Hundreds, perhaps thousands of books were published in Auburn between 1815 and 1900. Some of them were obscure religious tracts with limited sales. Others sold moderately well for their times, and are now mainly forgotten. But several books published here became influential arbiters of social and or political thought and had a real influence on the history of the 19th century.
From the 1740s to 1865, approximately sixty-five autobiographical slave narratives were published in book or pamphlet form. These narratives were of great help in humanizing the plight of enslaved people in the public’s minds and greatly advanced the cause of the abolition movement. Two of the most influential slave narratives were published in Auburn.
TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE:
Narrative of Solomon Northup
by Solomon Northup
as told to David Wilson
Auburn: Derby & Miller, 1853
Solomon Northup was born in Minerva, NY in 1808, the son of a former slave who had been freed by the will of his owner. He lived in Saratoga Springs, where he made a good living as a carpenter and a violinist. In 1841, he was lured out of town by two white men with the promise of high wages for a music job. He expected to be back in upstate New York after a few days but was instead drugged and sold into slavery, waking up one morning, groggy and sick, in a slave pen. Northup was transported further south, and spent the next twelve years as a slave in Louisiana.
When William Seward was Governor of New York, he signed a law related to the recovery of free black New Yorkers who had been kidnapped into slavery. When Solomon Northup convinced a sympathetic white carpenter to send letters to his family, it was that law that enabled Henry Northup, a member of the white family who had once owned Solomon’s father, to rescue him.
Finally back in New York, Solomon Northup told his story to David Wilson, a white lawyer. Twelve Years a Slave was published in Auburn in 1853 by Derby and Miller. It sold more than 30,000 copies its first year, became an international best-seller, and achieved a remarkable degree of success as an abolitionist indictment against slavery. Northup, who managed to recall incredible detail of his years in bondage and relate them without bitterness, became a frequent public speaker.
Coupled with Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, published in 1845, and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852, readers could now gain some insight into what the South’s peculiar institution was really like.
My Bondage and My Freedom, published in Auburn in 1855, was Frederick Douglass’ second autobiography. Douglass had escaped from slavery, or as he said he stole himself, in 1838.
Douglass’ first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, was published by the Anti-Slavery Office in Boston in 1845. It captured the public imagination and sold thousands of copies. Douglass wrote his second autobiography in 1855. It added details to many of the events recounted in his first autobiography, and added both prefaces and appendixes that placed Douglass, and his work, in the larger abolition movement. Together with his other autobiographies, Douglass’ life story created one of the strongest influences in the slave narrative literary genre. His powerful message, making clear the dehumanizing evil of slavery and his inspirational belief that people have the power to shape their own destiny, struck a chord with readers throughout the world. Douglass believed that positive changes have cumulative effect and individual transformation would positively benefit society as a whole.
He concluded My Bondage and My Freedom with a revised mission statement: “to promote the moral, social, religious, and intellectual elevation of the free colored people . . . to advocate the great and primary work of the universal and unconditional emancipation of my entire race.”
Frederick Douglass was the most influential black leader of his age. He travelled extensively, speaking on the evils of slavery and the abilities of his race. On several visits to Auburn, he stayed in the home of David and Martha Wright because there was not a hotel in town that would accept a black guest. He did refuse one invitation to stay at Martha Wright’s home when her husband was away.