Summary and Analysis
Solomon Northup begins 12 Years a Slave by clearly stating his goal in writing: “My object is to give a candid and truthful statement of facts: to repeat the story of my life, without exaggeration…”
Northup then tells of his family history. Solomon’s father, Mintus, served the white Northup family in New York until he was emancipated upon the death of his master. Solomon was born free to Mintus in July 1808, in Minerva, New York. He grew up working as a farmer alongside his father until Mintus died in 1829. Soon after, Solomon married Anne Hampton, eventually setting up home in Saratoga Springs, New York. Anne established herself as a cook; Solomon labored in various industries and became known as a fine violin player. They started a family, and Northup set about living a life filled with “nothing but the common hopes, and loves, and labors of an obscure colored man, making his humble progress in the world.”
The slave narrative in the 1800s was always more than just an autobiography. It served as a political lobbying tool intended to sway public opinion against the practice of slavery and toward the abolitionist agenda. In order to do that, it was absolutely necessary for any slave narrative to establish empathy and be credible. Chapter I of Solomon Northup’s story addresses both these necessities from the beginning.
Northup establishes an empathetic connection with his readers right away by sharing tender recollections of his family, his father, his education, his marriage, and his children. His memories evoke warm, relatable mental images that anyone can identify with and that make him “real” for readers. For example, he describes his children by saying, “Their young voices were music in our ears…Their presence was my delight.” Through these kinds of memories, he becomes an “everyman” all can relate to, someone through whom we can view the slave’s experience through intimate eyes.
Like David Wilson in the preface, Northup also takes great pains to establish the believability of his story, which is to come. He does this with a rush of verifiable details. For instance, he identifies his first home with Anne in great specificity: “The old yellow building then standing at the southern extremity of Ford Edward village.” He names exact places where he worked and visited (Champlain Canal; Lake Champlain; Montreal, Canada) and lists the names and ranks of the men he worked for (“William Van Nortwick was superintendent…”). He gives specific dates associated with his activities (“during the winter of 1831-32” and so on). By including these otherwise mundane facts, Northup makes it possible for anyone to verify whether or not he is telling the truth—and thereby establishes credibility that he hopes will extend to the rest of his story.