copies. It is therefore not only one of the longest North American slave narratives, but also one of the best-selling.”
The University Library of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill sponsors Documenting the American South which has several resources that are helpful to read before or after you read the book. Not only is the entire text of the book with illustrations online (worth viewing the illustrations if your version didn’t include them), there is also an article from the New York Times in 1853 that preceded the publication of the book. The New York Times article offers a synopsis of Northrup’s kidnapping and years in slavery and an account of the legal proceedings against Burch.
Northrup’s Account of Slavery as an Institution
Voice of the Author
Perspective of Slavery from the Inside
“His perspective was thus an extraordinary one, experiencing the institution of slavery at once from within and without: enduring its horrors firsthand, yet also as an educated man who had been accepted, even celebrated, among white society in the North.”
When he met slaves at the United States Hotel in New York he described them as “well dressed and well provided for, leading apparently an easy life, with but few of its ordinary troubles to perplex them.” And then went on to say, “Almost uniformly I found they cherished a secret desire for liberty.”
Beginning of chapter V Northrup wrote, “Let not those who have never been placed in like circumstances, judge me harshly until they have been chained and beaten.”
Near the end of Chapter IX he wrote, “I could only gaze wistfully towards the North, and think of the thousands of miles that stretched between me and the soil of freedom, over which a black freeman may not pass.”
Details of Plantation Life
“They sucked themselves beneath the skin. It was impossible to brush or beat them off. It seemed, indeed, as if they would devour us — carry us away piecemeal, in their small tormenting mouths.” Chapter XI.
At Christmas supper, “The ivory teeth, contrasting with their black complexions, exhibit two long, white streaks the whole extent of the table.” Chapter XV.
Lack of Expletives
At Goodin’s slave pen, Goodin says, “New York! H—l! What have you been doing up there?”
Tibeats, “G-d d-n you! I thought you knowed something!”
After The Story
“There are a few convincing theories on Northup’s final years. One is that Northup “died destitute, far from family and friends, perhaps under tragic circumstances,” the historians write. There is evidence he could have even “given up, resorted to drink, or sunk below the surface.”
Popularity of the Book
Why do you think Twelve Years a Slave fell into obscurity and The Diary of a Young Girl has become a staple of middle and high school English and History classes?
You can purchase Twelve Years a Slave online at Hugo Bookstores.