Years a Slave: Cultural History, Propaganda, or Literary Memoir?

2015 Louisiana Studies Conference Presentation Abstract

Twelve Years a Slave: Cultural History, Propaganda, or Literary Memoir?”

Presented by Ginger Jones, Louisiana State University at Alexandria

I propose to discuss the growing realization that the memories of Louisiana historian Sue Eakin, credited with reviving Solomon Northup’s book Twelve Years a Slave, and Solomon Northup himself, have been filtered by early (in the case of Northup) and contemporary (in the case of Eakin) media sources to either enhance or diminish the accomplishments of each.    

The New York Daily Tribune published an excerpt of Twelve Years a Slave in a July 21, 1853 book review that concluded, “No one can contemplate the scenes [described in the excerpt] without a new conviction of the hideousness of the institution from which the subject of the narrative has happily escaped.” A review from the 1854 Syracuse Journal called Northup’s book “one of the most effective books against slavery that was ever written.” I propose that Northup’s book reads more like a literary memoir of his struggle to return home than an autobiography calculated to discredit slavery. 

In its March 7, 2014 edition, the New Yorker magazine claimed that “[Sue Eakin] wrote her master’s thesis on Twelve Years a Slave, and, in 1968, published the first modern edition.” 

Sue Eakin, who earned two master’s degrees, never mentions Solomon Northup or his book in either thesis, nor does she mention him in her dissertation. She is listed as co-editor of Northup’s book, but complains bitterly in her private papers about how her work is not integrated in the text (as is her co-editor’s), but footnoted. Historians have sometimes dismissed those footnotes, but I propose they are invaluable, not only in helping prove the accuracy of Northup’s memoir, but in creating a memoir of late nineteenth and early twentieth century families who lived on Louisiana’s Bayou Boeuf.