profile of a farmer with an American flag in the background all contained within a circle set against a mountain backdrop

Letters from an American Farmer

by Michel-Guillaume Jean de Crèvecœur

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When, in 1759, Voltaire published his Candide: Ou, L’Optimisme (Candide: Or, All for the Best, 1759), Michel-Guillaume Jean de Crèvecur was already planning to cultivate his garden hewn out of the Pennsylvania frontier. Like Voltaire’s naïve hero, Crèvecur had seen too much of the horrors of the civilized world and was more than ready to retire to his bucolic paradise, where for nineteen years he lived in peace and happiness until the civilized world intruded on him and his family with the outbreak of the American Revolution.

The twelve essays that make up his Letters from an American Farmer are, ostensibly at least, the product of a hand unfamiliar with the pen. The opening letter presents the central theme quite clearly: The decadence of European civilization makes the American frontier one of the great hopes for a regeneration of humanity. Crèvecur wonders why people travel to Italy to “amuse themselves in viewing the ruins of temples . . . . half-ruined amphitheatres and the putrid fevers of the Campania must fill the mind with most melancholy reflections.” By contrast, Crèvecur delights in the humble rudiments of societies spreading everywhere in the colonies, people converting large forests into pleasing fields and creating thirteen provinces of easy subsistence and political harmony. He has his interlocutor say of him, “Your mind is . . . a Tabula rasa where spontaneous and strong impressions are delineated with felicity.” Similarly, he sees the American continent as a clean slate on which people can inscribe a new society and the good life. It may be said that Crèvecur is a Lockean gone romantic, but retaining just enough practical good sense to see that reality is not rosy. The book is the crude, occasionally eloquent, testimony of a man trying desperately to convince himself and his readers that it is possible to live the idealized life advocated by Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

With a becoming modesty, appropriate to a man who learned English at age sixteen, Crèvecur begins with a confession of his literary inadequacy and the announcement of his decision simply to write down what he would say. His style, however, is not smoothly colloquial. Except in a few passages in which conviction generates enthusiasm, one senses the strain of the unlettered man writing with feeling but not cunning.

The first image Crèvecur presents is perhaps a bit too idyllic for modern tastes. He dandles his little boy on the plow as his wife sits at the edge of the field knitting and praising the straightness of the furrows, while birds fill the air with summer melodies. “Who can listen unmoved to the sweet love tales of our robins told from tree to tree?” This is, nevertheless, the testimony of a man who for nineteen years actually lived at the edge of the wilderness, three hundred miles from the Atlantic. He was no Henry David Thoreau at Walden Pond, within easy walking distance of friends, family, and a highly developed New England culture at Concord. He was, instead, a responsible man who cleared 371 acres of land and raised enough crops and animals to provide for his family, black workers, and all peaceful strangers who chanced to appear at his door. Also unlike Thoreau (with whom he inevitably invites comparison), Crèvecur was acutely aware of his social responsibilities and enormously proud of the ways in which they could be fulfilled in the New World.

Crèvecur’s third epistle, “What Is an American?” caught the attention of Benjamin Franklin and the Europeans of the Age of Enlightenment: [America] is not composed, as in Europe, of great lords who...

(This entire section contains 1816 words.)

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possess everything, and of a herd of people who have nothing. Here are no aristocratical families, no courts, no kings, no bishops, no ecclesiastical dominion, no invisible power giving to a few a very visible one; no great manufacturers employing thousands, no great refinements of luxury. The rich and the poor are not so far removed from each other as they are in Europe. . . . We are the most perfect society now existing in the world.

Enthusiastic as this description is, it is not as extravagant as it might seem; Crèvecur does not claim that the American colonists have founded the best of all possible worlds. He is, for example, acutely aware that religious influence gradually declines as one goes west and that, instead of liberating, this decline reduces humanity to a perfect state of war, each against each. Crèvecur rejoices, however, that there are almost no concentrated religious sects preying on each other in America: “Zeal in Europe is confined . . . a grain of powder enclosed; here it burns away in the open air, and consumes without effect.”

Furthermore, not every man succeeds after arriving in the New World—only the sober, the honest, the industrious. In his “History of Andrew, the Hebridean,” Crèvecur presents a case history of the Horatio Alger hero in primitive America, the story of a simple illiterate Scot who, after four years of sweat and toil, became a prospering freeholder. Franklin had occasion to caution his friends in France that Crèvecur’s was a highly colored account.

Part of the coloring is contributed by the pervasive nature imagery. The freedom and beauty of birds seem to symbolize the condition Europeans might achieve when immersing themselves in nature. Crèvecur describes hours spent in quiet admiration of the hummingbirds, tells regretfully of shooting a kingbird to rescue bees, and describes the feeding and care of quail in the winter. Insects, too, fascinate him; he keeps a hornet’s nest in the house. The letter on rattlesnakes and copperheads is horrendous and awesome. Crèvecur tells of copperheads enticing birds by the power of their eyes, of a defanged rattler trained as a pet, of a pair of snakes in mortal combat. Most curious of all is the account of a farmer who kicked away a snake that had thrust its fangs into his boot. After pulling off his boots that night, he suddenly became violently ill, writhed horribly, and died. His son, inheriting the boots, suffered the same fate. A neighbor, next in succession, almost died, too, but was saved when a shrewd doctor located the poison-filled fangs stuck in the boot. Crèvecur in these passages reveals an exciting narrative power.

Apart from the agricultural life inland, Crèvecur praises most the industry and sobriety of the coastal fishing communities at Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, where “perfect equanimity prevails.” At Nantucket, five thousand prosperous people inhabit a place that in Europe would have housed a few simple fishermen. Their Yankee ingenuity and sound business sense have enabled them to build—beginning with one whale boat—a whaling fleet that ranges even to the South Seas. Martha’s Vineyard is already the “nursery” of seamen for the entire East Coast. So detailed is Crèvecur’s description of the whalers’ chase, the ferocity of the whale’s struggle, the dangers from sharks and thrasher whales, the processing of blubber into whale oil—in short, the entire experience—that one wonders how Herman Melville could have overlooked it in compiling the extracts in Moby Dick (1851).

Crèvecur finds Nantucket a model community in that it contains only one minister (a Presbyterian—the Quakers, much to Crèvecur’s delight, do not have special ministers), two doctors, one lawyer (seldom employed), no soldiers, and no governors. Happy the people who are subject to so mild a government; happy the government which has to rule over such harmless and such industrious subjects! . . . I wish I had it in my power to send the most persecuting bigot I could find in —— to the whale fisheries; in three or four years you would find him a much more tractable man and therefore a better Christian.

Colonial Nantucket is apparently not perfect, however; the Quakers persist in their ungrammatical English, do not tolerate any deviation from their sober customs and homespun dress, and sternly prohibit music, singing, and dancing. “Such an island . . . is not the place where gay travellers should resort in order to enjoy the variety of pleasures the more splendid towns of this continent afford.” Crèvecur also reports, obviously misled by some notorious gossip, that the women are addicted to opium. “But,” he philosophizes, “where is the society perfectly free from error and folly?”

Crèvecur’s criticism is reserved for the most European of American cities, which he calls Charles-Town: “gayest in America . . . centre of our beau monde.” Lawyers, planters, and merchants make up the population, all addicted to dangerous excesses of all kinds. At the heart of this social corruption, Crèvecur finds the brutal institution of slavery. He tells the horrifying tale of his chance encounter with a slave who had been driven to kill an overseer. The slave’s punishment was to be suspended from a tree in a cage for two days. Vicious birds had already plucked out his eyes and bared his cheekbones. No sooner were the birds dispersed than swarms of insects covered him. The miserable man begged for water and hoped it was poisoned. “Gracious God!” cries Crèvecur, “to what end is the introduction of so many beings into [such] a mode of existence! . . . Is there then no superintending power who conducts the moral operations of the world?”

Some of Crèvecur’s faith is restored by the spectacle of the humble, kind, and generous aspect of William Bartram, a Quaker botanist, who employs free black men as salaried workers on his plantation and welcomes them as companions at his table and worshipers at the Friends’ meetinghouse.

Letters from an American Farmer ends in ominous tones of impending tragedy. Unwilling to commit his allegiance to either the British or the colonists, Crèvecur finds it necessary to flee: Must I in order to be called a faithful subject, coolly and philosophically say it is necessary for the good of Britain that my children’s brains should be dashed against the walls of the house in which they were reared; that my wife should be stabbed and scalped before my face; that I should be either murdered or captivated?

To escape such a fate, Crèvecur develops an intricate plan to take his family to join an American Indian settlement in the uncultivated wilderness (a plan that he never actually carried out). It is tragically ironic that this mild Frenchman’s absolute certainty of the blessings of life in the colonies should be so violently shattered after nineteen years of expending all his energies to make a decent life possible. It is appropriate that his final impulse is to immerse himself deeper into nature by joining the Indians. Whatever flaws it may have, Letters from an American Farmer is among the most sympathetic and thoughtful of all eighteenth century analyses of frontier life and its shaping influence on the emerging American character.