Michel Guillaume Jean de Crèvecoeur

Michel Guillaume Jean de Crèvecoeur Essay - Critical Essays

Crèvecoeur, Michel Guillaume Jean de

Introduction

Michel Guillaume Jean de Crèvecoeur 1735-1813

(Wrote under the name J. Hector St. John) French-born American fiction writer and novelist.

Michel Guillaume Jean de Crèvecoeur was a naturalized American citizen whose observations on life in pre-Revolutionary America are still read today. His most famous work, Letters from an American Farmer (1782), was instrumental in differentiating the life and culture of the American colonies from that of Europe, and in helping to establish an American literary tradition out of common cultural experience where none was believed to exist. He is credited with formulating the idea of America as a melting pot where “individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men.” One of the book's individual letters, “What Is an American?,” has long been considered a classic articulation of the character and identity of the members of that new nation.

Biographical Information

Crèvecoeur was born in Caen, France, in 1735 to Guillaume Jean de Crèvecoeur, a minor member of the Norman nobility, and Marie-Anne-Thérèse Blouet, the daughter of a banker. He was educated at the local Jesuit college, and at the age of nineteen left France, first for England and then for Canada, where he served the French colonial militia as a surveyor and cartographer. In 1758 he was commissioned as a lieutenant in the regular army of France and was wounded in the battle for Quebec the following year. He resigned his commission and left Canada for the British colonies to the south, again working as a surveyor while traveling through New York, Vermont, and the Ohio region. He was naturalized in New York as a British subject and changed his name to J. Hector St. John. In 1769, Crèvecoeur married Mehitable Tippet, the daughter of a prosperous Westchester family, and purchased a farm near the Hudson River in Orange County, New York. Within the next six years, the couple had three children, two boys and a girl. During this time, Crèvecoeur worked his farm and began writing, in English, producing but not publishing Letters from an American Farmer.

Although he was not sympathetic to the cause of the American Revolution, Crèvecoeur tried to remain neutral. As a result, neither side trusted him and he was imprisoned by the British for three months, after which he left for London in a British ship with his eldest son. His wife and remaining children were left in charge of the farm. While in England, he sold Letters From an American Farmer to a publisher and returned in 1781 to his native France, where he resumed his French citizenship. While there, he published Lettres d'un Cultivateur Américain (1784), an adaptation and expansion of his earlier work.

Crèvecoeur returned to New York in 1783 as French Consul to New Jersey, Connecticut, and New York and worked to promote trade and goodwill between France and the United States. During his absence, his wife had died and his beloved farmhouse in New York had been destroyed in an Indian raid. His children, originally believed dead, were eventually found in Boston. Crèvecoeur returned to France in 1790 and lived there for the remaining twenty-three years of his life, never again visiting his adopted country. He died at Sarcelles in 1813.

Major Works

Crèvecoeur's most famous work, Letters from an American Farmer occupies a unique place in American literary history. The work consists of twelve letters written by James Hector St. John, an American-born farmer of English descent. The recipient of these letters is an English gentleman, F. B., who is interested in learning more about American life and provides Farmer James with topics for the letters. The worldly and sophisticated F. B. is contrasted with Farmer James, a self-described “tabula rasa,” (blank slate) who admits his lack of education and experience. The first three letters detail life on an American farm and contrast the opportunities abounding in the colonies as opposed to the limited options available to a poor man in Europe. The third letter, “What Is an American?,” offers a statement of national identity for this new breed of man who has shed the vestiges of European feudalism and embraced the principles of agrarian democracy. This individual letter has been extensively anthologized and is considered such a definitive description of the American national character that it was included in the onboard reading material for passengers on American Airlines in the 1970s.

The middle five letters detail life on Nantucket Island and although the idyllic picture of agrarian life Farmer James favored in New York could not be applied to the rocky, barren soil of Nantucket, the letters are still optimistic. The inhabitants of Nantucket were whalers, and by extending the farming metaphor to the ocean, James suggests that even in this seemingly inhospitable region, men unfettered by restrictive government could attain an earthly paradise.

In Letter IX, the narrator leaves Nantucket for the South, and the tone of the work changes abruptly. It describes “a melancholy scene” in Charleston, South Carolina, where Farmer James discovers a slave suspended in a cage and left to die as punishment for having killed the overseer of his master's plantation. Farmer James, a slaveholder himself, expounds on the evils of slavery, but insists that his slaves are not part of the same system: “They enjoy as much liberty as their masters, they are as well clad and as well fed; in health and sickness they are tenderly taken care of; they live under the same roof and are, truly speaking, a part of our families.” In the remaining letters, Farmer James's disillusionment grows as the horrors of revolution threaten his Eden, and he makes plans to flee his farm for the wilderness, an area he once denounced as savage and chaotic.

After his return to France, Crèvecoeur published Lettres d'un Cultivateur Américain, which is not a translation of the earlier publication, but a new composition written in French, drawing on the materials of Letters From an American Farmer, but consisting of sixty-four letters, rather than twelve as in the original. In 1800, again back in France, Crèvecoeur began writing Voyage dans la Haute Pennsylvanie et dans l'État de New York, which was published the following year. Sketches of Eighteenth-Century America went unpublished until 1925, two years after the manuscript was discovered in Normandy. It consists of several letters and sketches, many of which were considered too hostile to the American Revolution and too Loyalist to the British to be included in Letters from an American Farmer. One such sketch, “The American Belisarius,” describes the persecution of a virtuous Loyalist by his pro-Revolutionary neighbors; it is balanced, though, by the portion of “Susquehanna” that was published in Sketches as “The Wyoming Massacre,” an account of the massacre of a Patriot community by British troops.

Critical Reception

Of Crèvecoeur's writings, Letters from an American Farmer has attracted the largest share of critical attention, and debate on the work has centered on its appropriate classification and on the general tone of its author's assessment of American life. The book, published in London, gained immediate popularity there; among its admirers were Thomas Paine and William Godwin, as well as the more radical figures of Romanticism. At that time, the work was only moderately popular in America. Until the latter half of the twentieth century, the majority of critics concentrated on Letter III and thus believed the work to be optimistic, even utopian in its evaluation of life in America. In recent years, criticism has shifted considerably to assess Letters as a whole, as well as within the context of Crèvecoeur's other writing, particularly Sketches of Eighteenth Century America. These critics, among them James C. Mohr, see Crèvecoeur's work as far more sophisticated and subtle than originally believed.

Crèvecoeur's work has been the subject of extended critical debate regarding the genre within which it should be classified. Much early criticism took these letters as autobiographical, considering the author and his narrator to be one and the same. This led to charges of inauthenticity as critics focused on exposing the fact that the author/narrator was not the grandson of immigrants from England at all, but was, in fact, born in France; that he was not a naive farmer, but an educated, sophisticated gentleman. Recent criticism has treated the work as fiction and eliminated the confusion between J. Hector St. John and his fictional persona, Farmer James. In form Letters from an American Farmer draws on the eighteenth-century epistolary tradition, and its individual letters read like essays on the series of topics suggested by the fictional recipient of the correspondence. However, some critics classify it as a romance, while still others claim that the work anticipates the nineteenth-century novel, insisting that the letters are unified by the narrator's progression from optimism to disillusionment.

The disillusionment that characterizes the ending of Letters from an American Farmer, as well as the far more pessimistic view of American life presented in Sketches of Eighteenth Century America have led many twentieth-century scholars to focus on these apparent ambiguities in Crèvecoeur's work. Some critics insist that Crèvecoeur genuinely believed that the American colonies could provide a testing ground for Enlightenment ideals, and that his optimism and subsequent disappointment were, therefore, genuine. Others believe that the author was being ironic in the early descriptions of an idyllic agrarian democracy, and that the expressions of disillusionment that followed convey the true tone of the work. Mary E. Rucker suggests that Letters is actually a dialectic on Enlightenment principles between the optimistic Farmer James and the pessimistic Crèvecoeur.

Other ambiguities explored by scholars include the work's treatment of slavery where Farmer James denounces the institution in the South at the same time he endorses it in his home region. Pierre Aubéry has explored the element of racism that runs through Letters, and which is inconsistent with the idealized American identity that Crèvecoeur was seeking to establish. Myra Jehlen has concentrated on the apparent contradiction between Crèvecoeur's admiration for America and his opposition to the American Revolution. Stephen Carl Arch suggests that the true purpose of Letters was to expose the dangers of revolution in general, while David M. Larson believes that Crèvecoeur's sentimental descriptions of the war's effect on settlers was a contrast to the usual abstract Revolutionary War rhetoric which stressed political considerations over personal hardships. For Larson, Crèvecoeur's version counters the “bloodless sanitized version of the conflict which forms the stuff of popular legend.”

Principal Works

Letters from an American Farmer: Describing Certain Provincial Situations, Manners, and Customs, Not Generally Known; and Conveying Some Idea of the Late and Present Interior Circumstances of the British Colonies of North America. Written for the Information of a Friend in England, by J. Hector St. John, A Farmer in Pennsylvania (fictional letters) 1782

Lettres d'un Cultivateur Américain, Écrites à W. S., Ecuyer, depuis l'année 1770, jusqu'à 1781, Traduites de l'anglois par *** 2 volumes (fictional letters) 1784

Voyage dans la Haute Pennsylvanie et dans l'État de New York, Par un Membre Adoptif de la Nation Onéida. Traduit et publié par l'auteur des Lettres...

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Criticism

Elayne Antler Rapping (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: “Theory and Experience in Crèvecoeur's America,” in American Quarterly, Vol. 19, No. 4, Winter, 1967, pp. 707-18.

[In the following essay, Rapping discusses Crèvecoeur's belief that the newly settled land of America offered an opportunity to test the principles of the Enlightenment.]

We often read that American literature developed late because we lacked a common cultural past, and meaningful conventions and symbols for describing our shared experience. But as early as 1782, with his Letters from an American Farmer, J. Hector St. Jean de Crèvecoeur discovered and made literary use of a very real imaginative past shared by Americans. For...

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James C. Mohr (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: “Calculated Disillusionment: Crèvecoeur's Letters Reconsidered,” in South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 69, No. 3, Summer, 1970, pp. 354-63.

[In the following essay, Mohr claims that the usual reading of Letters from an American Farmer is an oversimplification, and that Crèvecoeur's vision of America was far more subtle and complex than most critics allow.]

In the study of the American culture J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur is certainly best known as the man who first posed the now famous question, “What then is the American, this new man?” Few questions are more often discussed, more often used as the introduction for a lecture, or more...

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Marcus Cunliffe (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: “Crèvecoeur Revisited,” in Journal of American Studies, Vol. 9, No. 2, 1975, pp. 129-44.

[In the following essay, Cunliffe explores the contrasting tone and content of Crèvecoeur's two major publications about America: Letters from an American Farmer and Sketches of Eighteenth-Century America. The first is optimistic and patriotic; the second is pessimistic and critical.]

I

Almost every twentieth-century discussion of American history, literature, culture or character makes reference to J. Hector St John de Crèvecoeur's Letters from an American Farmer, a book first published in 1782. Anthologies usually find...

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Joel R. Kehler (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: “Crèvecoeur's Farmer James: A Reappraisal,” in Essays in Literature, Vol. 3, No. 2, Fall, 1976, pp. 206-13.

[In the following essay, Kehler takes issue with some twentieth-century critics who suggest that Crèvecoeur's Farmer James is merely a straw man for demonstrating the inadequacies of Enlightenment principles.]

Recent criticism of Letters from an American Farmer has focused more and more closely on the gradual psychological dissolution of St. John de Crèvecoeur's paradigmatic New World Man, Farmer James, seeing in it a case study in the souring of the American Dream. The concomitant trend has been to characterize James's observations in the...

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Harold Kulungian (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: “The Aestheticism of Crèvecoeur's American Farmer,” in Early American Literature, Vol. 12, No. 2, Fall, 1977, pp. 197-201.

[In the following essay, Kulungian examines Farmer James's aesthetic sensibilities, which are based solely on sentiment, in an effort to better understand Crèvecoeur's Letters from an American Farmer.]

The colonial writer famous for first formulating the “melting-pot” interpretation of America, St. John de Crèvecoeur, was, like many sons of the European Enlightenment, a many-sided man. In his famous Letters from an American Farmer (1782) he evinces his aptitude for “speculative inquiries” such as history, economics,...

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Pierre Aubéry (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: “St. John de Crèvecoeur: a Case History in Literary Anglomania,” in French Review, Vol. 51, No. 4, March, 1978, pp. 565-76.

[In the following essay, Aubéry examines the way in which Crèvecoeur sought to establish an idealized American identity even as his work appeared to justify the undercurrent of racism existing in America at the time.]

Michel-Guillaume-Jean de Crèvecœur, born in Caen on 31 January 1735, was a prolific writer. Under the pen-name of J. Hector St. John he published his Letters from an American Farmer,1 which later became Lettres d'un cultivateur américain,2 his own adaptation from his original...

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Mary E. Rucker (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: “Crèvecoeur's Letters and Enlightenment Doctrine,” in Early American Literature, Vol. 13, No. 2, Fall, 1978, pp. 193-212.

[In the following essay, Rucker analyzes Letters from an American Farmer as a dialectic between the rational and pessimistic Crèvecoeur and his emotional and optimistic narrative persona, Farmer James.]

The laudation of British North America offered in the first eight sketches of Letters from an American Farmer is predicated upon several Enlightenment concepts: the ideal value of an agrarian democracy located midway between unhandseled nature and civilization; the validity of an economic system based on the pursuit...

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David M. Larson (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: “Sentimental Aesthetics and the American Revolution: Crèvecoeur's War Sketches,” in Eighteenth-Century Life, Vol. 5, No. 2, Winter, 1978, pp. 1-12.

[In the following essay, Larson argues that Crèvecoeur applied the conventions of the European sentimental novel to the uniquely American experiences of colonialism and revolution, with uneven and often unsatisfying results.]

After spending decades trying to identify wholly original, indigenous characteristics of American literature, critics finally seem willing to acknowledge the impact of English and European literary movements upon our literature. With the abandonment of literary isolationism,...

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Myra Jehlen (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: “J. Hector St. John Crèvecoeur: A Monarcho-Anarchist in Revolutionary America,” in American Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 2, Summer, 1979, pp. 204-22.

[In the following essay, Jehlen analyzes the apparent contradiction between Crèvecoeur's admiration for America and his opposition to the American Revolution.]

The author of Letters from an American Farmer boasted that in America “we have no princes, for whom we toil, starve and bleed: we are the most perfect society now existing in the world.”1 But he opposed the American Revolution and remained loyal to the English crown, though his French origin alone should have made him its opponent....

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Robert P. Winston (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: “‘Strange Order of Things!’: The Journey to Chaos in Letters from an American Farmer,” in Early American Literature, Vol. 19, No. 3, Winter, 1984, pp. 249-67.

[In the following essay, Winston analyzes Letters as a romance, suggesting that such an analysis helps explain the apparent contradiction between the early optimistic letters and the pessimistic letters that appear at the end of the work.]

When Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur first published Letters from an American Farmer in England in 1782, an advertisement described the letters as “the genuine production of the American farmer whose name they bear. They were privately...

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John Hales (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: “The Landscape of Tragedy: Crèvecoeur's ‘Susquehanna,’” in Early American Literature, Vol. 20, No. 1, Spring, 1985, pp. 39-63.

[In the following essay, Hales discusses “Susquehanna,” a portion of which appeared in Sketches of Eighteenth-Century America, and which describes the destruction of Wyoming, a community in central Pennsylvania.]

The last chapters of Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur's Letters from an American Farmer are characterized by what Moses Coit Tyler called a “note of pain” that, by Letter 12, “rises into something like a wail” (2:356). The rural bliss described in the first letters has been shattered by the...

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David M. Robinson (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: “Community and Utopia in Crèvecoeur's Sketches,” in American Literature, Vol. 62, No. 1, March, 1990, pp. 17-31.

[In the following essay, Robinson examines Sketches of Eighteenth-Century America as a text that illuminates some of the contradictions often cited in Letters from an American Farmer.]

I

By the end of the eighteenth century, Leo Marx tells us, the idea that “the American continent may be the site of a new golden age could be taken seriously in politics.”1 Crèvecoeur's Letters from an American Farmer is perhaps the best articulation of this utopian impulse, embodying in its third...

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Stephen Carl Arch (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: “The ‘Progressive Steps’ of the Narrator in Crèvecoeur's Letters from an American Farmer,” in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 18, No. 2, Autumn, 1990, pp. 145-58.

[In the following essay, Arch challenges the common critical assessment of Letters as an American romance, suggesting instead that it is a work of fiction designed to expose the dangers of revolution.]

Throughout J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur's Letters From An American Farmer, James, the narrator, is interested in the concept of “progress,” especially the “progressive” acculturation of Europeans who have immigrated to America. “All I wish to delineate,”...

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Norman S. Grabo (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: “Crèvecoeur's American: Beginning the World Anew,” in William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 48, No. 2, April, 1991, pp. 159-72.

[In the following essay, Grabo suggests that Letters, taken as a whole, not only celebrates America's seemingly endless possibilities, but also expresses the disillusionment accompanying the failure of those possibilities to be realized.]

In 1779, Mr. James Hector St. John—a French-born New York farmer of loyalist sympathies, but suspected of being a Revolutionary spy—lay sick, hungry, impoverished, and terrified in the New York City prison. Born in Caen, Normandy, in 1735, the forty-four-year-old St. John found himself...

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Nathaniel Philbrick (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: “The Nantucket Sequence in Crèvecoeur's Letters from an American Farmer,” in New England Quarterly, Vol. 64, No. 3, September, 1991, pp. 414-32.

[In the following essay, Philbrick claims that the usual assessment of Letters as an epistolary novel may prove useful in explaining the beginning and ending of the text, but such a reading ignores the middle sequence of letters dealing with Nantucket Island.]

In the last twenty years, critics have tended to approach J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur's Letters from an American Farmer (1782) as an embryonic epistolary novel. When read in this way, what had earlier been considered a travelogue...

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Jeffrey H. Richards (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “Revolution, Domestic Life, and the End of ‘Common Mercy’ in Crèvecoeur's ‘Landscapes,’” in William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 55, No. 2, April, 1998, pp. 281-96.

[In the following essay, Richards explores the contrast between the idyllic image of American life in Letter III of Letters from an American Farmer and the nightmare of Revolutionary cruelty depicted in “Landscapes.”]

Few Revolutionary-era writers defy categorization as resolutely as Michel Guillaume Jean-de-Crèvecoeur. Best known for his book Letters from an American Farmer (1782),1 Crèvecoeur wrote several essays, sketches, and other short works in English...

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