Writing in the New Nation

When Michel-Guillaume-Jean de Crèvecoeur asked in the third chapter of Letters from an American Farmer (1782) “What Is an American,” he was posing a peculiarly American question. The novelty, fluidity, and heterogeneity of the United States has prompted a search for self-definition that began with William Bradford’s Of Plimmouth Plantation (pb. 1856) and John Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity” (1630) and that persists in Fourth of July addresses. Traditionally, critics have found two opposing answers to Crèvecoeur’s query, two conflicting streams of American thought, writing, and politics. One of these responses derives from the Puritans’ vision of America as “a city on a hill,” as Winthrop in 1630 described his vision of the country, which would be a spiritual light to guide the rest of the world. The other vision, of America as a place in which to do well rather than to do good, is articulated in Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography (1791) and its heirs. Ziff posits a different cleavage, that between immanence and representation, the former associated with an oral tradition, the latter with print culture. Such an approach offers a new way to understand American thought and writing, and it suggests correspondences that the conventional interpretation ignores.

Writing in the New Nation begins with the Great Awakening, the religious revival that swept through the colonies in the 1740’s. Ziff sees this movement as in part a revolt of an oral against a print culture, since the movement drew its support from the hinterland and was opposed by the urban, intellectual elite. In New England, the Great Awakening prompted a resurgence of Puritanism, which Ziff views as relying on orality. Readers may find Ziff’s view here problematic: Despite its rejection of the Book of Common Prayer and written sermons, Puritanism prized literacy. Within a decade of landing at Massachusetts, the Puritans had established Harvard College and had welcomed a printing press, the only one in the colonies until late in the century. Puritanism may be defined, as Ziff claims, as “a culture of immanence” that values self-awareness, in contrast to the Englightenment’s “culture of representation,” which emphasizes self-knowledge; however, aligning the former with orality, the latter with print proves unconvincing in this instance. Jonathon Edwards, a leader of the Puritan revival, wrote and published much, and he died while serving as president of Princeton.

The book makes a stronger case for the revolutionary outlook that the Great Awakening reflected, supported as it was by the common folk of the inland farms. In 1742, commenting on the religious resurgence, Edwards observed, “When God is about to do some great work for his church, his manner is to begin at the lower end; so when he is about to renew the whole habitable earth, ’tis probable that he will begin in this utmost, youngest and weakest part of it.” Ziff notes that this passage champions American culture against the British, frontier society against the urban, mercantile, and educated, and the lower classes against the rich. Religious revival anticipates political upheaval.

Crèvecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer, the subject of Ziff’s second chapter, again articulates a revolutionary ideology as it creates a rural American persona, James, who writes to the cultured Englishman Mr. F. B. James has received little formal education but assumes the role of teacher in his correspondence to a Cambridge University graduate. James’s wife, a voice of conservatism, first questions her husband’s ability to write properly, but James’s efforts show that a simple American farmer can create a literary work. She also observes that the local colonel will be suspicious; thus, by the very act of writing James challenges traditional roles and hierarchical standards. James’s wife comments that people will suspect that “thee art telling the king’s men abundance of things.” James has wrested literary power from royal authority and thereby challenges British political rule.

Crèvecoeur fled the American Revolution, returning to Europe. His character...

(The entire section is 1722 words.)