Summary and Analysis
Now begins the last, worst, and longest phase of Solomon Northup’s odyssey as a slave. He is taken to Edwin Epps’ plantation nearby on Bayou Huff Power. At first he is pleased to be freed of Tibeats’ erratic cruelty, but Epps proves to be an even worse human being than Tibeats. Northup describes his new master as “portly,” “repulsive,” and a drunk who enjoys whipping his slaves “just for the pleasure of hearing them screech and scream.”
After this introduction to Edwin Epps, Northup digresses into a detailed description of the day-to-day duties on Epps’ cotton plantation, along with descriptions of agricultural labors, slave living conditions, and even commentary on gardens and growing flowers. Most important, though, is his introduction in this chapter to the slave girl, Patsey (“the most remarkable cotton picker on Bayou Boeuf”). She will play a large role in the rest of Solomon Northup’s story.
At first glance, Northup’s digression into the minutiae of southern agriculture, geography, and flora and fauna seems a mostly irrelevant distraction. However boring this chapter may be, though, it serves a vital purpose in both the overall story of this slave account and in the historical context from which it derives.
At the time of the writing, Northup’s intimate knowledge of common agricultural practices and slave conditions was resounding proof that what he wrote was true. This demonstration of knowledge of southern practices and geography lent great legitimacy to the Northerner’s assertions overall. Again, it was a means of providing credibility in the eyes of his contemporaries. How else could he have known these kinds of specific details but that he had been there, just as he said, in the circumstances just as he related them? His thorough description of Edwin Epps—in appearance, manners, and background—also added to the credibility of his story. Epps had never been to the North, so how would Northup know these details? Because he had been to the South, under the cruel sovereignty of Epps.
Perhaps just as important for us today is the historical record of daily life on a southern plantation that Northup relates in this chapter. More than 150 years later, Northup’s recitation of the mundane facts of life in Epps’ service preserves details of a period in American history that might otherwise have been lost. For example, because of this chapter, modern historians know how cotton was planted and harvested in the antebellum South, how corn was grown and used, the living conditions of a typical slave hut, and more. In that context, the value of Northup’s digression as an historical record is priceless.