Solomon Northup: Farmer

I read Solomon Northrup’s personal account of slaverylong enough ago that I decided to pick it up again in light of having seen the movie. It’s hard not to be impressed with how close the movie actually follows the narrative, but specific choices made by director Steve McQueen stand out. Consider this passage from very early in the book:

With the return of spring, Anne and myself conceived the project of taking a farm in the neighborhood. I had been accustomed from earliest youth to agricultural labors, and it was an occupation congenial to my tastes. I accordingly entered into arrangements for a part of the old Alden farm, on which my father formerly resided. With one cow, one swine, a yoke of fine oxen I had lately purchased of Lewis Brown, in Hartford, and other personal property and effects, we proceeded to our new home in Kingsbury. That year I planted twenty-five acres of corn, sowed large fields of oats, and commenced farming upon as large a scale as my utmost means would permit. Anne was diligent about the house affairs, while I toiled laboriously in the field. (p. 9)

Those of you who’ve seen the movie already know that McQueen chose to begin his story with the Northrup family already established in Saratoga Springs, New York. Solomon is shown well dressed and walking in a park with an individual that he is unable to identify in his narrative, when he is approached by two strangers who were ultimately responsible for his kidnapping and enslavement. Northrup’s life prior to this is ignored entirely.

There are any number of reasons as to why the director might have left this earliest phase of the book out, but it is hard to deny that having done so impacts our perception of Northrup. We see him as a refined, talented and prosperous free black man, who apparently interacted with the elite white community of his community. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this picture, though I do question whether the movie’s depiction of Northrup at this stage distorts the reality of life for most free blacks in Saratoga Springs and New York generally. I think I know the answer to this question.

Even if we grant the accuracy of the movie’s depiction of Solomon it might be helpful to consider how audiences might have responded if he was shown ‘toiling laboriously in the field.’ Would it muddy the sharp contrast of life before and after his visit to Washington, D.C.? Might audiences have less sympathy for a former hard working farmer (as opposed to a refined musician) who finds himself enslaved on a Southern plantation in Louisiana?

What do you think?

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13 thoughts on “Solomon Northup: Farmer

  1. Pat Young

    As a dramatic choice, the director chose well. He needs to get Northrup to the park in Saratoga as quickly as possible for the action to start. I’m not sure that showing Northrup as a yoeman farmer before he moved to town would have diminished the contrast. I do think that the film depicts him as more prosperous than he likely was. Saratoga was playground for the rich with sophisticated pleasures ranging from music and art to gambling and well-stocked brothels. Northrup had to work a variety of jobs to make ends meet and his wife worked as well, taking them out of the top rung of social and economic life in the Upstate spa town.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Good points. One of the very minor points that I forgot about and that I don’t believe was referenced in the movie is the fact that Solomon never notified his wife that he was leaving town. He fully expected to return before his wife returned from a neighboring town, where she was employed.

      Reply
      1. Pat Young

        It’s actually not a minor point. Because he did not give her a precis of his plans, his disappearance was unexplained to her until she got word through the letter he posted in New Orleans. This is why he was 12 years a slave instead of 12 days.

        The fact that she was working beyond the control of her husband and sleeping away from home is another indicator of belonging to a lower class.

        Reply
  2. Ben Allen

    “Even if we grant the accuracy of the movie’s depiction of Solomon it might be helpful to consider how audiences might have responded if he was shown ‘toiling laboriously in the field.’ Would it muddy the sharp contrast of life before and after his visit to Washington, D.C.?” No; not for me, at least. To Northrup, farming “was an occupation congenial to my tastes.” He was doing something he wanted to do, in contrast to literally slaving away on a Louisianan plantation. Besides, in an era before McDonald’s, Mario, Judd Apatow, and Facebook, most people in the United States exerted their bodies frequently.

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    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      Besides, in an era before McDonald’s, Mario, Judd Apatow, and Facebook, most people in the United States exerted their bodies frequently.

      Of course. It’s a point I remind my students of over and over. I am interested primarily in the visual impact of such a scene on the overall experience of the movie.

      Reply
      1. Mike Musick

        Just a tidbit to add: a couple of decades ago, when I first read the wonderfully edited LSU Press version of the book and became interested in SN, I noted the unusual spelling of his surname (no second “r” in Northup). This helped me to find out that his son served in the USCT, and has a pension file.

        Reply
      2. Ben Allen

        Portraying his farming endeavors might make Northup’s enslavement elicit less of an emotional response from someone who is more connected to his or her emotions, but such a depiction wouldn’t detract from its immorality. However, I must emphasize that adding this part of Northup’s life could possibly prove inconsequential to the movie’s pathos.

        Reply
  3. Bryan Cheeseboro

    Hi Kevin,
    There’s been some questions about the historical accuracy of how the film depicts Northrup’s interactions with White people in Saratoga Springs and Washington City- socializing with them in the park; eating at the same table with them in a restaurant; etc. Some have wondered if the scenes are accurate or a bit overblown in making it look like he was welcomed without any racism. Do you know anything about how accurate the movie was? I know there was not really any structured segregation (like the first half of the 20th century) but do you know what life would have been like for a free Black man in these places in the 1840s?

    Reply

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