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Michel-Guillaume Jean de Crevecoeur’s reputation rests on his first major publication, Letters from an American Farmer (1782), a unified series of narratives and the earliest fiction in American literature to express how America differs culturally from Europe. Its chapter “What Is an American?” has been considered the classic statement of American identity.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
The Frenchmen Travels to North America
Born in Caen, France in 1735, Crevecoeur received his education at the Jesuit college in that Norman city. His father was a respected member of the region’s minor nobility, and his mother was a banker’s daughter with a better education than most women had in her day. Crevecoeur left Normandy when he was nineteen, going first to England to live with distant relatives; then immigrating, at age twenty, to French North America. In Canada, his knowledge of mathematics and draftsmanship enabled him to make his living as a surveyor and cartographer for the colonial militia. He saw service in the wilderness campaigns of the war then being fought in North America between France and Great Britain, and in 1757, was present at the surrender of the fort on Lake George, where he witnessed the slaughter of its disarmed British garrison by Indian allies of the French. In 1758, through the influence of noblemen friendly to his father, he was commissioned a lieutenant in a regiment of the regular army of France. The following year, shortly after the battle at Quebec, an action in which he was wounded, he resigned his commission and left Canada to live in the British colonies.
Living in the British Colonies until the Revolution
During the next decade (between ages twenty five and thirty five), he appears to have traveled through New York, the Ohio region, and Vermont as a surveyor. In 1769, he married Mehitable Tippet, a New York lady from a well-to-do Westchester family, and bought land some thirty miles west of West Point, New York, in Orange County. The American Revolutionary War began six years later, a war fought to end Britain’s control over the North American colonies and to create an independent United States, lasting through 1783. At the outbreak of war, Crevecoeur was the father of a daughter and two sons, an established farmer, and the author of some unpublished manuscripts in English. His attempt to remain neutral during the war caused both the Americans and the British to suspect him of spying, and the British imprisoned him for three months.
Publishing about America while Living in Europe
In September 1780 he left New York for Europe, taking with him his older son, age eight, while his American wife stayed to care for their farm and the two younger children. Seven months after arriving in Great Britain, he sold Letters from an American Parmer to a London publisher and in August 1781 he returned to France, which he had left in 1754. Letters from an American Parmer consists of twelve fictional letters organized into a well-defined beginning, middle, and end of nearly equal lengths. Direct reference to the American Revolution occurs only at the end of the work, which criticizes the war indirectly by dramatizing the culture it interrupted.
In the form this fiction takes, James’s first three letters, the initial part of his narrative about his American life, are supposedly datable from their internal historical references as communications written between the spring and winter of 1775. Far from expressing concern about the battles in Canada and New England that were fought in these months between American and British forces, these letters tell the history of the American farmer and of the peacefulness that have characterized life in America in comparison to Europe’s long history of poverty and strife. He does indicate that slavery and war are present in America as well, though, and thus America is no utopia. During the Revolutionary War period, slavery was well-established in the colonies, both north and south. Plantation slavery, however, would come to be the dominating use of American slaves, with northern states ending slavery in the late eighteenth century.
During Crevecoeur’s two years of asylum in France, while waiting for the end of the revolution in America so he could rejoin his wife and younger children, he became the protege of Madame d’Houdetot and the Marquis de Turgot at the French court. In these years, he wrote Lettres d’un Cultivateur Americain (1784), which is not at all the simple translation of Letters from an American Parmer that its title page and introduction suggest, but a new composition in French, adapting and incorporating the English materials of Crevecoeur’s first book. Lettres d’un Cultivateur Americain is a loose collection of sixty-four letters, sketches, and “anecdotes” (as they are called) instead of a dramatic progression of twelve letters; its time span is eleven instead of three years; and the new recipient of James’s correspondence is an American instead of an Englishman. The main intention in this much longer, less structured account of America is to display a large amount of information rather than to create an emotionally coherent ideological fiction.
Return to America Short-lived
When Crevecoeur returned to America in the autumn of 1783, it was in the important capacity of French consul to New Jersey, Connecticut, and New York. He discovered that his farm, Pine Hill, had been burned during the closing months of the Revolution, that his wife was dead, and that no one knew what had become of his two children (though they were eventually located in Boston). A successful consul, Crevecoeur supervised the first regular packet service between France and America, promoted an exchange of agricultural products and information between the two former wartime allies, and appreciably increased the existing goodwill between them. During these years, he wrote an additional volume for Lettres d’un Cultivateur Americain, enlarging it by half its original length (1787). His active service as consul ended in 1790 with a furlough to France, and he never returned to America. His remaining years were passed almost entirely in France.
In his mid-sixties he wrote and published yet another book about America, Voyage dans la Haute Pensylvanie et dans l’etat de New-York (1801), which pretends to be a translation into French of fragments of an English-language manuscript by S. J. D. C., ”an adopted member of the Oneida Indians.” It describes a trip through the northern and middle parts of the United States in the years following the American Revolution and contains much actual information about postwar economic and political developments in the nascent democracy, word pictures of American landscapes, and depictions of American Indians. This final book of his career is a reaffirmation of belief in America’s promise. It praises Americans for having avoided, in the aftermath of their revolution, ”the bloody fury of anarchy.”
Crevecoeur died twenty-three years after his last residence in America. An American who had crossed the Atlantic with him in 1787 recalled of his character: ”The milk of human kindness circulated in every vein. Mild, unassuming, prompt to serve, slow to censure, extremely intelligent and universally respected and beloved, his society on shipboard could not but be a treasure.”
Works in Literary Context
From The Federalist Papers to the pamphlets of Thomas Paine, the era approaching the Revolutionary War generated much writing about the American identity. As the British colonies considered independence from Great Britain, there was much discussion about the new identity the colonies had developed apart from British rule. Crevecoeur’s work, especially Letters from an American Farmer, considered this new identity and articulated it in a bold and positive way. Its chapter, ”What Is an American?”, has been considered the classic statement of American identity, and Crevecoeur suggests that, uncoerced in America by institutionalized pressures to conform to received beliefs and habits, these former Europeans and their descendants moved about freely, married whom they chose, thought their own thoughts, spoke as they wished, and worshiped as they believed fitting. He concludes, ”Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.”
British writer Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1747) helped make epistolary novels popular in the eighteenth century. The effect of a narrative told through letters is to produce a realistic appearance, creating a believable narrative voice within a recognizable and common form of communication. All of Crevecoeur’s novels are in the eighteenth-century epistolary tradition. His reputation rests on Letters from an American Farmer, a unified series of expository narratives and the earliest fiction in American literature to express how America differs culturally from Europe. Crevecoeur’s narrative exposition of ideas is so skillful that many literary historians and critics have mistaken it for an autobiography.
Works in Critical Context
Like Henry David Thoreau, Crevecoeur published only a few works. But his one book in English, like Thoreau’s Walden, is a classic representation of American faith in the possibility of renewal, though he doubted that mankind could attain a completely new moral life. Also like Thoreau, he rejected wars, political parties, and governments as instruments of human progress. Perhaps because of its pacifist criticism of the American Revolution, Letters from an American Farmer was not republished in the United States until 1904, after its first appearance in 1793. Naturally this circumstance hindered Crevecoeur’s reputation. Recognition of his abilities as a creative writer has also been lacking because his success in projecting a living narrator in Letters from an American Farmer misled too many readers into considering it an autobiography. This mistake was easy to make since in America, he sometimes used the surname St. John, though he was never known to have used James or Hector, the first and the middle names of his fictional American farmer.
Letters from an American Farmer
Critics have re-examined Crevecoeur’s major work in order to illustrate more problematic aspects of American culture that the writer presents. Myra Jehlen, for instance, examines the apparent contradiction between Crevecoeur’s loyalty to America and his opposition to the Revolutionary War. An independent nation would mean less freedom to Crevecoeur, Jehlen writes, ”because he could see in the accommodations of majority rule no advantages but only a loss of freedom for each individual.” James E. Bishop further discusses Crevecoeur’s writing by studying masculinity in Letters From an American Farmer. He states that the work can be viewed ”as a book that reveals the deep ambivalence that American men felt about the burgeoning American nation, about their identities as men, and about the natural environment.” Jeff Osborne focuses on Crevecoeur’s discussions of slavery in his work, and claims that the positive portrait of a new country with new ideas about equality are actually under mined; ”these principles themselves,” Osborne writes, ”are effects of social arrangements built on violence and suffering.”
- Adams, Percy G. Crevecoeur’s Eighteenth-Century Travels in Pennsylvania & New York. Lexington, Ky.: University of Kentucky Press, 1961.
- Emerson, Everett. ”Hector St. John de Crevecoeur and the Promise of America” in Forms and Functions of History in American Literature: Essays in Honor of Ursula Brumm. Berlin: Schmidt, 1981.
- Philbrick, Thomas. St. John Crevecoeur. New York: Twayne, 1970.
- Bishop, James E. ”A feeling farmer: masculinity, nationalism, and nature in Crevecoeur’s Letters.” Early American Literature 43.2 (2008): 361-377.
- Jehlen, Myra. ”J. Hector St. John Crevecoeur: A Monarcho-Anarchist.” American Quarterly 31.2 (1979): 204-222.
- Osborne, Jeff. ”American Antipathy and the Cruelties of Citizenship in Crevecoeur’s Letter From an American Farmer (J. Hector St. John De Crevecoeur).” Early American Literature 42.3 (2007): 529-553.
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