It is no slam on Steve McQueen’s masterful film adaptation of “12 Years a Slave” to say that the best thing about the movie is that it has reinvigorated interest in Solomon Northup’s book, first published in 1854, the year after the author’s rescue from a cotton plantation near the Red River, in Louisiana.
A number of fine audiobook adaptations have been released this year, with narrators of such distinction as Louis Gossett, Jr., Tommie Earl Jenkins, William Butler, and Peter Jay Fernandez. To my taste, the best of these is the Audio GO edition narrated by the Ghanian-born British stage actor Hugh Quarshie, a member of the Royal Shakespeare company who delivers Northup’s words in a conversational and fittingly American diction.
The book is tonally different from the movie. There is a 19th century stateliness to Northup’s prose, a flat polite understatedness that contributes to its power and authority. Take, for example, the first paragraph, which tells the whole story of the book and makes the big promises the way so many first paragraphs from Charles Dickens and John Irving might:
Having been born a freeman, and for more than thirty years enjoyed the blessings of liberty in a free State—and having at the end of that time been kidnapped and sold into Slavery, where I remained, until happily rescued in the month of January, 1853, after a bondage of twelve years—it has been suggested that an account of my life and fortunes would not be uninteresting to the public.
What follows is the kind of history that ought more often be assigned as reading in schools—not the abstractions of the high school history textbook, where lives are reduced to summaries of movements and accomplishments, facts to remember—but instead the ground-level report from a person who lived through the day-to-day, the moment-by-moment. It is one thing to say that the United States once enslaved millions of people. It is another to read Northup on the subject of his beating in the slave pen, where he was allowed “blankets, such as are used upon horses,” only after two men stood over him with the cat’o’ninetails, “a large rope of many strands . . . a knot tied at the extremity of each,” and the paddle, “a piece of hard-word board, eighteen or twenty inches long, moulded to the shaped of an old-fashioned pudding stick, or ordinary oar,” and how the “flattened portion, which was about the size in circumference of two open hands, was bored with a small auger in numerous places.”
To Northup, these weren’t objects in a museum. They were devices of torture and coercion that were inflicted on his body, in an effort to break him. Northup writes:
As soon as these formidable whips appeared, I was seized by both of them, and roughly divested of my clothing. My feet, as has been stated, were fastened to the floor. Drawing me over the bench, face downwards, Radburn placed his heavy foot upon the fetters, between my wrists, holding them painfully to the floor. With the paddle, Burch commenced beating me. Blow after blow was inflicted upon my naked body. When his unrelenting arm grew tired, he stopped and asked if I still insisted I was a free man. I did insist upon it, and then the blows were renewed, faster and more energetically, if possible, than before. When again tired, he would repeat the same question, and receiving the same answer, continue his cruel labor. All his brutal blows could not force from my lips the foul lie that I was a slave. Casting madly on the floor the handle of the broken paddle, he seized the rope.
After the film version of “12 Years a Slave” was released, some critics argued that its lingering depiction of these varieties of violence were gratuitous, that they somehow fed an unseemly prurience that was beneath the talents of the actors. But multi-generational memory distorts, and it is the job of literature, of art, of history, to restore our attention to the concrete, ground-level realities that attend to the uglinesses that misused power can perpetrate. “12 Years a Slave” stands as a precursor to 20th century works such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s “The Gulag Archipelago” or Elie Wiesel’s “Night,” which disturb us primarily because they don’t allow our remembering to become too abstracted from the daily lives of real flesh-and-blood human beings not terribly unlike ourselves except for their intersection with societies that had somehow come to the conclusion that some people were more human than others. I was going to say the monstrous conclusion, but what’s more discomfiting—a thing these works teach us—is that it’s not monsters, it’s not devils, it’s not anything more than ordinary human beings who do the inflicting, who avoid the courage of resisting, who choose out of expediency to believe the lie the culture tells itself about who is in and who is out.
We don’t need to hear this news now any less than we ever have, because if history teaches us anything, it is that atrocity is never as far away as we might think, and that those who inflict it will likely as not believe themselves to be on the side of what is good and just and right. We must be vigilant.