Before I sing the praises one of the most obscure books in the monumental stack of American nature writing since the 1780s, I should explain how Letters from Alabama came to stand out. Before I appreciated the strangeness of this book, I had read and loved my own personal Linnaean-taxa of literary science writers. These included:
(1) Scientist-essayists, such as Stephen Jay Gould and Oliver Sacks. They were terrific translators of complex ideas, strong storytellers, as well as writers genuinely interested in the vastness and strangeness of the human experience.
(2) The scientist turned novelist. Alan Lightman’s “Einstein’s Dreams” (1992) and Jenna Levin’s “Madman Dreams of a Turing Machine” (2006) were both deeply innovative literary works. Two trained scientists, the first a physicist and the second a theoretical cosmologist, brought all the tools of the fiction writer and an abiding interest in consciousness to the question of creative discovery. Both books imagined the circumstances, the inner lives of geniuses, that led to breakthroughs in our understanding of the world.
(3) The writer as naturalist and explorer. William Bartram’s Travels begins this uniquely American theme of the individual exploring a wilderness. I don’t think this concept’s importance to American letters can be overstated. The journey to a frontier as a means of personal and scientific investigation has been the backbone for a great deal of our best loved literature.
Bartrams’ evocations of the North America wilderness, as imagined from across the ocean, represented the Garden of Eden, unspoiled, unnamed. His work inspired Coleridge’s famous fragment Kubla Khan and the romantic poets, Wordsworth and Chateaubriand. In the poets’ minds Bartram conjured the idea of the new world as a Garden of Eden, a paradise where man does not yet know remorse. Some naturalists-explorers of his time believed this as a literal component of faith; Others used it as a literary reference their audience surely recognized. Regardless, the Biblical metaphor was inescapable: these men explored the American wilderness to put a name to what they observed (the same power God granted Adam). And they took their journeys of discovery during a time when the quest to reach unexplored realms of the Earth (to their way of thinking) allowed the European superpowers to stamp much of the world as their intellectual conquest.
These concepts moved through the nineteenth-century Transcendentalists; they girded the twentieth-century conservation movement. They appeared in the great nonfiction works of Edward Abbey, John McPhee, Peter Matthieson, Annie Dillard, and many others. Recently, Richard Power set his 2006 novel, “The Echo Maker,” in a landscape of conservation concern as the drama between characters (a sister nurses her brother through a traumatic head injury, only to find he imagines her to be an imposter, a condition called Capgras syndrome). The book explores cognitive brain science: the unexplored territory is the mind itself. The naturalist-explorer tradition is still exuberant and fascinating, even into the twenty-first century.
What I find so interesting about the original science writers, the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century naturalists, is that their work offers not only an early record of the United States in formation, but of the world of science, as we understand it today, as it comes into being.
While most readers understand the extent to which Darwin’s ideas on evolution were ground breaking, fewer know how unsettling the discovery of a fossil record in geology were to scientists and their conception of the Earth’s creation. One naturalist—Philip Henry Gosse—would be caught, and caught out, at this crossroad.
Gosse wrote an infamous book, Omphalos: Untieing the Geological Knot, which attempted to reconcile the fossil record with his own literal, Biblical interpretation of the world. It explained away the fossil record by asserting that all existence is circular; God could choose to insert his creation anywhere within that circle; and that creation would bear the marks of the circle’s iterative turns. i.e. a human’s intestines would be full of digesting food, a hippopotamus’s teeth would be worn down from use. Jorge Luis Borges, who was fascinated by the “monstrous elegance” of his theory, best summarized Gosse’s logic: “There are skeletons of glyptodonts in the gorge of Luján, but there have never been glyptodonts.” Gosse’s son, Edmund, wrote famously about this book, its failure, and its repercussions for his father’s career in his memoir, “Father and Son.” Stephen Jay Gould examined Gosse’s theory more fully to explain what makes an idea a scientific one: “Omphalos is the classical example of an utter untestable notion.”
However, the book that Gosse published the year following his Omphalos failure, was Letters from Alabama. It is almost unknown and used mainly by a handful of conservation ecologist attempting to restore the extant ecosystems of Alabama’s rural Black Belt. For me, however, Letters from Alabama is remarkable for its cultural expansiveness.
Philip Henry Gosse left Britain for Nova Scotia in his teens and apprenticed as a clerk, but took up the study of natural history and taught himself through avid collecting, draftsmanship, and reading. He left Canada, having failed at farming, for the US as the American frontier was Alabama and geologists were traveling there to study its Cretaceous-era fossils. (They would find the large vertebrae of an early whale species being used as a foundation for early settlers’ shacks). Gosse spent a year in Dallas County, near Selma, in 1838, and twenty-one years later, published a book a book based on his experiences as a teacher and explorer.
While it’s now impossible not to recognize the civil rights icon, Selma, very little written record describes it and its surroundings prior to 1950. What does exist does so to justify slavery—“Happy and prosperous were the Cahabaians in those old days, with their slaves, their gardens,” for example.
For all the reverent, “To God be the Glory”-type writing that characterized American nature writing, no one—up until Letters from Alabama—really said anything about our original sin. Oak leaf hydrangeas, yes. Night herons. Frog songs. But human behavior, no. We stand outside the boundary of perception, beyond critique.
Letters from Alabama differs in remarkable ways. First, Gosse no sooner steps off his boat on the Alabama River before he sees slaves ploughing a field. “It was revolting to me to observe women engaged in this laborious occupation.” In the next sentence, he remarks that the women are given extra whippings and less food than the men. And then, he drops this narrative. “Perhaps you will say that I am not yet competent to speak on this subject:—perhaps I am not, therefore I defer it till a longer residence here has given me opportunities of a more mature observation.” But he’s already hinted at a deeper knowledge of the institution and the book’s moral arc.
“To return, then, to the wild and the free:” he writes next, wishing he had arrived earlier in the spring, which would have aligned more closely with his imagined Garden of Eden.
Gosse, in his extensive naming of living things, provides one of the very few descriptions of Black Belt prairie, an extant ecosystem that has been almost entirely uprooted.
“There are in this neighborhood many prairies,—not the boundless prairies of the West, resembling an ocean solidified and changed to land, but little ones, varying in extent from an acre to a square mile. They are generally so well defined, that the words environ them on every side like an abrupt wall, and one can hardly be persuaded that these prairies are not learnings made with the axe of a settler.”
The book also expands its reach to the people living there. He notes accents—in a passage that endears me because I grew up, 140 years later in the same county and in a family that had been in Dallas County since Gosse’s time, hearing the same expressions—“To ‘holler,’” Gosse writes, “is used to express any sort of noise as well as shouting; a carpenter-bee was buzzing the other day, and one of the children remarked ‘how the bee hollers in his hole!’” (My father will end a conversation by saying, “I’ll holler at you later.”) Gosse is always even-keeled, clear-eyed, fascinated by everything and everyone. He’s never mocking.
More importantly, Gosse returns to his theme of slavery. Amid the lovely observations and lyric language, he calls out the rumors he has heard: “Instruments of torture, devised with diabolical ingenuity, are said to be used by planters of the highest standing, for the punishment of refractory negroes; devices which I dare not describe by letter.” He writes of hearing cries in the night as people are flogged. He described the manhunts for escaped slaves.
“In spite of the beauty and grandeur of the country, the lucrative remuneration which a person of education receives for his talents and time, and the rich and almost virgin field for the pursuit of natural history (no small temptation for me), —I feel slavery alone to be so enormous an evil, that I could not live here: I am already hastening to be gone.”
While Gosse’s faith inhibited his ability to accept evolution and made him an odd footnote in science, his moral compass gave his pen a perceptive will. Letters from Alabama stands as the last and best description of a landscape—the Black Belt of Alabama as its original ecosystem was overturned by cotton—on the verge of complete physical and social upheaval.
Borges, Jorge Luis, and Eliot Weinberger. Selected Non-Fictions. New York: Viking, 1999.
Gosse, Philip Henry. Letters from Alabama, (U.S.): Chiefly Relating to Natural History. Annotated ed. The Library of Alabama Classics. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1993.
Gould, Stephen Jay. The Flamingo’s Smile: Reflections in Natural History. New York: Norton, 1987.
Thwaite, Ann. Glimpses of the Wonderful: The Life of Philip Henry Gosse, 1810-1888. London: Faber and Faber, 2002.
Comments from other contributors to the Poetics of Science online discussion:
L. Shapley Bassen: Magnificent! If the Poetics of Science conversation renders nothing but this one . . . what a gift! Thanks so much for this lucid essay and introduction to Gosse’s Letters from Alabama. I will so be sharing this info!
L. Shapley Bassen: Just saw a notice from Harper Collins in Australia—good title . . . curious about: “The Atomic Weight of Love is a luminous and enthralling story of birds and science, ambition and sacrifice, revolutions—both big and small—and the late-blooming of an unforgettable woman.”