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Letters from Alabama

Chiefly Relating to Natural History

Philip Henry Gosse, F.R.S., edited by Gary R. Mullen and Taylor D. Littleton

Publication Year: 2013

This new and improved edition of Letters from Alabama offers a valuable window into pioneer Alabama and the landscape and life-forms encountered by early settlers of the state.

Philip Henry Gosse (1810–1888), a British naturalist, left home at age seventeen and made his way to Alabama in 1838. He was employed by Judge Reuben Saffold and other planters near Pleasant Hill in Dallas County as a teacher for about a dozen of their children, but his principal interest was natural history. Letters from Alabama is a personalized record of Gosse’s perceptive observations during his eight-month residence in this small antebellum community. The work addresses a Victorian readership, including entomologists, who Gosse believed were relatively uninformed about the novelty and beauty of this “hilly region of the State of Alabama.” Written in an engaging literary style and organized as a series of epistolary discussions, the book is unparalleled in its detailed evocations of the natural history and cultural conditions of frontier Alabama. By the time Letters from Alabama appeared in 1859, Gosse’s scientific publications and fine illustrations had led to his being elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London.

Edited by Gary R. Mullen and Taylor D. Littleton, this authoritative edition features thirty grayscale lithographs shot directly from the 1859 edition, reset type for easier reading, a new introduction and index by the two foremost scholars of Gosse in Alabama, a new appendix that provides modern scientific and common names for the plant and animal species described by Gosse, and a four-color cover featuring one of the plates from Gosse’s Entomologia Alabamensis.

Published by: The University of Alabama Press

Series: Library Alabama Classics


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-5


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pp. v-7

List of Illustrations

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-13

We wish to thank the following individuals for their taxonomic assistance in determining the identity and current scientific names of the plants and animal species that Gosse mentions in...

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pp. 1-16

Letters from Alabama provides an engaging personal account of the early antebellum plantation period in the Black Belt region of central Alabama by the young Englishman Philip Henry Gosse (1810–1888). It was 1838, just nine years after Alabama...

Original Title Page

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pp. 17-31

Table of Contents

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pp. 19-23

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pp. 25-39

The following pages contain records of impressions made upon my mind during a residence of seven or eight months in the hilly region of the State of Alabama. It is a part of the United States visited by comparatively few Europeans; and those who have ever...

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Letter I

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pp. 27-42

Your desire to have some information of the country in which the good providence of God has for the present allotted my residence, shall be gratified so far as my opportunities of observation will admit. I shall communicate it more readily, because from the very hasty...

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Letter II

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pp. 43-54

There is no solitude like that which is felt by him who for the first time walks the streets of a busy city in which he is a total stranger. Crowds of human beings pass by, each possessed of the thoughts, feelings, and affections of a man; yet not one stretches...

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Letter III

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pp. 55-72

You are aware that my intention in coming south was to open a school. Schools here generally are not private enterprises, as in the old country, but the ordinary mode of procedure is as follows. Some half-dozen planters of influence meet and agree to have their children educated...

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Letter IV

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pp. 73-94

A few nights ago, after all in the house had long retired to rest, not feeling disposed for sleep, I was sitting at an open window. We usually sleep with every window wide open, there being latticed blinds or shutters to prevent the intrusion of bats...

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Letter V

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pp. 95-117

I am just returned from a pleasant ride to Cahawba; it was solitary indeed, but not the less pleasant for that. Human society that is not congenial is a greater bore than a total want of it; but nature is always congenial, and always conversible. The first part of the way...

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Letter VI

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pp. 118-128

You must not expect from me anything like a continuous narrative. “Story! why, bless you, I have none to tell, Sir!” My observations are slight and disjointed; peeps through Nature’s keyhole at her recondite mysteries;—“passages in the life of...

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Letter VII

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pp. 129-146

You ask me whether the farms here are similar to such as you are familiar with. There are some peculiarities about them, and as all are laid out pretty nearly upon the same plan, a description of one will serve, with a little variation, for all. Of course the houses...

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Letter VIII

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pp. 147-156

I have just been assisting (at least, so far as looking on) at a very interesting operation,— the taking of a wild bee’s nest. The incident is, I am told, one of frequent occurrence, the honey-bees often sending forth a colony at swarming time, which seek...

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Letter IX

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pp. 157-168

Peaches are now ripe; and beneath our sunny skies they acquire a luscious flavour that no wall can impart in a colder climate. So highly is this fruit esteemed, that every farm has large tracts planted with it, as orchards, to one of which the slaves have liberty...

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Letter X

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pp. 169-177

There is a plant now abundantly in blossom, which grows in neglected fields and such-like places, in company with the Zinnia, covering, like it, large patches of ground with a dense mass of vegetation, two or three feet high. It is...

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Letter XI

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pp. 178-194

I was out last night ’Possum-hunting, and snatch an early hour this morning to describe to you the important affair, amusing enough, certainly, if not very profitable. For several days past, the “niggers,” on bringing in the daily...

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Letter XII

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pp. 195-198

The manners of these Southerners differ a good deal from those of their more calculating compatriots, the Yankees of the north and east. In many respects the diversity is to the advantage of the former; there is a bold gallant bearing, a frank free...

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Letter XIII

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pp. 199-205

A few evenings since I accompanied the overseer for a mile or two through a neighbouring swamp. His object was to get a little sport, in the way of hunting racoons, opossums, wild cats, or any other game that might occur; mine, rather to see the interior...

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Letter XIV

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pp. 206-213

The unhealthy season is now considered over. Fevers and agues are always prevalent in September, probably induced by the miasmata arising from decaying vegetation in the equinoctial rains; but they do not usually extend into this month. The autumn...

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Letter XV

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pp. 214-219

The grand occupation of autumn is cotton picking. It commenced in early fields more than a month ago, is now far advanced, and by the end of this month will be pretty nearly over. I have already spoken of the beauty of the cotton-plant when in full...

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Letter XVI

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pp. 220-225

My communications now become fewer and more remote, for the aspects of nature are less varied than in summer; this is the period of old age and death with many plants and animals; and where life endures, its vigour is devoted rather to the perfecting...

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Letter XVII

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pp. 226-227

How slight a thing will touch the chords of sympathy! The smallest object, the faintest note, will sometimes awaken association with some distant scene or bygone time, and conjure up in a moment, all unexpected, a magic circle, which unlocks all the secret springs...

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Letter XVIII

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pp. 228-230

We have nothing like winter yet. The weather resembles what you have in Canada in September; the trees have lost their gay autumnal tints, and have put on a sober russet hue, but in general they still wear their foliage. The seedlings are still fresh...

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Letter XIX

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pp. 231-233

I ate my Christmas dinner on board the steamer, on my voyage down the Alabama river, partaking of a turkey that would be considered something remarkable in Leadenhall Market. It weighed eighteen pounds when trussed for the spit...

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Appendix: Taxonomic Lists of the Plants and Animals Mentioned by P. H. Gosse in Letters from Alabama (1859)

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pp. 235-268

The following six tables provide taxonomic lists of 392 of the 408 plants and animals mentioned by Gosse in...


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pp. 269-295

Back Cover

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p. 309-309

E-ISBN-13: 9780817386474
Print-ISBN-13: 9780817357351

Page Count: 312
Publication Year: 2013

Edition: Second Edition
Series Title: Library Alabama Classics