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Twelve Years a Slave (1853; sub-title: 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), by Solomon Northup as told to David Wilson, is a memoir of a black man who was born free in New York state but kidnapped, sold into slavery and kept in bondage for 12 years in Louisiana before the American Civil War. He provided details of slave markets in Washington, DC, as well as describing at length cotton cultivation on major plantations in Louisiana. Published soon after Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Northup’s book sold 30,000 copies and was considered a bestseller.[1] It went through several editions in the nineteenth century.

Supporting Stowe’s fictional narrative in detail, Northup’s first-hand account of his twelve years of bondage proved another bombshell[peacock term] in the nationalpolitical debate over slavery leading up to the Civil War, drawing endorsements from major Northern newspapers, anti-slavery organizations, and evangelical groups. After several editions in the 19th Century, the book fell into obscurity for nearly 100 years, until it was re-discovered by two Louisiana historians, Dr. Sue Eakin (Louisiana State University at Alexandria) and Dr. Joseph Logsdon (University of New Orleans).[2] In the early 1960’s they researched and retraced Solomon Northup’s journey[3] and co-edited a historically annotated version that was published by LSU Press in 1968. [4] A 2013 film based on the story and directed by Steve McQueen is scheduled for release by Fox Searchlight Pictures on October 18, 2013. Contents [hide]

1 Synopsis
2 Reception and historical value
3 Editions and adaptations
4 References
5 External links
Synopsis[edit]

In Upstate New York, black freeman Solomon Northup, a skilled carpenter and fiddler, is approached by two circus promoters who offer him a brief, high-paying job with their traveling circus. Without informing his wife, who is away at work in the next town, he travels with the strangers towards Washington DC in good spirits. One morning, he wakes to find himself drugged, bound, and in the cell of a slave pen. When Northup asserts his rights as a freeman, he is beaten and warned never again to mention his free life in New York. Transported by ship to New Orleans, Northup and other enslaved blacks contract smallpox and some die. In transit, Northup implores a sympathetic sailor to send a letter to his family.

The letter arrives safely, but, lacking knowledge of his final destination, Northup’s family is unable to effect his rescue. Northup’s first owner is William Ford, a cotton planter on a bayou of the Red River, and he subsequently has several other owners during his twelve-year bondage. At times, his carpentry and other skills mean he is treated relatively well, but he also suffers extreme cruelty. On two occasions, he is attacked by a man who is to become his owner, John Tibeats, and finds himself unable to resist retaliating, for which he suffers great reprisals. Later he is sold to Edwin Epps, a notoriously cruel planter, who gives Northup the role of driver, requiring him to oversee the work of fellow slaves and punish them for undesirable behavior.

Never, in almost 12 years, does he reveal his true history to a single slave or owner. Finally he confides his story in Samuel Bass, a white carpenter from Canada. Bass sends a letter to Northup’s wife, who calls on Henry Northup, a white attorney whose family once held and then freed Solomon Northup’s father. Henry Northup contacts New York state officials and the governor appoints him as an agent to travel to Louisiana and free Solomon Northup. He succeeds, and Solomon Northup leaves the plantation. After instigating a court case against the men who sold him into slavery, Northup is reunited with his family in New York. Reception and historical value[edit]

Northup’s account describes the daily life of slaves at Bayou Boeuf in Louisiana, their diet and living conditions, the relationship between the master and slave, and the means that slave catchers had used to recapture runaways. Northup’s slave narrative has details similar to those of some other authors, such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Ann Jacobs, or William Wells Brown, but he was unique in being kidnapped as a free man and sold into slavery.

His book was a bestseller, rapidly selling 30,000 copies in the years before the American Civil War.[1] After additional printings in the 19th century, the book went out-of-print until 1968,[4] when historians Joseph Logsdon and Sue Eakin restored it to prominence. Dr. Eakin first discovered the story as a child growing up in Louisiana plantation country. Dr. Logsdon’s discovery occurred when a student from an old Louisiana family brought to class a copy of the original 1853 book that had been in her family for over a century.

Together Logsdon and Eakin validated Solomon Northup’s tale by retracing his journey through Bayou Boeuf plantation country in central Louisiana where his bondage took place, through the slave sales records of New Orleans and Washington, D.C., and further documented his New York State origins, his father’s freeman’s decree, and the legal work which restored Northup’s freedom and prosecuted his abductors. In 1968, Eakin and Logsdon’s heavily footnoted edition of the original book was published by Louisiana State University Press, shedding new light on Northup’s story and establishing its historic significance.

That book has been widely used by scholars and in classrooms for over fifty years and is still in print. In 1998 Logsdon received a call from scholars in upstate New York inviting him to participate in a search for Solomon’s grave, however bad weather prevented the search and Logsdon died the following June (1999).

In 2007, Dr. Eakin completed development of an updated and expanded version that includes over 150 pages of new background material, maps, and photographs shortly before her death at age 90. In 2013, e-book and audiobook versions of her final definitive edition were released in her honor. With permission, scholars may use Eakin’s lifetime archives through The Sue Eakin Collection, LSU at Alexandria, La. The Joseph Logsdon Archives are available at the University of New Orleans. Historian Jesse Holland noted in a 2009 interview that he had relied on Northup’s memoir and detailed description of Washington in 1841 to identify the location of some slave markets. Holland has also researched the roles of ethnic African slaves as skilled laborers who helped build some of the important public buildings in Washington, including the Capitol and part of the original Executive Mansion.[5]


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