Dig Baton Rouge

46 Years a Book

Two weeks ago, the New Orleans-shot biopic 12 Years a Slave took home the Oscar for Best Picture.

During his acceptance speech, director Steve McQueen had one particularly interesting statement of acknowledgement:

“Just give me one more minute,” he said, “I’d like to thank this amazing historian, Sue Eakin, whose life, she gave her life to preserving Solomon’s book.”

Based on the verified memoirs of freeman-turned slave Solomon Northup, 12 Years a Slave chose to stand out by actually attempting the factual adaptation.

Derby & Miller published Northup’s original story in 1853. It did fairly well initially, selling nearly 30,000 copies. However, it soon fell by the wayside and into obscurity. Released in the wake of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (1852), Northup’s memoirs found themselves both overshadowed and discredited.

They were too unbelievable, matching up too many common themes and touching on too many anti-slave conventions. It seemed like a series of events placed within the confines of a rigid, anti-slavery structure: viscerally detailing oppression, openly supporting abolitionism, and exploring the identity crisis of a man in bondage. And so “Twelve Years a Slave” was demoted to the class of hearsay and fiction.

So more than a century after its release, there were few who knew of the story and even fewer who believed it. Two of the people who believed were Sue Eakin and Joseph Logsden, and they joint-published their edition of the memoir with LSU Press in 1968. Accompanied by expansive historical annotation, their edition brought the tale back to both prominence and believability.

The historians individually discovered the story, Eakin as a child and Logsdon as a professor. Eakin was ecstatic when she came across the book. As a central Louisiana native, she was excited to be able to read about local places, places she’d been, in a story. She became enamored with Solomon Northup, dedicating her study at LSU Alexandria and then Baton Rouge to proving the accuracy of his tale.

Logsdon was approached with a manuscript of the book while teaching at LSU New Orleans (now University of New Orleans), and began working on it as well. Through LSU Press, they found out that they were both working on the same project; afterwards they began working together, publishing their critical edition as a team and bringing the story back to popularity.

The 1968 edition included significant new details about Northup and the plantation country where he spent most of his time as a slave. The current Director of LSU Press, Mary Katherine Callaway, notes “that these fine historians were deeply committed making Northrup’s memoir accessible for modern readers.”

Eakins and Logsdon’s expansively researched footnotes and historical commentary helped many understand the story, among them John Ridley, the screenwriter of the recent film.

LSU Press is particularly excited. Callaway admits that they are “very proud that we’ve played a part in helping Solomon Northup’s story to be told. It’s an important book.” They’ve recently republished the 1968 edition of “Twelve Years a Slave” as an e-book, with a new forward by historian Karolyn Smardz Frost.

“At the time [we published], many people didn’t even believe the memoir was real, so their work was vital in many ways,” Ms. Callaway explains, speaking of Eakins and Logsdon. “Without them, the film would never have happened.”

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