Before “12 Years a Slave” was a Hollywood movie collecting praise from critics, it was an autobiography that caused a stir when it was first published in 1854.
The book sold thousands of copies, and along with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” made a literary case for abolition.
Before the book’s author, Solomon Northup, became a character played in Hollywood by Chiwetel Ejiofor, he was a free black man who lived in Fort Edward, Kingsbury and Saratoga Springs, raising a family and working as a farmer, a rafter and a musician.
It was that last profession that led to his long, hellish sojourn in the South, because he was performing as a fiddler when he met the men who would tempt him to Washington, D.C., with the promise of more musical work, but who then trapped him and sold him.
Culture and film critic Lewis Beale, writing for CNN, said “12 Years a Slave” is “a movie that Americans need to see, if they are to better understand their country.”
Moviegoers from Warren, Washington and Saratoga counties will have an extra connection to the story, since Northup grew up in the area, worked here, married here and returned here after his ordeal.
Unlike most other escaped slaves who wrote about their time in chains, Northup had lived as a free man, and when he was torn from his home in the north and tricked into slavery, the transformation of his life was sudden and brutal.
Born in Minerva in 1808, he was the son of a former slave, Mintus Northup, who had, as was the custom, taken the last name of his former owners.
Solomon Northup’s family moved to Granville, then Kingsbury, then to a farm on the road from Fort Edward to Argyle.
In 1829, he married Anne Hampton, who lived nearby. They had three children.
The family moved into a house at the southern end of Fort Edward that came to be known as the Fort House, the same house that is now a museum and the home of the Fort Edward Historical Society. The present-day museum includes a permanent exhibit on the Northups.
Northup worked transporting rafts of timber from Lake Champlain to Troy.
“He took rafts of timber down the Hudson River to Troy, to the wood-working mills,” said Fort Edward historian Paul McCarty.
“He made quite a business of it. He was able to get a raft down, sell it, and get back to Fort Edward or Fort Miller by 10 or 11 at night.”
In 1832, the family took up farming in Kingsbury. Northup played the violin at area dances — he called his fiddling “notorious.”
Anne worked as a cook at Eagle Tavern in Sandy Hill and at Sherrill’s Coffee House.
“We always returned home from the performance of these services with money in our pockets; so that, with fiddling, cooking and farming, we soon found ourselves in the possession of abundance, and, in fact, leading a happy and prosperous life,” Northup wrote in his book.
In 1834, the family moved to Saratoga Springs, where Northup and his wife worked at United States Hotel on Broadway.
Northup kept up with his fiddling and, in 1841, when he was 33, two men tricked him into accompanying them to Washington, D.C., where they drugged and sold him.
He awoke in the city’s slave pens, stripped of his identity and headed for life as a slave.
A special narrative
Northup wrote with passion and pain about horrible events he saw and experienced. He was beaten and tortured and was a witness to the rape and spirit-crushing abuse of a woman he befriended.
But what set Northup’s story apart from other slave narratives was his curiousity about things besides slavery — such as the crops southern farmers planted and the tools they used — and his evenhandedness concerning the people he met in the South.
Slavery was an evil institution, but not every plantation owner was a monster, and Northup also wrote about the kindness of white people he encountered, one of whom intervened to save his life.
Northup was an extraordinary observer, according to David Fiske, a writer and researcher from Ballston Spa who has co-written a new book, “Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of ‘Twelve Years a Slave.’ ”
“He either was a prodigy or would rehearse details in his mind,” Fiske said.
Northup was literate, but he would have had difficulty keeping any kind of journal while he was enslaved because showing he could read and write could have put his life in danger, Fiske said.
Nonetheless, in his book, Northup recalled hundreds of details of his long stay in Louisiana, including many people’s names, with great accuracy.
“Other people before me have gone and double-checked names of people he mentions in Louisiana. It really checks out,” Fiske said.
Fiske believes the book made a deep impression on the public in the North because of Northup’s willingness to acknowledge the humanity of the white southerners.
As propaganda, the book works better because of Northup’s seeming lack of bitterness.
“It makes a more effective argument,” Fiske said.
Likewise, when Northup went on speaking tours after he returned, he was praised in newspaper articles for his straightforward style, despite his story’s sensational elements.
Fiske worked on the new book with Clifford Brown, a professor at Union College; and Rachel Seligman, an assistant curator at Tang Museum at Skidmore College.
The authors dug into the historical record and particularly tried to discover what became of Northup later in life.
After the notoreity of his book had faded, Northup’s public speaking opportunities appear to have dried up, and he may have run short on money.
“He wasn’t averse to taking a drink now and then,” Fiske said, “and he had some financial problems. He wasn’t this heroic figure. He was just a regular guy.”
A regular guy who was snatched away from his family and forced to work as a slave in the deep South for 12 years.
But another trait that distinguished Northup, according to the authors of the new biography, is the hope he nurtured, through years of toil and abuse, that he would be rescued.
How that rescue happened, and how Northup helped make it happen, constitute the climax of both the new movie and the 150-year-old book.
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