Michel Guillaume Jean de Crèvecoeur Critical Essays

Introduction

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.”