- Three Weeks on a Cotton Plantation
In the fall of 1849, The Springfield Daily Republican published “Three Weeks on a Cotton Plantation” by Josiah Gilbert Holland, who had recently returned from the American South, where he was teaching, writing, and forming opinions about Southerners and their ways. These essays, which were published anonymously, have never before been collected and reprinted. A native of Massachusetts, Holland had earned his medical degree in Pittsfield in 1843 but his ambition lay elsewhere, in literary work. When his short-lived newspaper The Bay State Weekly Courier failed in 1847, the cash-strapped Holland began teaching in the South, first in a private school in Richmond, Virginia, and then in Vicksburg, Mississippi, where he was in charge of the public schools. In the winter of 1848, he was joined by his wife Elizabeth, who assisted him in teaching.1 That autumn, Holland accepted an invitation to visit one of the largest cotton plantations in northeast Louisiana during the harvest season. Although Elizabeth is not mentioned in this seven-part, semi-fictionalized travelogue, she is likely to have accompanied him on the trip.
Emily Dickinson did not know either Josiah or Elizabeth during their Southern sojourn or while “Three Weeks” was being serialized in The Republican, but J. G., who was destined for national fame as a prolific writer and powerful editor, received an honorary Master’s degree from Amherst College in 1851; Dickinson’s father Edward would have met him then. Emily Dickinson certainly knew Holland by reputation when he came to Amherst on a hot, dusty day in June 1853 to celebrate the opening of the railroad. (She observed the public ceremony [End Page 72] from a secluded spot in a neighbor’s woods [L127].) A month later, both Hollands dropped in unexpectedly at the Dickinsons’ spacious house on West Street, where they had “Champagne for dinner, and a very fine time” (L132). In September, Emily and her sister Lavinia visited them and, as Alfred Habegger states, this visit when “the sisters spent a night at their Springfield home . . . [was] Emily’s only known trip to a new friend who wasn’t a relative. That she and Vinnie returned a year later for a longer stay tells us a major new stimulus had entered the poet’s life, initiating one of her closest, longest-lasting, and least understood friendships” (308).
The sketches begin with the narrator’s atmospheric voyage up the “broad Mississippi” to an obscure steamboat landing, where he is greeted by “a half dozen of negroes, three or four children of the family to which [he] was a visitor, and various other movable and immovable things, dimly discernable in the darkness, and the shifting light of the torch.” His plan is to become acquainted with the Southern mind and to observe Southern plantation life and slavery under “its fairest aspects.”2
On the short journey from the steamboat landing to the plantation house, our visitor learns that “Brother Johnny is very sick, and the Doctor says he is going to die.” There follow scenes of sentimental distress that anticipate the death of little Eva in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Solemnly, the white family and their slaves join in shared grief at the loss of the child “who had evidently been a favorite.” The tone changes once the funeral is over, when the narrator and his host engage in recreational hunting. This comic outlet diverts the bereaved father and provides the narrator with an opportunity to observe the manners and morals of the neighborhood. Overall, the narrator feels out of place as a sportsman and finds little to admire in the drunken and slovenly people. The tone changes again when, toward the end of his stay, he interviews his host and hostess, who amplify his knowledge of the Southern mind. Both master and mistress deplore slavery “under its fairest aspects” and long to live in the North, not least so that their children will have better moral and cultural opportunities.
The series ends abruptly. Some months later, the narrator receives a letter from a mutual acquaintance informing him that the...