English Literature Professor Lara Cohen Urges Focus on 12 Years a Slave Narrative's Musical Score

Lara Cohen

Lara Cohen considers the score not as a separate token of the book but as a text that poses questions in its own right about the place of music in Solomon Northup’s life, during and after his enslavement.

Associate Professor of English Literature Lara Cohen has earned a national award for an essay sparked by conversations in her Honors seminar.

Cohen received the 2017 Darwin T. Turner Award for the year’s best essay in African American Review, for her look at Solomon Northup's 1853 narrative Twelve Years a Slave.

“I was surprised and so thrilled,” says Cohen, “especially because it grew out of a discussion in my [Early American Media Cultures] seminar.”

Cohen had students read Twelve Years a Slave after the film adaptation came out to show them how multimedia the text was from the beginning. The book has illustrations and a musical score at the end, Cohen says, and Northup soon adapted it for the stage.

But seminar discussions “kept circling back to the score,” Cohen says, a setting of a song called “Roaring River.” Northup depicted enslaved people singing the song, on a plantation at which he himself had been enslaved, in one of the most wrenching scenes in the book.

“We were all thrown by how Northup could pivot so quickly from emphasizing the terrible contradictions of enslaved people's music, which was at once a source of solace for him and weaponized by his owner, to presenting an example for the home entertainment of a largely white readership,” says Cohen.

In her essay, “Solomon Northup’s Singing Book,” Cohen argues Northup is asking questions in the song “the narrative itself cannot answer about how to love the music he made in slavery.”

Also difficult to reconcile, she found, was the score itself.

“After staring at it for a long time, I realized something wasn't quite right; it's not playable,” says Cohen, adding that the music and lyrics don’t match up. “And if you go back to the narrative, the music comes from one part of a scene and the lyrics come from another.”

Cohen’s essay tries to consider the score not as a separate token of the book but as a text that poses questions in its own right about the place of music in Northup’s life — during and after his enslavement. She also argues that the score “re-sounds several different musical scenes in the narrative.”

“Bringing them together, Northup both instantiates the agonizing contradictions of music under slavery and indicates collective musical practices of enslaved people that remain out of our hearing and, perhaps even once he escapes, out of his own,” she says.

Cohen, who joined Swarthmore's faculty in 2013, focuses her teaching and research on early American literature. She received the 2017-2018 Frederick Burkhardt Residential Fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies, which allowed her to spend a year at the University of Pennsylvania completing her current book project, Before Subculture: Nineteenth-Century Genealogies of the Underground. Cohen is also the author of The Fabrication of American Literature: Fraudulence and Antebellum Print Culture (2012) and co-editor of Early African American Print Culture (2012).

Cohen’s essay is available to members of the College community through the Libraries’ digital subscription to African American Review.