I admit failure. I’ve never read Solomon Northup’s memoir Twelve Years a Slave. It is not an exaggeration to say this is one of the most important stories of American history. The book was originally unearthed from obscurity and annotated by Dr. Sue Eakin and Joseph Logsdon after being out of print for roughly 100 years. This past year saw a film adaptation that was met with resounding praise, and here I will admit my next failure: I have not watched that either. But my own failures here are now mute, because I have listened to the tremendous unabridged audiobook from Eakin Films & Publishing expertly narrated by Oscar- and Emmy-winning actor Louis Gossett, Jr.
The memoirist in Twelve Years a Slave is Solomon Northup, a learned and free man—freed by birth, having been born in New York, living with his wife and children. He is an exceptional fiddle player and a jovial character in the town. His talents are enjoyed by locals, and when promoters from a circus come to town they offer him a generous amount of money to join their troupe and travel to Washington, D.C., for a special performance. The invite is a twisted ruse. Solomon is drugged and shackled and bound for slavery after being sold at auction in New Orleans. Throughout the narrative he serves a number of different masters, some more barbarous than others, and all the time unable to declare he is a free man to avoid severe punishment.
Solomon delivers a detailed account of his life as a slave, but more specifically it shows his observations of the situations, scenes, and other people surrounding him in this temporary hell. Temporary, here, because we know that he is able, somehow, to bear the constant torment and with the help of a Canadian abolitionist prove that he is indeed a free man. His perspective is what differentiates it from other true-life accounts of slavery in that Solomon is forced into a life to which he is wildly unaccustomed, and so allows the stories of characters he encounters to guide us through a world we can never witness—a world he too is unfamiliar with and equally horrified by.
Louis Gossett, Jr. is consistent in his reading, and his cadence subtlety but effectively changes when reading a scene depicting heartbreak, frustration, horror, and even lightheartedness (as little as there is). For instance, he skillfully narrates a horrific scene in which a female slave at Master Epp’s house, Patsey, is stripped naked, tied down on all fours and savagely flogged. The listener has no choice but to sit with baited breath as Gossett, Jr. delivers these lines: “the most cruel whipping that ever I was doomed to witness—one I can never recall with any other emotion than that of horror—was inflicted on the unfortunate Patsey,” and “Poor Patsey prayed piteously for mercy, but her prayers were vain.” Despite how hard at times it is to listen to the many scenes like this, it is hard to stop listening to the audiobook.
Brew a pot of coffee and take it all in in one sitting, because you are listening to a firsthand account of history. You will forget everything else and become enthralled by this story of a life altered by both extreme cruelty and extreme compassion. You will be angered and invigorated and relieved and challenged. It’s often been said that the memoir “reads like a novel” but it’s an irrelevant notion when you hear this wonderful and unique recording by Louis Gossett, Jr. He escapes seamlessly into Northup’s voice and grants us an ear to what is possibly the closest we could ever get to hearing Solomon Northup recount this incomparable story himself.
Listen to a clip below: