A 9.22 Michael Cieply N.Y. Times article (in the 9.23 print edition) quotes two U.S. history scholars who question whether Solomon Northup actually wrote “12 Years A Slave“, the 1853 novel that is the basis for Steve McQueen‘s highly acclaimed film and more particularly John Ridley‘s script. Chiwetel Ejiofore plays Northrup, a free New York State citizen and family man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery and remained in that realm from 1841 through 1853.
If Cieply’s story had been published in, say, late November or December, it would be seen in some quarters as a typical award-season hitjob on a leading Best Picture contender. But appearing as it is now, a good two months before the Oscar race will begin to heat up, it seems like a fair-enough examination of certain historical anecdotes and particulars. The article isn’t really a hitjob as much as a “hmmm”-job.
Cieply’s two sources, historians James Olney and African-American academic Robert Burns Stepto, note that “a dedication page added to ‘Twelve Years a Slave’ — which devoted the book to Harriet Beecher Stowe, and called it ‘another key’ to her novel, ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ — helped blur the line between literal and literary truth. ‘The dedication, like the pervasive style, calls into serious question the status of ‘Twelve Years a Slave’ as autobiography and/or literature,” Olney tells Cieply.
In Olney’s essay, called “I Was Born: Slave Narratives, Their Status as Autobiography and as Literature,” it is claimed that Northup’s real voice “was usurped by David Wilson, the white ‘amanuensis’ (i.e., “a person employed to write or type what another dictates or to copy what has been written by another“) to whom he dictated his tale, and who gave the book a preface in the same florid style that informs the memoir,” Cieply writes. “We may think it pretty fine writing and awfully literary, but the fine writer is clearly David Wilson rather than Solomon Northup,’ Olney declares.