Essay on Slavery in the 19th century: An Analysis of Solomon Northup’s Memoir

Essay on Slavery in the 19th century: An Analysis of Solomon Northup’s Memoir

Your task is to write an 8-10 page essay analyzing Twelve Years a Slave by answering the questions below. The paper is due on Monday, April 22. Be sure to include specific examples from the book to support your argument. When you quote from the book, please cite the page number in parentheses following the quote. Remember, you must give credit for any material you take from a written source, in this case, the memoir itself. DO NOT quote from the editor’s introduction or use any outside material in your essay. The point of the exercise is to analyze Solomon Northup’s life story as he told it.

Because he was born a free man, Solomon Northup was a particularly astute observer of the institution of slavery. He brought an outsider’s objectivity to the narrative of his life as a slave. His memoir, therefore, serves as a rich source of information about slave culture and the relationship between slaves and masters in the southern states. In telling his story, Solomon Northup hoped to call attention to the evils of slavery. He sought to convey the agony of the slaves, while at the same time documenting slavery’s evil effects on slaveholders. To him, everyone touched by the institution risked being destroyed by it.

Throughout his narrative, Northup maintained that there was a great distinction between himself and the slaves with whom he lived and worked. What was the nature of that difference? How were Northup’s sentiments regarding his enslavement different from those of the men and women who had been born into slavery? How were their expectations, hopes and aspirations about their lives different from his?

Northup laid out, in great detail, the rhythm of life for the slaves. What does his narrative reveal about their work, leisure, family and social relationships? What can we learn about gender relations among the slaves? What does Northup describe as the particular oppression of female slaves? How was their condition worse than that of their male counterparts? How did the slaves cope with the cruelty, both physical and psychological, they experienced? What kept most of the slaves from running away or staging some form of rebellion? Northup saw both unity and conflict within the slave population. What divided them? And more importantly what brought them together?

Northup also described the effects of slavery on white southerners. How were they impacted by the institution? How did southerners explain or justify slavery and their treatment of black men and women? Was there any such thing as a good master? Or did all masters bring about negative consequences for their human property in some way or another? Northup was careful to condemn the institution of slavery itself more than the white southerners who supported it. What would prompt him to do so? (Think about the audience he hoped to reach with his book.) In the end, southerners were as anxious as northerners to see that justice was served and that Northup was returned to freedom. They expressed as much concern about the enslavement of a free man as northerners did. Why? How would the institution of slavery be protected by their actions?

Answer each question and give examples from the book.

Just a reminder, DO NOT quote from the editor’s introduction or use any outside material in your essay.

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 The autobiography of Solomon Northup, titled Twelve Years a Slave, is one of the most vivid accounts of the horrors of slavery in the 19th century.

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