Michel Guillaume Jean de Crèvecoeur

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Elayne Antler Rapping (essay date 1967)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5647

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 Crèvecoeur recognized that the new nation took its form from a complex of literary and philosophic ideas which came together and found expression in eighteenth-century Europe. He saw the significance of the fact that the Age of Enlightenment, in which men began to suspect they could discover rationally the laws of nature which governed an intelligible universe, was also the age in which a new nation was being established on a newly settled land, offering an opportunity to test these theories.

In a sense the new society was built from a neat theoretical model, for the one assumption which tied these ideas together was the assumption of order. According to eighteenth-century thought a benevolent intelligence governed the laws of physics, economics and moral philosophy. Man himself was a mixture of passion and reason. He was also a product of his environment, but once he discovered the laws of human and physical nature he could learn to govern himself and his environment rationally.

Given these basic assumptions, agrarian democracy was an ideal social structure, for it allowed man to live in a middle state between primitive savagery and overly complex civilization. The farmer, living close to the earth, received the moral and physical benefits of nature and escaped the corrupting influences of the city. He avoided the dangers of the wilderness as well, for he lived in a rationally organized community and earned his living by applying reason to his industry. The American continent, where land was fertile and abundant, was an ideal setting in which to bring the model to life; and so the establishment of a perfect society became an actual possibility for the first time in history.1

Crèvecoeur sensed the imaginative appeal of this model. He saw it as a kind of literary heritage and he used its formal structures and clearly defined terms as conventions and symbols for describing our common experience. But he also saw that these conventions and symbols were unique, for instead of growing out of a common past, they suggested an ideal for the future. Insofar as they informed the American consciousness then, the new nation would become a sort of testing ground for the hypotheses of the model.

Crèvecoeur explores the implications of this insight in his two full-length works, the Letters from an American Farmer and Journey into Northern Pennsylvania and the State of New York. He begins both works with a hypothetical acceptance of the world as the model describes it. The narrators in both works journey through the American countryside and attempt to interpret what they see in terms of the model's assumptions. But in both cases the cumulative effect of the narrative is to convince the reader, if not the narrators themselves, that the model represents a false view of the world which will not stand the test of experience. A study of the structural developments of both books will illustrate Crèvecoeur's strategy.

In the first three chapters of the Letters he gives a detailed description of the hypothetical world the model describes. In the “Introduction” the narrator, James, identifies himself as a typical American farmer writing a series of letters to a cultivated European. James describes himself as a “tabula rasa” uneducated and inexperienced. His correspondent, he tells us, wishes him to record his impressions of the progress of the only nation in which one may observe a newly born society, developing freely.

It is clear from the start that both James and his country are being tested against a set of theories which the European has provided. “Remember,” James tells him, “you are to give me my subjects and on no others shall I write. … You have laid the foundation of this correspondence … [and you will] receive my letters as conceived, not according to scientific rules, but agreeable to the spontaneous impressions which each subject may inspire … [for this is] the line which Nature herself has traced for me. …”2 James, then, has accepted a set of defined terms from his correspondent, the most important of which is “Nature.” Only if the model's assumptions about human and physical nature prove correct will the progress of the society fulfill the expectations of his correspondent.

In James' first letter we learn what these assumptions and expectations are. Here, presumably, Farmer James is describing his own situation spontaneously and naturally as he promised. But in the first paragraph we see that he has been won over by his correspondent's theories about him, for he remarks that his new acquaintance has broadened his views of himself and that he is “happier now than [he] thought [him]self before” (p. 45). In other words James' conception of himself has already lost some of its spontaneity and taken on the attributes of the model's ideal farmer.

The description of James' life, which follows, is in perfect harmony with the model's assumptions, as we would expect. He is a freeholder working on his own land for himself and his family. The land is fertile and his reason and industry make it productive. His government demands little of him and he has no reason to covet his neighbor's things. He does acknowledge the existence of evil in man and nature but he has faith in the power of human reason to understand and control these excesses, by changing the conditions that incite them, or by mediating among warring parties in the interest of the greatest good. He compares his own successful methods of governing his cattle with the “simple and just laws” of the American government. “The law is to us precisely what I am in my barnyard” (p. 51), he says. The difference between James' cattle and the American citizens, according to the model, is the potential power of human reason. Unlike the beast whom man must govern, the American farmer can understand that his own interest is ultimately served by leading a peaceful and industrious life. Therefore, he will not forfeit the benefits of his moderate existence to indulge his baser instincts.

It is this faith in human reason, and an intelligible natural world, which informs the image of the developing nation in James' next letter. “Here … are no great manufactures … no great refinements of luxury” he says. “We are a people of cultivators … united by the silken bands of mild government, all respecting the laws without dreading their power because they are equitable. … A pleasing uniformity of decent competence appears throughout our habitations” (p. 61).

Balance and harmony are not all that is visible, of course. There are areas of wilderness where backwoodsmen live in a state of war, hunting instead of planting. The new settlers themselves are lowly wretches when they arrive, some of them hopelessly corrupt. But to James these elements of the society are less real than the orderly farm communities. He speaks as though the universal agrarian society were already a reality, and the existing evils already overcome, because he has faith in his model's predictions. He foresees “a kind of resurrection,” or “metamorphosis” (p. 76) which the new settler will experience in a society whose laws are based on those of nature. This is the model's version of reality and it is fully established in James' consciousness as he moves out of his community and begins to tour the country.3

The movement from James' village to the communities of Nantucket and Charles Town is a movement from the world of theory to that of experience. The preceding chapters described James' past and present life as part of an abstract plan for an ideal future. Now James moves forward in time and space to demonstrate the model's universal applicability and its powers of prediction. His first testing ground, the fishing village of Nantucket, seems to be operating successfully according to the laws of nature. Self-interest is the natural basis for behavior here, and all citizens can gratify their needs and wants since they are temperate and industrious. These two qualities, in fact, are the keys to the Nantucketers' success. According to the model they are rational principles based on the conviction that moderation best serves one's interest. But in Nantucket these qualities happen to be necessary for survival, for the soil is hard and the climate cold. The truth of the hypothesis can only be ascertained, then, by transporting these same people to a richer environment. This Crèvecoeur does next.

Although the narrative demands that each of James' letters describe a portion of a single journey, Crèvecoeur is implicitly tracing the country's development over a period of time. In his first letter James told how his father first cultivated his farm, and of how he himself received the benefits of his father's struggles. He enjoyed greater security and some leisure time to invent machines to ease his labors. Such progress from generation to generation was implicit in the model. Crèvecoeur has placed the Nantucketers in an area which demands constant labor for subsistence because they represent the early generation of settlers clearing the paths for their descendants, as James' father did. Since their resources are limited, their offspring are forced to move to other areas. The first generation has acquired some knowledge of the countryside however, and they send their descendants to Carolina, where the land is fertile and they can enjoy greater security and leisure as James does. It is Charles Town in Carolina that James visits next, and there is little doubt that Crèvecoeur intended its inhabitants to represent the next generation of Nantucketers enjoying the benefits of their forebears' experience.

But it is in Charles Town that the model begins to fail, for when the inhabitants are no longer forced to practice temperance and industry they do not choose to do so. The laws in Charles Town are based on nature and the people act in their own self-interest as they did in Nantucket, but now this rational principle does not lead to moderation and good will. Instead, it leads to tyranny, for the interest of the master is not the interest of the slave and conflicts of interest are settled by power. In Nantucket, James told us, there was only one rather idle lawyer, but the wealth of Charles Town has attracted a whole class of lawyers who have used their superior knowledge of the law to serve their own interests and have become as wealthy and powerful as the aristocracy of Europe.

Farmer James becomes confused and dismayed as he tries to interpret behavior in Charles Town in terms of his model, and his confusion centers on the word “nature.” While it is natural to act in one's own interest, it seems to him contrary to the “Rules of Nature” to do so tyrannically. In James' barnyard there was only one law of nature and it was easily discovered and acted upon, for Nature was in harmony with morality and with man's instincts. But here reason, self-interest and natural law lead to gross inequity and cruelty rather than peace, because human instinct is vicious instead of virtuous, and it is not controlled by reason. James' theories about man are all contradicted here for, as he now sees, “Nature has given us a fruitful soil to inhabit [but] refused us such inclinations and propensities as would afford us the full enjoyment of it. … She created man and … provided him with passions which must forever oppose his happiness; … Force, subtlety, and malice, always triumph over unguarded honesty and simplicity … and prevent their subsequent salutary effects, though ordained for the good of man by the Governor of the universe. Such is the perverseness of human nature” (pp. 168-71).

At this point James still believes that the laws of nature are the source of moral principles which man is intended to act upon. He realizes that there are temptations and dangers in the world, but these he feels, can be avoided if one conforms to nature. The people of Nantucket presumably illustrated this. They had wisely chosen a hard climate which demanded industry and temperance, and so avoided the excesses of the savage and the decadence of the wealthy planter. But there were two conditions necessary for the survival of the Nantucket way of life. First, man had to be intellectually and morally strong enough to resist temptation; and second, nature had to provide the environment necessary for establishing and maintaining such a life. James has come to doubt the possibility of the first condition for he has seen men perversely ignore the moral principles derived from the laws of nature. Now he considers the laws themselves in the light of all human experience, and he realizes that the second condition is also impossible for nature is actively hostile to man's higher aspirations. James' prose reaches a height of frenzied emotion here which echoes the breakdown of order and reason it describes:

Where do you conceive then that nature intended we should be happy? … If we attentively view this globe, will it not appear rather a place of punishment than of delight? … Famine, diseases, elementary convulsions, human feuds, dissensions, etc., are the produce of every climate … Gracious God! To what end is the introduction of so many beings into a mode of existence in which they must grope amidst as many errors, commit as many crimes, and meet with as many diseases, wants and sufferings!

(p. 171)

James' whole concept of nature has somehow been reversed in Charles Town. In the model, primitive savagery and civilized tyranny were overcome when the laws of nature were institutionalized. But now nature itself is savage and tyrannical and James must abandon his theoretical point of view and the language and tone of his model to describe it.4 He does regain his poise and continues to assert the principles he has come to believe in, but as the narrative progresses these statements often become ironic commentaries on his actual experience. The next letter illustrates this point. In it Farmer James redraws the picture of the animal world he observes in his barnyard. But this time the creatures interact with no human intervention. The farmer is now an impartial observer who finds beauty in the skill and instinct displayed in the natural processes of murder and destruction. Once again he sees harmony in the universe, but ironically, there is no mention of moral significance. If the state of nature is a state of war, it can still be described in terms of a neat theoretical model, but it can no longer be James' model for all human values must be discarded as meaningless.

After this point James never fully regains his unqualified faith in the model's version of reality. The next letter, which describes the old age of an ideal American farmer, is not even written by him. The writer is a European, traveling through America, who has brought with him all the theories and assumptions James had learned from his correspondent. Mr. Bertram's prosperity and cultivation reinforce his visitor's faith in these theories for he is not aware of the natural forces which threaten the apparent harmony. James, who has witnessed the dissolution of this harmony, could no longer have described it with confidence, and Crèvecoeur has therefore introduced a new narrator, for whom the reality of American experience does not yet exist, in order to bring the world of the model to life again. This entire interlude is, in fact, Crèvecoeur's device for rebuilding his model of America at that point in the narrative when James' experience contradicts it most strongly. It is also the hypothetical ending to James' story, for Mr. Bertram represents the future James, as the model would have him.

But in his final letter James reappears to give another version of the end of his story, based on experience rather than theory. The American Revolution has now begun and he is forced to abandon his farm and flee for safety. In this letter it becomes clear that Farmer James is Crèvecoeur's straw man. He has carefully built a world for himself on the basis of certain principles which have all proved false. The results of his reason, industry and moderation have been swept away by the greater forces of ambition and greed. His own reason is too weak to comprehend the political issues involved, but his experience has taught him that social systems based on assumptions of order in nature are doomed to fail, and he decides to give up such schemes entirely and live the truly natural life of the Indian in the wilderness.

This decision would seem to represent the final step in James' movement from complete faith to complete disillusionment with the ideals of agrarian democracy. But as he begins to elaborate on his new plans, he begins to contradict himself. The spark of hope which the wilderness suggests to him leads him back to the seductive goals of his model. He no sooner reconciles himself to hunting with the Indians than he begins to picture himself converting the “natural” Indians to the more truly “Natural” life of rational farming. Soon only the slightest suggestion of doubt remains in his renewed faith in his model. “Perhaps my imagination gilds too strongly this distant prospect,” he says. “Yet it appears founded on so few and simple principles that there is not the same probability of adverse incidents as in more complex schemes.” Finally he concludes his speculations with a prayer to the “Father of Nature” to look with favor on his plans (p. 219).

The narrative ends where it started, then, with a vision of an agrarian democracy. But there is irony in James' renewed faith, for his reassertion of the model's ideals take the form of prayers rather than statements, since they occur in the world of experience, where they are no longer meaningful except in terms of some ideal future. That his faith should be renewed in the world of experience, among the ruin and corruption that have just proved it absurd, is the final ironic proof of man's inability to govern himself according to reason.

In spite of the implications of this final episode, Crèvecoeur is often thought of as an uncritical spokesman for agrarian democracy.5 According to Leo Marx, he had no sense of progress or of history, for he expressed “unqualified affirmation” of a social ideal based on a permanent balance between nature and civilization, and never thought to ask what “would happen when the new society approached that delicate point of equilibrium beyond which further change, which is to say further departure from ‘nature,’ would be dangerous?”6 Crèvecoeur, however, was aware of the importance of progress in American society, although he did not see it as a threat to the “natural” aspects of life. This was because he understood that the idea of “nature” in American democratic theory involved more than a romantic belief in the healthful effects of laboring in the earth. Nature meant the “laws of nature,” and man would presumedly use his rational knowledge of these laws to pursue a moderate way of life, and to develop machines and institutions for his improvement and happiness. Cultural and material progress were implicit in his model, then, and in demonstrating that man was incapable of moderation, he implicitly denied the possibility of progress as well. For if the evils of the backwoodsman were still present in the educated lawyer, then the social conditions necessary for progress could never be maintained.

Crèvecoeur's sense of history, which is implicit throughout the Letters, is in fact a central theme in the final episode. By this time Farmer James is no longer a tabula rasa, for his experience has introduced him to a wide range of possibilities for human existence, the extremes of which are represented by the symbols of the Indian and the European statesman. In deciding upon a course of action James weighs the benefits of these two extremes, denounces the evils of civilization, and endorses the primitivism of the Indian. But before he has finished he has implicitly rejected the evils of the savage too, and once more arrived at the compromise between nature and civilization which characterized his original model. When the model's definition of human nature is restated as a synthesis of two extreme conditions, however, it becomes clear that a notion of progress informs the entire model. James assumes that the original state of nature is savage, but that as human reason develops this state will give way to the more civilized condition of the farmer. But this idea of progress in human nature is denied by James' experience, for he now realizes that the similarities he observed in the backwoodsman and the lawyer have persisted over centuries of progress, from the condition of the Indian to that of the statesman. If the natural man and the civilized man are equally warlike and irrational then there has never been any human progress. As James admits this and then denies it to reassert faith in a nobler state of nature, he reveals the self-delusion at the heart of his model, for he ignores the totality of human experience.

By the end of the Letters, then, Crèvecoeur has added the assumption of progress to his model and the sense of history to his image of America. In the Journey into Northern Pennsylvania and the State of New York, he explores the implications of these additions. He begins by stating the assumptions of his model, as he did in the Letters, but now the importance of historic development is explicitly stated. A learned gentleman explains that the condition of the American farmer is the result of centuries of progress. The first men were savages, but at some point they became rational, learned to cultivate the land, and ultimately arrived at the state of peace and prosperity exhibited in America. The gentleman concludes on a note of confidence for the future: “The Creator has assured the permanence of civilization,” he says, “by the very comparison that man would have to make some day between the rigors of his primitive state and the advantages of his later social state.”7 Progress and stability, then, are the main elements of the model society.

In the Voyage, Crèvecoeur's test of this model stresses long-term results rather than basic assumptions. His narrator-travelers follow a direct line of progress from the first generation of settlers on the western frontier to the wealthy urban centers of the East. Both the narrators and the first Americans they meet assume that the model's theories are already proved by the very existence of this march of progress. But Crèvecoeur sets this forward movement against the background of historical development he introduced in the Letters, for the nation is bordered by the Indian wilderness on the one hand and European civilization on the other. The test of American progress takes the form of a series of comparisons between the Americans and these other groups, both of whom have forfeited the benefits of progress by proving themselves too irrational either to achieve or to maintain them. At first the evidence supports the model; as the narrative progresses, however, the comparisons reveal similarities among all three groups. The Europeans are no more civilized in their behavior than the Indians, and as the Americans move closer to the positive benefits of civilized life, their behavior begins to resemble that of the warlike Europeans. Finally the overwhelming parallels between the two white societies convince the reader that disaster and regression are inevitable and the straight line of progress is a myth.

In the first volume the narrators meet many citizens who compare the progress in their country to the lack of progress among the Indians. According to them, the Indian is destined to relive his tragedies because he has learned to control neither his warlike instincts nor his environment. The white man, on the other hand, has already established a rational and permanent social system, and his reason is about to take him even further beyond the condition of the Indian, for his scientific advances are great. The ultimate goal of American progress is to approach the divine intelligence of the Creator and establish a society in which human and physical nature are rationally understood and controlled. To the citizens in this volume such an achievement seems imminent; Crèvecoeur makes this clear by introducing countless images of industrial and agricultural progress, culminating in an image of a machine which reproduces the movements of the heavens, and whose creator is compared to God himself.

In the first volume, then, Crèvecoeur has traced the American myth of progress from man's theoretically bestial origins to his equally theoretical future. The second volume is set in an area of second-generation farmers in which many enterprises begun in the earlier settlements are already thriving; they no longer seem as secure as they did at their inception, however. Natural and political forces now threaten these Americans, who begin to seem naive in their hopefulness. The narrators visit farmers who attribute their success to the benevolence of nature, as reflected in their fields; and, then, within a few miles, they encounter chaos and destruction in nature beyond man's power to control it. They also meet other Americans fleeing the civilized eastern cities to live in the wilderness as James did, because they fear political fermentations similar to those they had fled in Europe. The hints of political disaster are reinforced by the increasing number of military structures observed by the narrators. These images begin to suggest a march toward destruction running parallel to the march of progress, and the Americans' clichés begin to sound ironic in the light of this counter-evidence they choose to ignore.

These hints of war present the most serious threat to American progress, for they indicate that its goal will never be reached. But Crèvecoeur recognized that the same human defects which led to war presented a more basic threat to the perfect society. He illustrates this in the third volume in which the narrators travel to the east coast. Mr. G., the last citizen they visit, symbolizes the way of life which the model assumes all Americans will one day share. He is wealthy and cultivated, living amid the natural abundance of his estate. Like the other Americans he ignores the political problems around him and continues to view his way of life as permanent. But within the context of this hypothetical security, he reveals the contradictions in the American dream, for as he describes his situation it becomes clear that its balance is about to be destroyed, although it has just been achieved. The reason for this is that human nature, outside of his estate, is no more rational or noble than before. Mr. G.'s descendants do not choose to live in the moderate fashion he has chosen for them. His son plans to desert the family estate and return to the frontier where hardship and coarse habits will corrupt him. His nephew plans to attend college in a large city where the evils of commerce and the dissipations of the idle will tempt him. Mr. G. himself no sooner expresses regret at the slowness of American progress compared to that of Europe than he regrets the passing of the “golden age” of colonial America, when life was simple and men happy.

By the final volume of the Voyage, then, the two components of a successful society, progress and balance, have proved impossible, if not meaningless. In fact, what the Americans thought of as progress has turned into a movement backward to the very aspects of European civilization they had originally fled. In the first volume the hypothetically rational American was set in opposition to the Indian and the European, who shared a common irrationality. But as Crèvecoeur begins to merge the images of the two white men, he calls attention to certain qualities which distinguish the Indian from both. Throughout the book the rhythm of the white man's progress has been played against the measured prose describing the Indians' culture. At first the Indian was an anomaly to the white man. His nature seemed contradictory, for his warlike behavior could not be reconciled with his domestic virtues. But by the final volume it is the white man who is an anomaly, for his behavior is not only as vicious and contradictory as the Indians'; his rational schemes are equally contradictory and his faith in them, in view of his experience, appears to approach madness.

It is the Indian then who emerges as the more truly civilized man, for his progress has actually been greater. He too has produced complex social systems, for there are ancient ruins of mills and arsenals which testify to the similarities between the Indians' past experience and European history. But unlike the white man, the Indian has not repeated his errors. He has learned from experience to live according to the true laws of nature. He recognizes war, change and pain as natural and inevitable, and his traditions and laws are based on his adjustment to these realities. He has established a true middle state society for he understands and accepts his warlike instincts, and so can control them more successfully than the whites. His stoic resignation allows him to be realistic about his worldly fortunes and he is not prone to the extremes of hope and despair which the white man blindly accepts as the pattern of his life. Finally he is not a victim of self-delusion for he constructs no abstract theories about the essential nature of the universe.

The final movement of the book, then, like that of the Letters, describes a circle where the Americans had assumed a straight line of progress. In both books the implicit movement is backward to the truly natural Indian who offers a version of reality more secure, more rational and more consistent than the model's.

The life of the Indian does not of course represent a real opinion. It is another fictitious model of reality which Crèvecoeur uses for contrast in his treatment of America. Leo Marx, in his discussion of Crèvecoeur, also discusses a statement of Thomas Jefferson's about the absence of crime among the Indians. Said Jefferson, “were it made a question, whether no law, as among the savage Americans, or too much law, as among civilized Europeans, submits man to the greatest evil, one who has seen both conditions of existence would pronounce it to be the last. …”8 According to Marx, “this statement taken out of context, does sound as if Jefferson had joined a simple-minded cult of Nature … [but] what appears as a preference for the primitive actually is a rhetorical device.” Marx makes a good case for the literary quality of Jefferson's thought. He calls this device “the syntax of the middle landscape; a conditional statement which has the effect of stressing a range of social possibilities unavailable to Europeans.” But Crèvecoeur, whom Marx considers blind to “the obvious dilemma of pastoral politics,”9 and to progress and history as well, has actually explored and expanded the implications of Jefferson's “rhetorical device” and its entire “range of social possibilities” in two full-length works of literature.


  1. For detailed discussions of the various aspects of this theoretical model see the following: Chester Eisinger, “The Freehold Concept in Eighteenth Century American Letters,” William & Mary Quarterly, IV (1947), 42-59; “Land and Loyalty: Literary Expressions of Agrarian Nationalism in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,” American Literature, XXI (1949), 1960-78; Paul Johnstone, “In Praise of Husbandry,” Agricultural History, XI (1937), 80-95, and “Turnips and Romanticism,” Agricultural History, XII (1938), 224-55; Howard Mumford Jones, Strange New World (New York, 1964); Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden (New York, 1964); Henry Nash Smith, Virgin Land (New York, 1950).

  2. J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer and Sketches of Eighteenth-Century America (New York, 1963), pp. 43-44.

  3. Compare the “History of Andrew the Hebridean” in this letter, pp. 84-99, with the “Reflections on the Manners of the Americans,” in the Sketches, pp. 250-63, for a full appreciation of Crèvecoeur's irony in the early letters. The settler in the latter episode becomes vicious and corrupt when allowed to indulge his natural instincts; and he is thoroughly successful as well.

  4. For a discussion of the symbolic quality of one incident in the Charles Town episode see Marius Bewley, The Eccentric Design (New York, 1963), pp. 102-6. Bewley comments on the “Implicitly ironic interplay between [Crèvecoeur's] polite and measured prose reflecting the illusion of external order in the universe,” and the hideous nature of the facts he describes.

  5. D. H. Lawrence, “Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur,” Studies in Classic American Literature (New York, 1923), pp. 20-33, is probably most responsible for the prevalence of this opinion. Even those who have recognized the conflict between theory and experience in the Letters, however, have not always attributed its effects to conscious artistry. See, for example, Albert E. Stone Jr., “Foreword,Letters and Sketches, p. xviii.

  6. Marx, pp. 115-16.

  7. Crèvecoeur, Journey into Northern Pennsylvania and the State of New York, tr. Clarissa Bostelmann (Ann Arbor, 1964), p. 15.

  8. Thomas Jefferson, The Life and Selected Writings of Jefferson, eds. Adrienne Koch and William Peden (New York, 1963), p. 78.

  9. Marx, pp. 120-21.

James C. Mohr (essay date 1970)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3934

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 often reprinted than this one. At the same time probably no question evokes more stifled groans or thoughts of “not again” from audiences and readers alike. At least part of this reaction may be traced to the fact that Crèvecoeur's own treatment of this question seems largely beside the point to most of the scholars who re-pose it; they are usually too concerned with offering an answer of their own to examine the complexity of the answer developed in the Letters from an American Farmer.1

Even when Crèvecoeur's insights are not completely ignored, they are generally oversimplified. Among the reasons for this oversimplification is the fact that the essence of the Letters is often presented simply as the summation which appears in the same paragraph with the “What then is the American” question, or selections which closely parallel the tone of that paragraph.2 As a result, Crèvecoeur's America is usually thought of in rather static terms as the land of free men, small farms, material abundance, and benign morality: a kind of Jeffersonian Valhalla. Americans seem to have had a long-standing desire to believe that their society was once idyllic. Apparently they do not believe that it can ever be perfect in the future if it was not once perfect in the past. And since Crèvecoeur's best-known passages are among the sources of evidence most often cited in support of a once idyllic past, Americans have been loath to see anything more than this attractive stereotype in the Letters. This is unfortunate, for Crèvecoeur's insights into the American culture are complex and subtle ones which are well worth reconsidering in detail.

One way to get behind the stereotyped Crèvecoeur is to reconsider the methodology of the Letters as a whole. Why is such an idyllic image of America so elaborately drawn? How does Crèvecoeur use the image after he has established it? In answering this kind of question it becomes clear that the delineation of an ideal community is not Crèvecoeur's end purpose at all, but rather the first step in developing a larger pattern. The larger pattern is almost circular and involves not simply the fulfillment of social ideals but their failure as well. The idyllic image of America which Crèvecoeur develops during the first eight letters of his book becomes the dream against which the intensity of later disillusionment is measured.

Like Crèvecoeur, many Europeans saw in America a unique opportunity for the regeneration of society. In America there were no corrupt institutions, no unequal economic systems, and no established churches. These are the hopes upon which Crèvecoeur is playing in the long “What then is the American” paragraph of Letter III, the most often quoted paragraph in the book:

Wives and children, who before in vain demanded of him a morsel of bread, now, fat and frolicsome, gladly help their father to clear those fields whence exuberant crops are to arise to feed and to clothe them all; without any part being claimed, either by a despotic prince, a rich abbot, or a mighty lord. Here religion demands but little of him; a small voluntary salary to the minister, and gratitude to God; can he refuse these?

As Tocqueville was to re-emphasize some fifty years later, Crèvecoeur also points out that Americans had the advantage of beginning over again without having to erase any of the previous attempts to build a society that had gone wrong. America, in short, was an unblemished field in which Europeans could attempt to plant their various social ideals and to make them flourish; in America, Crèvecoeur writes, “human industry has acquired a boundless field to exert itself in—a field which will not be fully cultivated in many ages!” and Crèvecoeur devotes the first eight of his Letters to developing a picture of transplanted Europeans successfully creating a new society. Furthermore, he manages to maintain a remarkably judicious balance between the two most prominent social ideals of his day: the rational and the romantic.

Those who wished to see in the American social experiment the fulfillment of the rational ideals of the Enlightenment were given a good deal of support by Crèvecoeur. According to this vision of the perfect society the “new man” need only follow the self-evident laws of human behavior in order to succeed. Foremost among these self-evident laws was that of enlightened self-interest, the idea which both Franklin and Tocqueville found so dear. Crèvecoeur states explicitly that “the rewards of [the American's] industry follow with equal steps the progress of his labour; his labour is founded on the basis of nature, self-interest; can it want a stronger allurement?” The concept of property ownership is also prominent in this rationalist version of the perfect society; America would prosper because it was free of Europe's feudal inequities. In this fee-simple paradise “indulgent laws” insured each man his due reward. The overall result was a “surprising metamorphosis” of dignity.

In the “History of Andrew, the Hebridean,” Crèvecoeur dramatizes this metamorphosis of dignity. The story of Andrew is an idealization, almost an extended metaphor, yet close to the heart of any reader who believed that “the progressive steps of a poor man, advancing from indigence to ease; from oppression to freedom; from obscurity and contumely to some degree of consequence” were taken “not by virtue of any freaks of fortune, but by the gradual operation of sobriety, honesty, and emigration.” Andrew's story resembles Franklin's Autobiography in miniature or Emerson's image of “the sturdy lad from New Hampshire” in “Self-Reliance.” It is practically a preindustrial version of the Horatio Alger fables.

Throughout the first eight letters Crèvecoeur is also careful to balance this rationalist vision of the new America against a more romantically oriented one. “Instinct” is a key word in the Letters, and its “cultivation” becomes a significant factor in the creation of the idyllic society which Crèvecoeur elaborates. So also is the “industry” of the rational ideal, constantly balanced against the romantic notion of “genius.” James, the hero of the Letters, is a farmer, and Crèvecoeur often allows his farmer-hero to reflect upon the harmony of nature. When he does so, the metaphors are likely to be the organic ones of romantic literature: America, for example, is several times likened to an “embrio” of potential growth. The close-knit community life is compared to a beehive. The false elegance of Europe is said to be surpassed by the clean fresh “smell of the woods.” The people of Nantucket derive benefit from their contact with natural forces, even though these are not the forces of normal agriculture, for the Nantucket fishermen are essentially “farming” the sea.

This balance between the rational ideal and the romantic ideal is insured by rejecting the two symbolic extremes of American society: the city and the frontier. The former is seen to be the seat of enervating luxuries and the lair of parasitic lawyers; in other words, the city represents the rule of law and the world of materialistic rationalism gone sour. And in a like manner the frontier is seen to be the haunt of men who “appear to be no better than carnivorous animals of a superior rank”; it seems to demonstrate how the admiration of the natural and the primitive can turn into savagery. Metaphorically as well as actually, then, Crèvecoeur locates his idyllic America between the overcivilized city and the undercivilized frontier. The balance may be precarious, but the image was no doubt a glorious one for almost all of Crèvecoeur's readers.3

To this point, then, the methodology of the Letters is fairly straightforward. Crèvecoeur presents an idealized picture of American society with a subtle balance built into it which makes it wholly acceptable both to the romantic and to the rationalist. The key terms and concepts of both romantic and rationalist are purposely blended together in this idealized picture, and neither is permitted to dominate. It is Crèvecoeur's rejection of either extreme that McGiffert points out by including in his selections from the Letters the passage which deprecates the frontiersman as a social type. Yet McGiffert then allows this balanced vision of an idyllic America to represent the sum total of Crèvecoeur's insights about the American culture. He neglects to explain that this idyllic vision is only the first phase of a larger methodological pattern within the Letters as a whole.4 If Crèvecoeur's idealized image of America is a balanced one, it is balanced in order to attract as many readers as possible. If Crèvecoeur devotes eight letters to developing his idealized image, his purpose is to make it as effective as he can. By playing upon his readers' fondest hopes for social progress, Crèvecoeur perpetrates something of a calculated hoax. Only after he has his readers believing that America might really be like the idyllic vision does Crèvecoeur deftly begin to cloud that vision.

In the ninth letter the tone of the Letters shifts from fulfillment to betrayal; the possibility of disillusionment is placed in opposition to the hopeful idealism of the first eight letters. Instead of examining the “new man” of the first eight letters, Crèvecoeur begins to examine man in general, thereby suggesting that even the most balanced and the most favorable of circumstances cannot eliminate the evil inherent in the race:

We certainly are not that class of beings which we vainly think ourselves to be; man an animal of prey, seems to have rapine and the love of bloodshed implanted in his heart; nay to hold it the most honourable occupation in society: We never speak of a hero of mathematics [a rationalist hero], a hero of the knowledge of humanity [a romantic hero], no, this illustrious appellation is reserved for the most successful butchers of the world.

If these are the traits which are inherently human, then how realistic is America's chance to begin again without erasing the old stains? Could the old stains be erased even if man tried to erase them? What becomes of Andrew's virtues in a world where “force, subtilty, and malice always triumph over unguarded honesty, and simplicity”?

The immediate occasion for these gloomy observations is the existence of slavery in the midst of supposedly idyllic America. Nor, significantly, is the slavery simply a product of the jaded city of “Charles-Town,” for slavery is “overspread in the country.” In other words, slavery seems to have the potential of encroaching even upon that area in which Crèvecoeur located his idealized community. “Here the horrors of slavery, the hardship of incessant toils, are unseen; and no one thinks with compassion of those showers of sweat and of tears which from the bodies of Africans, daily drop, and moisten the ground they till.” And although Letters X and XI point out that slavery had thus far been primarily limited to the South,5 the metaphorical implications of the system prompt a grim and foreboding observation.

In what may be the strongest single passage in the Letters Crèvecoeur simultaneously challenges both the romantic and the rational sides of his idealized vision of the new American society:

If from this general review of human nature, we descend to the examination of what is called civilized society; there the combination of every natural and artificial want, makes us pay very dear for what little share of political felicity we enjoy. It is a strange heterogeneous assemblage of vices and virtues, and of a variety of other principles, for ever at war, for ever jarring, for ever producing some dangerous, some distressing extreme. Where do you conceive then that nature intended we should be happy? Would you prefer the state of men in the woods [the romantic ideal], to that of men in a more improved situation [the rationalist ideal]? Evil preponderates in both. … [my italics].

“Evil preponderates in both”: Crèvecoeur's methodology becomes more apparent with this powerful line. No society is immune to the kind of social evils epitomized by slavery. The idealized vision of American society so skillfully developed in the first eight letters, although certainly the most famous section of the Letters and the section usually allowed to stand alone, may be taken as little more than an elaborate and well-calculated introduction to this foreboding observation on the pervasiveness of social evil. Without such an effective introduction the statement loses its dramatic powers of disillusionment. If Crèvecoeur's readers could not be persuaded to imagine an idyllic America, they would obviously have no feeling of betrayal when confronted with the evidence that America was, in fact, far from perfect. The sense of foreboding in Letter IX, however, is not in itself the whole point of Crèvecoeur's methodology, any more than the balanced vision was, for there is still one more step in the pattern of the Letters. While this final step fulfills the grim foreboding of Letter IX, it also completes something of a cycle by eventually reasserting a fresh vision of potential and a new hope of regeneration.

The circular nature of this pattern, which Crèvecoeur sees underlying and defining the American experience, is to some extent hinted at even in that most reprinted of paragraphs, the one which asks, “What then is the American, this new man?” But the hint is ambiguous, and it seems rarely to have been picked up and followed through. “Americans are the western pilgrims,” Crèvecoeur writes, “who are carrying along with them that great mass of arts, sciences, vigour, and industry which began long since in the east; they will finish the great circle.” Crèvecoeur seems to be suggesting that America's heritage lies inescapably in Europe, and perhaps even in the seats of more ancient civilizations still farther east. America's destiny is to carry forward the highest ideals and achievements of those previous civilizations, even though their complete realization will certainly be impossible. The “new man,” this American, is a person either foolish enough or heroic enough to try to pursue such a destiny.

Letter XII, the last of the Letters from an American Farmer, completes the methodological pattern of the book. In this letter the idyllic farm community elaborated in the first eight letters and then somewhat anticlimactically revived after the foreboding of Letter IX has become a scene of open civil strife as a result of the American Revolution. The external pressures generated by the political exigencies of the conflict were forcing a polarization and a disruption of James's once idyllic community. The forebodings of Letter IX were coming true even in the perfectly balanced society of the “American Farmer”; Farmer James himself was becoming as much of a slave to these new external pressures beyond his control as the Africans had been slaves to “the chosen race” in Letter IX. Indeed, Crèvecoeur's rhetoric is remarkably similar to that employed in Letter IX, only in Letter XII the “Africans” have become the “people”:

… how easily do men pass from loving, to hating and cursing one another! … The great moving principles which actuate both parties are much hid from vulgar eyes like mine; nothing but the plausible and the probable are offered to our contemplation. The innocent are always the victim of the few; they are in all countries and at all times the inferior agents, on which the popular phantom is erected; they clamour, and must toil, and bleed, and are always sure of meeting with oppression and rebuke. It is for the sake of the great leaders on both sides, that so much blood must be spilt; that of the people is counted as nothing. Great events are not achieved for us, though it is by us that they are principally accomplished; by the arms, the sweat, the lives of the people.

Power considerations were replacing the old vision of harmony; intolerance was replacing the old ideal of mutual co-operation. As a result Crèvecoeur's hero decides to move his family away from the once idyllic community which had now so cruelly betrayed his hopes for a more perfect society. And the place James chooses for his removal is that very same frontier which he had once described as the kind of environment which produced only a “ferocious, gloomy and unsociable” community, a society best characterized by “hostility” and “sloth.” In order to rationalize his intended move, therefore, Farmer James creates for himself a whole new illusion of potential success. He recognizes that his social ideals were not capable of being sustained even under the best of circumstances. The idyllic America of the first eight letters had degenerated finally into civil war. Furthermore, he realizes that the frontier represents a profound challenge to the kind of balanced social order which he believes in. And yet, because he is an “American” farmer, James makes this seemingly impossible rationalization anyway.

However unrealistically or illogically, frontier life is changed from barbarity to tranquillity in James's mind, and the Indian is transformed from a savage into the creator of a social system which avoids civil insurrection. And perhaps the most remarkable aspect of James's mental process is the fact that he is fully aware that he is creating an unfounded illusion. In a passage half-heroic and half-tragic he admits that perhaps “my imagination gilds too strongly this distant prospect; yet it [his imaginary vision of the society which he plans to establish on the frontier] appears founded on so few, and simple principles, that there is not the same probability of adverse incidents as in more complex schemes.” But of course this is untrue and he knows it:

These vague rambling contemplations which I here faithfully retrace, carry me sometimes to a great distance; I am lost in the anticipation of the various circumstances attending this proposed metamorphosis! Many unforeseen accidents may doubtless arise. Alas! It is easier for me in all the glow of paternal anxiety, reclined on my bed, to form the theory of my future conduct, than to reduce my schemes into practice.

In short, he recognizes that he is dreaming an impossible dream. His destiny as an American drives him into carrying forth civilization's highest social ideals, while his fate as a human being dictates that such dreams will never be wholly realized. But the pattern will continue until he loses his power to dream. Symbolically at least, “the American, this new man,” must continue to do as Huckleberry Finn was doing when he decided “to light out for the territory,” knowing full well that life there would really be no different from the “civilization” where, as he says, he had “been before.”

“I resemble, methinks,” writes Crèvecoeur in a metaphorical expression of what he thought it meant to be an American, “one of the stones of a ruined arch, still retaining that pristine form that anciently fitted the place I occupied, but the centre is tumbled down; I can be nothing until I am replaced, either in the former circle, or in some stronger one.” This superb simile is as close as Crèvecoeur ever comes to answering his own famous question in a single brief statement, for in a way the entire methodological pattern of the Letters is an attempt to explore the implications of this simile. The old forms of society had each in turn disillusioned man. Even in cases where the circumstances had seemed most favorable, the experiment had failed of complete success. Only in illusions could social ideals exist, and so Farmer James must finally turn back to illusion. The fact that he decides to do so consciously is crucial in the pattern which Crèvecoeur works out. Some would no doubt think him foolish not to try to accommodate himself to society as it stood, even though it lacked the “pristine form” of its “ancient” ideals. But to Crèvecoeur, the decision to seek the ideal was what ultimately defined James as “American.”

To define the American experience as a willingness to carry forward the ideals of civilization in the face of almost certain disillusionment is quite different from defining the American experience as a stiffly idealized balance between the rational and the romantic. If the latter definition is the one most often associated with Crèvecoeur's Letters from an American Farmer, then this is regrettable, since the methodological pattern of the book clearly suggests the former. Crèvecoeur presents the American culture not as a static stereotype but as a dynamic process. It would be a shame to make a cliché of Crèvecoeur's famous question while at the same time either ignoring or continuing to oversimplify his own perceptive discussion of its implications.


  1. J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer. All references will be to the Dolphin Books reprint of the original 1782 edition (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday & Company).

  2. Michael McGiffert, The Character of Americans (Homewood, Ill., 1964), is an example of the way in which Crèvecoeur is most often dealt with. I do not single out this particular book because I feel that it is weak; in fact, the exact opposite is true. I admire McGiffert's selections and I consider them the best such volume of readings to appear in some time. And precisely because the book is so well done, it serves as a convincing example of the way in which Crèvecoeur is almost invariably treated. If a less able example were cited, its treatment of the Letters could simply be written off as another of its weaknesses. It is interesting to note also that the “What then is the American” section of the Letters is even included as a short story in An American Reader (New York, 1967), pp. 124-26, which American Airlines distributes to its passengers when the movie machines break down!

  3. Leo Marx, in his The Machine in the Garden (New York, 1964), argues persuasively that this idealized balance places the Letters in what he calls the “pastoral” tradition. I am in complete agreement with Marx insofar as his analysis concerns the first eight letters of Crèvecoeur's book, the section which I have been discussing above. As will become evident below, however, I disagree strongly with Marx's contention that Crèvecoeur's is a “simpleminded” book (Machine, p. 108).

  4. This applies equally to Leo Marx who argues that Crèvecoeur's crucial weakness is a “failure to recognize the obvious dilemma of pastoral politics” (Machine, p. 116). This conclusion seems to ignore completely the methodological pattern of the book and the reasons why Crèvecoeur took such great pains to establish his pastoral ideal in the first place. I would argue that Crèvecoeur certainly does face at least one of those “obvious dilemma[s]”: the fact that the pastoral vision he sets up is a precarious illusion, not a social reality.

  5. Farmer James offers an unconvincing attempt to explain away the slavery which existed in the North (Letters, pp. 168-69).

Marcus Cunliffe (essay date 1975)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7481

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.]


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 space for an excerpt from Crèvecoeur.1 A particular favourite is the third chapter, ‘What Is An American?’ Here is the best-known, the most-quoted, the almost tediously familiar paragraph from that chapter:

What, then, is the American, this new man? He is neither an European nor the descendant of an European … He is an American, who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds. He becomes an American by being received in the broad lap of our great Alma Mater. 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. Americans are the western pilgrims who are carrying along with them that great mass of arts, sciences, vigour, and industry which began long since in the East; they will finish the great circle … The American is a new man, who acts upon new principles; he must therefore entertain new ideas and form new opinions. From involuntary idleness, servile dependence, penury, and useless labour, he has passed to toils of a very different nature, rewarded by ample subsistence. This is an American.

A little earlier in the same chapter Crèvecoeur says:

We are the most perfect society now existing in the world. Here man is free as he ought to be, nor is this pleasing equality so transitory as many others are.2

Crèvecoeur is then a standard exhibit: the man who analyzed the essence of Americanness, including the famous melting-pot, at the very period two centuries ago when the United States was in the act of achieving independence. And there are other almost equally familiar passages in Crèvecoeur's Letters that serve to establish him as a prime early generalizer about the United States. Again and again he conveys the liberation, the enlargement, the wonder felt by men when they arrive in the New World and enter into ‘that great field of action everywhere visible’. They undergo, says Crèvecoeur, a ‘resurrection’. The new land transforms them. For one thing it is amazingly fertile. ‘Men are like plants, the goodness and flavour of the fruit proceeds from the peculiar soil … in which they grow’. If they will take off their coats and set to work they are bound to succeed.

Again, the new country is so big. When the European gets to America, he therefore ‘suddenly alters his scale: … he no sooner breathes our air than he forms schemes and embarks in designs he would never have thought of in his own country’. Environment, it would seem, is almost everything. In Crèvecoeur's view such a settler does not lose his identity in exchanging for the tight social order of Europe the shifting, amorphous American situation. On the contrary: the settler now assumes for the first time a genuine personal identity. He is no longer a vagrant or a ‘nobody’, left outside the respectable enclosure of Europe; for in America he swiftly acquires a home, land, neighbours, a district, a country. Acquires is the proper word—an active verb. The settler gains his identity in the act of acquiring property and improving it. This is his stake in society: his stake, not one that he has been ‘staked to’ by somebody else. Nor does Crèvecoeur fail to distinguish between the various regions of America. He provides an affecting and gruesome account of a Negro slave, locked up in a cage in South Carolina, to die of starvation and be tormented by voracious birds and insects. Crèvecoeur has an eloquent section on the hardy, self-reliant whalers of Nantucket. He writes circumstantially and charmingly on farming in the middle states. He praises the Quakers for one kind of simplicity, and the Indians for another.

We need not dwell further on this accessible Crèvecoeur: Crèvecoeur the agrarian, the optimist, the expounder of the preordained American success story. Here, it would appear, is an eighteenth-century chronicle whose elements have been absorbed into the United States' cosier beliefs about itself. We might feel that George Washington summed up the virtues and limitations of Crèvecoeur in a letter of 1788, replying to someone who sought advice on whether to leave Europe and come to the United States. Among published guides to the new nation he recommended a treatise by Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson's Notes on Virginia. Washington ended his letter by adding that the book by Crèvecoeur, a person who had ‘actually resided twenty years as a farmer …, will afford a great deal of profitable and amusive information, respecting the private life of the Americans, as well as the progress of agriculture, manufactures, and arts, in their country. Perhaps the picture he gives, though founded on fact, is in some instances embellished with rather too flattering circumstances’.3


Crèvecoeur is however a more complicatedly dubious witness than General Washington could have realized. True, some of the artifices in his book were obvious to, and perfectly acceptable to, Americans of his day. Many of them knew, as Washington no doubt did, that the man Washington referred to as ‘Mr Crevecoeur (commonly called Mr St John)’, was by birth and upbringing a Frenchman. They may not have been precisely aware that he was a gentleman of Normandy, born in 1735, who had fought as an army officer in Canada under Montcalm; who had been wounded in the battle for Quebec in 1759; and who, entering the American colonies in that year, had eventually bought a farm a few miles west of the Hudson River in Orange County, New York. Contemporaries would not have been amazed to learn that Crèvecoeur had spent some time in England, before going to Canada, and had come near to marrying an English girl. These details—or his naturalization under the name of John Hector St John, or his actual marriage to a lady in Orange County named Mehetable Tippet—were arguably of no great consequence. Perhaps it was not important that in the Letters he posed as a native-born Anglo-American, self-taught, ignorant of Europe, who was farming in Pennsylvania—even if these supposed ‘facts’ have misled some twentieth-century scholars.4 Such expedients, including the pretence that he was writing to an acquaintance in England, did not make him a liar. He was merely adopting the common authorial devices of his era. Pennsylvania, the home of the Quakers and of the renowned Benjamin Franklin, had a greater symbolic attractiveness than New York. Exaggerating his own lack of education enabled him to heighten the literary contrast between the virtuous innocence of the American country-dweller and the somehow less virtuous sophistication of his imaginary English correspondent. Eighteenth-century readers would not have been alarmed to discover that certain passages in the book (for example on the deep South, which Crèvecoeur seems never to have visited) had been borrowed from other writers. In that epoch, plagiarism was only a minor offence and had not yet become a moral crime. For this reason they may not have thought it odd that the central themes in Crèvecoeur—such as the dislike of cities, the praise of rural life, and the sentiments on slavery—probably derived from a European work, the Histoire philosophique et politique by the Abbé Raynal, to whom indeed Crèvecoeur dedicated the first edition of his own book.5

Again, it was not exactly Crèvecoeur's fault that the book soon ceased to be popular. Tastes change, after all. So the first, London edition of 1782, brought him some fame. So did the revised French editions of 1784 and 1787 (Lettres d'un Cultivateur Américain). But an American edition of 1793 fell flat; and for the next hundred years Crèvecoeur dropped out of sight. In 1851, for instance, the French literary historian Philarète Chasles made only brief mention of Lettres d'un Cultivateur, ‘un livre … peu connu aujourd'hui’, and seemed to assume the author was an Englishman, ‘Sir John Crevecoeur’.6 The Letters did not come back into print again until editions (in English) of 1904 and 1912. The explanation for this revival appears to relate to the famous chapter already quoted. He had, in other words, stumbled upon the melting-pot metaphor long before it came into vogue. In the opening years of the twentieth century, at a time of polyglot mass immigration, Crèvecoeur's vision of ‘individuals of all nations … melted into a new race of men’ was suddenly apposite: and reassuring to Americans of the liberal persuasion. It had thus an accidental and rhetorical value: hence its place in the conventional anthologies of the twentieth century, as a convenient and impressive early statement of American heterogeneity.

Yet the more explanations we offer for the career of Crèvecoeur and of his book, the more we involve ourselves in puzzle and paradox. Here is a supposedly classic text that described and predicted the shaping of the American character. Yet it was practically forgotten, on both sides of the Atlantic, throughout the nineteenth century. Crèvecoeur's book is for example not mentioned at all in Charles Sumner's Prophetic Voices Concerning America (Boston, 1874), though there are several pages on the Abbé Raynal, and accounts of various other ‘prophets’ whose names are less familiar than Crèvecoeur's to the present-day reader. Here is a man whom some commentators have taken for an American, and some for an Englishman, but who was not really either. Here is a man often cited as a sort of Founding Father of American cultural patriotism, but who also figures in specialist histories of the American Revolution as a Loyalist: that is, a person who sided not with the colonists but with the British.7

These mysteries are worth unravelling, both for their own sake and for things they may tell us about the whole realm of transatlantic generalizations. We can make a start with an intriguing speculation by an unfriendly English reviewer of the 1782 edition. This reviewer found Letters from an American Farmer so peculiarly uneven in tone that he maintained it must have been composed by two different men. His guess was perceptive, Crèvecoeur was two different men inside one physiognomy—at least two, if not more. As far as citizenship went, he was never an American, Crèvecoeur was naturalized in 1765 as an Englishman. He left the colonies in 1780, half way through the War of Independence, in a British ship, and made his way from London to his native France. When he returned to New York in 1783 he came as French consul, having resumed his French citizenship. In 1790 he left New York again for France, and in the remaining twenty-three years of his life never revisited the United States. Brissot de Warville, a compatriot who knew him well in the 1780s, described Crèvecoeur as a gloomy person, sometimes apparently ‘appalled’ rather than pleased by the success of his book. Crèvecoeur, said Brissot, behaved like a man with ‘a secret which weighed down upon his soul and whose disclosure he dreaded’.8

Other evidence, including Crèvecoeur's own testimony, confirms that he was miserable in those consular years from 1783 to 1790. This is in a sense easily understandable. When he set foot in America at the end of the war, after a three-year absence, he had had no news for even longer than that of the family he had left behind. What he learned seemed to fit only too justly the French surname, Crèvecoeur, that he had taken up again. He learned, heart-breakingly, that his wife was dead; his children had barely survived, thanks to the kindness of a stranger; and his beloved farmhouse, Pine Hill in Orange County, had been burned down in an Indian raid. The ‘American Farmer’ had no more appetite for agriculture in the New World: he sold his property in 1785.

But the full force of his misery, a semi-secret misery, was not revealed until 1925, when some further literary endeavours of his, dating back to his first American sojourn, were at last released from the obscurity of a French attic and printed as Sketches of Eighteenth-Century America. The Sketches make strange reading when set beside the Letters. Only at the end of the 1782 book did Crèvecoeur touch upon the strife of the Revolutionary War. He declared then that he would seek refuge by abandoning his farm, in fact by renouncing civilization altogether, to go and live among the Indians. It was so fanciful a project that no casual reader could take it seriously. In fact, as D. H. Lawrence derisively noted in his Studies in Classic American Literature (1922), Crèvecoeur had done the exact opposite. He had retreated into civilization by going to Paris, where he mingled with salon intellectuals.

To underline the contradiction, Lawrence stressed the discrepancy between the Frenchman's real passion for nature in America, which Lawrence called ‘blood knowledge’, and his artificial enthusiasm for Nature in the abstract. Lawrence wrote before the publication of Sketches. And in any case, being magnificently egocentric, Lawrence was more interested in his own idea of Crèvecoeur than in Crèvecoeur's actual predicaments. Lawrence therefore missed the truly remarkable discrepancy between what Crèvecoeur proclaimed in print and what he inwardly felt.9

In the Letters, remember, Crèvecoeur announces: ‘We are the most perfect society now existing in the world. Here man is free as he ought to be, nor is this pleasing equality so transitory as many others are.’ But in the Sketches he speaks in another voice altogether:

Could I ever have thought that a people of cultivators, who knew nothing but their ploughs and management of their rural economies, should be found to possess, like the more ancient nations of Europe, the embryos of these propensities which now stain our society? … The range of civil discord hath advanced among us with an astonishing rapidity. Every opinion is changed; every prejudice is subverted; every ancient principle is annihilated; every mode of organization, which linked us before as men and as citizens, is now altered. New ones are introduced, and who can tell whether we shall be the gainers by the exchange? …

But why should I wonder at this political phenomenon? Men are the same in all ages and in all countries. A few prejudices and customs excepted, the same passions lurk in our hearts at all times …10

The difference of course is that in the meantime the American Revolution had begun. Worse than that, the mild, Quakerish Crèvecoeur could not bring himself to rejoice at the rebellion. His ‘secret’, to use Brissot's term, may have been that certain patriots had regarded him as pro-British during the conflict. Here and there surprise was expressed that the French should have appointed such a dubious person to represent them as consul, so soon after the war. Back in New York, where the courts were full of cases involving the property of former Loyalists,11 Crèvecoeur may have lain awake worrying that some malicious enemy would denounce him as a collaborator.

Loyalist is probably too strong a word to define Crèvecoeur's position; and so is collaborator. His agony was that he had no defined position. He was, rather, a neutralist or a quietist, in a situation that did not permit quiet or neutrality. He therefore got the worst of both worlds during the Revolution. His neighbours expected active proof of his support for the American cause. His oddities as a part-time man of letters aroused suspicion. Why did he shut himself up and scribble? What was he writing about, and to whom? His half-fictional, half-autobiographical essays became, one guesses, an essential release. He could not stop committing them to paper. But they now contained dangerous sentiments. He could envisage no satisfactory outcome for the Revolution. For him, living in an area of exceptionally confused allegiances, the immediate reality was violence, bloodshed, hypocrisy; the suppression of free speech; intimidation and robbery in the name of high-sounding ideals. So Crèvecoeur composed frantic sketches with titles such as ‘The Man of Sorrows’ and ‘The American Belisarius’ (an allusion to the Roman general who, having been disgraced, blinded, and deprived of all his property, was reduced to begging by the roadside). Crèvecoeur, portraying himself or his friends or his wife's Loyalist kinfolk under various disguises, poured out his soul in bitter anecdotes of persecution and confiscation. His emotion found vent too in a number of remarkable dialogues or playlets that he called ‘Landscapes’. In these the patriots are shown as sanctimonious thugs. Their victims, on the other hand, are harmless Quakers, decent farmers, upright gentlemen. One of the victims, a woman whose husband has been hunted like a wild beast, wearily observes that ‘the world was created round to convince us that nothing therein is stable and permanent’. She says of a patriot colonel, who is also a deacon: ‘As a county canting, religious hypocrite I had always known thee; now as Congress delegate, and in that service dost thou use thy former qualifications.’12

These heartbroken essays, together with some more cheerful earlier ones, accompanied Crèvecoeur to New York City at the beginning of 1779, when he at length set out to quit the colonies. Leaving was easier said than done. New York was in the hands of the British. A local official in Orange County reported: ‘the people of our country are much alarmed at their apprehensions of St John's being permitted to go to New York’. The British did not quite trust him either. They opened up the little trunk in which he guarded his papers. A British officer testified that it contained ‘a great Number of Manuscripts, the general purport of which appear to be a sort of irregular Journal of America, & a State of the Times of some years back, interspersed with occasional Remarks, Philosophical & Political; the tendency of the latter is to favor the side of Government and to throw Odium on the Proceedings of the Opposite Party, and upon the Tyranny of their Popular Government.’13 In other words, two types of essay: the optimistic ones that made up the volume of Letters from an American Farmer, and the pessimistic ones that were to remain unprinted until the Sketches volume of 1925.

An anonymous informer denounced Crèvecoeur to the British authorities in New York as a patriot spy. They put him in jail—from which he was only released, after three months, on the pleading of an impeccably Loyalist friend. Some of his papers went astray. A portion of the remainder he sold to a pair of booksellers, on arrival in London. Hence the publication of the Letters in London in 1782—by which time Crèvecoeur was in France.

He did not think the British completely blameless for the Revolution. Perhaps, he conjectured, their appetite for conquest had disturbed the balance in North America. Crèvecoeur was much more positive that, whatever the long-distance workings of history, the Revolution was without rational justification. The colonists had no real complaint. ‘It is to England’, says Crèvecoeur in one of his pre-Revolutionary essays, ‘we owe this elevated rank we possess, these noble appellations of freemen, freeholders, citizens; yes, it is to that wise people we owe our freedom.’ In a later essay he gropes for an understanding of what has gone wrong. ‘Ambition’, he suggests,

an exorbitant love of power and thirst of riches, a certain impatience of government, by some people called liberty—all these motives, clad under the garb of patriotism and even of constitutional reason, have been the … foundations of this, as well as of many other revolutions. But what art, what insidious measures, what … masses of intricate, captious delusions were not necessary to persuade a people happy beyond any other on earth, … receiving from Nature every benefit she could confer, enjoying from government every advantage it could confer, that they were miserable, oppressed and aggrieved, that slavery and tyranny would rush upon them from the very sources which before had conveyed them so many blessings.14

Consider the ironies of Crèvecoeur's situation. When he speaks in his lyrical, pre-Revolutionary writings of ‘government’, he means the benevolent, far-off yet powerful British government, the guarantor of the colonists' contentment. The American, ‘this new man’, is actually an Anglo-American; ‘the new government he obeys’ is actually an Anglo-American government. And when Crèvecoeur talks of government in his subsequent essays, he refers to the truculence of patriot Congressmen, or the spleen of the New York board of commissioners established in 1777 to smell out un-American activities in Orange County and elsewhere.

Before the troubles came, Crèvecoeur's dual allegiance—to old England and the New World—involved no strain. He was doing well in British America. He was writing essays, no doubt with a view to publication, that ought to gratify English citizens on both sides of the Atlantic. Then his world split apart. He still contrived to salvage the book, or some of it, and to appeal to a now-divided double audience. But when his book reached the public it was already anachronistic, and he was a changed man. Letters from an American Farmer glows with a ruddy optimism. The narrator is the architect of his own fortune; his latchstring is always out for visits from neighbours and strangers alike. But by 1782, as the author must have been more painfully aware than anyone, the optimism of the Letters was absurd. The latchstring had proved to be out for visits from commissioners and raiders. Literally and metaphorically, the structure of Crèvecoeur's farmhouse lay in ruins.

He tried, we can see, in the later work (published eventually as the Sketches) to re-order his mind, to arrive at philosophical detachment, to admit irony into his mental scheme: to turn, so to speak, from Rousseau into Voltaire. The task was too difficult. He could manage only an occasional gleam of humour or a half-hearted effort at philosophical detachment. Never a systematic thinker, he wrote incoherently about the incoherence of human history.

Crèvecoeur also tried to reshape his Anglo-American into a Franco-American identity. Soon after reaching France, in August 1781, he wrote to Benjamin Franklin, expressing himself ‘glad … as a good Frenchman and a good American to contribute my Mite towards the Success of this grand, this useful revolution’. After the Franco-American victory at Yorktown he wrote again, to congratulate Franklin as the representative of the United States on an event that must ‘convulse with joy the hearts of every loyal American as well as those of every good Frenchman’. In the next couple of years things improved for Crèvecoeur. By the end of 1783 the War of Independence was over; his English edition was being discussed and on the whole applauded; he was respected among some of the philosophes of Paris; and he had prepared a French version of his book. But these consolations were offset. His own part in the Revolution may now have struck him as inglorious and even cowardly. He had been proved too pessimistic; and ought he to have left his family behind in America? He experienced more subtle anxieties. The London edition of the Letters contained no hostile comment on the mother country. The French edition, however, introduced many partisan interpolations, so as to present the English as the villains of the story and the Americans as heroes. The old dedication to the Abbé Raynal was gone: the Abbé's advanced opinions had put him out of favour with the French court. Instead, the Paris edition of 1784 was dedicated to that fashionable new Franco-American idol, the Marquis de Lafayette. Crèvecoeur, though, can hardly have forgotten the manuscripts still in his possession—unpublished and now unpublishable. In one of them, ‘an American gentleman’ observes:

When the accounts of this mighty revolution arrive in Europe, nothing will appear there but the splendid effects. The insignificant cause will be overlooked; the low arts, this progressive succession of infatuations which have pervaded the whole continent will be unknown.15

When Crèvecoeur was installed as French consul in New York, in 1783, he discovered that nearly all his former friends and connexions had departed into Loyalist exile. Silence about those old ties was his only recourse. Then and for the rest of his days, Crèvecoeur busied himself as conscientiously as he could with Franco-American exchanges. Most of them had to do with plants, which he perhaps found safer than people to deal with. He produced pamphlets recommending the cultivation in France of the potato and the false acacia. Scientific societies elected him to membership. He refurbished some old notes to make a book of his bygone travels, Voyage dans la Haute Pennsylvanie et dans l'Etat de New-York (1801)—dedicated to Napoleon.16 On the title page he described himself as an adopted member of the Oneida Indian tribe: a detail that would have amused D. H. Lawrence. Silence, and discreetly timed absences from France, enabled him to survive a second revolution there, followed by the marchings and countermarchings of the Napoleonic wars.


What then is this Crèvecoeur? Is he an American, or a European, or an unhappy hybrid? I described him earlier as a would-be neutralist, or quietist. Does the additional evidence make him seem more like a Vicar of Bray, one of those ‘trimmers’ of chameleon-like adaptability who modified their attitudes according to circumstance? It is clear that he was a romantic rather than a political ideologue. He never showed much interest in constitutions or manifestos. I think quietist is a fairer description than trimmer. He appears more bewildered than agile; he reveals anguish rather than relish when he has to change his line, and he is clumsy at covering his tracks. But perhaps in most cases a trimmer is merely a quietist who has been forced out into the open. Such sudden and cruel exposure is a feature of revolutions, civil wars and military occupation. It is not my concern to indict Crèvecoeur for inconsistency, still less for insincerity. The only charge against him, perhaps, is that the Letters are full of attitudinizing: that is to say, of self-deception. This argument, to which we can return later, is that Crèvecoeur adopted fashionable notions of life in the New World and convinced himself they were as powerful as a creed, when in fact they were only a conception. If so, he paid quite a heavy psychological price.

In any case, fate was fairly kind to him after the shock of the war years in America. A good many Loyalists came back to New York when peace was restored, and most of them were able to come to terms with the new régime. They were not harassed unduly; Crèvecoeur seems to have gone unscathed. He was treated as a respectable, well-informed foreign diplomat. He corresponded now and then with such American dignitaries as Thomas Jefferson. There was no disposition in Britain to attack his record. His few English critics, agreeing with George Washington, merely complained that the Letters painted too rosy a picture of American life, and hinted that his motive was to encourage emigration.17 Otherwise, the British gradually forgot him. So, as we have seen, did the French. If they wanted to read about America, Chateaubriand and later Tocqueville and Beaumont were more to their taste. Crèvecoeur may have been frightened that someone would take the trouble to compare the British and the French edition of the Letters. It appears that nobody did. People had other things to worry about in the tumult of the time. His death in France, in 1813, went almost unnoticed.

But that is not to say he is unimportant to us. Looking behind the twentieth-century Crèvecoeur of the textbooks and anthologies, we can use him to shed light on various reactions of people who leave their own country for some other one. Such departures are either voluntary or involuntary. The voluntary leavers are usually called settlers or emigrants. The involuntary leavers are often labelled as exiles or—in the English usage of the French word—émigrés. Which of these was Crèvecoeur? A mixture, I think. The mood of the Letters is in general that of the voluntary voyager. The mood of the Sketches is that of the involuntary one. But the story goes further back. For some reason his brother officers were eager to push him out of the French regiment in which he was serving in Canada in 1759. In this respect his arrival in the British colonies makes him appear an exile or émigré from France. When he came back to his native land in 1781 he had almost forgotten how to speak French.

But let us focus for the moment on the voluntary leavers. Perhaps the rather blurred association between the two categories, settler and immigrant, helps to explain why the Letters, though popular for a while, lapsed into obscurity and were then resurrected. It is mainly as a spokesman for emigration (to put the emphasis on arrival), that we read Crèvecoeur today. An immigrant—in my sense of the word—is a man who severs his connexion with the past. He transfers to another sovereignty, another flag, another loyalty, and in so doing must repudiate his previous existence. For Crèvecoeur, to come to British America probably involved a quite complete repudiation of France: of French citizenship, and possibly of the whole atmosphere of exclusion and oppression of Continental Europe. Whether this was total we cannot know. It may be significant that he named a daughter America-Francès.18 Recalling that as a young man he lived in England and nearly married an English girl, we may regard him as an example of the Anglomania professed by various French philosophes.

The important point, I believe, is that if his French origins and his repudiation of them made him an immigrant to America, his Anglophile instincts made him a settler. Defining that term in a restricted sense, a settler is a person who despite his territorial movement remains under the same flag, the same dispensation. He does not swap allegiances, he amplifies them. He takes pride in the mother country and in its new, extended universe. So Crèvecoeur, in his celebrated chapter ‘What Is an American?’, pictures an ‘enlightened Englishman’ landing in America and delighted to find what his countrymen, even the disadvantaged and lowly, have been able to accomplish. ‘They brought along with them’, he says, ‘their national genius. Here [the enlightened Englishman] sees the industry of his native country, displayed in a new manner … What a train of pleasing ideas this fair spectacle must suggest!’ Crèvecoeur to some extent visualized himself as an English settler-citizen: an Englishman and an Anglo-American. His literary persona, significantly, was that of an Englishman, and the son of an Englishman, though also American by birth. He pretends in the Letters that it was his grandfather who came from England to British America. Crèvecoeur, in short, intended to write as a settler, for a European audience. The twentieth century, somewhat misreading him, has interpreted him as an immigrant, writing for an American or would-be American audience.

His personal trauma was a double one. During the War of Independence he was required to affirm that he was not an Anglo-American but an American: not a settler but an immigrant. New York State demanded a loyalty oath from what it called ‘persons of neutral and equivocal character’. They were to acknowledge that New York was ‘of right, a free and independent state’. Crèvecoeur could not at that stage bind himself to agree. His second tragedy was to be thrust back into the dispossessed plight of the exile or émigré, and to feel that none of the possible roles was satisfactory.

Among the elements that the settler and the immigrant have in common is a disposition to be optimistic, and to think in the future tense, of what is to be. If, says Crèvecoeur, the new American ‘is a good man, he forms schemes of future prosperity … He thinks of future modes of conduct’. Such men have gambled on tomorrow. Being newcomers, they are also extremely reluctant to criticize their new environment. Their enthusiasm may thus be both sincere and oddly circumspect, even artificial. In Crèvecoeur's case, he was compelled for a while to renounce this optimistic mode. As an exile or émigré, he faced the irony of having lost England as well as America, and of having to strive to renew an allegiance to France that he had almost abandoned. Far from gaining a habitation and an identity, the exile or émigré are deprived of theirs. Not the future but the past is their tense: not I shall be but I was is their avowal. It is terrible for a man to be shifted from one extreme to the other, as was Crèvecoeur's lot. ‘I am no longer the old me’ (l'ancien moi) ‘that you knew in the days of my happiness and my liberty’, he lamented to a friend. ‘Before this fatal era’, he wrote (c. 1778), ‘no man was happier than I was, I … was full of hopes and confidence …’ But the previous three years had brought ‘nothing but … acrimonious reflections which have made me a very different man from what I was’.19What I was … Hence the almost schizophrenic difference of outlook between the genial Letters and the gloomy Sketches.

Obviously Crèvecoeur's problems were peculiar. His difficulties of national identity were compounded during the Revolution because his farm happened to be in a chaotic debatable zone between the British and the American forces. His wife's family seems to have been chiefly Loyalist. But fascinating though his story is in its own right, we can seek some broader lessons. In some respects Crèvecoeur reveals himself as a typical man of the pre-Revolutionary Enlightenment. Like a good many of his European contemporaries, he was not sure whether America was fundamentally different from Europe, or fundamentally similar; whether, that is, the effects of environment outweighed the effects of heredity. His answers are not always consistent: a comment that can also be made about Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, written sixty years later. In places, Crèvecoeur seems to think that, for good and for ill, America's characteristics are entirely environmental. Elsewhere, especially in the Sketches, the argument tends to be that human nature is everywhere the same. Elsewhere again, Crèvecoeur appears to be saying that America is a melting-pot of all nations (the assumption of his mentor Raynal), and yet that its character has been formed on the basis of the colonies' British origins.20

This range of possibilities has continued to underlie nearly all subsequent discussion of the America-Europe relationship. As a man of the Enlightenment, Crèvecoeur probably did not feel the need for any greater analytical rigour. He does not wave the flag chauvinistically for any one nation, including the United States. He attempted to deal in universals, to look upon the world with a transnational benevolence. On the whole he did not see America and Europe as distinct, rival civilizations but as societies bound by a principle of complementarity. In praising America so highly he was imparting a message of hope for mankind everywhere. The intended moral of the Letters was that simple prosperity was the best guarantee of human happiness, and that such a goal could be universally attainable.

Up to the time of the American Revolution, most of the big generalizations about America had come from Europe, or were identical with American formulations. In this respect, Crèvecoeur summed up two or three centuries of the more favourable kinds of comment on America, in the Letters: the Sketches, consciously or unconsciously, recapitulate some of the unfavourable views, according to which America was a disorderly, degenerate place. For a century and more after the Revolution, the America-Europe relationship tended to become polarized into a principle of stark contrast. The gentle and rather ambiguous messages of Letters from an American Farmer, in an era of nationalistic scholarship, failed to excite the imagination of readers on either side of the Atlantic.

The Letters, as we know, were given a new lease of life at the beginning of the twentieth century. Not only did they appear to describe the conditions of melting-pot America: in general the book provided a welcome additional item to augment the none too abundant shelf of early American literary sources. Crèvecoeur ministered to the cultural and academic nationalism of the twentieth-century United States, as typified by the American Studies movement. Portions of the Letters—the bits to be found in the anthologies—are so fitting for the purpose that one almost thinks they would have had to be invented if they did not already exist.

Such an interpretation of course depends upon a highly selective reading of Crèvecoeur. With the exception of his biographers, few scholars seem to have taken the trouble to search for the real Crèvecoeur. They are content for the most part to reproduce a few paragraphs from the Letters, to ignore the Sketches, and to accept the persona of the Letters as an essentially accurate portrait of the author.

The result is a grossly oversimplified rendering. It prevents us from recognizing that the European-American relationship contains all sorts of nuances, with a considerable element of mythologizing. Crèvecoeur's writings, the Sketches no less than the Letters, are even more relevant for the twentieth century than conventional interpretations claim. They help us to grasp the ambivalences of departure from one society and arrival in another, and therefore of the whole drama of New World settlement. Crèvecoeur also has become relevant because our time is more aware of the similarities between the New and Old Worlds than was the nineteenth century. We are once again inclined to think transnationally. In the perspective of the 1970s, the United States and western Europe, in spite of their many dissimilarities, are seen to be running on more or less parallel lines. In the context of world history, both communities are relatively rich, relatively sophisticated, relatively urbanized and industrialized. They share common heritages, though admittedly eclectic ones. The New World is in some ways now old, the Old World in some ways new. One of the many advantages to be gained from a close reading of Crèvecoeur is the realization that this interplay between Europe and America has been going on for a very long time, and that it has never been straightforward. Crèvecoeur's essays offer an excellent text for a fresh re-assessment of the past, present and future of the Euro-American relationship.21


  1. Three random mentions and excerpts out of many:

    (a) Henry S. Commager, ed., America in Perspective: The United States Through Foreign Eyes (New York, Mentor, 1948), p. 25. Commager reproduces the third chapter of Letters, and says: ‘Crèvecoeur, who lived half his mature life in America, can scarcely be classified as a foreigner, and indeed … he knew his adopted country better than most native-born Americans did—knew it, understood it, and loved it.’

    (b) William J. Chute, ed., The American Scene, 1600-1860 (New York, Bantam Matrix, 1964), p. 73: ‘No book of readings in American history could be considered complete without Crèvecoeur's essay, “What Is An American?”.’

    (c) Richard B. Morris, The American Revolution: A Short History (New York, Van Nostrand, 1955), p. 139: ‘Embraced in the new spirit of nationalism which pervaded the Revolutionary movement was an idyllic concept of America as a land of opportunity … No one expressed these ideas with greater fervor nor gave a more lucid account of the effects of the melting pot on the molding of the American character than did … Crèvecoeur.’

  2. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer and Sketches of Eighteenth-Century America, ed. Albert E. Stone, Jr. (New York, Signet, 1963), pp. 60-64. All subsequent quotations from Letters or Sketches are drawn from this admirable edition—the only one that prints both books in one volume. There is another paperback edition of the Letters (New York, Dutton Everyman, 1957) with some interesting editorial comment by Warren B. Blake. The most detailed biographies of Crèvecoeur are by Julia Post Mitchell (New York, Columbia U.P., 1916), and Howard C. Rice, Le Cultivateur Américain: étude sur l'oeuvre de Saint John de Crèvecoeur (Paris, Champion, 1933)—a most useful work. A good brief recent study is Thomas Philbrick, St. John de Crèvecoeur (New York, Twayne, 1970).

  3. Washington to Richard Henderson, 19 June 1788, in The Washington Papers, ed. Saul K. Padover (New York, Harper, 1955), p. 358.

  4. Max Savelle, in Problems in American History, ed. Richard W. Leopold and Arthur S. Link (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., Prentice-Hall, 2nd edn., 1957), pp. 32-3, describes Crèvecoeur as ‘a Frenchman who lived for a time in Pennsylvania’. J. C. Furnas, The Americans: A Social History of the United States, 1587-1914 (New York, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1969), pp. 239-40, refers to Crèvecoeur as ‘a middle-aged Norman … who had spent much of his life in the Middle Colonies …’

  5. ‘Behold, sir, an humble American planter, a simple cultivator of the earth, addressing you from the farther side of the Atlantic and presuming to fix your name at the head of his trifling lucubrations.’ Letters, ed. Stone, pp. 29-30.

  6. Philarète Chasles, Etudes sur la littérature et les moeurs des Anglo-Américains au XIXe siècle (Paris, 1851), p. 11.

  7. See for example William H. Nelson, The American Tory (repr. Boston, Beacon Press, 1964), and Wallace Brown, The Good Americans: The Loyalists in the American Revolution (New York, Morrow, 1969).

  8. ‘Crèvecoeur portait partout un front sombre, un air inquiet … Jamais il ne se livrait aux épanchements, il paraissait même quelquefois effrayé du succès de son ouvrage, il semblait enfin qu'il eût un secret qui lui pesât sur l'âme et dont il craignait la révélation.’ Brissot, quoted in Rice, p. 43n.

  9. Lawrence's essay on Crèvecoeur first appeared in the English Review (January 1919). It is longer than the version printed in Studies in Classic American Literature but equally off-hand about the actual circumstances of Crèvecoeur. See Armin Arnold, D. H. Lawrence in America (London, Linden Press, 1958), pp. 50-3. The two sides of Crèvecoeur are well brought out in Vernon L. Parrington, Main Currents in American Thought (New York, Harcourt, Brace, 1927-30), vol. i pp. 140-7.

  10. Sketches, ed. Stone, pp. 342-3.

  11. See Oscar Zeichner, ‘The Loyalist Problem in New York after the Revolution,’ New York History, 21 (July, 1940), 284-302.

  12. Sketches, ed. Stone, pp. 450-8.

  13. Major-General James Pattison, quoted in Rice, pp. 57-8.

  14. Sketches, ed. Stone, p. 399.

  15. Rice, pp. 166-70; Sketches, ed. Stone, p. 422. This particular dialogue anticipates the complex responses to the Revolution, and to American democracy, of James Fenimore Cooper—for instance in his Little-page Manuscripts trilogy. See Marcus Cunliffe, The Literature of the United States (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1970 edn.), pp. 68-70.

  16. Available in an English edition, as Journey into Northern Pennsylvania and the State of New York, transl. Clarissa Bostelmann (Ann Arbor, U. of Michigan P., 1964).

  17. Rice, pp. 63-6.

  18. Thomas Jefferson attended the wedding of America-Francès. See Dictionary of American Biography (New York, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1943), iv, p. 543.

  19. Quoted in Rice, p. 162.

  20. Winthrop D. Jordan, White Over Black: American Attitudes toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (Chapel Hill, U. of North Carolina P., 1968), pp. 335-41, argues that Crèvecoeur's melting-pot vision was not representative of American thinking in Crèvecoeur's own day, nor of the state of affairs in subsequent decades. His, says Jordan, was the hopeful attitude of a non-British, though distinctly Anglophile, settler. Most other works of the period, more accurately predictive than Crèvecoeur's, stressed the dominant influence of the English (or at any rate Anglo-American) culture in subjugating other cultural strains—a dominance that persisted through the nineteenth century. Jordan also detects another limitation: that Crèvecoeur's melting-pot allowed no place for the Negro American. Apart from his one chapter on the fate of the slaves in the South, Crèvecoeur refers without embarrassment to the supposedly happy and submissive blacks whom he himself owns.

  21. In addition to the works cited in note 2, there are signs of a more knowledgeably sophisticated approach to Crèvecoeur in a number of recent books and articles. See for example Elayne Antler Rapping, ‘Theory and Experience in Crèvecoeur's America’, American Quarterly, 19 (1967), 707-18; and James C. Mohr, ‘Calculated Disillusionment: Crèvecoeur's Letters Reconsidered’, South Atlantic Quarterly, 69 (1970), 354-63.

Joel R. Kehler (essay date 1976)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4178

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 pre-Charles Town Letters (I-VIII) as unrealistically optimistic and as ironic by intention in the overall design of the work. One commentator has gone so far as to call James “Crevecoeur's straw man” for proving the inadequacy of “reason,” “self-interest,” “agrarianism,” “the law of nature,” and other concepts dear to Enlightenment thought as bases of social order.1 This view assumes a “strategy” on Crèvecoeur's part of undercutting James's characteristic thought as offering a false view of the world which will not stand the test of experience and which can only serve to wither the promise of the American Garden.2

Certainly Crèvecoeur's literary intention is intimately bound up with the intellectual integrity of his American Farmer. If James's mind is no more than soft wax, begging uncritically to be impressed with the faddish bywords of eighteenth-century thought, then he is unworthy of our respect, and we have good reason to suspect that Crèvecoeur does not subscribe to his vision of American life. If, as I believe, James's intellectual integrity remains intact, we have far less reason to suspect huge ironies on Crèvecoeur's part. It is true that James's thoughts are often couched in familiar, even trite-sounding terms and that he makes no particular efforts at consistency. A speculatively inclined farmer whose strongest constitutional element is nevertheless his “feeling,” James is no philosopher. But neither is he a “straw man” stuffed with nonsense and set up only to be knocked down. If he does not seem troubled by what may sound like contradictions (even when they are easily reconcilable), it is perhaps because the narrative mode provides scant plausible opportunity to explore them. James is writing letters not treatises.

Notwithstanding his tendency to become emotional, James, a specimen of the eighteenth-centry “man of sensibility,” is at bottom a solid pragmatist. By any reasonable standards his views are neither wildly optimistic nor absurdly uninformed. He habitually looks for the good and the bad, the credible and the incredible, in any issue to which he addresses himself. It makes only marginal sense to speak of James as if he were a theoretician, for he is certainly no ideologue. Still, his ideas bear the impress of a distinct outlook and personality—his own—and unfold with discernible method from concepts and experiences that James has proved on his own pulses. This method of unfolding has much to tell us about the author's true “strategy” in the Letters.

To get to the core of Crèvecoeur's thematic intention it is necessary first to demonstrate James's intellectual self-sufficiency and to vindicate him from the charge of slavish adherence to the letter of contemporary doctrine; then to find the organizing thread in the web of James's thought and to show how it has been spun from his own local experience. That James (and undoubtedly Crèvecoeur, as well) eventually has reason to be disillusioned with certain aspects of American life is undeniable. But the fault is not traceable to James or to the invalidity of his beliefs, and his “distress” in the final Letter results from the misguided actions of others not from his own folly. That our own age no longer finds the blush of promise in his intellectual stock is insufficient grounds for supposing that Crèvecoeur feels the same.

Some commentators have singled out Mr. F. B., James's European visitor, as responsible for the many familiar echoes of popular eighteenth-century thought in his rhetoric.3 Has James allowed the tabula rasa of his untutored mind to be scribbled upon by an educated foreigner? Some of the echoes, certainly, may be imputed to Crèvecoeur, the author, who obviously has read things the unsophisticated James has not. But if James has gotten some of his ideas from a source within the fictional scope of Letters, he has more likely gotten them from a source closer to home: the minister whom he seeks out for advice in the introductory Letter. Crèvecoeur pokes a good deal of benign fun at the provincial pedantry of the good minister, who clearly “has opinions” and readily expounds them to James throughout Letter I. He even offers to “help” James “whenever I have any leisure” with the composition of the letters James has agreed to write to his European friend.4

But to allow for a certain influence of one more educated man over another is scarcely to make a case for intellectual tyranny. The minister has a generous respect for James's native sagacity, noting that the latter often “extract[s] useful reflections from objects which present none to my mind” (p. 40). James, furthermore, absolutely assures his European correspondent that his epistolary observations “will all be the genuine dictates of my mind” (p. 43). Even when it is said that the correspondent will supply the “subjects” for James's discourse, we need not imagine that anything more than a vague prompting is being suggested: Write me a letter on the native fauna of a given region, or Write me a letter on the general situation of the American farmer. There is no reason to suppose that James has been brainwashed by anyone.

James makes clear the nature of his intellectual debt at the beginning of Letter II, when he pointedly notes that his correspondent's “observations have confirmed me in the justness of my ideas, and I am happier now than I thought myself before” (p. 45). Whatever ideas James has about man and nature are his own and existed before they were “confirmed” by the European. What James in fact says is that he is flattered at having his views endorsed by so distinguished and so cultured a personage. If the language of James's views is often on the bookish side, his characteristic form of expressing them shows how they have been arrived at: by observation of his native surroundings.

Granting the parabolic function of James's anecdotes as central to Crèvecoeur's literary purpose, we should not lose sight of the fact that they are offered as observations. Commentators often seem to assume that James tailors his observations to fit his theories. Is not the reverse at least as plausible? Certainly “nature,” for example, has less reality for James as an abstraction than it has for the European correspondent. The former lived with nature long before he knew it was a subject for theoretical speculation. In his observations on Nantucket, it is not the parallel of what he sees to a preconceived model that accounts for James's favorable commentary; it is the fact that Nantucket strikes him spontaneously as resembling his own favorite kind of community, a bee-hive. Bee metaphors abound throughout Letter VII because the people of Nantucket seem to James to act like bees.

James's pragmatism also tempers his devotion to such eighteenth-century bywords as “reason.” He never labors under the delusion that the constructs of human thought represent the highest ordering principles. Late in Letter II James notes that “the whole economy of what we proudly call the brute creation is admirable in every circumstance; and vain man, though adorned with the additional gift of reason, might learn from the perfection of instinct how to regulate the follies, and how to temper the errors which this second gift often makes him commit” (p. 56). Somewhat paradoxically, this passage has also been used as an instance of James's unreasonable optimism in fancying that natural law can always supply the pattern for human society.5 But in pursuing his line of thought, James, speaking of the “imperfect systems of men” and of the embarrassing disparity between them and nature's perfect order, surely means us to keep this in mind, as well: nature's system is indeed perfect if by perfect one means not just and benign in every instance but comprehensive and efficient. Justice and benignity are concepts supplied by the imperfect but necessary systems of men.

In so far as reason is systematic, abstract, and divorced from the test of experience and the needs of men, James has little use for it. To him such reason is synonymous with Solon and Lycurgus and with the kind of sophistical argumentation he finds justifying slavery in Charles Town, and political oppression by the British. Sophistry, James says in speaking of the British, is the “bane of freemen” (p. 198). James's version of right reason is “plain judgment,” a concept which he associates most fully with the simple folk of Nantucket, who must daily make use of it in confronting the problems of a harsh existence. Barren logic may be imposed on the order of nature, but “plain judgment,” he believes (with some reservations, as we shall see later), grows from the perception of that order.

James's attitude toward “self-interest” as a basis for social order likewise shows the pragmatic order of his own thought. Certainly it is desirable that any social system satisfy as many self-interests as possible without violating the higher dictates of justice. This much James maintains. But nowhere, either before or after his southern excursion, does he claim that the pursuit of self-interest is an infallible principle of social order. On the contrary, the whole thrust of James's barnyard example of good government in Letter II is to demonstrate that where no force for justice exists, self-interest will inevitably produce injustice for the weak. That Charles Towners, moreover, justify slavery as in their self-interest and as rationally based on the natural principle of self-preservation, does not mean that the two principles in fact coincide. Obviously, slavery is not necessary to the self-preservation of Southerners or of anyone else. They have simply argued that it is. Slavery is necessary to the preservation of a certain social system, not of human life.

Even James's cherished belief in the superiority of agrarianism to industrialism as social and economic modes has its limit. James's agrarianism, like Jefferson's, is at bottom moral not economic in character, the desired goal being to produce good men rather than wealthy ones.6 Yet James, despite his devotion to the principle of each man's natural right to ownership of the land, acknowledges from the beginning that the so-called “freehold concept” by itself guarantees no beneficial results.7 Some, he notes in Letter III, “have been led astray by this enchanting [American] scene; their new pride, instead of leading them to the fields, has kept them in idleness; the idea of possessing lands is all that satisfies them” (p. 78). This observation is made long before the southern excursion in Letter IX and shows that James does not have to be shocked into realistic appraisals by the gross inequities of plantation life.

What commentators have generally failed to note is that Crèvecoeur's focus is less on programmatic agrarianism than on the elemental concept of property, first given a central place in social theory by John Locke. Locke's analysis profoundly influenced French and American thought throughout the eighteenth century. In his Two Treatises of Government (1690), Locke contends that man in a state of nature is free within the bounds of natural order but that the state of nature is an order for individuals rather than communities. The ever more complicated contact of men as a result of their impulse to labor makes a social order based only on the state of nature inadequate. Whatever a man removes from a state of nature “he hath mixed his Labour with, and joyned to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his Property.” The rights of property become the new organizing principles for human society, principles which Locke extends to embrace “the mutual Preservation of … Lives, Liberties and Estates.” The sanctity of property is made as much a psychological as a social necessity, a requisite of contentment as well as of order. But since it is labor that gives rise to the idea of property, labor must be its arbiter: “Nay, the extent of Ground is of so little value, without labour, that I have heard it affirmed, that in Spain itself, a Man may be permitted to plough, sow, and reap, without being disturbed, upon Land he has no other Title to, but only his making use of it.”8

The Lockean notion of the natural right to property is an eighteenth-century commonplace echoed by such American contemporaries of Crèvecoeur as George Logan, Hugh Brackenridge, and Tom Paine.9 What is not common is the pragmatic arrangement of thought Crèvecoeur brings to the “idea of property” itself. Through Farmer James he explores the timeless contradiction of the human impulses to set boundaries and to remain uninhibited. The episode in Letter II, in which the wren attempts quite perversely to expropriate the nests of the swallow and the phoebe, indicates the depth of the conflict. James recognizes a sort of proto-instinct for property even in nature, noting as well its potential for creating disorder and injustice: “Where did this little bird learn that spirit of injustice? It was not endowed with what we term reason! Here, then, is a proof that both those gifts border very near on one another; for we see the perfection of the one mixing with the errors of the other” (p. 57). Since the wren's seemingly rational appreciation of its unjust triumph can only be ascribed to instinct, the perfection of instinct mimics the imperfection of reason. The order of nature, therefore, is patently not synonymous for James with the idea of rational justice.

This perception shows the pragmatic approach of James's thinking and further shows how the idea of property lies at the center of his thought. In this instance the touchstone of property suggests the complex relation of reason to instinct. In a state of nature, instinct and reason are virtually synonymous, and man as a creature of nature can share in that perfection. But man is also apart from nature and, thus, can be victimized by his instincts. Property, arising naturally from labor, exerts an attraction with the force of instinct, and the desire for it drives a wedge between reason, which demands justice, and instinct, which demands the gratification of desire. The French physiocrats, for instance, tend to identify reason entirely with the order of nature and refuse to admit that man's natural rights may be modified by any form of social contract.10 James's perceptions would make both propositions unacceptable to him.

That the idea of property is essential to complete human fulfillment Crèvecoeur leaves no doubt. James pays tribute to its psychological force in noting how the “instant I enter on my own land, the bright idea of property, of exclusive right, of independence exalts my mind” (p. 48). James subscribes to the Lockean notion that freedom implies the setting of boundaries and that, therefore, the ownership of property is a necessary condition of social and political freedom. The southern slave has no property but is himself property. Such a circumstance, James finds in Charles Town, produces terrible abuses to the natural rights of life and liberty.11 The Charles Town lawyers treat the land as the overseers treat the slaves, abstractly with no thought for justice or humanity. At this extreme, property becomes an instrument of tyranny. At the opposite extreme, however, the result can be just as gruesome. The primitive Indians of Nantucket, in the absence of any formal idea of property, once preyed upon one another almost to the point of extinction. Only the reasoned decision to divide their island in two, an elementary creation of property, set limits to their license and saved them from self-annihilation. Property is revealed to be a two-edged sword, a source of fulfillment and of misery. Nowhere does either Crèvecoeur or James imply a solution to this dilemma.

James's guiding principles are few and simple, embodying a practical approach to the complex problem of property. He understands that the pull of the land will, in the absence of reasoned property rights, lead to serious disorder and injustice, even as abstract property rights detached from the reality of the land will lead to tyranny and oppression. Even his beloved agrarianism must be tempered by the principles of limitation and confrontation. Like Locke, he believes that the test of property rights is use. As James sees it, a man must not have too much land—so much, that is, that he becomes more interested in possessing the land than in tending it. A man must confront the land himself, not erect systems whereby others work the land for him. The southern plantations violate both of these principles. “Place mankind where you will, they must always have adverse circumstances to struggle with” (p. 210), says James in his final Letter. This view is an outgrowth of his powers of observation and his native good sense, rather than a newfound pessimism resulting from his experiences in the South or from fear of impending revolution.

The James who reappears in the final Letter (XII) is a sad and desperate man, but far from being a hysterical fool grasping at the straws of blasted theories, he remains rational and pragmatic. Certainly there is no reason to read a strong irony into his intention to foster agriculture among the savages he intends to live with after his flight from the coming Revolution. James has already said in Letter IX that “evil preponderates in both” the woods and in more improved situations. If the vices of the latter exceed those of the former, the apparently ingrained desire to “see the earth peopled” (p. 171), of which he also takes note, redresses the balance by making flight to the wilderness a temporary escape at best from the woes of civilization. As pitiful as James's desire to hold on to the agricultural mode of existence may appear, his course of action has the wisdom of inevitability. Agriculture, historically, has been a necessary condition for a high order of culture and for the maintenance of a large, stationary population. Although James professes admiration for some aspects of Indian life, his intellectual and moral commitment is to the idea of civilization, and he understandably has no desire to raise a family of noble savages.

James's fatalism in the final Letter, while intensified by his emotional ambivalence, is likewise a facet of his normal outlook and not a symptom of intellectual defeat. As early as Letter II he notes that “we are machines fashioned by every circumstance around us” (p. 92). His surmise in the final Letter that his “fate is determined” (p. 211) by the oncoming conflict is both accurate (given his lengthy account of his reasons for being unable to take sides) and consistent with his general outlook. His fatalism in no way represents a complete reversal from the “optimism” of the early Letters. It is the mark of James's mental soundness and resiliency that the two attitudes can coexist in his mind. Like everyone, he is a mixture of the light and the dark.

Perhaps the most frequently overlooked facet of the final Letter is the strong emphasis on British oppression, a legacy perhaps of Crèvecoeur's readings in Abbé Raynal's Philosophical and Political History. The Abbé, to whom Crèvecoeur dedicated the first edition of Letters, is especially critical of British economic oppression of the colonies, foreseeing their eventual independence.12 Farmer James hopes only for peace, but the oblique emphasis on British oppression is crucial because James's barnyard parable of good government in Letter II specifies that “the law is to us precisely what I am in my barn yard …” (p. 51). Now the direct interference of British political and military force circumvents this metaphorical model entirely by ignoring the customary order of things. While the King has always been the titular ruler of the colonies, James has always thought of them as a separate unit of order. Implicit in the barnyard parable is the just and benevolent supervision of the farmer-governor, adjudicating property disputes through the exercise of his moral and common sense. Such supervision cannot take place without a thorough knowledge of the barnyard, and that is precisely why James's discussion of British interference addresses the “great personage” of the King specifically.

James's implied distinction between opposing British actions in the colonies, and rebelling against the King, is firmly rooted in the social-contract theory of the day. The illegal acts of officers inferior to the King and acting in his name but without his direct instructions may be opposed at any time; the King may be opposed only if he sets himself in a virtual state of war with his own people.13 James is sure that the cause of the present problem must be the ignorance of the King about the “circumstances of this horrid war.” A “good king” would want to “spare and protect as she [Nature] does” (p. 201). If the final Letter suggests the death of New World promise, the causes are not internal—are not in any cast of mind or model of social organization that James has had foisted upon him—but are external. A farmer cannot order his barnyard from three thousand miles away.

That James is psychologically traumatized by his experiences is beyond question. Any objective estimate of Farmer James's mind and its development must recognize Crèvecoeur's intention to dramatize the New World Man's “desperate struggle,” as Albert Stone has put it, “to hold” a vision of the American Eden “in the face of discord.”14 The apocalyptic atmosphere of the final Letter is real and significant. Linked with James's despair is a certain historical consciousness of the new forever being jeopardized by the old, of outworn institutions such as slavery and despotism threatening Paradise from within and from without. In this regard, James is indeed the prototypical American Adam, forced to solve his problem through flight, the characteristic expedient of this archetypal figure in American fiction. But James remains deserving of our respect throughout, and whether we subscribe to it or not, his world-view has coherence. There is no evidence that James's expulsion from Eden is a consequence of his own sins, real or figurative. Paradise has been lost not as a result of his having eaten the apple but of someone else's having shaken the tree.


  1. Elayne Antler Rapping, “Theory and Experience in Crèvecoeur's America,” American Quarterly, 19 (1968), 708-15: “it becomes clear that Farmer James is Crèvecoeur's straw man. He has carefully built a world for himself on the basis of certain principles which have all proved false” (p. 713).

  2. For other recent studies treating Farmer James as an ironically conceived figure, see James C. Mohr, “Calculated Disillusionment: Crèvecoeur's Letters Reconsidered,” South Atlantic Quarterly, 69 (1970), 354-63; Thomas Philbrick, St. John de Crèvecoeur (New York: Twayne, 1970), pp. 80-106. For Mohr, James is a rationalizing dupe, and by “playing upon his readers' fondest hopes for social progress, Crèvecoeur perpetrates something of a calculated hoax” (p. 358). Philbrick claims that James's “expulsion from the Eden of his farm is no less the result of an inner failure than was Adam's banishment” (p. 106).

  3. Cf. Rapping (p. 709) and Philbrick (p. 67), in whom the assumption is implicit rather than explicit.

  4. Letters from an American Farmer & Sketches of Eighteenth-Century America (New York: New American Library, 1963), p. 39. This edition of Letters is based on the London edition of 1783 with spelling and punctuation modernized. Cited hereafter by page number within the text itself.

  5. Philbrick, p. 99.

  6. The point has been made with reference to Jefferson by Leo Marx in The Machine in the Garden (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1964), p. 126.

  7. For a rehearsal of the major tenets of the “freehold concept,” see Chester E. Eisinger, “The Freehold Concept in Eighteenth-Century Letters,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Ser., 4 (1947), 42-59.

  8. Two Treatises of Government, ed. Peter Laslett (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1967), pp. 306, 368, 311.

  9. Eisinger, pp. 47-48.

  10. Henry Higgs, The Physiocrats (1897; rpt. New York: Kelley, 1968), p. 142.

  11. Mohr (p. 359n) calls into question James's sincerity on the matter of slavery by alluding to his “unconvincing attempt to explain away the slavery which existed in the North.” Given the frequent disparity between theory and reality on the slavery issue among many great names of his day, James's remarks are as sensible as one might hope for. He looks for the time of eventual emancipation but rejoices in the relative health and liberty of those Northern slaves not yet emancipated (p. 165).

  12. A Philosophical and Political History of the Settlements and Trade of the Europeans in the East and West Indies, trans. J. Justamond, 3rd ed. rev. (London: T. Cadell, 1777), V, Bk. 16.

  13. Cf., e.g., Two Treatises, p. 402.

  14. Albert E. Stone, “Forward” to Letters from an American Farmer & Sketches of Eighteenth-Century America, p. xviii.

Harold Kulungian (essay date 1977)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2145

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, philosophy, anthropology, and political science. Underlying this varied range of intellectual curiosity about the world around him, the mind of Crèvecoeur, his essential temper, was fundamentally aesthetic and contemplative.

In the Letters Crèvecoeur speaks through the persona of Farmer James, a naive and native-born American of English descent. This fiction was essential if Crèvecoeur was to present the experience and outlook of a broadly representative Farmer—which he himself was not—and furnish a generalized rendition of American life. In the exposition that follows, Crèvecoeur and the American Farmer are not presumed to be identical.1

The slightest familiarity with Crèvecoeur's biography is enough to suggest why he wrote the Letters. He was a cultivated gentleman with a European education, living in rural America where there was little scope for his evident literary passion. He felt a need to express himself, to essay his feelings and ideas. So he invented an imaginary correspondent to whom he could address himself directly: “You are the first enlightened European I have ever had the pleasure of being acquainted with.”2 By putting his thoughts on paper he in a measure satisfied his need for emotional relief: “the action of thus retracing them seems to lighten the burden, and to exhilirate my spirits” (p. 211).

Crèvecoeur's Farmer was ever alert and interested in things for the images, impressions, sensations and ideas they stimulated in his own mind. Indeed, he appears to have been every bit as absorbed in his own mental and emotional life as he was in the life of colonial America. This “American Farmer” was as intent upon cultivating his own sensibilities as he was with cultivating the soil—more so, if the number of pages allotted to each topic is any indication.

What are the salient characteristics of the Farmer's aestheticism, and what light does this approach shed on Crèvecoeur's major work? First of all, for Farmer James, reason is the slave of the passions. He readily avows: “After all, most men reason from the passions. … Sentiment and feeling are the only guides I know” (p. 197). His mind is always at the mercy of the objects of his contemplation. His way is to surrender himself entirely to the sensations of the moment and enjoy their stimulus to reflection. He is, in short, an essayist in the tradition of Montaigne, a radical subjectivist who exploits his own feelings.

He has been called “a man of moods”3 of “unabashed emotionalism.”4 But those epithets scarcely illumine our reading; they suggest merely a capricious mind. D. H. Lawrence's term “sensual understanding” is much more useful.5 It suggests the writer's own favorite doctrine: environmentalism. “Men … owe all their different modifications”—which include their moods, emotions and ideas—to “local circumstances” (p. 61). Again, more forcefully stated: “Our opinions, vices, and virtues, are altogether local: we are machines fashioned by every circumstance around us” (p. 73). As we shall see, this behavioristic doctrine of environmental determinism was for its advocate no mere theory but rather arose from his own experience of himself and testifies to his self-knowledge.

It is not surprising, then, that in differing aesthetic circumstances “most of the Farmer's speculations,” including not only the “concept of nature,” as Philbrick observes, but human nature as well, are “radically inconsistent.”6 Philbrick says: “baffling are the reversals of position in the Letters,” because he has not taken cognizance of the Farmer's aesthetic principle as such: “Sentiment and feeling are the only guides I know.”7

In a passage remarkable for its critical self-consciousness of the emotional basis of his thoughts, the Farmer observes: “In the moments of our philanthropy we often talk of an indulgent nature, a kind parent. … She has implanted in the heart of man, sentiments which over-balance every misery, and supply the place of every want.” Though such an idea of nature is soon enough displaced by its antithesis, still “this [notion of a beneficent nature] is undoubtedly an object of contemplation which calls forth our warmest gratitude” (p. 163). He embraces such an idea when he is in the right mood, not because it is true but because it is beautiful. We ought to be grateful for our moments of idealism, for, as he asks realistically in the same paragraph, “If we attentively view this globe, will it not appear rather a place of punishment, than of delight?” This passage clearly shows the speaker to be unabashedly aware of his moody vacillations between idealism and realism. The sentimental and imaginative advantages of idealism were at times irresistible to the fundamentally realistic man of feeling. The uncritical view of an earlier generation of scholars is here belied. They had assumed with Stanley T. Williams that “His simplicity is convincing. … He is untouched by halting self-criticism, by introspection.”8 Crèvecoeur's style is at one and the same time apparently naïve yet deliberately artful, and this complexity has been too often ignored.

His unrestrained tendency toward idealism when in the presence of beauty is indeed the most striking characteristic of the aesthetic Farmer, who found contemplative solace in his agrarian life. “I can think as I work,” he writes. “My mind is at leisure. … It is as we silently till the ground, and muse along the odiferous furrows … that the salubrious effluvia of the earth animate our spirits and serve to inspire us” (p. 12). In his daily round of toil, his idealising faculty was doubtless his greatest consolation, for it enabled him to find “a continual source of pure joy in the ordinary duties of life's workingday.”9 Here we are more apt to think of Crèvecoeur's ploughman in connection with another musing gentleman farmer, Robert Frost, rather than as “our 18th century Thoreau.”

For the aesthetic man the vision of beauty is accompanied by melancholy, because beauty is a transient thing and must inevitably perish. What will become of this beautiful thing is a cause of some anxiety, anxiety which pulls the mind away from the present vision. When James contemplates his wife suckling his child, he has “moments of paternal ecstasy.” These moments are too poignantly brief for the man who covets them so. “These pleasing images vanish with the smoke of my pipe,” and in the next instant he says, “I fear for the health of those who are become so dear to me.” Likewise, playing with his infant is for him a fundamentally aesthetic-contemplative experience: “My warm imagination runs forward, and eagerly anticipates his future” (pp. 19-20).

Apparently the contemplative Farmer appreciates his daily toil more for its aesthetic benefits than for its economic returns, which he scarcely mentions. Everything on the farm affords him “food for useful reflections.” His bees stimulate “the most pleasing and extensive themes” (p. 25). Dew drops present “voluptuous ideas” (p. 29). As he sits “smoking a contemplative pipe in [his] piazza,” the countryside offers him “ravishing scenes” (p. 30). Like the true aesthete, he is so immersed in beauty and rapt in thought that he can say, “I am avaricious of every moment” (p. 30).

Even in his descriptive accounts of the colonies he has visited, the Farmer's aestheticism is patent from time to time. The contemplative observer is quick to spot men of his own temper in his travels. The richest man in Nantucket, thanks to his wife's Quaker ingenuity, is able to be “altogether passive to the concerns of his family,” and thus enjoys ample leisure. “He seems to be altogether the contemplative man,” notes the Farmer in a congratulatory tone (p. 144). At Siasconcet he happens upon “a single family, without a neighbor” and envies their quiet seclusion. “I had never before seen a spot better calculated to cherish contemplative ideas.” He is fascinated by this spot beside “the ever raging ocean,” precisely because of what the ocean does for the imagination. “My mind suggested a thousand vague reflections” (pp. 148-49). His concluding observation points to the life he most prizes: “Nothing was wanting here to make this a most philosophical retreat, but a few ancient trees, to shelter contemplation in its beloved solitude” (p. 150).

Charles-Town, South Carolina, was especially interesting because the “great contrast” there of rich and poor “afforded me subjects of the most conflicting meditation” (p. 155). After witnessing the southern system of slavery, the Yankee farmer is moved to present a very pessimistic “general review of human nature” and an “examination of what is called civil society.” He then proceeds to discount his own thoughts as the product of a mood, occasioned by his present environs. “The following scene will I hope account for these melancholy reflections, and apologise for the gloomy thoughts with which I have filled this letter” (p. 166). He goes on to describe the famous “scene” of the Negro in the cage suspended in a tree, a dramatic symbol of the black man's plight in America, evoked by his intense imagination.

The final and perhaps the most important characteristic of the aesthetic mind exemplified by Crèvecoeur's Farmer is a metaphysical one: the equation of experience with mental experience, with thought and contemplation. Life, for the aesthete, is the life of the mind. His happiness is the product of his mental activity: “These images … I always behold with pleasure, and extend them as far as my imagination can reach” (p. 21). Thus, in his last letter, on the “Distresses of a Frontier Man” at the outbreak of the Revolution, the Farmer, again idealistically, looks forward to the consolation of a new aesthetic opportunity. He will move his family into an Indian village, “seeking a refuge from the desolation of war.” “There I shall contemplate nature in her most wild and ample extent; I shall carefully study a species of society, of which I have at present but very imperfect ideas” (p. 223). Contemplation and ideas will continue to sustain him, whatever the hardness of life. Similarly, wretchedness is for him in great part a mental affair: “These dreadful meditations … make me more miserable, by reflecting …” (p. 204).

The problem for Crèvecoeur's American Farmer is that there is no middle ground between beauty and the absence of it. His “sensual understanding” is entirely dependent on his environs, which either exalt or oppress him. Thus he lives at the extremes of human feeling, oscillating between ecstasy and horror, idealism and realism. “Perhaps my imagination gilds too strongly.” “These vague rambling contemplations … carry me sometimes to a great distance” (pp. 221-22)—to the point in fact, where it was possible and necessary to make literature out of them.10


  1. I owe this formulation to Thomas Philbrick's essay “Crèvecoeur as a New Yorker.” Early American Literature, 11 (1976), 22-30. The historical question of how Crèvecoeur differed from his literary creation is dealt with there. My essay limits itself to a critical exposition of a matter in the text itself.

  2. St. John de Crèvecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer (New York, 1957), p. 17. Subsequent citations will be given in text. The question of the relationship between Farmer James and his supposed English correspondent, Mr. F. B., and its import for the narrative structure, has been treated by Jean F. Beranger, “The Desire of Communication: Narrator and Narratee in Letters From An American Farmer,Early American Literature, 12 (1977), 73-85.

  3. By Percy H. Boynton in 1936, cited in Thomas Philbrick, St. John de Grevecoeur (New York, 1970), p. 68.

  4. Philbrick, Crevecoeur, p. 72.

  5. Cited by Philbrick, Crevecoeur, p. 73.

  6. Philbrick, Crevecoeur, p. 46.

  7. Philbrick, Crevecoeur, p. 68. Philbrick does, however, recognize that the center of the Farmer's life, “the core of his being, is the play of sensation and emotion, not the clash of ideas and the thrust of action” (p. 78). David M. Larson, “The Expansive Sensibility of Michel-Guillaume Jean De Crèvecoeur,” Exploration, 2 (1974) 36-51, deals with this central problem in Crèvecoeur: “Although his works do not present a coherent world view they do reflect a consistent sensibility” (p. 37). Larson solves the problem by using the ‘man of feeling’ concept, which is virtually the same as my thesis of aesthetic environmentalism.

  8. Stanley T. Williams, “Crèvecoeur as a Man of Letters,” in J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, Sketches of Eighteenth Century America, ed. H. L. Bourdin, R. H. Gabriel, and S. T. Williams (New Haven, 1925), pp. 28, 29.

  9. Ludwig Lewisohn, Introduction to Ludwig Lewisohn, ed., Letters from an American Farmer (New York, 1904), p. xviii.

  10. This paper was written while on a grant for graduate study from the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation.

Pierre Aubéry (essay date 1978)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6040

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 English version. Far better known and appreciated in America than in Europe, this book is a classic of American literature of the colonial period. It is especially famous for the eloquent and somewhat pompous answer which it gives to the rhetorical question raised in the third letter of the collection: “What is an American?”

James C. Mohr, a recent critic of Crèvecœur,3 even assures us ironically that American Airlines makes this canonical text available to its passengers in the form of a short story when the movie machine breaks down! It would be helpful to call to mind the essential of this purple passage for readers who might have forgotten it.

What then is the American, this new man? … 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. Americans are the western pilgrims, who are carrying along with them that great mass of arts, sciences, vigour, and industry which began long since in the east; they will finish the great circle. … Here the rewards of his industry follow with equal steps the progress of his labour; his labour is founded on the basis of nature, self-interest; can it want a stronger allurement? … The American is a new man, who acts upon new principles; he must therefore entertain new ideas, and form new opinions. From involuntary idleness, servile dependence, penury, and useless labour, he has passed to toils of a very different nature, rewarded by ample subsistance. This is an American.4

To what must we attribute the impact of this passage as well as the lasting vogue of a work which modestly presented itself, in 1782, as mere “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 in North America. Written for the information of a friend in England, by J. Hector St. John, a farmer in Pennsylvania”?

Critics still wonder whether its success is due to its documentary content, its style, its composition, or to the essential questions posed about the ideology and the identity of the Americans, or even more to the attraction and the curiosity felt in Europe for this part of the New World where humanity seemed to take a new start?


A taste for pseudonyms seems to have characterized a number of authors of every era and evident considerations of a political order required the use of these in order to defy the censorship, tyranny and arbitrariness of the dark ages. Yet the metamorphosis, soon complete, of Michel Guillaume Jean de Crèvecœur into J. Hector St. John as well as the many voices with which he speaks in his Letters, brings up many questions which go beyond the level of anecdote and shed a keen light on the true ambitions of the author.

Truly reliable information either on Crèvecœur's childhood in France, his studies in England, or his beginnings in North America is not available. His biographers, following in this area the indications given by his great-grandson,5 report that he lived in Great Britain until 1754, and that he then made his way to New France where he served under Montcalm, as a lieutenant and cartographer. After the fall of Québec, he is then said to have proceeded to the region of the Great Lakes and later to the East to become a British subject in 1764. It was then that he bought and cultivated a rather considerable farm, “Pine Hill,” in Orange County, in the state of New York; on 20 September 1769, he married Mehitable Tippet, daughter of a Yonkers merchant, and soon afterwards gave himself to writing those letters which were to make him famous.

After the occupation of New France by the English, and thanks to his knowledge of their language, Crèvecœur, having emigrated a third time towards the former colonies, did his best to become assimilated. In this respect, the extent to which he had succeeded remains an open question.

Facts are unyielding and the identity of a person often resists religious conversions, changes in nationality, and even changes in surname. In reality it is only within the discourse which he gives on America that Crèvecœur was truly able totally to reject what remained French in him, in the eyes of others if not in his inner awareness of himself.

The American, “Farmer James,” supposedly writing the naïve rustic letters which finally came down to us, presents himself as the son of an English immigrant who is said to have left him in full ownership of a farm of 371 acres plus a few old books of “Scotch Divinity,” the Navigation of Sir Francis Drake and the History of Queen Elizabeth.

At first young James entertained some thoughts of selling his farm. The tilling of the land then appeared to him as dull, tedious, repetitive labor. But this farm was his world, the only place on the whole earth where he had sunk deep roots. When he married, his wife rendered his “house all at once cheerful and pleasing; it no longer appeared gloomy and solitary as before” (Crèvecœur's Letters, p. 22). Moreover, living under a liberal political system that imposes but light burdens on its subjects, enjoying the full property of his productive farm, cultivated by “tolerably faithful and happy” (p. 23) Negroes, James soon becomes a father, which causes him to “cease to ramble in imagination through the wide world” (p. 23) and concentrate fully and happily on his small domestic universe and the gorgeous nature surrounding it. As a “farmer of feelings” he thoroughly enjoys his marital bliss, a happiness which rests firmly on the ideal of private property, his fertile and well cleared and cared for land, a bliss which invites indulgence in lyrical outbursts.

Private property, good husbandry, luxuriant, generous but well trained vegetal and animal kingdoms are the empire of the American farmer. Ploughing the fields becomes a playful game in the company of his infant son, as well as an education and an inspiration.

The harmony of the American farmer's life, at one with his environment, extends far beyond the family circle and his piece of property. The animals, birds and insects around him contribute to his prosperity and recreation; bee-catching and bird-watching provide him with a most profitable kind of relaxation. The tone of these pages of Crèvecœur is strongly reminiscent of Rousseau or rather, because of the clever naïvety of this prose, strikingly similar to that which Bernardin de Saint-Pierre will display in his Etudes de la nature published in 1784 but written as early as 1773, approximately during the very years when Crèvecœur penned his Letters.

Here, as elsewhere in his writings, Crèvecœur's paradigm is not so much the experience of rural life in early America as it is of Eden: it embodies the story of man before the Fall or the anticipation of his redeemed state after the second coming of Christ. Crèvecœur is very careful to exonerate his spokesman-character from the most arduous type of work in the new world: the clearing of the land, and the daily chores of a farmer, because James has inherited a fully operational property and has his black slaves taking care of the tiresome, heavy work. James's life on his farm seems very close indeed to Adam and Eve's enjoyment of the garden of Eden, where almost everything, including the animal population, is friendly and useful. Without excessive exertion or personal risk, man prevails over the dangerous and predatory beasts. Thanks to the fertility of the soil and the liberality of the civil government, the American can become a good, substantial, independent farmer with moderate labors. Such is at least the picture that Crèvecœur's second letter strives to project.

In his third missive, doubtless the most often read and quoted, Farmer James develops at length his vision of what an American is. Crèvecœur is not the first to have made an attempt to delineate a new national stereotype. Such generalizations are all too common in literature and maintain an astonishing stability over the years. The major characteristic of Crèvecœur's portrait of the American is that it is, at the same time, most appealing and self-destructive and leaves the careful reader in a momentary quandary over the real purpose of the author.

Although Crèvecœur's spokesman points out that Americans are a new race, “a mixture of English, Scotch, Irish, French, Dutch, Germans and Swedes” (p. 41), he presents the feelings and thoughts “of an enlightened Englishman when he first lands on this continent” (p. 39). He speaks of his “national pride” when he views the work of his countrymen, who brought along with them to these shores “their national genius.” This new society is liberal, tolerant, and egalitarian. “We have no princes, for whom we toil, starve, and bleed,” writes Farmer James. “We are the most perfect society now existing in the world” (pp. 40-41). Class distinctions are minimal and many more people are needed to develop this “mighty continent.”

Stressing over and over again the “strange mixture of blood” to be found in this country during the latter part of the eighteenth century, James-Crèvecœur indicates however that New England, being populated only by the direct descendants of English immigrants, is also one exception to this process of amalgamation. Many, he writes, “wish that they had been more intermixed”; not so Farmer James, who respects them “for what they have done; for the accuracy and wisdom with which they have settled their territory; for the decency of their manners; for their early love of letters; their ancient college, the first in this hemisphere, for their industry; which to me who am but a farmer, is the criterion of everything. There never was a people, situated as they are, who with so ungrateful a soil have done more in so short a time” (p. 41).

Crèvecœur's thinking follows a clearly identifiable dialectical pattern. If the synthesis is the American, the thesis the Englishman, the antithesis is the poor. In the Old World a poor man could not call his fatherland “a Country that had no bread for him, whose fields procured him no harvest, who met with nothing but the frowns of the rich, the severity of the laws, with jails and punishments; who owned not a single foot of the extensive surface of this planet” (p. 42). In other words, somewhat foreshadowing the Communist Manifesto, James tells us that the poor, as proletarians were called then, do not have a country of their own. Where they come from is not therefore an important and relevant consideration. However it is worth pointing out that the poor who are mentioned and whose progress is described in the Letters all come from a fairly small part of Europe, primarily the Anglo-Saxon or Germanic countries of the Old World.

These rootless and starving poor, by the power of the benevolent laws of the New World, laws that “protect them as they arrive,” see to it that they receive ample rewards for their labors and have free access to property of the soil, these poor become citizens, prosperous settlers, an asset to their community. The laws are not the only element to perform this regeneration of the poor. For “we are nothing but what we derive from the air we breathe, the climate we inhabit, the government we obey, the system of religion we profess, and the nature of our employment” (p. 45). On the basis of these materialist and determinist principles James-Crèvecœur proceeds with his examination of what an American is. He is, first of all, conditioned by his habitat. “Those who live near the sea feed more on fish than on flesh,” their major occupation, fishing, distracts them from the regular labors of the land, they are boisterous and love trafficking (p. 45). “Those who inhabit the middle settlements” are purified by “the simple cultivation of the earth” (p. 45). “Industry, good living, selfishness, litigiousness, country politics, the pride of freemen, religious indifference are their characteristics” (p. 46). “Near the great woods, near the last inhabited districts … where men are beyond the reach of government, and where the law cannot be properly enforced, discord, drunkenness, idleness often prevail; contention, inactivity and wretchedness ensue.” In spite of all their vices these “offcasts of society” perform a useful role as precursors and pioneers, paving the way for more reliable settlers (pp. 46-47).

Language and religion unite to some extent the inhabitants of the Atlantic provinces no matter how diversified they are by their occupation and habitat. But Christian religions in America have lost their more unpleasant dogmatic, sectarian, belligerent characteristics. Religion becomes predominantly a form of sociability, an agent for social integration. “Thus all sects are mixed as well as all nations; thus religious indifference is imperceptibly disseminated from one end of the continent to the other; which is at present one of the strongest characteristics of the Americans” (p. 51).

By and large climate, government, religion and occupation in America tend to redeem Europe's poor. There are however many exceptions to this rule, one of the most notorious being illustrated by those that James-Crèvecœur calls the “back settlers.” Living in the wilderness they soon become wild. He describes the dissolute manners of the back settlers and speculates on their causes: the lonely situation, a too rapid transition from the constraints of Europe to the unlimited freedom of the woods, the eating of wild meat which “whatever you may think, tends to alter their temper” (p. 52). Hunting as well as trading with the Indians (not always honestly) are the real villains which lead to strife and sometimes open warfare.

The evil influences exerted upon European immigrants by “the woods,” “hunting,” and the “Indian trade” do not affect in the same way all back settlers, for “their depravity is greater or less, according to what nation or province they belong” (p. 54). Although he carefully defends himself against being partial or harboring any national prejudice, Farmer James the narrator concedes that great national differences remain among Americans, in spite of the much touted ideology of the melting pot. The very content of the Letters of an American Farmer itself tends, in our opinion, to emphasize the blatant contradictions existing between this ideology and current practices. For, in the final analysis, only the New England provinces, according to the writer of the Letters, never knew the disorders and the corruption which troubled the backwood areas of the settled territories. And New England, as noted above, is the only part of the continent to be settled by “the unmixed descendants of Englishmen” (p. 41). “There is room for everybody in America,” writes Farmer James; “we know, properly speaking, no strangers; this is every person's country” (p. 56), a haven, where Europeans are welcome. Is it so indeed? For, in the same paragraph we read: “No sooner does an European arrive … he hears his language spoke, he retraces many of his own country manners, he perpetually hears the names of families and towns with which he is acquainted” (p. 56). After a brief description of the general prosperity that the newcomer can behold, this European who feels so readily at home in North America is given his true identity and his real name: an Englishman. Then Farmer James outlines the eighteenth-century style success story that can be his if he works moderately, behaves with propriety, “acquires knowledge, the use of tools, the modes of working the lands, felling trees etc.” (p. 59) and eventually purchases some land to establish himself as a freeholder and much more as a man, redeemed by work and democratic government, a naturalized American, a British subject. “This great metamorphosis has a double effect, it extinguishes all his European prejudices, he forgets that mechanism of subordination, that servility of disposition which poverty had taught him” (p. 60).

Yet, “it is not every emigrant who succeeds” (p. 61), we are warned—only the sober, the honest and the industrious will. But who are they? In his review of successful settlers, besides the English, Crèvecœur mentions only people we would call today Anglo-Saxons, those whose language is widely spoken in the country and whose manners and life-styles have a lot in common. The immigrants most likely to prosper are “the honest Germans”; they can “travel through whole counties where not a word of English is spoken; and in the names and the language of the people, they retrace Germany” (pp. 61-62). When they arrive at their destination “they hire themselves to some of their wealthy landsmen,” and through rigid parsimony, and the most persevering industry, they commonly succeed in acquiring property (p. 61). Close behind them come the Scots, sober and good workers but whose women are not as vigorous as those of the Germans, who share the hardest labors and understand better than their men the work in the fields (p. 62). Finally come the Irish who are almost incapable of adaptation, not only because of their lack of familiarity with methods of contemporary agriculture, but also because of their drinking and quarrelsome temperament: “They are litigious, and soon take to the gun, which is the ruin of everything” (p. 62). According to the Letters, “out of twelve families of emigrants of each country, generally seven Scotch will succeed, nine German, and four Irish” (p. 62).

In spite of the repeated claim of the writer of the Letters that “this great continent must in time absorb the poorest part of Europe” (p. 66) those he includes among the Europeans represent a very small part indeed of the Old World's population even if we suppose that he calls Germans all speakers of Germanic languages regardless of their nationality. Interestingly enough, the only person believed to be a Frenchman mentioned in the Letters is described as having reached this country “stark naked” after however having some exposure to the English language and culture. “I think,” writes James, “he was … a sailor on board an English man-of-war. Being discontented, he had stripped himself and swam ashore [a kind of fundamentalist new baptism by total immersion], finding there clothes and friends, he settled afterwards at Marraneck, in the county of Chester, in the province of New York: he married and left a good farm to each of his sons” (p. 67). Before reaching these shores, before being accepted and succeeding he had to “strip himself,” literally and metaphorically, of his “Frenchness,” which was already tempered by his service in the Royal Navy. Of the Mediterraneans and the Slavs there is no mention in the Letters, as if they did not constitute a sizable part of the poor of Europe!

The twelfth letter of the collection, entitled “Distresses of a Frontier Man,” deals at length with the dangers and the difficult conflict of loyalties to which Farmer James is exposed at the time of the War of Independence. He feels that he is three things concurrently: a British subject, an American citizen, and a family man. These are all important parts of himself, important elements in his life, and he can no longer assume all of these roles or choose among them without, to some extent, harming himself, his reputation, his property, and his family. The time has come to make a decision, to abandon his prosperous farm and to flee to safety. But where is safety? Politically, Farmer James seems to be a fence straddler, a most uncomfortable position in times of strife. A loyal British subject by sentiment, he realizes that being a resident of an Atlantic province of America he cannot take a stand opposed to that of his neighbors and fellow citizens without compromising himself: “As a citizen of a smaller society, I find that any kind of opposition to its now prevailing sentiments, immediately begets hatred … I am divided between the respect I feel for the ancient connection, and the fear of innovations, with the consequence of which I am not well acquainted; as they are embraced by my own countrymen. I am conscious that I was happy before this unfortunate Revolution. I feel that I am no longer so; therefore I regret the change” (p. 202).

Whatever side he turns to he will suffer without profit for anyone. Since the small people like himself are always victimized, great historical events are not achieved for the benefit of the common man, although the common man is their unwilling and unknowing instrument. On the level of international political action, the isolated individual is hard put to tell what is right and what is wrong. In the last analysis “sentiment and feeling” are his only reliable guides (p. 203). Before being either a loyal subject of his king, or a trustworthy citizen of his province, he is a family man. James weighs the pros and cons, and vacillates considerably between “dangerous extremes of violence” (p. 210) for more than a dozen printed pages. “Self-preservation is above all political precepts and rules, and even superior to the dearest opinions of our minds; a reasonable accommodation of ourselves to the various exigencies of the time in which we live, is the most irresistible precept … What steps should I take that will neither injure nor insult any of the parties, and at the same time save my family from that certain destruction which awaits it, if I remain here much longer?” (p. 210). Finally, he makes up his mind and decides to transport himself and his family from a very hazardous location to an Indian village in the woods “far removed from the accursed neighbourhood of Europeans,” where “inhabitants live with more ease, decency and peace, than you imagine: where, though governed by no laws, yet find, in uncontaminated simple manners all that laws can afford” (p. 211).

His brooding does not come to an end with his new resolution. What will happen to his children under the influence of “the imperceptible charm of Indian education” (p. 221) and “wild” life? He wonders whether keeping them busy tilling the earth will be enough to prevent them from adopting the lifestyle that was so detrimental to the back settlers and woodsmen, as we were led to believe by the remarks on this topic in his first letters. But this hypothetical risk is nothing compared with the pernicious and corrupting influence of the military where at the same time as the handling of the musket, they would certainly learn “all the vices which are so common” there (p. 228). And Farmer James exclaims emphatically: “Great God! Close my eyes forever, rather than I should live to see this calamity [of watching his children pressed into service]! May they rather become inhabitants of the Woods.” Even in this peril, Farmer James, who still entertained the hope of converting the Indians to agriculture and a sedentary life, paid lip service to the American dream of universal reconciliation and fraternity in the bosom of generous Mother Nature, rationally dominated and cultivated. This reconciliation and fraternity would, nevertheless, not go so far as the fusion of the races, since the narrator clearly points out that Nature herself made known to us her opposition to such alliances: “However I respect the simple, the inoffensive society of these people in their villages, the strongest prejudices would made me abhor any alliance with them in blood: disagreeable no doubt, to nature's intentions which have strongly divided us” (p. 224).

Now we have a better understanding of “what an American is,” at least an eighteenth-century rural American according to Crèvecœur alias Farmer James, than we did after reading the broad generalizations contained in our opening citation from the Letters. But do we? For the proud, self-reliant, disciplined American has almost entirely vanished from Crèvecœur's pages where we now meet only with contending Europeans, “ruffians, acting at such a distance from the eyes of any superior; monsters, left to the wild impulses of the wildest nature” (p. 207).

The good government to which the prosperity of the industrious settlers was earlier ascribed has disintegrated. Rather than placing his confidence in wise and just laws, Farmer James now trusts the manners and wisdom of the Indians, who need no laws to socialize their people. He no longer dreads that the proximity of the woods and the wilderness will make him and his family wild. He seeks their shelter in order to make another attempt at returning to a happy and well balanced state of nature.

In these last pages of Crèvecœur's book we can watch the American farmer disappear beyond the horizon. His establishment has collapsed, his prosperity and security have been destroyed, but his hopes soar again; his dream of the good life, of a redeemed life, is indestructible, for the very reason that it is nothing but a dream. Farmer James is well aware of it when he writes, “Perhaps my imagination gilds too strongly this distant prospect … Alas! it is easier for me in all the glow of paternal anxiety, reclined on my bed, to form the theory of my future conduct, than to reduce my schemes into practice” (p. 228).

What James writes about here does not even pretend anymore to be the factual report of the experiences of a farmer's life and other observations in the field. He conveys to us the daydreams of a “farmer of feelings” in search of peace, harmony, security, friendship, rationality and many other attributes of a truly good life. The unnamed Indian village to which James contemplates retiring is obviously a figment of his imagination, a semimythical locale where dream and reality could supposedly merge, where an ideal state of nature, under the benevolent eye of the Supreme Being, could be achieved. Significantly, it is an invocation to the Supreme Being that brings to a close the Letters of an American Farmer, an invocation that takes the place of action and leaves the reader in a quandary over the eventual fate of the writer and his family. At any rate, his avowed distaste for politics, his refusal to commit himself one way or another and to take sides in the struggle in progress that is shaping the American society, are quite revealing. They show that Crèvecœur wishes to wrench his spokesman out of history, out of time and strife. The Indian village where he wishes to find shelter and make a new start is nothing but a metaphor for a blessed state of nature and innocence, the garden and playground of the new Adam. Farmer James seems to believe that it is by accident that history, in the shape of a Revolution, suddenly shook the foundations of his domestic peace and prosperity. Indeed he gives evidence here of the incompatibility of the imaginary world of the dreamer and the poet, a world which is stable, harmonious, happy, and the true condition of human beings living in space and time, who die and forever fail to achieve their ideal.

At this point it seems strangely irrelevant to speculate any longer on “what an American is.” If we accept the fiction of Farmer James there is no doubt that he is a modern Adam, doomed forever to move westward in the vain search for the garden from which he has been expelled, a garden, moreover, which is not really of this world. The Letters introduce him to us in contemporary garb, and eighteenth-century readers could very well recognize in him a symbol of their hopes and a fairly coherent concrete presentation of the ideology dominant in America. This ideology, extolling self-interest and industrious habits, has not yet quite run its course and its lasting popularity probably accounts for the success of the Letters. However, in the latter part of the eighteenth century Crèvecœur was a real person with serious problems on his hands. It is a fact that his estate was threatened, seized, and burned by warring factions during the Revolution. But far from removing his family and whatever assets he could save to the safety of the woods, he fled alone to France at the first opportunity, leaving behind property, wife, and children to fend for themselves.

Although he chose France as a refuge, Crèvecœur the man was still obsessed with his desire to identify himself as completely as possible with the English race. Perhaps a brief look at the map of eighteenth-century America will help us to understand his motives.

At the time he was writing his manuscript, it could be said that the moving frontier of the world known to the Europeans followed the valley of the Saint Lawrence, circled around the Great Lakes and went down the watercourse of the Ohio and the Mississippi to New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico. A chain of forts and small settlements marked it in the West. The pioneers who settled there, and the woodsmen who patronized those trading posts, were largely French and, having little taste for sedentary and agricultural life, were always more tempted to assimilate themselves with the Indians and adopt their way of life, than to till soil and round off their property. A considerable number of eyewitness accounts which attest to this fact are available. Among the most precise as well as the most pertinent is perhaps that of Volney, who visited America between 1795 and 1798. To be French in that era and in those places was, in the eyes of the English and German settlers, to be an enemy recently defeated or, at best, an uncertain ally whose allegiance remained doubtful. Prejudices against the French developed during the French and Indian Wars were but partially weakened by the French alliance during the War of Independence and considerably reinforced eventually by the events of the 1789 Revolution.

Therefore, if Crèvecœur chose the pen name J. Hector St. John, wasn't this the better to dissociate himself from his adventurous and ill-reputed countrymen, whose irregular habits and Indian wives constituted a permanent scandal in the eyes of the Puritans of the eastern provinces? Later, the aid given by their mother France to the insurgents embarrassed the loyalists with whom our author felt close ties. It further seems that he himself soon got caught up in his own game and became a prisoner of his borrowed identity. In 1781, when he was back in France and asked by Benjamin Franklin whether “the Mr. Crèvecœur who lived for a long time in America and St. John were really the same person,” he broke into an explanation which would seem ridiculous if we were ignorant of the immense and childlike vanity of men of letters. Witness what he wrote to Franklin on 26 September 1781: “Yes Sir I am the Same Person whom Madame La Comtesse de Houdetot has been so kind as to mention to you,—the Reason of this mistake proceeds from the Singularity of ye French Customs, which renders their Names, allmost arbitrary, & often leads them to forget their Family ones; it is in Consequence of this, that there are more alias dictios in this than in any other Country in Europe. The name of our Family is St. Jean, in English St. John, a name as Ancient as the Conquest of England by Wm. the Bastard. I am so great a Stranger to the manners of this, thou' my native Country (having quitted it very young) that I Never dreamt I had any other, than the old family name—I was greatly astonished when at my late return, I saw myself under the Necessity of being Called by that of Crèvecœur.”6

Aren't we here witness to a characteristic case of acute Anglomania? Our author goes so far as to affirm himself more authentically nordic than the English themselves when he presents himself as the direct descendant of the Norman family line from whence came the famous St. John family, rendered illustrious rather recently by Bolingbroke, also the author of some remarkable Letters, who died in 1751. A few years later, after the Revolution, Crèvecœur managed to derive a good deal of benefit from his French identity, by having himself appointed Consul General of France in the United States.

It seems to us quite obvious that Crèvecœur was not so much concerned with “Brookfarming” as with “Bookfarming,” as D.H. Lawrence once pointed out. His years at “Pine Hill” were but a passing episode in his life during which he led the leisurely existence of the gentleman farmer—rather than that of the pioneer and ploughman. Country living was conducive to meditation and writing and prepared him well for his future career as a man of letters and diplomat. Perhaps it did not really matter to him that he was never actually completely able to identify himself with the Anglo-Saxon race except through his fictional character, Farmer James. His commitment to the superiority of the Englishman in all respects was a characteristic bias of the eighteenth-century French intelligentsia. Actually Anglophilia was often the French intellectuals' device for criticizing their country, its institutions, and manners but they were not taken in by the alleged virtues of the nationals of a country they were at war with for extended periods of time. Crèvecœur's literary identification with the English has other motives. It bears witness to the strong racist undercurrent that runs through the American melting pot ideology. That this current should be justified and extolled by a Frenchman was very flattering to the Anglo-Saxon Americans; and it was morally and politically safe. They could endorse and promote his book without running the risk of being accused of prejudice although it was actually strengthening some of their preconceived ideas about the ethnic hierarchies prevailing in their country. Moreover, it is doubtful that to be an American (even during the last quarter of the twentieth century) presents an identity as well defined and clear cut as that of the nationals of most Old World countries where race, nationality, citizenship and culture have been fused into an indissoluble unity by a slow historical process. Crèvecœur was a precursor and a good writer to the extent that he gave shape and substance in his narratives to something wished for—an American identity. However, this identity which obviously did not really exist in his day, as distinct from its European roots (even at the level of the propertied, affluent, white Anglo-Saxon classes), still remains very elusive in our day among the proletarized working class population with its diverse ethnic backgrounds. These considerations alone would provide an acceptable explanation for the lasting vogue and impact of Crèvecœur's Letters.


  1. (London: Davies & Davies, 1782).

  2. Lettres d'un cultivateur américain, adressées à Wm. S … on Esqr. Depuis l'année 1770, jusqu'en 1786. Par N. St. John de Crèvecœur, traduites de l'anglais, 3 vols. (Paris: Chez Cuchet Libraire, rue et hôtel Serpente, 1787). This rambling French version differs considerably from the more concise English original edition in composition and sometimes in emphasis and point of view.

  3. “Calculated Disillusionment: Crèvecœur's Letters Reconsidered,” South Atlantic Quarterly, 59, 3 (1970), 335.

  4. Letters from an American Farmer, Everyman's Library 640, Introduction and notes by Warren Barton Blake (London: Dent, 1912), pp. 43-44.

  5. Robert de Crèvecœur, Saint Jean de Crèvecœur: sa vie et ses ouvrages (Paris, 1883).

  6. Letter from Crèvecœur to Franklin dated Caen, 26 September 1781. Crèvecœur gives as his address: Chez M. le Mozier, Marchand, Rue St-Jean, Caen. It is reproduced in full by Warren Barton Blake in the Everyman's Library edition of Crèvecœur's Letters, p. 245.

Mary E. Rucker (essay date 1978)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10022

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 of self-interest; the responsibility of government to ensure the general welfare; the deterministic force of physical and social environments; and the order, intelligibility, and benevolence of the universe. Providing the benefits to be derived from these social and philosophical precepts, the British colonies, the sketches suggest, are the single country to realize the philosophes' ideal social order. Several intrusive statements, however, severely qualify this dominant idyllic praise of America.

The simultaneous affirmation and denial of the philosophes' conception of America in general is echoed in the simultaneous affirmation and denial of other specific conceptions. Given Crèvecoeur's own emotional vacillation and his failure to develop a coherent system of thought, one may view these contradictions as no more than a consequence of the author's intellectual shortcomings. To do so, however, is to undermine an important tension that determines the conceptual fabric of the Letters. Whether or not Crèvecoeur here deliberately engages in a dialectic, which legitimatizes intentional inconsistencies and contradictions, he employs two opposing consciousnesses that espouse two opposing views.1 The meaning of the Letters emerges from their interaction.

One consciousness, of course, is that of his persona, the ostensible author of all but Letter XI. Even though he cannot be cognizant of Enlightenment doctrines because of his confessed ignorance, the untutored, idealistic, and romantic Farmer nevertheless celebrates his social and political felicity in a manner that reflects the supposed feasibility of those doctrines. But he is first and last a “farmer of feelings” ([Letters from an American Farmer, hereafter L] p. 26)2 whose humanitarianism is hardly more than self-indulgent sentimentality and whose approach to the natural and social orders is, because of his “very limited power of mind” (L, p. 2), strictly emotional. A second consciousness, antithetical and corrective, undercuts James's narrative reliability either implicitly through irony or explicitly through displacement. Whenever the Letters directly treats of matters and attitudes that transcend the restrictions ensuing from his characterization of the Farmer, Crèvecoeur doffs the mask of his persona and speaks in his own knowledgeable, rational, and essentially pessimistic voice. Although he may appear to support James's belief that America is a “heavenly city”—the commentary on the Quaker settlements is primarily a further development of issues that James addresses in Letter III—Crèvecoeur insists on recognizing the marplots of American and Enlightenment ideals. By allowing his persona to express contradictory notions and to rely on sentimentality rather than reason, and by testing, from his own point of view and in his own voice, the validity of certain Enlightenment theories against specific social and cosmic realities, Crèvecoeur denies the philosophes' conception of man, of nature, and of America.

Despite the obvious difference in tone between Letters IV through VIII and, say, Letter II, criticism accepts the work as the unified experience of the American Farmer, whose contact with slavery (Letter IX) and the Revolution (Letter XII) destroys his bucolic world (Letters I through VIII). Practically discounting both the tonal differences and the pessimism that counters the prevalent optimism of the work, critics have attributed to Crèvecoeur the perceptions of his persona. James C. Mohr maintains that insofar as James expects to realize in the Indian village to which he flees the same social values that have proved illusory in the European settlements, he defines Crèvecoeur's conception of America's destiny—to carry forward the highest ideals of civilization despite their being illusory. Similarly, Russell B. Nye focuses on James's flight and, justifiably reading it as a quest for peace and order, asserts that “If James's commonwealth of enlightened freeholders cannot survive in the world of revolution, or if even in peace it must eventually change into another Charles-Town, a flight to the forest, Crèvecoeur seems to imply, may be the only answer.” Albert E. Stone, Jr., Thomas Philbrick (both of whom judge the Letters an embryonic novel), A. W. Plumstead, and Elayne Antler Rapping agree that James's fleeing the settlements signifies the failure of America.3

The interaction of the two consciousnesses precludes James's being his creator's spokesman. Further, the implications of his flight depend to a great degree upon the invalidations of his world view that appear as an undercurrent throughout the text. Often no more than a phrase or clause the meaning of which is nearly negated by the context in which it appears, these intrusive invalidations effectively undermine the social and moral stances of the isolated and sentimental Farmer. If James and his minister laud the regenerative powers of American government and laws, Crèvecoeur, aware of the cosmic and social realities that render man's plight tragic, avouches that no environment, not even an agrarian democracy, can alter human nature. Nor is the natural world, as Crèvecoeur conceives of it, as benevolent as James and the philosophes hold. The animal order, like man, is at heart bellicose and predatory.

James's blindness to realities such as these makes him vulnerable to the evils of slavery and of the Revolution, which can only threaten his naive assumptions and destroy the fabrications erected upon them. Desperately attempting to preserve his erroneous Weltanschauung and unable to free himself from his subjectivity, James appropriates the conditions of the Revolution in order to ratify his psychic and moral inadequacies and the behavior that they dictate. For Crèvecoeur, however, slavery and the Revolution are no more than confirmations of his pessimism, and he seeks to understand them both in themselves and according to their place in the scheme of the universe. The juxtaposition of these radically opposed consciousnesses emphasizes the insubstantiality of the world that James constructs from the perspective of his freehold and, consequently, results in a negative criticism of the Enlightenment assumptions that his point of view embodies.

The criticism is potent because it hints that belief in many of the assumptions demands naiveté and psychic weakness, the determinants of James's perception of nature and of America. Basically insecure and incapable of comprehending phenomena rationally and thereby mastering them, James must isolate himself. He has to circumscribe even his imaginary wanderings, for his tendency to rely on his sensibilities alone renders him susceptible to traumatic onslaughts of the unfamiliar. For instance, he can only surrender totally to the power of the ocean: “my eyes were involuntarily directed to the horizontal line of that watery surface. … My ears were stunned with the roar of its waves … who is the landsman that can behold without affright so singular an element …” (L, pp. 216-17). Equally overwhelming is the sight of the caged slave whom birds and insects devour: “I found myself suddenly arrested by the power of affright and terror; my nerves were convulsed; I trembled, I stood motionless, involuntarily contemplating the fate of this negro …” (L, p. 244).4 A victim of his acutely fragile psyche, James is compelled to center his existence on his protective freehold, where neither his easy assumptions nor his emotional security is threatened and where he can preserve the comic view of the world that his psychic and moral constitutions require.

Erroneously projecting the security, peace, and overt order of his microcosm onto the larger socio-political structure, the unfavorable conditions of which his no-nonsense wife calls to his attention in Letter I, and accepting the domestic and psychic values of his freehold as the most crucial criteria by which he judges the country, James champions American government and laws because they grant fee simple possession of land and the rights and privileges issuing therefrom. However, unlike the typical farmer whose self-interest prompts him to be politically alert and active, James boasts of the minimal demands of citizenship. The grim price of his passiveness is not exacted until the not-so-latent hostilities between England and the colonies erupt, causing his moral as well as his social and political fabrications to collapse temporarily.

Crèvecoeur typically exposes the flaws of his persona's posture in Letter II, which addresses among other topics eighteenth-century assertions of the superiority of instinct over reason and the benevolence of nature. Even though James has admitted that he is neither a philosopher nor a politician, his response to the natural world of his freehold leads him uncharacteristically to play both. Insofar as his sentimentally humanized approach to nature automatically results in a simplistic perception of its value and in a rejection of any consideration that challenges that perception, his perfunctory observations inevitably lead to contradictory statements. Through these contradictions Crèvecoeur ironically reveals both James's unreliability and the weak foundations of the glorification of instinct. When he displaces his persona to assert in his own voice the implications of James's insights, he reinforces the negation of this Enlightenment conception.

Incapable of penetrating phenomena to discover either scientific or spiritual laws, James responds to nature as a man of feeling. A myriad of insects swarming in the sun, the sagacity of his cattle, the wisdom of his bees, the freezing of rivers, the changes in seasons, the building of nests, the reproduction of chickens—each of these he finds “astonishing.” When he dares to question phenomena, he clearly reveals his limited mentality. “What sort of an agent is that which we call frost?” he asks, and “What is become of the heat of the summer … ?” (L, p. 33). The propagation of short-lived insects proves equally baffling and therefore miraculous: “they were so puny and so delicate, the period of their existence was so short, that one cannot help wondering how they could learn … the sublime art to hide themselves and their offspring in so perfect a manner as to baffle the rigour of the season, and preserve that precious embrio of life, that small portion of ethereal heat, which if once destroyed would destroy the species!” (L, p. 34). Such shallow observations prove to be an inadequate basis of the social and political “philosophy” that James offers.

Comparing his exercise of control over his rapacious cattle at feeding time with the control of government, which is to protect the weak, he concludes that man, without regulation through language, would behave just as cattle do. Failing to realize that this analogy indicts both man and animal, James appropriates the conduct of certain birds as the foundation of his judging the entire animal order superior to man: “the whole œconomy of what we proudly call the brute creation, is admirable in every circumstance; and vain man, though adorned with the additional gift of reason, might learn from the perfection of instinct, how to regulate the follies, and how to temper the errors which this second gift often makes him commit” (L, pp. 40-41). The behavior of another bird leads, not surprisingly, to a radically different conclusion. Among the three species for which James provides shelter is a wren that, discontent with its nesting, takes material from a swallow's box. Finding this “remarkable instance of selfishness” and the wren's delight in its triumph astonishing, James asks “Where did this little bird learn that spirit of injustice? It was not endowed with what we term reason! Here then is a proof that both these gifts [reason and instinct?] border very near on one another; for we see the perfection of the one mixing with the errors of the other!” (L, pp. 42, 43). Because it denies the “rights” of the swallow, the wren duplicates the behavior of James's cattle, and they both give the lie to his previous claim for the moral superiority of instinct. So too does the kingbird whose consumption of bees leads to the observation that “nothing exists but what has its enemy, one species pursue and live upon the other …” (L, p. 30).

This insistence on a primal bellicosity beneath the apparent harmony of a seemingly benevolent animal order evidences a realistic and pessimistic consciousness that must be attributed to Crèvecoeur because the perception is at odds with his persona's idealism and compelling need to discern an ordered and kindly natural world. This need, which is most obvious in Letter XII, precludes James's internalizing in all its fullness any factor that points to essential malevolence and predacity. Having created a persona whose mind is governed by emotion rather than reason and whose psychic make-up causes him to deal with externals strictly in terms of his subjectivity, Crèvecoeur has to by-pass that persona and insist upon the logical conclusion to which the observed data point. When speaking in his own voice, however, Crèvecoeur is often as inconsistent as his mask.

If in Letter II he displaces James to offer without qualification the unsettling fact that “nothing exists but what has its enemy” and thereby to deny the moral value of instinct and the superiority of the animal order, when he returns to the matter he will, depending upon his concern, either defend or deny it. Commenting on the early history of the Nantucket Indians, he declares that man, unlike other animals, is essentially prone to war: “behold the singular destiny of the human kind, ever inferior, in many instances, to the more certain instinct of animals; among which the individuals of the same species are always friends, though reared in different climates: they understand the same language, they shed not each other's blood, they eat not each other's flesh” (L, p. 144). Of course the comment in Letter XI on the warring hummingbirds and snakes, like the description of the wren, falsifies this argument. Intending to condemn the abuse of slaves, Crèvecoeur again holds that man is instinctually bellicose: his “strong and natural propensities” toward revenge and resentment (L, p. 232) always surface more readily than his more positive “sentiments,” which must be educated. Rather than cultivate these sentiments in his slaves, the planter leaves them “in their original and untutored state; that very state where in the natural propensities of revenge and warm passions, are so soon kindled” (L, p. 233). Focusing on the slave and the suffering that denies his humanity, however, Crèvecoeur implicitly assumes that man is instinctually benevolent and that his humaneness is just as ready to hand as his propensity toward revenge: kindness, love of family, the urge to procreate and nurture, for instance, represent “the very instinct of the brute, so laudable, so irresistible …” (L, pp. 228-29). The contradictions of these tentative explorations of the nature of human instinct do not, in the final analysis, disqualify Crèvecoeur as a critic of the Enlightenment posture, for subsequent reflections in Letters IX and XII forcefully support the negative terms of his dialectic.

Employing the same means—exposure of his persona's flaws and displacement—Crèvecoeur criticizes also eighteenth-century valuation of agrarian democracy and its alleged regenerative powers. Whereas James, like the philosophes, believes that the colonies have experienced unqualified social and political success, Crèvecoeur, cognizant of the woeful limitations of human nature, confirms America's participation in history, which proves the impossibility of enduring utopias. Of the rectification of social ills he writes realistically:

The greatest compliment that can be paid to the best of kings, to the wisest ministers, or the most patriotic rulers, is to think, that the reformation of political abuses, and the happiness of their people are the primary objects of their attention. But alas! how disagreeable must the work of reformation be; how dreaded the operation; for we hear of no amendment. … To what purpose then have so many useful books and divine maxims been transmitted to us from preceding ages?—Are they all vain, all useless? Must human nature ever be the sport of the few, and its many wounds remain unhealed?

(L, pp. 119-20)

Because he knew that “Good and evil … is to be found in all societies” (L, p. 22), Crèvecoeur rejects the popular belief that the philosophes' socio-political principles had, in the colonies, elicited the essential goodness of human nature and so brought into being a “heavenly city.” Responding to the use of opium in the apparently utopian Quaker settlements, he asks “where is the society perfectly free from error or folly; the least imperfect is undoubtedly that where the greatest good preponderates …” (L, p. 211). Hence the cautious conclusion of a highly laudatory description of Nantucket: “had I leisure and abilities to lead you through this continent, I could shew you an astonishing prospect very little known in Europe; one diffusive scene of happiness reaching from the sea-shores to the last settlements on the borders of the wilderness: an happiness, interrupted only by the folly of individuals, by our spirit of litigiousness, and by those unforeseen calamities, from which no human society can possibly be exempted” (L, p. 200).

Despite its negative consequences, the government of British North America wins Crèvecoeur's approval insofar as it is designed to secure the rights of the governed, to encourage the pursuit of self-interest, and to provide for the affirmation of human dignity. These factors cause him to deem America “the most perfect society now existing in the world” (L, p. 50). Yet he denies neither the effect of the European past on the American present5 nor the several flaws, especially greed and litigiousness, to which freedom and self-interest lead. His passionate outbursts in Letters IX and XII signify his anguished wavering between hope and despair and his recognition of the truth proclaimed in one of his Revolutionary essays: “Men are the same in all ages and in all countries. A few prejudices and customs excepted, the same passions lurk in our hearts at all times” (S [Sketches of Eighteenth Century America: More “Letters from an American Farmer”], p. 179). Given this attitude toward humankind and his belief in the inevitable coexistence of good and evil in all societies, neither slavery nor the Revolution will destroy Crèvecoeur's Weltanschauung as they do that of his morally naive and psychologically maladjusted persona.

Just as the depth of intellection and breath of subject matter treated in Letters IV through VIII indicate that Crèvecoeur there most often speaks in his own voice, so do those of the bulk of Letter IX. The pessimistic questioning of the governance of the universe, of the nature of the world that man inhabits, and of man's constitution that slavery induces is undoubtedly incongruous with the mentality of the American Farmer, who has had no educative experience that would enable him to transcend the limitations revealed in Letters I and II. Because Crèvecoeur doffs his mask and more openly approaches these questions rationally and passionately, the distance between the two consciousnesses is more manifest than it is in the first three letters.

James's very real awareness of the Negro's humanity and suffering unquestionably validates his distress, but his inability to deal with abstractions severely restricts his comprehension of the enormity of the evils of institutional slavery. Totally unmindful of the crucial matters of rights and the ugly reality of bondage, for instance, and failing to realize that because he owns slaves he denies others the natural rights that he celebrates, as a man of mere sensibility James complains only of emotional and corporeal violence, which offends him. The offense seems more important than the cause, for he embraces the situation of the caged slave and slavery itself to parade his sensibility. His reference to the “showers of sweat and of tears which from the bodies of Africans, daily drop, and moisten the ground they till” and to the “cracks of the whip” under which the slave labors (L, pp. 225, 226) shifts attention from the reported fact to the sensitive soul that reports. Such is the case too when James comments on the violation of African families and resorts to redundancy to heighten the emotionality of his subject: “The daughter torn from her weeping mother, the child from the wretched parents, the wife from the loving husband; whole families swept away and brought through storms and tempests to this rich metropolis,” where they are “arranged like horses at a fair, they are branded like cattle …” (L, p. 226). Were he a Charles-Town planter, this devotee of the pathetic confesses, knowledge of the frauds employed to entrap slaves, of the barbarous treatment to which they are subjected, and of the anguish caused by the disruption of family ties would not allow him to “rest in peace” (L, p. 229).

In order to provide a more thorough and convincing condemnation, Crèvecoeur displaces his persona. His own comprehensive and intellectual consciousness, capable of outrage, appropriates the assigned function of James's melodramatic sensibility and confronts the fundamentals of the institution, the indifference or hostility of nature to which it testifies, and the omnipresence of social evil. His antipathy to slavery stems in part from specific socio-economic principles that are predicated upon natural laws and from his agrarianism. (Like the physiocrats, he believed that land is the only source of true wealth and that labor expended is the sole determinant of value.)

Insofar as a planter has no power other than force over his chattel and no right to enslave except the specious right that money bestows, Crèvecoeur argues, he violates the slave's natural right to liberty. “Strange order of things!” he exclaims. “Oh, Nature, where art thou?—Are not these blacks thy children as well as we?” (L, p. 227). This violation, due to the corruption of the natural law that dictates pursuit of self-interest, leads to the violation of other natural laws. For the planter abrogates the humanity that would oblige him to respond kindly to those who serve him, and the slave must abrogate the propensity to procreate and nurture because of the additional hardship that pregnancy imposes and because his child is doomed to enslavement. In light of these contraventions of nature, Crèvecoeur can only damn man and his arrogant claim to an elevated place in the scale of being: “What then is man; this being who boasts so much of the excellence and dignity of his nature, among that variety of unscrutable mysteries, of unsolvable problems, with which he is surrounded?” (L, pp. 229-30).

The implication so far is that nature has abandoned the slave to hostilities for which the planter alone is responsible. But when Crèvecoeur seeks to locate the first cause not merely of slavery but rather of all evil, he finally attributes it to nature or nature's God. As Enlightenment philosophers did, he too detects the order and control of the physical universe but, significantly, fails to discern corresponding qualities of a spiritual kind: “Is there then no superintending power who conducts the moral operations of the world, as well as the physical? The same sublime hand which guides the planets round the sun … and prevents the vast system from falling into confusion; doth it abandon mankind to all the errors, the follies, and the miseries, which their most frantic rage, and their most dangerous vices and passions can produce?” (L, p. 235). Even the physical conditions of earth hint that, if there is a God to care for man, he has opted to pare his nails. Earlier professing environmentalism, Crèvecoeur delighted in hostile climates and terrains because they promote health and virtue.6 Now in his mood of ethical nihilism he believes that the many areas of infertility and violent climate combine to make the earth “a place of punishment” (L, p. 238). The prevalence of natural calamities and social evils forces him to conclude that man's happiness lies neither in the state of nature, where people “often eat each other for want of food,” nor in society, where “they often starve each other for want of room” (L, p. 242). Human lust for power and predacity suggest that “the principles of action in man, considered as the first agent of this planet, [are] poisoned in their most essential parts” (L, p. 236). Because nature has so ordered his constitution, man inevitably thwarts the few causes ordained for his benefit.

The evident contrast between James's sentimental humanitarianism and Crèvecoeur's outraged rationalism, which too is humanitarian, effectively undermines the validity of James's approach to experience. To the extent that he reinforces the hostility and predacity of nature and of man that he intrusively asserted in Letter II, Crèvecoeur invalidates the Enlightenment conception of an ordered, intelligible, and benevolent universe and the belief that certain socio-political structures could perfect human nature.

In Letter XII, which addresses the Revolution, Crèvecoeur's and his persona's consciousnesses often merge because Crèvecoeur appropriates James's plight as a means to clarify his own attitude toward the War. He assigns to the Farmer several arguments that, despite their being uncharacteristic of his intellect and irrelevant to his life style, are nevertheless apt. The appropriateness of the arguments to James's immediate dilemma prohibits, in these instances, the glaring ideational hiatus that characterizes the other relevant letters. However, when his peculiar sensibility does manifest itself, it again serves as a means by which Crèvecoeur judges Enlightenment doctrine.

Both the Sketches and Letter XII reflect ambivalence toward the Revolution. If Crèvecoeur at one point deems the union between England and the colonies perfect, at another he accuses England of provoking a civil war. He may contend that the patriot's rebellion is unjustifiable because of the perfect freedom and the protection that England grants the colonies, but he will argue also that it is justifiable because of her violating compact. And yet the legitimate case for rebellion is no more than a cover for tyranny and greed. Objective defense of these ambivalent attitudes is not offered, for Crèvecoeur, perhaps because his objection to war is more compelling than the causes of the Revolution, does not deal precisely and fully with matters such as charter rights and commercial policies. Nevertheless, his unwillingness to acknowledge that the evils of war can secure the very freedoms that he judges necessary to human dignity, his blind affirmation of harmony between England and the colonies, his ready denial of valid motives, and his conflicting loyalties cause him to judge both patriots and loyalists negatively.

Loyally attributing colonial success to England—the original settlers “brought along with them their national genius, to which they principally owe what liberty they enjoy, and what substance they possess” (L, p. 48)—Crèvecoeur virtually disregards the import of measures such as the Stamp and Townshend Duty Acts and of previous regulations such as the Felon Act, to which he alludes in Letter III. Unlike Franklin, who devoted a most caustic essay to the Felon Act, Crèvecoeur sees in it only irony: “What a strange compliment has our mother country paid to two of the finest provinces in America! … what was intended as a punishment, is become the good fortune of several …” (L, p. 88). Further, the hymn to Penn, also in Letter III, indicates no cognizance at all of the intense fight between the proprietary government and the Pennsylvania Assembly over the taxation of proprietary estates. But Crèvecoeur was by no means blind to the injustices of mercantilism and to England's failure to recognize colonial contribution to imperial welfare.

He holds that the typical American farmer's struggle against pests, the shortage and high cost of labor, the formidable expenditure required to clear lands, and other hardships prohibit his assuming the additional burden of European taxes, the levying of which robs the colonies of their limited financial wealth and discourages their growth. As Crèvecoeur sees it, imperial restrictions on domestic production and trade—the reference is to laws such as the Woollen, Hat, Sugar, and Navigation Acts—are a virtual tax that causes colonial wealth to center on England. Even the importation of British goods and the ban on foreign products are financially burdensome because the lack of competition encourages England to export products of low quality and because imported clothing deters domestic manufacture, which is economically more feasible than importation. “Thus,” he concludes, “one fifth part of all our labours every year is laid out in English commodites. These are the taxes that we pay” (S, p. 94). Like the patriots, he believes too that the profit motive and lust for power blinded George III and his parliaments to colonial benefits other than financial ones. Through establishing the dominions of North America, Crèvecoeur reasons, the colonists “enlarged the trade, the power, the riches of the mother country” (S, p. 89) and, as he says in the Letters after commenting on colonial produce, “are therefore entitled to the consideration due to the most useful subjects …” (L, p. 73).

British exploitation, however, did not outweigh fear of the issue of the rebel cause and disbelief in the efficacy of war, concerns that he blatantly confesses: “Every opinion is changed; every prejudice is subverted; every ancient principle is annihilated; every mode of organization, which linked us before as men and as citizens, is now altered. New ones are introduced, and who can tell whether we shall be the gainers by the exchange?” (S, p. 178). As an uncertain stay against confusion and, significantly, as a seeming absolution of noninvolvement, he adopts a fatalist position. Regardless of the justice or injustice of the causes of war, he rationalizes, the world judges its merit solely on the basis of predetermined military victory. His ignoring France and other countries that accepted the American cause as the cause of mankind and his surrendering the success of that cause to fate are obviously escapist, and they attest to the pathos of his dilemma. The truth is that Crèvecoeur was a pacifist who could not conceive of the value of war, as an ambiguous “modern simile” demonstrates: “the action of ploughing seems to be laborious and dirty; numberless worms, insects, and wise republics of ants are destroyed by the operation. Yet these scenes of unknown disasters, of unnoticed murders and ruins happily tend to produce a rich harvest in the succeeding season” (S, pp. 229-30). Because the destructions of plowing do indeed yield “a rich harvest,” so too, analogically, should war. But the second sentence makes sense contextually only if it is interpreted ironically. Scenes, [Sketches] then, refers to the devastations of the Revolution, which do not produce “a much preferable state of existence” (S, p. 229).

Staunchly loyalist yet devoted to America, cognizant of British injustice yet not willing to forego union, Crèvecoeur could not embrace either faction and for this reason, I believe, compulsively denies the necessity of rebellion. He doggedly asserts that pre-war America, a society of “regular, sober, religious people, urged neither by want nor impelled by any very great distress” (S, p. 179), had enjoyed a happy dependence on England. Suffering no excess of misrule, American subjects were, rather, united in freedom under an indulgent crown whose generosity the patriots now exploit. Blind to domestic and imperial political felicity, they allowed themselves to be deceptively persuaded that the king and his officers denied their rights:

But what art, what insidious measures, what deep-laid policy, what masses of intricate, captious delusions were not necessary to persuade a people happy beyond any on earth, in the zenith of political felicity, receiving from Nature every benefit she could confer, enjoying from government every advantage it could confer, that they were miserable, oppressed, and aggrieved, that slavery and tyranny would rush upon them from the very sources which before had conveyed them so many blessings.

(S, p. 251)

Yet if he defensively discounts the legitimate case for rebellion and ignores those patriots and loyalists who did not exploit it, Crèvecoeur was painfully aware of those who did, devoting “Landscapes” to a portrayal of those perversions. He repeatedly affirmed, albeit with bias, that tyranny, lust for power, greed, and other corruptions—in the guise of policy, justice, patriotism, liberty, self-defense, constitutional reason, and other honorable garments—were “the secret but true foundation of this, as well as of many other revolutions” (S, p. 251).

Although these antipathies and ambivalences, which echo several pessimistic beliefs that Crèvecoeur intrusively affirmed earlier in the Letters, are attributed to James as he contemplates flight to the Indian village, they do not indicate a radical change in his mentality. Just as in Letter II he perfunctorily observed yet rejected certain aspects of nature that challenged his conception of its benevolence, so does he now voice his creator's perception of general truths without recognizing their implications for the comic world view that he ultimately reaffirms. He characteristically uses these truths as ratifications of the behavior that his psychic and moral constitutions have previously determined. These relatively rational truths notwithstanding, James still responds in terms of his sensibilities, freely acknowledging his hysteria and his subjugation to his hyperactive imagination and freely confessing that “Sentiment and feeling are [his] only guides” to conduct (L, p. 288). Like an animal brought to bay, he desperately seeks an out and will distort any fact in his effort to justify himself. Significantly, neither his hysteria nor his rationalizations deny the validity of his claim that the injustice of England is one reason for his flight.

Like Crèvecoeur, James too acknowledges a “fear of innovations, with the consequence of which I am not well acquainted. …” Further, a similar conflict of loyalties prompts him to reject the charge that while the government of the realm is “just, wise, and free, beyond any other on earth,” it is “not always so to its distant conquests” (L, p. 287). Regardless of his acknowledged ignorance of the motive forces of the War, James not only declares them corrupt but also contends that they are designed to manipulate the weak, who matter in the great scale of events only insofar as they realize the will of the elite: “The great moving principles which actuate both parties are much hid from vulgar eyes, like mine; nothing but the plausible and probable are offered to our contemplation. The innocent class are always the victim of the few; they are in all countries and at all times the inferior agents, on which the popular phantom is erected; they clamour, and must toil, and bleed, and are always sure of meeting with oppression and rebuke” (L, p. 288). Seeking to understand any possibly valid principles, he believes, is useless, for not the justice of principles but rather sheer strength, which is fated, and consequent victory will determine the merit of the War.

If Crèvecoeur here succeeds in unifying his own consciousness and that of his persona simply because of the relevance of these attitudes to his persona's situation, the merger dissolves when James directs attention to his particular plight and its effect upon his psychology. He then displays his characteristic sentimentality, psychic instability, acute subjectivity, and moral naiveté. His living on the unprotected frontier and his “chimney-corner” discussions of military devastations so exacerbate his normal fear that he irrationally accepts his children's nightmares “as warnings and sure prognostics of our future fate” (L, p. 286). He of course expounds upon the sufferings of his family—their loss of appetite, the disruption of their sleep, and other discomforts that make their predicament “a thousand times worse than that of a soldier engaged in the midst of the most severe conflict!” (L, p. 285).

James, however, cannot find relief through participation because he cannot tolerate violence and because he lacks the moral courage necessary to sustain the consequences of committing himself to the loyalist cause. Loyalism would require him “coolly, and philosophically [to] 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; or that for greater expedition we should all be locked up and burnt to ashes …” (L, p. 294). Using his own ego as the sole measure of human capabilities, he maintains that only a being who is of an order that is either superior or inferior to that of human beings and whose motive forces are either more or less refined than those that activate man can be expected to make such a sacrifice. Additionally, the idea of arming himself against his native country is unbearable. “Must I be called a parricide, a traitor, a villain, lose the esteem of all those whom I love, to preserve my own; be shunned like a rattlesnake, or be pointed at like a bear?” he asks. “I have neither heroism nor magnanimity enough to make so great a sacrifice” (L, p. 289). Compelled to commit himself yet unable to make a choice, thoroughly unmanned by real and imaginary fears yet under the necessity to protect himself and his family, he can only flee. The justifications of flight reveal the extent to which the War temporarily destroys the fabrications erected upon his comic assumptions about existential and transcendent reality.

American that he is, James assumes that the natural right to life, liberty, property, and not the mere pursuit but rather the attainment and maintenance of happiness is both a political and a religious principle: God asks nothing of man but that which contributes to his own and to his fellow beings' felicity. This facile belief of course precludes James's discerning a more substantial and inclusive happiness than that which characterized pre-War America as it manifested itself on his freehold. For, as he says in an uncollected essay, he lacks the capacity to comprehend the actual ambiguity of good and evil: “My feeble and unenlighten'd mind cannot reconcile the Evils occasioned by war with that degree of happiness which one wou'd Imagine shou'd be the Lott of Creatures, or else why created?”7 Because of the centrality of felicity in his system of values and his having confined his contentment to the freehold that he must abandon, he is compelled to respond to the Revolution as the factor that voids his serenity. Without the least awareness of his naiveté, he states that “I am conscious that I was happy before this unfortunate Revolution. I feel that I am no longer so; therefore I regret the change. This is the only mode of reasoning adapted to persons in my situation” (L, p. 287).

James assumes too that virtue will be rewarded. He declares that he has helped the distressed, encouraged the industrious, fostered settlement, served as pastor to his family and neighbors, devoted his life to work, and, in general, been a useful and law-abiding citizen. Despite his practical morality, however, he and his family “must perish, perish like wild beasts, included within a ring of fire!” (L, p. 304). Their fate evinces the fickleness of virtue, which he apostrophizes: “Oh, virtue! is this all the reward thou hast to confer on thy votaries? Either thou art only a chimera, or thou art a timid useless being; soon affrighted, when ambition, thy great adversary, dictates, when war re-echoes the dreadful sounds, and poor helpless individuals are mowed down by its cruel reapers like useless grass” (L, p. 303). Traumatically awakened to the reality of evil, James questions not the fact of evil, as Crèvecoeur does in Letter IX, but rather its indiscriminately afflicting the morally good and the morally reprehensible. “It ought surely,” he protests, “to be the punishment of the wicked only.” Echoing Crèvecoeur's conception of man's tragic plight, James impiously decides that life is not a valuable gift, that it is “better not to be than to be miserable” (L, p. 298). He has neither the moral nor the psychic energy to confront evil and either endure, prevail over, or be defeated by it.

Because James has, in Letter I, admitted that he has known very little of England and because he has confined his existence to his freehold, thus rejecting political involvement, the political motives of his flight must be attributed to Crèvecoeur. Their relevance to James's predicament, however, makes them plausible despite their being out of character. Although he previously declared devotion to England, expressed appreciation of her indulgent rule, and argued that patriots are arrogant dupes of sophistry, James is aware of England's treachery. England, he affirms, “first inspired the most unhappy citizens of our remote districts, with the thoughts of shedding the blood of those whom they used to call by the name of friends and brethren” and thereby provoked a civil war. He is aware too of Britain's desire for “the universal monarchy of trade, of industry, of riches, of power,” and he asks “why must she strew our poor frontiers with the carcasses of her friends, with the wrecks of our insignificant villages, in which there is no gold?” (L, pp. 297-98). Implied here is the notion that the profit motive and a desire for tyrannical control are the sole causes of Britain's waging war upon a people who cannot enrich her. Yielding to greed, the Mother Country attacked her American subjects and thereby violated compact. Doing so, she forfeited their loyalty. For these reasons, then, James renounces the government that has betrayed him and wills to act as the natural laws of self-defense and revenge compel him to act:

The Creator of hearts has himself stamped on them those propensities at their first formation; and must we then daily receive this treatment from a power once so loved? The Fox flies or deceives the hounds that pursue him; the bear, when overtaken, boldly resists and attacks them; the hen … fights for the preservation of her chickens. … Shall man, then, provided with both reason and instinct, unmoved, unconcerned, and passive, see his subsistence consumed, and his progeny either ravished from him or murdered? Shall fictitious reason extinguish the unerring impulse of instinct? No; my former respect, my former attachment vanishes with my safety; that respect and attachment was purchased by protection, and it has ceased.

(L, pp. 296-97)8

James's particular sensibility asserts itself too in the dilations upon and defenses of his acting instinctually. The arguments propounded indicate that the farmer of feelings appropriates self-defense, revenge, and other natural laws as means to justify further his psychic, moral, and social inadequacies. Although he has said that sentiment and feeling are his only guides to conduct, he rationalizes abandonment of his (unstated) socio-political principles and adoption of instinct as a motive force. Whereas acting upon his political precepts would inevitably offend either loyalists or patriots, his following the dictates of self-defense will, if not save him, at least excuse his cowardice and allow him to protect his family. Sensing that those whose safety permits a noble concern with principles may judge his conduct negatively, James reasons that anyone confronted with the loss of property and family will quickly see that under the circumstances “the man will … get the better of the citizen,” that political precepts vanish before the obligation and compulsion to defend family (L, p. 292). Ignoring those people who have the moral strength to die for a cause that is greater than themselves and their loved ones, and abandoning “fictitious reason” and, apparently, all else that distinguishes man from other animals, he pronounces that “Self-preservation is above all political precepts and rules, and even superior to the dearest opinions of our minds; a reasonable accommodation of ourselves to the various exigencies of the time in which we live, is the most irresistible precept” (L, p. 299). This appeal to nature to deny the legitimacy of man's higher faculties ironically exposes the flaws of James's reasoning and attests to Crèvecoeur's insight into the potential pitfalls of Enlightenment conceptions of instinct, reason, and natural laws.

On the one hand James speciously appeals to the concept of self-preservation to conclude that man is essentially nonsocial and thereby to justify his apolitical behavior. On the other hand he inconsistently pleads a need for society as an additional reason for his move to the Indian village. Despite his having alleged active citizenship, which belies his saying that his wanderings do not exceed his freehold, James now more accurately admits his failure to realize the extent to which his security and prosperity were founded upon the larger social order. Only the disruption of that order exhibits, belatedly, its benefit. Thrown on his own resources because of that disruption, he experiences acute isolation. “I resemble … one of the stones of a ruined arch,” James writes, “still retaining that pristine form that anciently fitted the place I occupied, but the centre is tumbled down; I can be nothing until I am replaced, either in the former circle, or in some stronger one” (L, p. 300). In the final analysis, however, his flight is not an affirmation of community, for its primary motives are his moral cowardice and his compelling desire for self-preservation.

Allowing James to move to the village, a regressive act, Crèvecoeur comments on eighteenth-century valuation of the primitive. If in Letter III and elsewhere he boasted of the mildness and simplicity of American laws, James now hints that the settlements are encumbered with “voluminous laws” and “contradictory codes” that often gall “the very necks, of those whom they protect” (L, p. 300). By contrast, the simple manners and basic concord of the Indian community answer for law, provide for “all the primary wants of man, and … constitute him a social being …” (L, p. 301). The tendency of many Europeans to adopt Indian culture, he continues, and the Indian's rejection of European culture evince the congeniality of the red man's social bond. His freedom from care, his perfect liberty, his lack of preoccupation with sin and salvation, and his capacity to bear asperities with patient fortitude are proof that “There must be something [in his culture] more congenial to our native dispositions, than the fictitious society in which we live …” (L, p. 306). Although the Indians of this village, like the Europeans of the interior settlements, occupy the middle ground between savagery and civilization, they are closer to nature than American farmers are and hence partake more of its moral purity and consequent happiness. They are nature's “immediate children,” James avers; “the inhabitants of the woods are her undefiled offspring: those of the plains her degenerated breed, far, very far removed from her primitive laws, from her original design” (L, p. 308). All told, no system of philosophy provides more qualifications for happiness than does Indian culture.

This sour-grapes debunking of European culture and Pollyannaish praise of Indian culture, which ironically comment on the philosophes' glorification of the primitive, are but still other rationalizations. James is wholeheartedly devoted to the agrarian democracy and other civilized values of which the War has deprived him. Unlike Crèvecoeur, he has never questioned until now the efficacy of the American socio-political structure—if for no reasons other than his limited intellect and his necessary withdrawal. Actually, his undaunted faith in these ideals determines his appreciation of the loosely organized Indian village, which will permit his family to exist as an autonomous unit and to foster their social and religious values. Although his family must adopt certain aspects of Indian culture, James determines to prevent their succumbing to its charms and hence reverting to savagery, as he ultimately judges primitivism. His children will engage in husbandry, for “as long as we keep ourselves busy in tilling the earth, there is no fear of any of us becoming wild …” (L, p. 316). And to encourage the work ethic, he will arrange to pay, after the peace, in real estate for their produce. Most importantly, he will avoid miscegenation, for his daughter's fiancé is to accompany the family. If the narrator of one of the Sketches realizes that interracial marriages occur because “at a certain age Nature points out the necessity of union; she cares very little about the colour” (S, p. 195), James cares intensely about color and can appeal to nature to account for his caring—“however I respect the simple, the inoffensive society of these people in their villages, the strongest prejudices would make me abhor any alliance with them in blood: disagreeable no doubt, to nature's intentions which have strongly divided us by so many indelible characters” (L, p. 320).

The anguish of this and other Revolutionary essays is due in great part to failure to recognize the implications of the radical changes, detailed in Letter III, that Americanization effects. Although Crèvecoeur believed that fee simple possession of land and a government that protects natural rights cause the immigrant to become “a new man, who acts upon new principles” and that as a consequence “he must … entertain new ideas, and form new opinions” (L, p. 56), he apparently did not realize that this change would drastically affect the immigrant's attitude toward England. To be sure, he declares that “Ubi panis ibi patria” (L, p. 54) and again that one is not necessarily loyal to the country of his birth but rather to the country most responsive to his needs: “What love can he entertain for a country where his existence was a burthen to him; if he is a generous good man, the love for this adoptive parent will sink deep into his heart” (L, pp. 77-78). But Crèvecoeur did not consistently recognize the potential for separation implied here. Looking upon America in the comprehensive context of the march of civilization, he envisioned a continuity that entailed no rejection whatsoever of Europe: “Americans are the western pilgrims, who are carrying along with them that great mass of arts, sciences, vigour, and industry which began long since in the east; they will finish the circle” (L, p. 55). Elsewhere he seemed to recognize that America's destiny was, indeed, so radically revolutionary that it precluded continuity of any kind. Given its agrarianism, economy, and government, Crèvecoeur writes, America “wants nothing but Time & hands to become the great 5th Monarchy which will change the present political sistem of the world.”9

Regardless of these hints of an inevitable transfer of loyalty and of separatism, Crèvecoeur refused to acknowledge intellectually or emotionally that love for America and its values had, for many immigrants and natives, actually displaced love for England. Closing his eyes to the many threats to imperial union, he blithely contended that the immigrant “with a heart-felt gratitude … looks toward the east, toward that insular government from whose wisdom all his new felicity is derived, and under whose wings and protection he now lives. These reflections constitute him the good man and the good subject” (L, pp. 79-80). James's renunciation of England and his subsequent flight may suggest that Crèvecoeur in some way eventually recognized the full import of the American “revolution” effected long before the Revolutionary crises; however, the reluctance to sanction the patriot cause and the virtual exoneration of England found in Letter XII imply that even in the face of the War of Independence he did not realize the consequences of his conception of Americanization and of America's destiny. If the juxtaposition of James's flight and the defenses of England, then, is viewed as a dialectic by which Crèvecoeur tested the validity of his concept of empire, the effort fails dismally.

The contrast between James's attitudes in Letters II and III, for instance, and in the early portions of Letter XII reflects a movement from illusion to disillusion, as criticism has repeatedly demonstrated. That disillusionment and consequent flight are attributed to the conflict between dream or theory and experience or reality. Through slavery and the Revolution, so the argument goes, James learns the falsity of the Enlightenment theories and the unreality of the American Dream. “James's final rejection of the society in which he once held so much confidence,” Nye writes, “is an admission of failure.” Crèvecoeur, he continues, “could not find in post-revolutionary America the kingdom of reason the Enlightenment expected it to be.” Philbrick too interprets James's flight as “a denial of his vision of America as the asylum of the oppressed and the mother of a new and happier race.” Rapping and Mohr concur: America, which the Farmer has perceived in terms of Enlightenment ideals, has betrayed his expectations. Rapping sees his reaffirming the ideals that have failed him as proof of man's inability to learn from experience and to accept reason as a guide to conduct, while Mohr sees the reaffirmation as evidence of the truth that social ideals can exist only in illusion.10

The tenuity of these interpretations, I believe, lies in their ignoring both the interplay of the two consciousnesses throughout the Letters and the obvious fact that James rejects England rather than America. His limited mentality, his social, political, and moral naiveté, and his responding to phenomena strictly in terms of his sensibilities and psychic needs preclude the knowledge, objectivity, and rationality that would render his behavior an accurate measure of the value of Enlightenment theories and of American socio-political ideals, which, judged from his point of view, are illusory primarily because of his isolation and his tendency to project the conditions of his freehold onto the larger social structure. The untutored Farmer is hardly capable of comprehending those theories as theories, even though they underlie his comments in Letters II and III. In Letter XII he is not concerned with American politics and culture as such but rather with the perils of war and England's treachery, which disrupt his self-contained microcosm. The Revolution challenges his comic view of the world, but it does not disabuse him of his insubstantial conception of America, which he continues to champion as he temporarily leaves the settlements. His undaunted faith in the country is clearly manifest in his determination to teach his children the virtues necessary to live as farmers in white America and in his prayer that Americans “may be restored to our ancient tranquility, and enabled to fill [the new land] with successive generations …” (L, p. 329).

That America is not what James assumes it to be the reader learns from the primarily rational, objective, and hence persuasive voice of Crèvecoeur, whose resisting easy belief in Enlightenment doctrines enables him to view the American scene in its actuality and, through his persistent although often subordinate presence, to disqualify most if not all of James's comments on the natural and social orders. His inability to believe in the efficacy of the philosophes' doctrines and of America's agrarian democracy does not mean that Crèvecoeur did not long for their “heavenly city.” He questioned their assumptions and means, not their end. Allowing his persona unwittingly to assume that several of their ideals had been realized in America—the regeneration of man through agrarianism and pursuit of his self-interest, and the establishment of a government that secured freedoms and the general welfare—he reveals through James's pathetic losses the folly of a too ready acceptance of these assumptions. But just as America has not failed the American Farmer, who renounces England rather than the colonies, neither does it fail Crèvecoeur, who throughout the Letters reveals his limited expectations of all social structures. He either exposes the flaws of his persona's consciousness or displaces it to affirm the malevolent aspect of nature, the unalterable quality of human nature, and the inherent flaws of agrarian democracy. This interaction between the two consciousnesses and Crèvecoeur's challenging, in Letters IV through VIII, the ideals that issue from his own point of view, make the Letters an exploration of American potentials and the feasibility of Enlightenment doctrines. Both Crèvecoeur and his persona end up where they began: James the incorrigible idealist and moral coward sustains the challenge to his assumptions and regains his comic view of the world; Crèvecoeur the pessimistic realist finds confirmation of his lack of faith in the benevolence of nature and in man and his social constructs.


  1. For a parallel study of the voices of the work, see Jean F. Beranger, “The Desire of Communication: Narrator and Narratee in Letters from an American Farmer,Early American Literature, 12 (1977), 73-85. Beranger examines the interaction among the characters and their function in the development of James's authorship.

  2. Page references are to the reprint of the original edition of Letters from an American Farmer (New York, 1904), designated L, and to the Henri Bourdin, Ralph H. Gabriel, and Stanley T. Williams edition of Sketches of Eighteenth Century America: More “Letters from an American Farmer” (New Haven, 1925), designated S.

  3. James C. Mohr, “Calculated Disillusionment: Crèvecoeur's Letters Reconsidered,” South Atlantic Quarterly, 69 (1970), 362; Russell B. Nye, “Michel-Guillaume St. John de Crèvecoeur: Letters from an American Farmer,” in Landmarks of American Writing, ed. Hennig Cohen (New York, 1969), p. 41; Albert E. Stone, Jr., “Crèvecoeur's Letters and the Beginning of American Literature,” Emory University Quarterly, 18 (1962), 197-213; Thomas Philbrick, St. John de Crèvecoeur (New York, 1970), pp. 80-88; A. W. Plumstead, “Crèvecoeur: A ‘Man of Sorrows’ and the American Revolution,” Massachusetts Review, 17 (1976), 292; Elayne Antler Rapping, “Theory and Experience in Crèvecoeur's America,” American Quarterly, 19 (1967), 707-18.

  4. Although the depth and scope of the subject matter of Letters IV through VIII are characteristic of Crèvecoeur's consciousness, the speaker's response to the ocean is typically that of a man of feeling. So too is the reaction to the caged Negro, although the universal truths that the sight elicits are Crèvecoeur's.

  5. Crèvecoeur says that many immigrants are so conditioned by their past that they do not profit from the advantages that America offers (L, p. 80), that the complexity of American laws is incomprehensible to the typically unschooled farmer, who is a dupe of rapacious yet necessary lawyers (L, pp. 196, 224-25), and that although self-interest may be a spur to industry, it also breeds litigiousness and greed (S, pp. 75-77).

  6. The opportunity to consider environmentalism in a context to which he is opposed allows Crèvecoeur to see not only the fallacy of valuing harsh climates and terrains in and of themselves but also the fallacy of denying man the capacity to determine his moral being independently of the external conditions of which he is a part. Focusing attention on the general effect of America upon the immigrant, Crèvecoeur declares that “We are nothing but what we derive from the air we breathe, the climate we inhabit, the government we obey, the system of religion we profess, and the nature of our employment” (L, p. 56). And when contemplating the meritorious attributes of the Hebrideans, he holds that “our opinions, vices and virtues, are altogether local: we are machines fashioned by every circumstance around us” (L, p. 105). That Crèvecoeur could not accept man's total dependence upon externals for moral and spiritual rectitude is first hinted at in his consideration of the frontiersman. Children of backwoodsmen, he says, will be as reckless and savage as their parents “except nature stamps on them some constitutional propensities” (L, pp. 67-68). His intense objection to slavery prompts Crèvecoeur to abandon his environmentalism and to hope for abolition through a change in moral values: “The only possible chance of any alleviation depends on the humour of the planters, who, bred in the midst of slaves, learn from the example of their parents to despise them; and seldom conceive either from religion or philosophy, any ideas that tend to make their fate less calamitous; except some strong native tenderness of heart, some rays of philanthropy, overcome the obduracy contracted by habit” (L, p. 230). Here man is not a mere mechanism determined by circumstance but rather a creature endowed with capacities to shape his environment and to abide by principles that transcend immediate circumstances.

  7. “Hospitals During the Revolution,” ed. H. R. Bourdin and S. T. Williams, Philological Quarterly, 5 (1926), 158.

  8. Uniformly contending that slavery and the Revolution prove so disillusioning that James rejects America and its ideals, critics have ignored his consistent conception of the country as a British dominion. Even though he speaks of the freedoms and other advantages that are uniquely American, James views them as they exist within the imperial framework.

  9. “Sketch of a Contrast Between the Spanish & English Colonies,” ed. H. L. Bourdin and S. T. Williams, University of California Chronicle, 28 (1926), 160.

  10. Nye, pp. 43, 45; Philbrick, p. 87; Rapping, p. 714; Mohr, p. 362.

David M. Larson (essay date 1978)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5128

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, eighteenth-century American writing, which is clearly dependent upon British models, has gained respectability and received critical attention. Commentators have identified the major elements which link later eighteenth-century American literature to the wide-ranging movement of sensibility and sentiment, and they are beginning to fill in the details of the pattern. Terence Martin has traced the influence of the ideas of the Scottish Common Sense philosophers upon American education and fiction.1 Herbert Ross Brown has examined the impact of British writers upon the American novel and American periodical fiction.2 Leon Howard has shown that Americans possessed a taste for the poetry of sentiment,3 and Martin Roth has demonstrated the influence of sentimental writers, such as Laurence Sterne, upon American playwrights and essayists.4 Roy Harvey Pearce has even suggested that eighteenth-century American diarists recorded their feelings in language patterned after that of sentimental novelists.5

The efforts of scholars and critics have firmly placed later eighteenth-century American literature in its proper perspective as one strain in the movement of sensibility and sentiment. A need still remains, however, to reconcile the interpretation of American literature which stresses its connections to England and Europe with the alternative vision which, emphasizing native roots, sees our literature as the product of uniquely American conditions, such as New England Puritanism, democracy, and the frontier. American literature is best viewed as neither wholly foreign and derivative nor entirely original and native. Rather, especially in its formative years, American literature is distinguished by the dynamic interplay between received ideas, attitudes, and artistic techniques and the facts of new social and economic conditions. Many of the tensions of American literature, as of America itself, spring from the attempt to convert into reality the dreams of European writers.

The literary efforts of Michel-Guillaume Jean de Crèvecoeur, the “American farmer,” stand as one of the most interesting and influential examples in eighteenth-century American literature of the adaptation of received forms and ideas to new experience. As a member of a French noble family educated in England, Crèvecoeur was familiar with the literary conventions of his age. However, in 1759 Crèvecoeur shed his identity and, after exploring the northern colonies, he settled in 1769 in New York state where he spent eleven years as an American farmer.6 Crèvecoeur's first work, the Letters of an American Farmer published in England in 1782 and translated and expanded in French in 1784 and 1787, established his reputation as a leading interpreter of America for his contemporaries. The Letters remain a minor American classic. However, the criticism devoted to Crèvecoeur's work has failed to come to terms with the nature of his achievement. He has been hailed as an original genius, a primitive Thoreau, dismissed as a fourth-rate sentimentalist, characterized as a realistic observer of life, and typed as an early romanticist.7 More recently Crèvecoeur's work has been interpreted as prefiguring the symbolic ambiguity of later American writers.8

The critical confusion over Crèvecoeur's work springs from two sources. First, the letters published in Letters from an American Farmer were selected from a mass of manuscripts which Crèvecoeur apparently wrote during his years as an American farmer. Consequently, despite Crèvecoeur's efforts to impose some kind of shape upon the work, it remains inconsistent. More important, in selecting the letters for this book, Crèvecoeur excluded a number of contemporaneous sketches which displayed his pro-loyalist sympathies. Although these sketches have been available since 1925, they have received only cursory attention from most critics. This situation is unfortunate, because in the Revolutionary War sketches excluded from the original English edition of the Letters, Crèvecoeur explicitly delineates the aesthetic principles which control not only his rendering of the American Revolution but also his portrait of the American farmer. The Revolutionary War sketches reveal that most of the apparent inconsistencies in Crèvecoeur's work spring from his aesthetics. Crèvecoeur subscribes to the essential principles of the movement of sensibility and sentiment. The tensions and ambiguities of his work stem from his use of this aesthetic to interpret new experiences through conventional forms in order to make them meaningful to contemporary readers.

Crèvecoeur portrays the life of a “typical” American farmer as such a man appears when filtered through the aesthetics of sensibility and current speculations on the innate goodness of humanity and America as the future seat of a new, nobler civilization.9 He first presents the farmer as essentially a man of sensibility who has found in America an environment which allows him to achieve an harmonious, almost ideal existence;10 in the Revolutionary War sketches he then achieves pathos by stripping the farmer of everything which made his happiness. The first two letters of the Letters from an American Farmer create a fictional author and describe the world in which he lives. The persona who writes the Letters, one Farmer James, is essentially a man of sensibility. The correspondent to whom he addresses his letters characterizes James as the “farmer of feelings,” and James' character fits this description.11 Like the heroes of sentimental novels, James is benevolent, sympathetic, and generous. He overflows with domestic tenderness:

When I contemplate my wife, by my fireside, while she either spins, darns, or suckles our child, I cannot describe the various emotions of love, of gratitude, of conscious pride which thrill in my heart, and often overflow in involuntary tears. I feel the necessity, the sweet pleasure of acting my part, the part of an husband and father, with an attention and propriety which may entitle me to my good fortune. It is true that these pleasing images vanish with the smoke of my pipe, but though they disappear from my mind, the impression they have made on my heart is indelible.12

James displays the tender heart and warm emotions appropriate to a man of sensibility contemplating his wife and family. Although his emotions are centered on his family, James' affection also embraces new immigrants to America and even the brute creatures on his farm. He is essentially a man of feeling.

Several characteristics mark James as a uniquely American version of this figure. His feelings spring directly from his nature and environment. Reading plays no part in his development. James' mind is characterized by his minister as a “Tabula rasa, where strong and spontaneous impressions are delineated with facility.”13 An uneducated farmer, James represents the fulfillment of man's innate potential for virtue, and, as Thomas Philbrick suggests, for Crèvecoeur the true promise of America is that it provides a society in which man may be able for the first time to live up to his promise.14 In the new world almost complete felicity appears to be possible. Appropriately, James insists that no man is happier or freer than he. He lists the evils which he has escaped by being born an American—a tyrannous nobility, a greedy church, oppressive laws, unjust taxes, and tithes. An independent farmer, protected by a benevolent government and mild laws, James glories in his situation. He has achieved an earthly happiness of which the European peasant can only dream.

The key to James' good fortune is his status as an American freeholder. His felicity springs from his closeness to mother earth. A working rather than a gentleman farmer, James drinks virtue and contentment from the soil itself. He concretizes their relationship in a powerful scene:

Often when I plow my low ground, I place my little boy in a chair which screws to the beam of the plow—its motion and that of the horse please him, he is perfectly happy and begins to chat. … I relieve his mother of some trouble while I have him with me, the odoriferous furrow exhilarates his spirits, and seems to do him a great deal of good, for he looks more blooming since I have adopted that practice; can more pleasure, more dignity, be added to that primary occupation? The father thus plowing with his child is inferior only to the emperor of China plowing as an example of his kingdom.15

The first two letters create a vision of the American farmer, literally cradled in the bosom of nature, growing as naturally from the earth as the crops he cultivates. Such felicity is possible because in these letters American nature appears to be almost wholly benevolent. James' farm animals obey him as instinctively as the animals did Adam before the fall. Even James' hornets are so tame that they catch flies from the eyelids of his children without stinging them. The harmony in the natural realm echoes the domestic and social tranquility which enfold James and his family.

Crèvecoeur's Letters are an attempt to build an adequate myth for America. Both the content of the myth and its mode of presentation are significant. At the center of Crèvecoeur's vision is not a legendary political leader, or semi-divine warrior, but an idealized portrait of the American farmer—the common man—self-sufficient, independent, devoted to his farm and his family, harmoniously intertwined with the natural world. Crèvecoeur insists that this farmer is something new in the world, and he appears to offer hope that man can be reborn. Yet as portrayed by Crèvecoeur, Farmer James is anything but an original figure. His love of the natural world smacks of Shaftesbury and Rousseau. The emphasis on the land as the source of virtue echoes sentimental poems as well as contemporary economic theory. James' warm-hearted good nature and hyperbolic language spring directly from the sentimental novel, as do the emotional vignettes which illustrate them. Farmer James is a conventional figure who has finally found his proper place in the world. He represents what Crèvecoeur hopes America will become, and in creating him Crèvecoeur adapts a received model to a partly real, partly ideal vision of his own American experience.

Later letters describing the degeneration consequent upon the facts of slavery and the frontier modify this vision of felicity. However, for Crèvecoeur it is the Revolution which thoroughly destroys the possibility of achieving an eighteenth-century Utopia in America. The Revolution takes away everything for which the American farmer has striven—peace, security, family and farm. It transforms dream into nightmare. Forcing Crèvecoeur to confront the intrusion of violent reality into his ideal vision, the Revolution provides a crucial test of the adequacy of his sentimental aesthetics.

In his interpretation of the significance of the Revolution, Crèvecoeur follows the principles established in the early Letters. Although Crèvecoeur's works reflect his Tory sympathies, they do not focus on the political issues involved in the conflict. Instead his Revolutionary sketches emphasize the human and social effects of the war. He depicts families divided, harmonious communities torn into jarring factions, and the products of years of labor destroyed in hours. Believing that civil turmoil is the worst form of oppression, Crèvecoeur dramatizes the transformation of virtuous men into vicious zealots and the rise of power of self-interested, self-proclaimed patriots. As his portrait of the idyllic existence of the American farmer centered on the benevolent, cheerful emotions fostered by social and domestic tranquillity, so Crèvecoeur's picture of the Revolution stresses the human suffering of individual families trapped in a violently disordered society.

Crèvecoeur's decision to emphasize the suffering of individuals is based only in part upon his personal experience, sensibility, and ethics. Undoubtedly his own sufferings as a loyalist influenced his writing as did his florification of the American farmer. Having placed the common farmer at the center of his vision of America, Crèvecoeur naturally must reveal the effects of the war upon ordinary citizens. However, in his choice of material and techniques for portraying the Revolution, Crèvecoeur is finally guided by artistic rather than ethical or personal principles. In one of his Revolutionary War sketches, “The American Belisarius,” he explicitly sets out the aesthetic which controls these works:

Scenes of sorrow and affliction are equally moving to the bowels of humanity. Find them where you will, there is a strange but peculiar sort of pleasure in contemplating them; it is a mournful feast for some particular souls.

A pile of ruins is always striking, but when the object of contemplation is too extensive, our divided and wearied faculties received impressions proportionally feeble; we possess but a certain quantity of tears and compassion. But when the scale is diminished, when we descend from the destruction of an extensive government or nation to that of several individuals, to that of a once opulent, happy, virtuous family, there we pause, for it is more analogous to our own situation. We can better comprehend the woes, the distress of a father, mother, and children immersed in the deepest calamities our imagination can conceive, than if we had observed the overthrow of kings and great rulers.16

In this passage Crèvecoeur reveals both his rationale for dealing with calamities such as those provoked by the Revolution and his artistic approach to the subject. Following the principles of contemporary philosophers and the practice of sentimental novelists, he notes that suffering can produce aesthetic pleasure: it can be a “mournful feast for some particular souls.” Interestingly, Crèvecoeur offers a rather advanced version of the aesthetic of suffering. Rather than arguing that the pleasure received in viewing distress arises from the observer's desire to relieve its victim, Crèvecoeur ascribes it to an emphatic response to the suffering itself. When suffering is properly distanced, vicarious participation in it can become a source of pleasure. Crèvecoeur then lays down guidelines for creating true pathos. He argues that if it is to affect the reader, the distress must not be too diffuse or it will weary the mind's faculties. He believes that in order to assist the reader in identifying with the sufferers, the writer should focus upon specific individuals and families, preferably humble ones, and he suggests that the effect will be more intense if the writer displays his protagonist's transformation from happiness to the “deepest calamities.” These speculations reveal a startling familiarity, for a supposedly casually educated writer, with current psychological and aesthetic speculations of the role of pathos in literature. Whatever the ultimate source of these ideas, they firmly establish Crèvecoeur as a conscious practitioner of the literature of sensibility, and they set up the aesthetic principles he employs in interpreting the American Revolution.

The final letter in Letters from an American Farmer, “Distresses of a Frontier Man,” embodies Crèvecoeur's most effective application of his aesthetic theory. In this letter Crèvecoeur focuses on the effect of the Revolutionary War on Farmer James and his family. Crèvecoeur's presentation of James' plight is carefully designed to evoke the reader's sympathy. He focuses on the distress of one ordinary family, that of Farmer James. He explicitly contrasts their present misery with their former happiness in order to increase the pathos of their situation. James is characterized as a man guided by sentiment and feeling. Torn between his loyalty to his king and his attachment to his rebellious neighbors, James finds himself unable to judge objectively the rights and wrongs of the conflict. He simply suffers empathetically with the war's victims and fears for the future of his family. In order to bring the situation home to the reader, Crèvecoeur details James' mental state. Expecting destruction from fire and sword, James and his family exist in a condition of constant anxiety, bordering on hysteria. They neither eat nor sleep in peace. James describes his family situation in an emotion laden scene:

We never sit down either to dinner or supper, but the least noise immediately spreads a general alarm and prevents us from enjoying the comfort of our meals. The very appetite proceeding from labour and peace of mind is gone; we eat just enough to keep us alive: our sleep is disturbed by the most frightful dreams; sometimes I start awake, as if the great hour of danger was come: at other times the howling of our dogs seems to announce the arrival of the enemy: we leap out of bed and run to arms; my poor wife with panting bosom and silent tears, takes leave of me, as if we were to see each other no more; she snatches the youngest children from their beds, who, suddenly awakened, increase by their innocent questions the horror of the dreadful moment. She tries to hide them in the cellar, as if our cellar was inaccessible to the fire. I place all my servants at the windows, and myself at the door, where I am determined to perish. Fear industriously increases every sound; we all listen; each communicates to the other his ideas and conjectures. We remain thus sometimes for whole hours, our hearts and our minds racked by the most anxious suspense: what a dreadful situation, a thousand times worse than that of a soldier engaged in the midst of a most severe conflict.17

The details of this vignette reveal its inspiration in the sentimental novel. Crèvecoeur unites stock sentimental rhetoric with specific, picturesque details in order to portray the scene visually. The mention of the children's “innocent questions” and the wife's “panting bosom and silent tears” are obviously designed to evoke pathos. In the sentence beginning “Fear industriously increases every sound,” Crèvecoeur shifts from his usual formal sentence structure to a more flexible style in order to mirror the family's suspense. And to make the pathos of the scene explicit, in the last sentence the narrator breaks out in a direct, emotional comment on the situation. Crèvecoeur employs every stock sentimental device in his attempt to portray the effects of the American Revolution.

Although the “Distresses of a Frontier Man” is unsubtle and over-strained, it does convey the pathos of James' situation. The reader sympathizes with James' plight because he has vicariously shared James' earlier happiness. Also, the hyperbolic language seems appropriate because it reflects James' anticipation of disaster. It mirrors James' psychological state, expressing the fears of a man unstrung by his active imagination and strong sensibility. Despite the excesses, Crèvecoeur does effectively use his sentimental artistry to capture the shock of a dream transformed into a nightmare. Appropriately, Crèvecoeur provides an escape, for the American farmer decides to move his family beyond the frontier, James hopes to regain in the society of friendly Indians the felicity which the Revolution has destroyed. Thus the Letters of an American Farmer concludes with a new optimistic vision.

Crèvecoeur's portraits of families who actually experienced the evils which James anticipates are less successful. In several sketches excluded from the original version of the Letters, Crèvecoeur recounts the sufferings of families destroyed by revolutionary violence.18 These sketches flesh out Crèvecoeur's picture of the Revolution and they further develop the aesthetic principles and techniques Crèvecoeur uses in rendering human woe. As artistic works, however, they are seriously flawed.

“The Wyoming Massacre” illustrates Crèvecoeur's application of the principle that true pathos can be created only by focusing attention on the calamities suffered by individuals. In this sketch Crèvecoeur treats devastation on the grand scale. He recounts the destruction of an entire community which has provoked the anger of the British and Indians on its frontier. Because he is dealing with a “massacre,” Crèvecoeur must begin by painting his portrait with broad strokes. He describes in general terms the fear, confusion, and suffering of the settlers of the Wyoming Valley during the attack. However, in order to engage his readers' sympathies he regularly narrows his field of vision to focus upon the woes of individuals. The following passage describing the retreat following the battle exemplifies his technique:

For a considerable time the roads through the settled country were full of these unhappy fugitives, each company slowly returning towards the countries from which they had formerly emigrated. Some others, still more unfortunate than others, were wholly left alone with their children, obliged to carry through that long and fatiguing march the infants of their breasts, now no longer replenished as before with an exuberant milk. Some of them were reduced to the cruel necessity of loading the ablest of them with the little food they were permitted to carry. Many of these young victims were seen bare-headed, bare-footed, shedding tears at every step, oppressed with fatigues too great for their tender age to bear, afflicted with every species of misery, with hunger, with bleeding feet, every now and then surrounding their mother as exhausted as themselves. “Mammy, where are we going? Where is father? Why don't we go home?” “Poor innocents, don't you know that the King's Indians have killed him and have burnt all we had? Perhaps your uncle Simon will give us some bread.”19

In this scene, Crèvecoeur first scans the general devastation. He then narrows his focus to the mothers and children, the most pitiful members of the train, and details their sufferings. Finally he pauses on one family and recounts the naive questions of the children to their afflicted mother in order to wrench a final drop of pathos from the situation. Even in a sketch of a large-scale disaster, Crèvecoeur manipulates the point of view in accordance with the principle that the deepest pathos arises from empathy with individuals.

The painterly emphasis in this scene is a conscious, consistent element in Crèvecoeur's works.20 Crèvecoeur often compares writing to painting, and he presents his Revolutionary War victims in carefully composed visual portraits. In most of the sketches Crèvecoeur recounts the events quickly, then pauses to describe the appearance of the sufferers at length, embellishing the description with touches of pathetic dialogue and emotional interjections by the narrator. The form of the sketches moves away from narrative and plot to emphasize pictoral scenes and the emotions they evoke. Crèvecoeur's presentation of incomplete visual and emotional fragments reflects his view of art as the expression of sensibility rather than a told story. In form as well as content, Crèvecoeur imitates the practice of such novelists as Mackenzie and Sterne.21

Other sketches reveal Crèvecoeur's careful, almost slavish, application of the aesthetic principles outlined in “The American Belisarius.” In the aforementioned piece, he stresses the virtue and early happiness of its protagonist in order to deepen the pathos of his fall from felicity. Mr. S. K., the American Belisarius, is the most generous of men. After wresting a farm from the wilderness through unaided industry, he becomes the head of a thriving community. So benevolent is Mr. S. K. that he refuses to sell his wheat, preferring to give it to the poor, and he raises his two brothers-in-law to positions of affluence. However, during the Revolution these same brothers-in-law, leaders of the popular cause, scheme to destroy Mr. S. K.'s reputation and acquire his estates. Attainted as a loyalist, Mr. S. K. loses his son and his estates during the conflict. He ends his life in penury, living in one room of the mansion he once owned with a wife who has been driven mad by their misfortunes. Mr. S. K. and his misfortunes are designed to embody Crèvecoeur's dictum that the fall of the most virtuous individuals arouses the most empathy in the breasts of its observers.

Perhaps the gravest fault of the war sketches stems from Crèvecoeur's literal application of the principle that the deeper the calamities he portrays the more profound will be the reader's sympathy. The sketches overflow with misfortunes, and Crèvecoeur piles disaster after disaster upon his victims. In one sketch, “The History of Mrs. B.: An Epitome of all the Misfortunes which can possibly Overtake a New Settler, as Related by Herself,” he carries this tendency to its logical conclusion. As the title suggests, this work recounts all of the disasters which can overtake an unlucky frontierswoman. Mrs. B. suffers through the imprisonment of her husband, a six day trek on foot with her children through the snows of winter, the division of her family during the Revolution, the death of her husband and son-in-law in the Wyoming Massacre, a retreat from the Wyoming valley impeded by a broken thigh, the death from small pox during the retreat of a son and grandson, poverty in her old age, and various minor calamities.22 This melange of misery inevitably produces bathos rather than pathos. In slightly lesser degree, all of the sketches suffer similarly from Crèvecoeur's love of extreme situations and his taste for cliché and hyperbolic diction.

The results of Crèvecoeur's endeavor to interpret the American Revolution through the aesthetics of sensibility are very uneven. Crèvecoeur's works do bring into the foreground the much neglected ordinary citizens of the time. His aesthetic provides him with a rationale for focusing upon the experiences of the American farmer. It offers the tools for creating a vision of ideal, harmonious felicity and for portraying the Revolution as a nightmarish destruction of that dream. Sentimental aesthetics, with their emphasis on individual sensibility and experience, also provide a justification for minimizing the importance of political issues in favor of an emphasis upon the human effects of the war—the suffering which civil turmoil causes for those caught up in it. As seen by a man of sensibility, the American Revolution becomes a war like any other war. Crèvecoeur's vision corrects the sanitized, bloodless versions of the conflict which form the stuff of popular legend, and it serves as a useful counter to abstract economic and political studies.

However, for a writer as fond of extremes as Crèvecoeur, the sentimental tradition also encourages extravagant emotional flights. For an uncertain stylist such as Crèvecoeur, the language of sensibility can be a trap, for its stock diction readily becomes absurd in the hands of an imitative writer. Only a master of the genre could succeed in using the aesthetics of sensibility to create a wholly satisfactory portrait of the American experience. Crèvecoeur is not such a master. Too often his letters and sketches substitute borrowed rhetoric and stilted posturing for felt emotion. Yet Crèvecoeur's works remain interesting despite their flaws. They do embody, albeit in imperfect form, a human myth of America, and they stand as important examples of the complex interplay of received aesthetic theory and original experience in eighteenth-century American literature.


  1. Terence Martin, The Instructed Vision: Scottish Common Sense Philosophy and the Origins of American Fiction, Indiana University Humanities Series, No. 48 (Bloomington, 1961).

  2. Herbert Ross Brown, The Sentimental Novel in America (Durham, 1940); “Elements of Sensibility in the Massachusetts Magazine,” AL [American Literature] 1 (Nov. 1929): 286-96; “Richardson and Sterne in the Massachusetts Magazine,” NEQ [New England Quarterly] 5 (1932): 65-82.

  3. Leon Howard, “The American Revolt Against Pope,” SP [Studies in Philology] 44 (1952): 48-65.

  4. Martin Roth, “Laurence Sterne in America,” Bulletin of the New York Public Library 74 (1970): 428-36.

  5. Roy Harvey Pearce, “Sterne and Sensibility in American Diaries,” MLN [Modern Language Notes] 59 (1944), 403-7.

  6. Thomas Philbrick, “Crèvecoeur as New Yorker,” EAL [Early American Literature] 11 (Spring, 1976): 22-3. The motives behind Crèvecoeur's decision to adopt a new identity and break his ties with France remain a matter of controversy. Most biographers believe Crèvecoeur was disgraced in the battle of Quebec. See Julia Post Mitchell, St. Jean de Crèvecoeur (New York, 1916); Howard C. Rice, Le Cultivateur Americain: Etude sur L'Oeuvre de Saint John Crèvecoeur (Paris, 1932); and Thomas Philbrick, St. John de Crèvecoeur (New York, 1970.)

  7. For examples of the controversy see Stanley T. Williams, “Crèvecoeur and His Times,” intro. to Sketches of Eighteenth Century America: More “Letters from an American Farmer,” eds. Henri Bourdin, Ralph H. Gabriel and Stanley T. Williams (New Haven, 1925), pp. 25-29; Norman A. Plotkin, “Saint-Jean de Crèvecoeur: Critic or Panagyrist,” FHS [French Historical Studies] 3 (Spring 1964): 390-404; Percy G. Adams, “Crèvecoeur—Realist or Romanticist,” The French American Review 3 (July-Sept. 1949): 115-135; Jack Babuscio, “Crèvecoeur in Charles-Town: The Negro in the Cage,” JHS [Journal of Historical Studies] (Winter 1969-70): 283-6.

  8. See for examples James C. Mohr, “Calculated Disillusionment: Crèvecoeur's Letters Reconsidered,” SAQ [South Atlantic Quarterly] 69 (Summer 1970): 354-63; Thomas Philbrick, St. John de Crèvecoeur; and Elayne Antler Rapping, “Theory and Experience in Crèvecoeur's America,” AQ [American Quarterly] 19 (Winter 1967): 707-718.

  9. The sources of Crèvecoeur's ideas have been explored. As Philbrick suggests, Crèvecoeur was obviously familiar with most of the conventional ideas of the enlightenment, but it remains a matter of debate whether his knowledge springs from reading the originals or derivative compilations. See Philbrick, pp. 44-46.

  10. I discuss this issue in broad terms in my article, “The Expansive Sensibility of Michel-Guillaume Jean de Crèvecoeur,” Exploration 2 (Dec. 1974): 36-51.

  11. Michel-Guillaume Jean de Crèvecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer (Gloucester, Mass., 1768), reprint 1782 ed., p. 29.

  12. Crèvecoeur, Letters, pp. 29-30.

  13. Crèvecoeur, Letters, p. 21.

  14. Philbrick, p. 51.

  15. Crèvecoeur, Letters, p. 31.

  16. Crèvecoeur, “The American Belisarius,” Sketches of Eighteenth-Century America: More “Letters from an American Farmer,” eds. Henri L. Bourdin, Ralph H. Gabriel, and Stanley T. Williams (New Haven, 1925), p. 228.

  17. Crèvecoeur, Letters, pp. 205-6.

  18. These Sketches appear to be contemporaneous with the later Letters. It is not clear why they were excluded from the original Letters from an American Farmer. Altered versions of some of them appeared in the later French translation and expansion, Letters d'un Cultivateur Americain (1784, 1787), but they were published in English only in the twentieth century and then in fragmentary form.

  19. Crèvecoeur, Sketches, p. 205.

  20. Significantly the one sketch cast in dramatic rather than narrative form is entitled “Landscapes.”

  21. Leo Braudy, in “Sentimental Novels,” Novel 1 (Fall 1973): 5-13, has argued that it is the form rather than the content which truly defines the sentimental novel. He writes, “Structure in the sentimental novel strives to imitate feeling rather than intellect and to embody direct experience rather than aesthetic premeditation.” Although I think he undervalues the importance of the content of sentimental novels and overemphasizes the “artlessness and sincerity” of their effect, Braudy is certainly persuasive in demonstrating the ways in which the form of the sentimental novel reflects its emphasis on the primacy of individual experience. Interestingly Crèvecoeur, interpreting historical experience, conforms in part to this tendency. Philbrick discusses from a somewhat different perspective Crèvecoeur's relationship to the sentimental novel. See Philbrick, p. 92.

  22. Crèvecoeur, Sketches, pp. 207-220.

Myra Jehlen (essay date 1979)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8548

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. Before the war he had declared that immigrants to America could never be expected to remain committed to European societies that condemned them to “involuntary idleness, servile dependence, penury, and useless labour.” His dignity as well as the fruits of his labors secured here, the new American must inevitably “love this country much better than that wherein he or his forefathers were born.” (p. 50) It was only natural and right for a man to owe his first loyalty to the land that he tilled. But having thus argued, and in the process provided perhaps the best known definition of “the American,” J. Hector St. John Crèvecoeur then found himself, overnight, pleading with hostile neighbors to be allowed to return to France. His lands expropriated and his family scattered, Crèvecoeur fled the New World in September 1780. How did this come about, and why?

His sincerity and loyalty to America were beyond question. The cited passages were written before the confiscation of his farm, but he published them afterwards nonetheless, in 1781-82, when he was back in France and helping American prisoners escape across the Channel, to return home. Thomas Jefferson praised the Letters enthusiastically, and recognizing their remarkable propaganda value, endorsed their agrarian vision as altogether in accord with his own. In Europe Crèvecoeur was dubbed “The American Farmer.” By the close of the war, the country he had left as an ignominious fugitive honored him on his return as French consul.2 But this reinstatement should not be taken to mean that his loyalism had been a mere misunderstanding. Crèvecoeur's opposition to the Revolution was as serious and principled as his commitment to America. Making sense of this requires that we distinguish between two historical developments usually treated as one: the achievement of national independence on one hand, and the evolution of American democracy on the other.

These two developments have been linked through an interpretation of the Revolution that tends toward the teleological, in viewing it as fought essentially to achieve nationhood. This view was bolstered for a long time by the general agreement that “American society in the half century after 1775 was substantially what it had been in the quarter century before.”3 In the absence of significant social change in the new nation, it was reasonable to suppose that the Revolutionaries were politically motivated and sought independence from external control rather than any internal resolution or transformation. But recent studies have uncovered more social flux and conflict in colonial America than had been suspected, and rather less consensus about the overall national purpose. It is in this context of closer attention to the internal complexities and contradictions of early American society that I will be attempting to explain Crèvecoeur's political decision against the Revolution. In coming to this decision, however expressive it was of larger principles, Crèvecoeur responded specifically to his local experience in rural Pennsylvania.4

In the period before the Revolution, that society seemed to Crèvecoeur very nearly a paradise which, best of all, anyone could enter. For this is what he valued above all about America, the opportunity he saw it providing everyone to achieve abundant self-sufficiency, and the dignity of equal status among his neighbors and before the law. In America, he wrote, society “is not composed, as in Europe, of great lords who possess everything, and of a herd of people who have nothing.” Here is “no invisible power giving to a few a very visible one.” (p. 46) Instead everyone had equally complete control of his life, and none had power over another's. The early Letters celebrate the resurrection of Europe's wretched, hopeless poor, to whom America promised:

“If thou wilt work, I have bread for thee; if thou wilt be honest, sober and industrious, I have greater rewards to confer on thee—ease and independence, … the immunities of a freeman. … Go thou and work and till; thou shalt prosper, provided thou be just, grateful and industrious.”


One such happy story, the ascent of Andrew the Hebridean from emigrant to American, was a New World Pilgrim's Progress, depicting “the progressive steps of a poor man, advancing from indigence to ease; from oppression to freedom, from obscurity and contumely to some degree of consequency—not by virtue of any freaks of fortune, but by the gradual operation of sobriety, honesty, and emigration.” (p. 74) This was a parable for the aspiring middle class of course; “the rich,” Crèvecoeur noted, “stay in Europe, it is only the middling and the poor who emigrate.” (p. 63) But “for men of middle stations or labourers,” America held out infinite possibilities; this was the familiar vision which has endured down to today, and Crèvecoeur articulated its ethic with notable precision: “we are all animated with the spirit of an industry which is unfettered and unrestrained,” he exulted, “because each person works for himself.” (p. 46)

That all this constituted a revolution in the politics of the individual and society was something which Crèvecoeur both understood and applauded. The American, he proclaimed, “is a new man, who acts upon new principles; he must therefore entertain new ideas and form new opinions.” (p. 50) Then why not a new nation? Curiously, given his enthusiasm over the newness of the New World and what must have been the currency of such speculations, this question seems not even to have occurred to Crèvecoeur until the Revolution was upon him. In other respects he was as visionary as any, rhapsodizing, for instance, that “Americans are the western pilgrims, who are carrying along with them the great mass of arts, sciences, vigour, and industry which began long since in the east; they will finish the great circle.” (p. 49) So his failure to imagine America's future as a separate nation is the more striking. Indeed, in retrospect, Crèvecoeur himself wondered how he could have ignored the larger issues of state and society for so long: “I lived on, laboured and prospered, without having ever studied on what the security of my life, and the foundation of my prosperity were established: I perceived them just as they left me.” (p. 204) Amid the ruins of that prosperity, he saw that he had given too little thought to its external guarantees. His personal life had occupied all his energies, because for him only the private world mattered. “The instant I enter on my land,” he had written in happier days, “the bright idea of property, of exclusive right, of independence exalt my mind.” (p.30) Too late, he came to ask himself, “what is man when no longer connected with society; or when he finds himself surrounded by a convulsed and a half dissolved one?” But even as he expanded on this awakening social consciousness, he revealed in the terms by which he sought to define community why he had earlier overlooked it.

Man “cannot live in solitude,” Crèvecoeur explained, because “men mutually support and add to the boldness and confidence of each other; the weakness of each is strengthened by the force of the whole.” (p. 204) But he still missed the point, able to envision a social model only as inorganic arithmetical linkage. Because personal worth for him was measured by autonomy, any area of mutual definition amounted to a sort of entail on the self. Thus all relations between free men were properly foreign relations and society had to do only with external affairs.

The problem of reconciling individual independence with mutuality was not Crèvecoeur's alone. It occupied his entire century and, for that matter, the next; we are still not clear what the concept of community means in a society of individualists. Moreover, this is an ontological question, and not merely an ethical one. For Crèvecoeur, the private citizen need be neither selfish nor unsociable. He himself was apparently the most benevolent of men. “I have at all times generously relieved what few distressed people I have met with,” (p. 217) he reported, judging this one of his proudest achievements. He considered neighborliness not only desirable but absolutely necessary. The Andrew parable in the third Letter cites prominently the unstinting aid of already established farmers. One of these employed the immigrant until he worked out his indenture, while at the same time disinterestedly preparing him for the day he would have his own farm; then others leased him land, lent tools and seeds, raised his barn, transported his crops. Andrew could not and should not have done it alone; like Jefferson, Crèvecoeur valued farming for the social bonds as well as for the independence it fostered. It is when Andrew is made overseer of the county road and serves on petty juries that we know he was successful. He had arrived at his goal himself only when the land surrounding his farm was also finally settled; “instead of being the last man towards the wilderness, [he] found himself in a few years in the middle of a numerous society.” And the process was to continue, for “he helped others as generously as others had helped him.” (p. 90)

For Crèvecoeur, loners, as opposed to self-reliant individualists, threatened civilization itself. He condemned as the dregs of American society those isolated inhabitants of the wilderness become idle, licentious hunters who hated their neighbors and, living alone far from churches and schools, had themselves become wild, “ferocious, gloomy and unsociable.” (p. 57) Neither a Rousseau nor a Chateaubriand, Crèvecoeur sought to disabuse his European readers of romantic notions about man in the state of nature. In the backwoods of America, he told them, there reigns “a perfect state of war”;

that of man against man … that of man against every wild inhabitant of these venerable woods, of which they are come to dispossess them. There men appear to be no better than carnivorous animals of a superior rank, living on the flesh of wild animals when they can catch them …

(p. 52)

and on pilfering from each other when they can't. So that when he regretted his insufficient attention earlier to the social connection, he did not mean that he had ever thought that men should or could live alone. Far from it: isolation had always been for him not merely inconvenient, but a threat to his identity as a rational civilized being. Finding himself cut off from his community by the advent of the Revolution, he would become aware that the houses in his settlement lay “at a considerable distance from each other,” (pp. 204-5) and that the wilderness, the “hideous wilderness,” (p. 222) was all about. In the contemplation of this wilderness he wrote poignantly, “I feel as if my reason wanted to leave me, as if it would burst its poor weak tenement.” (p. 204)

To be human, one needs human ties; to be a man, one must be entirely independent. Crèvecoeur resolved this paradox to his own satisfaction through his family. Having found farming dull in his youth, he came with maturity to appreciate its solid virtues. He reported having for a time considered leaving the land, but then

I married, and this perfectly reconciled me to my situation; my wife rendered my house all at once cheerful and pleasing; it no longer appeared gloomy and solitary as before; when I went to work in my fields I worked with more alacrity and sprightliness; I felt that I did not work for myself alone, and this encouraged me much. My wife would often come with her knitting in her hand, and sit under the shady trees, praising the straightness of my furrows, and the docility of my horses; this swelled my heart and made everything light and pleasant, and I regretted that I had not married before.

(p. 28)

It is not what is included in this idyll that is striking, so much as what it leaves out, which is any suggestion of going outward from the familial nucleus, of ties or activities beyond the family. Instead, the economic sphere for one is subsumed to the domestic; Crèvecoeur's wife is more often pictured coming out to the fields than he home to her, the metaphorical point of these meetings being to project the structure of his world and to measure its extent, which world is amply co-extensive with his family. Ideally society could be made up of such families related to each other by analogy and proximity while remaining separate and self-defined. To achieve this ideal state, those who are already established have a social duty, which works also in their own interest, to help others through temporary and reversible familial relations to achieve equal status, one mature family aiding another weak or fledgling as a father would his son. Such aid is a recurrent motif in the Letters. Andrew rises by being raised by parental figures who educate, equip, and stake him as he will do equally for the next “generation” of immigrants and for his sons. For America's brightest promise to the worthy is prosperity for their children, which “to every good man … ought to be the most holy, the most powerful, the most earnest wish he can possibly form, as well as the most consolatory prospect when he dies.” (p. 73)

Therein lay Crèvecoeur's social vision of a benevolent America which nurtured each immigrant to a fulfilled manhood he then manifested by nurturing his children in turn. It is important that this fusion of private and public realms in one code of personal behavior not invoke medieval associations. If there were signs in the eighteenth century of a feudal revival in America, Crèvecoeur would have had none of it.5 For him, the private and the public came together not in any external common domain, but in the inner man, whence they were projected into a politics of private morality generalized. So the excellent Bertram of the eleventh letter, a botanist exemplifying Crèvecoeur's notion of the social good as validated by nature, is a kindly but firm father to his brood of children, women, and blacks, all of whom he will try to raise to fulfill their potentials. Conversely when the Revolution seemed to have destroyed all hope of peace and order, Crèvecoeur's survival plan was, by his lights, less quixotic than it might appear. Gathering his distraught wife and children, taking with him husbands for his daughters, he planned to settle among the Indians and there, reconstituting his family and even ensuring its descendance, he would regenerate a micro-civilization. Civilization, in short, was the family writ large.

The contrast with Robinson Crusoe is compelling: when Defoe wanted to recreate society, he provided Crusoe with his man Friday; Crèvecoeur took a wife. Though there is a certain analogy between the captive worker and the subservient wife, the difference between them nonetheless has significant ideological implications. For Defoe, the world was a marketplace organized around the basic relation of propertied and propertyless whose hired labor enriches the former and maintains them in their status. Thus property owners benefit from the relative poverty of the lower classes. To put it simply, if Friday's share were to grow as fast as, or faster than Crusoe's profits, Crusoe would lose by it. He extends his holdings only when Friday gets back less than the wealth he generates. However productive, and whether or not beneficial for Friday or for society as a whole, this is an intrinsically competitive situation. But Crèvecoeur's relationship to his wife was not so overtly competitive. Indeed for his part, he perceived the relation as entirely complementary, between himself and just another aspect of himself. (How his wife saw it, of course, may be another story, or another history.) By the shift in Crèvecoeur's eighteenth-century world from the extended family to the individual as the unit of social identification, married women became more than ever identified with and through their husbands. It never occurred to Crèvecoeur that his wife might have interests other than his own, let alone competing interests. Thus there is a profound difference within middle-class thinking, between defining society in familial or in economic terms. In Defoe's world view, the economic model was all pervasive and defined family relations well. But as a projection directly of the family, in the way Crèvecoeur envisioned society, that model appeared far less competitive, if also less dynamic, than it did either on Addison's Royal Exchange or in the shops of Franklin's Philadelphia. Both Exchange and shops, as well as Crusoe's island, would have appalled Crèvecoeur, whose social ideal reigned instead on another island, in peaceful, quiet, and cooperative Nantucket.

For a book about farmers, the Letters spends a surprising amount of time on Cape Cod. Five of the twelve are about Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard, and their repetitiveness suggests that their real meaning for him may have lain deeper than Crèvecoeur could quite articulate. Overall, he seems to have seen Nantucket as the essence of American-ness, as it abjured the corruption and decadence of Europe. “How happy are we here, in having fortunately escaped the miseries which attended our fathers,” he exclaimed in the opening of the Cape Cod letters. He predicted that as the tyrants of Europe raged on, “this country, providentially intended for the general asylum of the world, will flourish by the oppression of their people; they will every day become better acquainted with the happiness we enjoy, and seek for the means of transporting themselves here. …” Now, if the theme is already familiar from other contemporary writings, its treatment was somewhat unusual, for Crèvecoeur's “asylum” was a rocky sand-bar “barren in its soil, insignificant in its extent, inconvenient in its situation, deprived of materials for building. …” The significant point is that he regretted none of these shortcomings, on the contrary seeing them as the source of Nantucket excellence. It seemed to him that the island had “been inhabitated merely to prove what mankind can do when happily governed.” With “freedom … skill … probity … and perseverance,” by their own “vigorous industry,” unhindered but unaided, the people of Nantucket “have raised themselves from the most humble, the most insignificant beginnings, to the ease and the wealth they now possess.” Crèvecoeur insisted on the arduousness of their effort, appearing gratified even that poor soil had kept them from farming. Instead of a nurturing earth, “they plough the rougher ocean, they gather from its surface, at an immense distance, and with Herculean labours, the riches it affords; they go to hunt and catch that huge fish which by its strength and velocity ought to be beyond the reach of man.”

What they have shown is that nothing is beyond the reach of men free to pursue their dreams. This was Crèvecoeur's creed:

Give mankind the full rewards of their industry, allow them to enjoy the fruits of their labour under the peaceable shade of their vines and fig-trees, leave their native activity unshackled and free like a stream without dams or other obstacle. …

(pp. 94-98)

Such eloquence is far from his usual style, however, and he was at his most reserved in describing those rewards. Then he spoke of “decent plainness” (p. 119), neatness, and simplicity, several times describing the dress and houses of Nantucket's Herculean labourers as “simple, useful and unadorned.” (p. 116) Earlier he had praised, as a happy contrast to the showy luxury of European houses, “the pleasing uniformity of decent competence [that] appears throughout our habitations.” (p. 46) Finally, this insistence on plain living comes to exceed the standards of middle-class prudence and we begin to realize that he objected not only to spending but to having as well: only the process of getting aroused his enthusiasm, the labor more than its fruits. He had no interest in superabundance, or in accumulation per se, were it of goods or profits; “living with decency and ease” in “plentiful subsistence” (p. 95) was the decidedly limited goal of Crèvecoeur's model American, and his own:

I have never possessed, or wish to possess any thing more than what could be earned or produced by the united industry of my family. I wanted nothing more than to live at home independent and tranquil, and to teach my children how to provide the means of a future ample subsistence, founded on labor, like that of their father.

(p. 217)

Thus despite unlimited willingness to work, and his rejection of any external limits to the self, Crèvecoeur might almost be said to have lacked ambition. He had enlarged his definition of subsistence and ease to the American scale, but he neither looked nor aspired much beyond the strict fulfillment of necessity. In speaking of the unceasing activity he saw all around him, Crèvecoeur referred to it approvingly as “restless industry” (p. 19), a phrase with no progressive implications, projecting only continual hard work. With his family as his world rather than a home-base for forays into the world, Crèvecoeur's was a truncated, partial kind of middle-class ethos. According to this ethos, individualism manifests itself through independence and self-assertion but not (yet) in social power or accumulated wealth. (We should recall Crèvecoeur's context among Pennsylvania farmers whose sense of equality sprang from respective self-sufficiency, to appreciate how resonant this distinction between self-assertion and social power may have been.)

In Crèvecoeur's logic, equality had egalitarian implications, for how could a man be independent if he were not actually as well as potentially equal? But for all its idealism, this primitive individualism was necessarily transitory, for it became impractical in even the most fledgling of market societies. Indeed Crèvecoeur found all markets repugnant. They were inevitably theaters for theft: “if it is not (in that vast variety of bargains, exchanges, barters, sales, etc.,) bellum omnium contra omnes, 'tis a general mass of keenness and sagacious action against another mass of equal sagacity, 'tis caution against caution. Happy when it does not degenerate into fraud against fraud!” I cited earlier his description of the wilderness as a “perfect state of war … of man against man.”

In any case, the hustle and bustle of the marketplace had no charms for him, as his essay on “Manners of the Americans” makes very clear. It was not published in the Letters but with the more ambivalent Sketches of Eighteenth-Century America. Like the first letters, it depicts the evolution of an American settler from initial step into the wilderness to prosperous establishment as a foremost citizen of the region. But unlike Andrew and his kind, this farmer acts alone; no paternal neighbors help him and he has no intention of helping others. When he arrives at the point of selling crops or leasing land, he will drive the hardest bargain he can and not balk at a little cheating. He gouges interest and forecloses on mortgages; eventually he expands to become a general merchant, and “this introduces him into all the little mysteries of self-interest, clothed under the general name of profits and emoluments.”

He sells for good that which perhaps he knows to be indifferent because he also knows that the ashes he has collected, the wheat he has taken in may not be so good or so clean as it was asserted. Fearful of fraud in all his dealings and transactions, he arms himself, therefore, with it.

Crèvecoeur would have had difficulty with our nostalgia for the country-store. “Very probably,” he warned, the farmer-merchant will be “litigious, overbearing, purse-proud,” and irreligious because religion is neither convenient nor useful; he cares only about himself, and in this setting, even his devotion to his family takes on an equivocal character. “To him,” Crèvecoeur wrote, “all that appears good, just, equitable has a necessary relation to himself and his family.”6 He would have reversed the formula in describing farmer James or Andrew the Hebridean: all that was related to the welfare of their families was good, just, and equitable. The difference seems to lie between the self and the family in the non-competitive, egalitarian terms of farming, and the same concepts qualified by the necessities of a mercantile context.

The figure of the farmer-merchant retrospectively highlights a peculiar aspect of the yeoman hero in the earlier letters. One wonders whether Crèvecoeur then had excluded all trading and market activities from his account of the farmer's life in order not to taint his ideal vision. Otherwise the lack of any commerce in the agrarian idylls of the Letters, where neighbors exchange goods and services but never seem to sell them, remains puzzling. The issue is not money, which we would expect to be scarce in a rural economy, but profit. Crèvecoeur's model farmers achieve ease and plentiful subsistence, they gain respect and standing in the community, they earn their way, but they do not earn profits: for Crèvecoeur, this would have amounted to profiteering.

Thus anyway he argued in a sketch called “The American Belisarius,” significantly written after the outbreak of the Revolution. The original Belisarius rose from the rank of servant to become the Emperor Justinian's chief general. He enjoyed something of a vogue in the late eighteenth century and was said by Sir William Temple to have been one of seven men in history who were worthy to be monarchs but weren't. The victim of endless intrigue, he reportedly refused to abuse his power to punish his enemies, while maintaining an unswerving loyalty to his Emperor. Gibbon was not certain whether the patience with which Belisarius endured his rivals' insults proved him more or less than a man; but for Crèvecoeur, the Roman's endurance and loyalty and withal the inherent superiority he refused to exploit—so that he lost his home and fortune finally without ever losing his temper—clearly made him the beau idéal of the American Loyalist.7 His worthy American counterpart, S. K., had gone out to the frontier as a young man and built up a remarkably flourishing farm. As he grew rich, he did not forget his family, and duly settled his two brothers-in-law on neighboring lands where, with his help, they too were soon thriving. “Their prosperity, which was his work, raised no jealousy in him,” wrote Crèvecoeur, finding it all a “pastoral and edifying spectacle: three brothers, the founders of three opulent families, the creators of three valuable plantations, the promoters of the succeeding settlements that took place around them.” Here was the fulfillment of Crèvecoeur's ideal, the family generating a community of equals who progress through the kind of mutual assistance which leaves each one freely possessive of his own home and hearth. With the coming of more settlers to the region, however, certain complications do develop. “It was not to be expected that they could all equally thrive. Prosperity is not the lot of every man; so many casualties occur that often prevent it.” How can the familial model deal with such casualties? What can a democratic society do with its inevitable inequalities? S. K. again points the righteous way. In hard times he opens his granary to his neighbors:

he lends them hay; he assists them in whatever they want; he cheers them with good counsel; he becomes a father to the poor of this wilderness. They promise him payment; he never demands it.

For Crèvecoeur what was most telling is his not demanding payment, for this is the touchstone of S. K.'s morality. He refuses to enter the marketplace. He has the largest stock of grain in the area, prices are soaring and traders approach him with tempting offers, but he rejects them saying,

“I have no wheat … for the rich, my harvest is for the poor. What would the inhabitants of these mountains do were I to divest myself of what superfluous grain I have?”8

We will pay you at once, they argue, while these poor will make you wait indefinitely. He answers that he cannot let his neighbors starve.

If S. K. will not sell, neither does he buy. At harvest time he requires no hired help, for the grateful folk come from all around to gather in the “patriarchal harvest.” S. K.'s patriarchism is in no sense feudal though Crèvecoeur's use of traditional terms to suggest the deeper validity of this moral code may obscure its anti-aristocratic assumptions. But just as the Roman Belisarius was a model because he was born a commoner, S. K. is called “princely” only to suggest that none on earth is more deserving of the title than a “good substantial independent American farmer,” such as he is and remains to the end. His aim in helping his indigent fellows is not to earn their fealty but their friendship, by freeing them into self-sufficiency. He is no better than his neighbors except in the sense that he represents their common type at its best, and when he rejects the merchants' offer, it is not out of a sense of noblesse but of common humanity. There is nothing contradictory to democratic thought in this stance as such. Familial patriarchs after all are as congruent with middle-class societies as a patriarchal nobility was with the feudal system, the modern family being essentially a small fiefdom, as the old adage has it that proclaims a man's home as his castle. What is unusual about S. K. is that he plays the role of noble father not only to his family but to the community at large. In this way he represents Crèvecoeur's democratic familialism, whose ennobling patriarchism had neither the source nor the purpose of the feudal aristocratic variety. In modern terms, the alternative of such a kindly father would be neither wicked king nor faithless lord, but just such a gouging, thieving merchant as the one featured in “Manners of the Americans.”

Indeed, Crèvecoeur's earlier list of the European evils that America has averted included, in addition to aristocrats, kings and bishops, “great manufacturers employing thousands.” (p. 46) The old aristocracy was not the only one that he deplored. In a discussion of the unfortunate spread of tea drinking in America (when native herbs are plentiful and better for you), he shook his head over a newer breed of lords:

It was necessary that our forefathers should discover and till this country in order that their prosperity might serve to enrich a parcel of London merchants who though but citizens in England, yet are nabobs in India; who though mighty fond of liberty at home for themselves and their children, yet do not choose that other people should enjoy these great benefits in their Indian dominions. The idea of merchants becoming sovereigns, lords and tyrants … but a poor American farmer must not say all he thinks.9

What he saw as best about America—or more to the point, what had been best about it before the Revolution—was that a good man could become wealthy without engaging in imperialism or even commerce: without having to deprive his equals of the substance he acquires.

Crèvecoeur's agrarianism may have been based on the view that only farming could produce wealth without exploitation. Like the Physiocrats by whom he was influenced, he believed that only the land produces value, so that all other means of acquiring it must amount to theft—hence the fraudulent merchant. Quesnay and the Physiocrats envisioned a stable, rationalized France of cultured farmers who leased their lands and derived a comfortable subsistence, with enough over to feed the minority necessarily engaged in non-agricultural tasks. But in the American context of expansion and open-ended growth, even the modest Crèvecoeur sensed that something more was needed. Though his aspirations were limited, they were still grander than those of his European counterparts. He recognized as much with satisfaction. He therefore modified the Physiocrat program by having American farmers eventually own their land, explaining that Europe was crowded and its lands long since taken up, but that the New World remained accessible to all.

But he knew too that this concept of “equal divisions of the land offered no short road to superior riches.” To speak to the American situation, he needed to represent a possibility for even larger expansion which would still remain free of the mercantile taint. That is why Nantucket was so important to him. It seemed to embody a solution to the otherwise pervasively corrupting paradox of equality and competition. For the sailors who “plough the rougher ocean,” do have thereby a “short road to superior riches,” which is as free from fraud as is agriculture. Like a plentiful harvest too, the sudden windfall of a good catch neither derives from nor generates pernicious social inequalities. Among the people of Nantucket,

the gradations [of wealth] are founded on nothing more than the good or ill success of their maritime enterprises, and do not proceed from education; that is the same throughout every class, simple, useful, and unadorned like their dress and their houses.

But having an equal start and maintaining a relatively equal lifestyle does not yet comprise the fundamental equality which Crèvecoeur was after. He realized that this had to do more with the structure of the economy itself than with the way individuals entered into it. Not only do the free men of Nantucket begin their accumulation of property as equals, none having significantly more than any other, but the property they seek is such that it is continually accessible to each of them. The “necessary difference in their fortunes” does not cause among Nantucketers “those heart burnings, which in other societies generate crime,” because “the sea which surrounds them is equally open to all, and presents to all an equal title to the chance of good fortune.” (pp. 116-17) They get their riches from the sea, not from each other, so that no one person's income, however large, in any way lessens another's. Moreover, by using the limitless ocean to represent capital, Crèvecoeur avoided all the implications of scarcity, and could reconcile the inequalities generated by the unregulated individualistic enterprise that he considered the expression of freedom, with his moral conviction that the means for such enterprise must be equally available. In Nantucket one doesn't need to engage in fierce competition in order to grow rich; one grows rich beside one's neighbors, working hard privately but in harmony with them.

This unique instance of transcendent enterprise, however, only underlined Crèvecoeur's general rejection of the commercial nexus. For him the marketplace did not make for a better product, but for the ferocities of the jungle. Just such a jungle (to return to the case of the unhappy American Belisarius) was what the Revolution seemed to Crèvecoeur to be creating in America. The story of S. K. ends sadly. Having rejected the blandishments of usurious commerce, and having sought only to mind his farm and to assist others in minding theirs, that good man still tries to keep his private counsel when the fighting breaks out. But privacy is no longer allowed; “as a citizen of a smaller society,” Crèvecoeur wrote in the throes of the war, “I find that any kind of opposition to its now prevailing sentiments, immediately begets hatred.” (p. 207) The envious and greedy gather, S. K.'s brothers-in-law see an opportunity to vent their jealousy, local merchants want to see him forced to buy and sell, less advantaged farmers just want his land. Eventually he is driven from his burned-out farm into the wilderness. The leaders of the Revolution may have had more inspired motives, Crèvecoeur speculated, but the effect of their bid for freedom was to enslave everyone else. Shortly before he is totally despoiled, S. K. receives a group of local yeomen who come as usual to ask him for help over the long winter. Among them he recognizes some who have been persecuting him. They haven't wanted to, they explain, but what could they do? The weakness which has brought them to his door also makes them subject to all the petty tyrants the war has unleashed. S. K. understands their plight, and distributes the last of the grain.

What we come to understand is the necessity for a strong overall authority, equally restrictive of all to keep each man free of his equals. Crèvecoeur had hoped once that a benevolent environment would render its inhabitants equally benevolent. He had thought then that men might live together virtually without external authority. Again Nantucket represented the best of all governments, one which simply left people alone:

solemn tribunals, public executions, humiliating punishments, are altogether unknown. I saw neither governors, nor any pageantry of state; neither ostentatious magistrates, nor any individuals cloathed with useless dignity: no artificial phantoms subsist here either civil or religious; no gibbets loaded with guilty citizens offer themselves to your view; no soldieries are appointed to bayonet their compatriots into servile compliance.

(p. 115)

The positive advantages of such governance are all negative, and Crèvecoeur would rather have done without it altogether. Unfortunately, even in the New World, many men have remained like those cattle who, “conscious of their superior force, will abuse it when unrestrained by any law, and often live on their neighbors' property.” (p. 237) Therefore, “the law is to us precisely what I am in my barn yard, a bridle and check to prevent the strong and greedy, from oppressing the timid and weak.” (p. 34) In Nantucket as everywhere, there are times when the weak must be protected from the strong, and thus “the law at a distance is ever ready to exert itself in the protection of those who stand in need of its assistance.” (p. 115)

“At a distance”: the phrase was all-important to Crèvecoeur, it was the key to his outlook. If we recall that he defined personal identity entirely in terms of self-possession and property, it becomes evident that he must have viewed external authority per se as inevitably problematical. It had to be all-inclusive and absolute; it also had to be non-interfering, indeed non-engaging. Across a dangerous ocean, thousands of miles away, the crown of England was the best solution imaginable. It was “the law at a distance” incarnate.

Earlier Crèvecoeur had made the ideal explicit:

Where is that station which can confer a more substantial system of felicity than that of American farmer, possessing freedom of action, freedom of thoughts, ruled by a mode of government which requires but little from us. …

(pp. 28-9)

Pre-revolutionary America, therefore, enjoyed the “general Happiness” which “proceeds from a government which does everything for us and requires little or nothing in return.”10 And Crèvecoeur's personal situation represented that blissful state perfectly: “I owe nothing, but a peppercorn to my country, a small tribute to my King, with loyalty and due respect.” (p. 28) If the Whigs found English intrusion in America unbearable, Crèvecoeur clearly did not share their view. A few taxes seemed to him to mean relatively little compared to the secure freedom of the Nantucket sailors who ply the seas as they will:

a collector from Boston is the only King's officer who appears on these shores to receive the trifling duties which this community owe to those who protect them, and under the shadow of whose wings they navigate to all parts of the world.

(p. 117)

His ideal government had little impact on the local activities of individuals; its role was global, and on that scale, absolute.

This notion that maintaining equal freedom requires a strong central authority did not originate with Crèvecoeur, of course. The case had long since been made by Hobbes, among others, whose account of man in the state of nature Crèvecoeur essentially echoed, while capturing also in his barnyard image the flavor of Hobbes' view of civilized man. Moreover, Hobbes was not alone in believing that this authority was best embodied in an absolute monarch. In the next century and in another country Giambattista Vico considered it only logical that societies desiring to institutionalize “natural equity” would be ruled typically by

monarchs who have accustomed their subjects to attend to their private interests, while they themselves have taken charge of all public affairs and desire all … subject to them to be made equal by the laws, in order that all may be equally interested in the state.11

These founding theoreticians of modern liberal society thus projected a concept of monarchy which was neither that of feudalism nor the Renaissance. This monarchy is subject-centered, justifying itself as the guarantor of the subjects' rights. Such a concept in no way precludes liberal democracy. On the contrary, the extent of that democracy—its potential for including more and more people like Andrew the Hebridean, who work their way from indenture to a full-fledged property-owning selfhood—seems to depend on the monarch's being altogether absolute, and thus out of reach of manipulation: hence Crèvecoeur's enthusiasm for King George.12

It was Locke who introduced the possibility that a democratic society might instead govern itself. The base of that governance would rest on the ordering force of the market, now conceived as an arena of class rather than of purely individual activity. Having accepted the accumulation of larger amounts of property than one could use on the grounds that its translation into capital and subsequent reinvestment redounded to the general welfare, Locke foresaw this process generating a consensus among the investors which might be institutionalized contractually, and generalized into government. The participants in this consensus should be able to agree on the rules of the game.

This is where one sees the relationship between S. K.'s refusal to deal with the grain merchants and his vulnerability to the greedy mob. Crèvecoeur himself was only vaguely aware of this relationship, not quite seeing that S. K. needs the King but that the merchants do better without him, their rights safeguarded by contracts, and by a contractual society whose law and order is suited to their entrepreneurial needs. Crèvecoeur's failure to understand the function of local laws and contracts was expressed more clearly in his hatred of lawyers. “What a pity,” he exclaimed, “that our forefathers who happily extinguished so many fatal customs, and expunged from their new government as many errors and abuses, both religious and civil, did not also prevent the introduction of a set of men so dangerous.” (p. 146) They plagued America like the clergy did Europe. This was an acute comparison, lawyers being the interpreters of the new order as the clergy were of the old. Crèvecoeur, who had hoped that the world might at last be free of all impingements of personal freedom, but for a small set of permanent injunctions, saw lawyers reweaving entanglements all around.

The crux, then, of his disaffiliation with the Lockean compromise so well represented by the American Constitution was his rejection of the ethic of the marketplace. For the American revolutionaries, enlightened self-interest reflected the natural moral order, but to Crèvecoeur its mercantile expression was little better than theft. The sort of economic order he envisaged instead was evident in his appeal to American farmers to recognize the benefits of monarchy. Secure in your holdings and master of its fruits, he reminded the yeoman,

thou needs't not tremble lest the most incomprehensible prohibitions shall rob thee of that sacred immunity with which the produce of thy farm may circulate from hand to hand until it reaches those of the final exporter.13

Once again, he defined freedom as being left alone; the right to trade is a “sacred immunity” from restraint. So might any merchant argue against restraints, but he would not do so just to have his product “circulate”: what he would be after would be an increase in value at each transition, that increase not to be limited by “incomprehensible prohibitions.” This view of the farmer's stake in the national economy translated the patriarchal-familial ethic into a paradoxical ideology we might term “monarcho-anarchism.” Crèvecoeur was an anarchist in the sense that he carried the notion of the political integrity of the individual to its logical conclusion. His definition of self-determination was thus more radical or more absolute than that which is commonly implied by democracy, because he could see in the accommodations of majority rule no advantages but only a loss of freedom for each individual.

Both in this libertarian aspect and in its egalitarianism, Crèvecoeur's thinking reflected his eighteenth-century agrarian experiences, but it might be seen also as a sort of pre-history to one important strain of nineteenth-century dissent. Populism invoked the yeoman ideal as the core of its program, associating the vision with Jefferson as powerful validation of its Americanism; but a loyalist Frenchman the Populists had probably never heard of would have been far more sympathetic both to their resentment of the rich and their conviction that markets were where the rich became ever richer. Although historians of the United States' War of Independence have long recognized that the patriots differed sharply among themselves about even the basic definition of democracy, by and large they have assumed that, as a group, those who favored the Revolution were more democratically inclined than those who opposed it.14 The case of Crèvecoeur puts this assumption in doubt, and highlights such findings as those of Jackson Turner Main, that the largest single group of Loyalists were, like Crèvecoeur, small independent farmers.15 Yet these were the same “self-reliant, honest and independent” yeomen who became “the backbone of Jeffersonian democracy” and later “the common man of Jacksonian rhetoric.”16 Though such yeomen also swelled the Patriot ranks, some significant number of them rejected Jefferson's promise of a country of their own and, if Crèvecoeur is at all representative, they did so because they feared it would be less free than colonial America, at least for their kind.

What all this indicates, I think, is a need to reconsider the structure of the Revolutionary debate that now represents the winners' assumptions. Crèvecoeur's usefulness lies in his accepting none of these and yet still making perfect sense. As a result he raises basic questions about the component values and ideas which the successful Revolution fused into one apparently organic whole. Crèvecoeur was independent while refusing to compete; a seeker after plentiful subsistence who rejected profits, and a supporter of the King because monarchy was for him the corollary of social equality. His opposition to the American Revolution was grounded in the principle that all men are created equal—and that so should they remain.17 It was a basically localist, familial impulse which committed him to absolute monarchs. In these ways, he may be seen as representing an intermediate stage in the evolution of America's liberal political philosophy, or as a case in point for its paradoxical nature at any stage.


  1. J. Hector St. John Crèvecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer, (Garden City: Dolphin, n.d.), 46-7. Subsequent references to the Letters appear parenthetically in the text.

  2. See the biography by Julia Post Mitchell, St. Jean de Crèvecoeur (New York: AMS Press, 1966).

  3. Rowland Berthoff and John M. Murrin find this to be the general historical consensus in their seminal essay, “Feudalism, Communalism and the Yeoman Freeholder,” in Stephen G. Kurtz and James H. Hutson, eds., Essays on the American Revolution (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1973), 261.

  4. Despite his protestations to the contrary in the first letter, or rather because of the very language in which these are couched, it is clear that Crèvecoeur was no simple farmer, but a highly educated gentleman whose social and intellectual connections extended far beyond Pine Hill. But if his observations were thus unusually well-informed, this does not mean they were not as linked to the realities of Pine Hill and its environs as those of farmers who knew little of the world beyond. It is an interesting problem whether the greater sophistication of one member of a community undermines his representativeness, or perhaps heightens it, by enabling him to articulate what his neighbors may only feel.

  5. Such a revival, interrupted by the Revolution, is discussed by Berthoff and Murrin, “Feudalism, Communalism and the Yeoman Freeholder,” 264-76. Indeed the experience of this revival and his opposition to it may well have contributed to Crèvecoeur's loyalism, for, led in Pennsylvania by Benjamin Franklin, the opponents of feudalism sought to persuade the English crown to rule the colony directly in lieu of large proprietors: thus would the monarchy protect the equality of its subjects.

  6. Crèvecoeur, Sketches of Eighteenth-Century America (New York: Signet, 1963), 260-63.

  7. William Smith, ed., Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Myth (Boston and London, 1849), 479-80.

  8. Sketches, 384-86.

  9. Ibid., 308-09.

  10. Ibid., 253.

  11. The New Science of Giambattista Vico, translated from the Third Edition (1744) by Thomas Goddard Bergin and Max Harold Fisch (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1970), 8.

  12. James Henretta has made the interesting suggestion that another model for Crèvecoeur's notion of a distant monarch might be found in contemporary Deism. Again the issue addressed by the model is the assurance of order without intrusive controls.

  13. Sketches, 259.

  14. This seems to be the assumption even of those scholars such as Jesse Lemisch in his essay, “Jack Tar in the Streets: Merchant Seamen in the Politics of Revolutionary America,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3 (July 1968), 371-407, who challenge the view that such men as Washington and Jefferson represented a revolutionary consensus that included all classes. The discovery that certain groups dissented from this consensus and sought to change the character of the Revolution to better represent their interests and social vision might suggest the possibility that some who felt misrepresented by its leadership may have demurred from the Revolution altogether.

  15. Jackson Turner Main, The Sovereign States, 1775-1783 (New York: New Viewpoints, 1973), 272-73. For a more complete treatment of the Loyalists see Chap. V, “The Tory Rank and File,” in William H. Nelson, The American Tory (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971). Nelson argues that “Taking all the groups and factions, sects, classes, and inhabitants of regions that seem to have been Tory, they have but one thing in common: [being neither unusually rich, nor English, nor colonially connected] they represented conscious minorities, people who felt weak and threatened.” (p. 91)

  16. Essays on the American Revolution, 276.

  17. What Crèvecoeur feared from the Revolution, what he had hoped America would never become, is just that Yankee society Richard L. Bushman describes emerging in Connecticut and setting the scene for the coming Revolution. It was a society in which “the avid pursuit of gain” had become an acceptable goal of life, which “found an honorable place for self-interest in the social order,” and which interpreted that order as orderly competition. See Bushman, From Puritan to Yankee: Character and Social Order in Connecticut, 1690-1765 (New York: Norton, 1970), 287.

Robert P. Winston (essay date 1984)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7784

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 written to gratify the curiosity of a friend and are made public because they contain much authentic information little known on this side of the Atlantic: they cannot therefore fail of being highly interesting to the people of England at a time when everybody's attention is directed toward the affairs of America” (27). For the next one hundred and seventy-five years the American reading public—at least that portion that remembered Letters at all—viewed Crèvecoeur's work largely as a straightforward natural and social history of young America. Such an attitude is, however, the product of a distorted view of Letters: it stresses the early, optimistic epistles at the expense of the bleaker closing sections of the work, and it fails to distinguish between Crèvecoeur and his protagonist, Farmer James.

More recent critics have come to understand the complex—and darker—nature of this supposedly simple work.1 Among the richest suggestions made are the largely undeveloped claims by Albert Stone, Jr., that Letters is a “prototypical romance” (208) and by Harry B. Henderson III that it is “an epistolary romance of ideas” (4). Crèvecoeur's work is, in fact, a germinal romance and needs to be examined as such. To make such a claim is not, of course, to argue that Crèvecoeur was necessarily fully conscious of romance archetypes as he wrote. Nevertheless, those points of contact between the structure and devices of Letters and those of romance in general will help explain more clearly the tension between Farmer James's early positive dreams and the final, darker vision against which those hopes are balanced.

To begin, a review of some of the most important features of romance is in order. In The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance, Northrop Frye argues that romance “moves from one discontinuous episode to another, describing things that happen to characters, for the most part, externally” (47) instead of creating a group of characters and building a plot from them:2

The characterization of romance is really a feature of its mental landscape. Its heroes and villains exist primarily to symbolize a contrast between two worlds, one above the level of ordinary experience, the other below it. There is, first, a world associated with happiness, security, and peace; the emphasis is often thrown on childhood or on an “innocent” or pre-genital period of youth, and the images are those of spring and summer, flowers and sunshine. I shall call this the idyllic world. The other is a world of exciting adventures, but adventures which involve separation, loneliness, humiliation, pain, and the threat of more pain. I shall call this the demonic or night world. Because of the powerful polarizing tendency in romance, we are usually carried directly from one to the other.


That these two worlds exist in Letters from an American Farmer is painfully obvious to James, to Crèvecoeur, and to the reader. Moreover, the epistolary structure of the work enables Crèvecoeur to switch abruptly from episode to episode, from the idyllic to the demonic. One need only examine the optimistic ending of Letter 8, the final letter in the Nantucket series, and contrast it to the deeply disturbing description of Charles Town and slavery in the very next letter to understand these shifts.

In generalizing further about literature, and especially romance, Frye notes: “There are four primary narrative movements. … These are, first, the descent from a higher world; second, the descent to a lower world; third, the ascent from a lower world; and fourth, the ascent to a higher world” (97). As an examination of the general patterns of Letters makes clear, Crèvecoeur's work partakes of more than one of these movements. The book opens with a discussion of whether the project of corresponding with Mr. F. B. should be undertaken at all. It moves to a presentation of America as idyll, a place where the European may begin again, may be redeemed from “demonic” Europe, and this process is demonstrated in Letter 3 with the example of Andrew the Hebridean. Letters 4-8 further illustrate the possibilities of America through an examination of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard. With Letter 9, “On Charles Town and Slavery,” the reader confronts the “demonic” side of America. This confrontation continues through the sequence about the snakes and hummingbirds in Letter 10, which offers further examples of cruelty and violence, this time in nature. With Letter 11 the work rises to the possibility of the idyll once again, but here a European traveler, not James, is the author. In the last letter, James returns to insist that he can once again enjoy life in America despite the Revolution. When he suggests that he and his family will escape to the West to begin again, he reaffirms his own hope for the ideal. The work ends only on a neutral note, however, because James's dream is constantly qualified by the intrusion of such realities as Indian attacks and the possible “Indianization” of his children.

A closer examination of the structure of Letters as a whole is necessary, however, in order to appreciate fully the ways in which romance elements structure this work. In Letter 1, Crèvecoeur establishes the fitness of both his narrator, Farmer James, and his subject matter, America. James is an appropriate narrator because he is a representative, practical American. He functions, in the language of Henry James, as a central consciousness, a locus for observation and understanding, but he does not select his own topics for discussion.3 As the man of action, the doer, the farmer, James is carefully dissociated from learning and sophistication; instead, his European correspondent, Mr. F. B., must select the subjects: “Remember that you have laid the foundation of this correspondence; you well know that I am neither a philosopher, politician, divine, or naturalist, but a simple farmer” (43). By removing the onus of selection from James, Crèvecoeur retains his own freedom to control his work's structure while allowing his “simple farmer” to seem free from artifice. If James, the artless tiller of the soil, dwells too long on a particular aspect of American life, he is not to blame; it is not James's interests that are being consulted but those of a European with relatively little American experience. If, on the other hand, James is so disturbed by something that he seems to initiate a letter on his own, thereby violating his carefully established relationship with Mr. F. B., the reader should recognize Crèvecoeur's hand, pointing to the importance of some moral issue by manipulating his protagonist.4 That is, by controlling the questions to which James responds, Crèvecoeur is able, in John C. Stubbs's words, “to order the random happenings of experience into artful patterns so that the reader [can] comprehend the experience—either intellectually or emotionally,” much as the major American romancers of the nineteenth century would do (6).

In short, Crèvecoeur, the sophisticated literary craftsman, presents his materials in a studiedly unsophisticated form in order to ensure his reader's engagement and understanding. This can be seen, for example, when James insists repeatedly that in his letters he can write only as a humble planter: “It is true I can describe our American modes of farming, our manners, and peculiar customs with some degree of propriety because I have ever attentively studied them; but my knowledge extends no farther” (33). In fact, James's knowledge does extend further than this; he is a man with keen powers of observation and a highly curious mind. After all, when asked to talk about Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard, he is able to do so for five letters. Nonetheless, this insistence on James's limited knowledge constantly separates him from the learned European and confirms him as a kind of American Everyman, typical of his class and his nation. In this sense Crèvecoeur, in creating his protagonist, foreshadows that group of “historical romancers,” described by Michael Davitt Bell, “who took their art seriously [and] tended to develop their materials symbolically. Perhaps ‘representatively’ would be a better word (as the Emersonian hero was to be a ‘representative man’); characters and events, in historical romance, really are a part or example of what they represent, since history was itself regarded as, in a sense, a representation of moral truth” (6).

Just as James is established as an appropriate narrator, so America is shown as a fit subject. The New World, unlike the Old, is progressive, constantly presenting the American with both novel challenges and the materials to meet them. Rather than looking to someplace like Italy “to trace the vestiges of a once-flourishing people now extinct,” James should look to America since there “everything would inspire the reflecting traveller with the most philanthropic ideas; his imagination, instead of submitting to the painful and useless retrospect of revolutions, desolations, and plagues, would, on the contrary, wisely spring forward to the anticipated fields of future cultivation and improvement, to the future extent of those generations which are to replenish and embellish this boundless continent” (36-37). In short, it is in America that James can “record the progressive steps of this industrious farmer throughout all the stages of his labours and other operations [rather] than examine how modern Italian convents can be supported without doing anything but singing and praying” (37).

In terms of romance structure, Letter 1 functions to establish the everyday world. That is, America as a subject for literature is delineated, but America as idyllic or demonic has yet to be presented. In Letter 2, “On the Situation, Feelings, and Pleasures of an American Farmer,” the portraying of America as ideal place begins. The letter is devoted to James as representative American man. Although James begins by noting that “Good and evil … are to be found in all societies” (45), Letter 2 is really a treatment of why America is the best of all possible worlds for him. It quickly becomes clear that the farmer's happiness depends upon ownership of property (his farm) and a stable, secure environment, as he himself indicates when he asks, “What should we American farmers be without this distinct possession of that soil? It feeds, it clothes us; from it we draw even a great exuberancy, our best meat, our richest drink; the very honey of our bees comes from this privileged spot” (48). James realizes that he must contribute to his own security, and he describes the efforts he makes to regulate his barnyard, pointing out that it is a process analogous to the process of governing men: “the law is to us precisely what I am in my barnyard, a bridle and check to prevent the strong and greedy from oppressing the timid and weak. … Thus, by superior knowledge I govern all my cattle, as wise men are obliged to govern fools and the ignorant” (51). At the same time that James presents this kind of governance as a positive image, the reader apprehends an implied danger. Crèvecoeur suggests here that James's entire system of living can be endangered if rule by wise men is overturned, as the coming Revolution will demonstrate. And, as we see later, James has no real defense against instability; once his farm is endangered, and thus made insecure, he is plunged helplessly into the chaotic night world of romance.5

The central illustration that James employs in Letter 2, the anecdote of the kingbirds and the bees, demonstrates precisely this problem and, in so doing, presents a microcosmic version of the larger patterns of ascent and descent that structure Letters from an American Farmer. James's loving, and in many ways idealized, description of his farm leads him to the tale of some of his bees that, by forsaking a group defense (a “military array”) and “disband[ing]” themselves (50), allow themselves to be captured and eaten by a marauding kingbird. Crèvecoeur thus shows that even within this idyllic world the demonic can suddenly intrude. In order to save his honey, James intervenes, killing the bird and rescuing his bees. While earlier critics like D. H. Lawrence have cited this passage as “a parable of the American resurrection” in which the democratic bees escape the kingbirds of Europe, the author actually foreshadows the “neutral” ending of Letters as a whole (27-28); after all, only 54 of the 171 bees James rescues from the stomach of the bird survive the attack, and, as James himself has pointed out, “nothing exists but what has its enemy” (49). When James is cast in the role of the bees by the events of the Revolution, when he must flee his beloved farm, there is no beneficent protector who can rescue him.6 Moreover, when he finally strikes out on his own to save himself and his family, an action clearly parallel to that of the bees, his chances for success must be heavily qualified: the majority of the bees died.

In this episode, then, Crèvecoeur demonstrates the patterns of ascent (the establishment of the idyllic world of the farm) and descent (the intrusion of the destructive kingbird) that ultimately balance one another in the closing pages of Letters from an American Farmer. Therefore, while the prospects for James's future, and thus the future of the America he represents, are bright at this point, conflicts that foreshadow the appearance of a demonic world are already present. In Letter 3, the famous “What is an American?,” however, the stress is even more on the positive. This section of Letters is really the apotheosis of the American farmer, a description of, to use Henry Nash Smith's phrase, “the heroic figure of the idealized frontier farmer armed with that supreme agrarian weapon, the sacred plow” (123). James traces the American farmer's success from the moment the immigrant lands in America, and the crucial point he makes again and again is that in America the immigrants find that “Everything has tended to regenerate them.” In America “they are become men” while “in Europe they were as so many useless plants” (62-63).

But if all men have felt some regeneration, not all have attained what is for James the highest possible station, that of husbandman. Those who live along the coastline tend to be bold and enterprising; though they largely neglect the land and earn their livelihood from the sea, they tend to be good, honest men. For example, in Letters 4-8, a rather lengthy description of the life and customs of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard, James portrays the residents as generally embodying the moral rectitude, industry, and selflessness that he describes as central to his life. Those who live along the frontier are entirely different, however, for “There men appear to be no better than carnivorous animals of a superior rank, living on the flesh of wild animals when they can catch them, and when they are not able, they subsist on grain” (66). For those men there is very little in the way of hope; they are outcasts from every society. The heart of James's America is, of course, the farmland between the sea and the frontier: “Those who inhabit the middle settlements, by far the most numerous, must be very different; the simple cultivation of the earth purifies them, but the indulgences of the government, the soft remonstrances of religion, the rank of independent freeholders, must necessarily inspire them with sentiments, very little known in Europe among a people of the same class. What do I say? Europe has no such class of men” (65).

In fact, the tripartite structure that Crèvecoeur sees shaping American landscape is roughly equivalent to the romance worlds defined by Frye. For example, while the sea coast is essentially positive, it is clearly not as beneficial to men as the middle landscape. That is, the coastline is like the everyday world of Letter 1, a new world of challenge and opportunity that is the first step on the road to the idyllic. In fact, in Letter 7 James even points out that large numbers of Nantucketers have emigrated both to New Garden in North Carolina and the Kennebec in what is now Maine, there establishing fruitful communities that seem to approach the ideal of his farm (139-42). The central area of husbandry seems equivalent to the idyllic world of romance. However, the fact that not all immigrants are successful here allows for the descent into the demonic or night world of the frontier where men constantly war with neighbors and with nature. Thus, when people emigrate to America, they enter a new world, leaving the nightmare of Europe. They then ascend to the idyllic farming community offered them if they are industrious and honest. If they are unable to sustain themselves in the morally upright communities of farmers, they are forced out into the wilderness, clearly a pattern of descent since people there are little more than carnivorous animals.7

While some may fail in America, by and large James is optimistic. In order to demonstrate the almost limitless possibilities of the continent, he provides the example of Andrew the Hebridean: “I therefore present you with the short history of a simple Scotchman, though it contain not a single remarkable event to amaze the reader, no tragical scene to convulse the heart, or pathetic narrative to draw tears from sympathetic eyes. All I wish to delineate is the progressive steps of a poor man, advancing from indigence to ease, from oppression to freedom, from obscurity and contumely to some degree of consequence—not by virtue of any freaks of fortune, but by the gradual operation of sobriety, honesty, and emigration” (84). What James wishes to do here is to make the experience of Andrew's Americanization comprehensible, to order the experiences of Andrew's life so that Mr. F. B. and the reader will apprehend the moral, social, and historical importance of the example. At the same time, Crèvecoeur presents a tale that in many of its outlines exemplifies the structure of romance, and thus the structure of Letters as a whole.

James traces Andrew's metaphorical route as he journeys out of the night world into the idyllic world of the middle landscape. If Europe is a figurative lower region for the American yeoman, the bustling cities of America's coast are only the first step up for the newly arrived immigrant. Confused and lost, the European can expect to experience pain, separation, and struggle in his new environment. Nonetheless, James is optimistic, constantly insisting that obstacles can be overcome; the idyll awaits after the trials of the night world, just as it has before, because “these are the struggles through which our forefathers have waded, and they have left us no other records of them but the possession of our farms” (85-86). James himself reaffirms his role as benefactor by aiding the ignorant Scotsman as he earlier helped his bees, on the principle that the wise must always lead the foolish. While Andrew is successful in farming and establishing a community with his neighbors, Crèvecoeur inserts several incidents that appear ironic in view of later letters. For example, Andrew's apparently humorous ineffectiveness in dealing with a band of Indians seems foreboding in light of both the Indian attacks described in Letter 12 and James's projected sojourn among an Indian tribe, especially because James will be almost as inexperienced on the frontier as Andrew was in his first encounter with “savages.” Furthermore, while Andrew manages to become a member of his community, and thus to integrate himself and his family into the life of America, James will seek to avoid overly close contacts with his Indian neighbors. After all, the frontier is still a demonic world for James.

Despite these shadows, though, the story of Andrew the Hebridean basically involves a movement from the demonic worlds of Europe through Philadelphia to an idyllic farming community like James's own home. Andrew's history is really the story of James's father, the founder of James's fortune who rose above the negative elements of life on the frontier to become a morally and materially successful man.

It is at this point that James spends five letters (4-8) describing Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket. Why does Crèvecoeur spend so much time discussing the islands when he is really only restating virtues that he presented in Letters 1-3? He does so in order to establish the potential of the idyllic world as strongly as possible, to prevent its being completely vitiated by the less-satisfying aspects of life in America. He must do this since the next letter, Letter 9, introduces a society in which virtually all the earlier values of the colonies are denied. This abrupt shift from episode to episode is, of course, characteristic of the romance, enabling the author to order the experiences presented into a coherent moral pattern, and Crèvecoeur's moral position is made amply clear in a variety of ways. For example, he introduces a style of living that is utterly antithetical to earlier moderation:

Charles Town is, in the north, what Lima is in the south; both are capitals of the richest provinces of their respective hemispheres; you may therefore conjecture that both cities must exhibit the appearances necessarily resulting from riches. … The inhabitants are the gayest in America; it is called the centre of our beau monde and is always filled with the richest planters in the province, who resort hither in quest of health and pleasure. … The climate renders excesses of all kinds very dangerous, particularly those of the table; and yet, insensible or fearless of danger, they live on and enjoy a short and a merry life. The rays of their sun seem to urge them irresistibly to dissipation and pleasure. …


Charles Town's inhabitants are completely self-indulgent: in a climate in which excess is dangerous, they persist in excesses of all kinds, and they needlessly die young. Such attitudes mean that in James's view Charles Town is very close to Europe. Even his vocabulary reflects this idea when he writes of Charles Town as “the centre of our beau monde” and claims that the inhabitants “have reached the ne plus ultra of worldly felicity” (161). The farmer never resorted to French when describing Pennsylvania or Nantucket, and his constant stress on “riches,” “luxury,” “dissipation,” and “pleasure” reinforces his criticism. Thus, Thomas Philbrick is correct when he writes that “Insofar as Letter IX contributes to the depiction of American experience, it functions to establish a foil to the sturdy and humane life of the farmers and fishermen of the North” (48).8

This connection between Charles Town and Europe is, of course, crucial to the romance structure of Letters as a whole since the city is yet another night world into which the unwary American may descend. James's language, then, suggests that Charles Town is a center of urban decadence, a moral wilderness that is every bit as dangerous as the physical wilderness examined in Letter 3. Indeed, James's constant comments on the “dissipation” and “pleasure” of the inhabitants of Charles Town should recall his earlier comments on the barbarous frontiersmen where he focused on their “idleness” and “frequent want of economy,” as well as other faults, in condemning them: “When discord, want of unity and friendship, when either drunkenness or idleness prevail in such remote districts, contention, inactivity, and wretchedness must ensue” (66). Those who escape such a life do so as Andrew the Hebridean has done, or as James's own father did: “my father himself was one of that class, but he came upon honest principles and was therefore one of the few who held fast; by good conduct and temperance, he transmitted to me his fair inheritance, when not above one in fourteen of his contemporaries had the same good fortune” (67). Those who wish to escape the dangerous style of living in Charles Town must also embrace the principles of “good conduct and temperance” if they wish to pass on a “fair inheritance” to their descendants. In sum, all this suggests that the South, like the frontier, may be atypical of America for Crèvecoeur, but nonetheless it is part of the new land. While James's southern experience does not completely negate his earlier praise of America, it certainly qualifies that praise heavily. Letter 9 thus demonstrates in a most forceful manner that it is possible to descend into a demonic world at at least two points in America itself: on the frontier and in the South.

Charles Town is part of the night world not only because its climate is too luxurious, however. Rather, the climate combines with wealth to produce a class of people who build careers upon slavery, and it is slavery that embodies James's distrust of the South. In his eyes, southern slavery is so vicious because the planters are devoid of “kindness and affection” (163). While many northern men, including James himself, hold slaves, he views his blacks as happy inferiors who “participate in many of the benefits of our society without being obliged to bear any of its burthens” (165). While not excusing James's slave holding, the reader recognizes the sincerity of his hope that all slaves will soon be emancipated and is, like him, deeply offended by the unnecessary cruelty that he sees in and around Charles Town.

The result of James's trip to Charles Town is that James believes he has sunk into what is almost literally a nightmare world, and the closing episode of Letter 9, the tale of the caged Negro, clearly confirms this view. As James tells the tale, he is walking through the woods to dine with a planter. In the course of his journey, he encounters a Negro, in a suspended cage, who is almost dead, half-devoured by birds of prey. James fires at the birds and scares them off, only to have the man immediately attacked by insects. It is clear, too, that the birds will soon return to continue their grisly feast. This scene is really the cause of all James's troubled thoughts. As he points out when he begins the anecdote, “The following scene will, I hope, account for these melancholy reflections and apologize for the gloomy thoughts with which I have filled this letter: my mind is, and always has been, oppressed since I became a witness to it” (171). The kinds of imagery used to develop this narrative sequence are crucial. For example, the fact that the Negro is being devoured by birds and insects darkly echoes the episode in Letter 2 in which James destroys a kingbird and liberates some bees. Here James cannot intervene to rescue the Negro: he runs out of ammunition before he can do for a man what he did for lowly honeybees in the North on his farm. His impotence defines the debilitated state in which James finds himself in this demonic world. It is a moral wasteland in which his beliefs and desires are assaulted, thwarted, and finally defeated, and these attacks are a measure of the loss of the idyll. The fact that the positive values that James spent eight letters developing can be undercut in only one is a mark of the fragility of the idyll.

If Letter 9 destroys much of what has been done prior to this point, does Letter 10 continue the destruction or does it attempt to restore the idyll's power? In fact, just as the Nantucket section of the book expands and illustrates the idyllic world of James's farm, Letter 10, which also takes place there, expands and further proves the existence of the demonic world.9 The chapter consists of two parts, a discussion of snakes and a discussion of hummingbirds, both of which force the reader to recognize the effect of the South on James's whole outlook. What he now sees are destructive elements in nature which he can no longer control. In Letter 2, for example, James could talk about his role as law giver in his barnyard, and, when the demonic intruded, he could act to defend his idyllic existence, to save his bees. By the time of Letter 10 he can only act as an observer. He can only follow along behind the snake fight; he can only observe the hummingbird: “When it feeds, it appears as if immovable, though continually on the wing; and sometimes, from what motives I know not, it will tear and lacerate flowers into a hundred pieces, for, strange to tell, they are the most irascible of the feathered tribe” (178). This unexpected destruction again stresses his powerlessness before this new nature. In fact, the descriptions of both the snakes and the hummingbird reveal a man who is shattered before the mounting evidence of instability in his life. Just as he responded with exquisite pleasure to his farm in the early letters, he now responds with exquisite pain to the destruction of his dreams.

In an effort to reassure himself, James turns from his own experience of the demonic world and invokes John Bartram, a gentle man, a farmer, a Quaker. Admittedly James does not, perhaps cannot, write the description given in Letter 11 of life on Bartram's farm himself, but the fact that he clings so desperately to the idyll suggests the continuing power of James's earlier vision, despite the trials he has recently undergone. When James presents the letter as the writing of Ivan, a Russian gentleman, he once again allows the reader to see the idyll from the point of view of the man escaping the Old World and entering the New to be redeemed. The proxy visit to Bartram is, however, only an interlude, and the last letter, “Distresses of a Frontier Man,” begins with James plunged once more into despair because “the hour is come at last that I must fly from my house and abandon my farm!” (194). The American Revolution is upon James. Once more the kingbirds of Europe assault the democratic bees of America, but here the assault of the demonic world is no longer parable (as it was in Letter 2), but reality, and in his final letter James reveals what happens to him when his world becomes unstable and insecure: “Whichever way I look, nothing but the most frightful precipices present themselves to my view, in which hundreds of my friends and acquaintances have already perished; of all animals that live on the surface of this planet, what is man when no longer connected with society, or when he finds himself surrounded by a convulsed and a half-dissolved one? … I feel as if my reason wanted to leave me, as if it would burst its poor weak tenement” (195).

But James's reason does not leave him in the course of Letters from an American Farmer; instead, he makes a choice. He decides to move west. James worries that his children may become “savages” rather than husbandmen, but he has chosen to live with a peaceful tribe of Indians, and he will do what he can to take his farm with him. Fearing that “the imperceptible charm of Indian education may seize [his] younger children,” James argues that he has “but one remedy to prevent this great evil, and that is to employ them in the labour of the fields as much as I can; I have even resolved to make their daily subsistence depend altogether on it. As long as we keep ourselves busy in tilling the earth, there is no fear of any of us becoming wild; it is the chase and the food it procures that have this strange effect” (213-14). With all hope of remaining on his farm gone, the best James can do is head west and reassert the power of the idyll;10 in this sense, the hope held out to Ivan in Letter 11, and to Europeans generally in Letters 2 and 3, is reaffirmed by the American farmer himself.

James's success remains in doubt, of course. He can only assert his plans, and he, like the reader, foresees dangers. In some respects, though, it is this very uncertainty that connects Letters to the coming tradition of the American romance. As Richard Chase points out on the first page of his study: “The American novel tends to rest in contradictions and among extreme ranges of experience. When it attempts to resolve contradictions, it does so in oblique, morally equivocal ways” (1). The ending of Letters from an American Farmer clearly conforms to Chase's generalization, and it does so for several important reasons. Frye points out that “most romances end happily”: “This means that most romances exhibit a cyclical movement of descent into a night world and a return to the idyllic, or to some symbol of it like a marriage …” (54). More specifically, “the quest romance takes on a spiral form, an open circle where the end is the beginning transformed and renewed by the heroic quest” (174). This means that those values established in Letters that are associated with the idyllic world of James's farm, those that constitute the central myth of life in America that the work promulgates and defends, should be celebrated at the work's conclusion. After all, as James is told by his minister in Letter 1 when America is extolled as a place worthy of consideration, “Here everything would inspire the reflecting traveller with the most philanthropic ideas; his imagination, instead of submitting to the painful and useless retrospect of revolutions, desolations, and plagues, would on the contrary, wisely spring forward to the anticipated fields of future cultivation and improvement, to the future extent of those generations which are to replenish and embellish this boundless continent” (37). That is, theoretically America should still be what it was for Crèvecoeur in Letter 1, and what it became for those nineteenth-century romantic historians like George Bancroft and Francis Parkman, a land whose history was clearly “progressive” (Bell 6-8).

By the time of Letter 12, however, Crèvecoeur must confront a contemporary historical dilemma: the revolution and “desolations,” which he must take into account, are not “retrospective” but immediate, and he needs to explain what such a war means to the typical American husbandman who cannot fully understand the experience in which he finds himself involved. As James says, “The great moving principles which actuate both parties are much hid from vulgar eyes, like mine; nothing but the plausible and the probable are offered to our contemplation. … Great events are not achieved for us, though it is by us that they are principally accomplished, by the arms, the sweat, the lives of the people” (198). Thus, while Crèvecoeur's initial impulse leads him to employ some of the same structures his successors would use, he cannot distance himself sufficiently from his materials to see precisely how—or even whether—James's idyllic world will be “transformed and renewed” through the Revolution.

As Stubbs points out, “History gave the nineteenth-century romancer his simplest solution to the problem of artistic distance. A fictional work could be set off from the world of the reader through time. Such a work would have the advantage, over straightforward history, of fictional shaping” (28). Thus he could, as noted earlier, structure his materials in patterns so that the reader could “comprehend” those historical materials, not just as a sequence of discrete events, but as parts of a larger moral pattern that was the real subject of the romancer. Crèvecoeur, however, because of his own historical situation, must confront the Revolution with no mediating perspective, and, as a result, Letters can only end with the outcome of James's emigration unresolved, with the larger pattern finally unfinished. James can only convey as much of the experience as he can understand, and he clearly does not understand the Revolution.

The result of this, for Letter 12, is that the book closes with a prayer in which James asks God's mercy so that he and his family may once again find peace and happiness.11 His prayer here evokes the prayer for the distressed Europeans James recites at the beginning of the anecdote of Andrew the Hebridean (83-84). Now the American farmer is as troubled and as frightened as the newly arrived Europeans. However, in asserting his faith in God, James once again raises the narrative of the book from the demonic to the level of the everyday world. In so doing, he has come to what Sacvan Bercovitch terms a “sense of intermediate identity, … an identity in progress, advancing from prophecies performed towards paradise to be regained” (143). That is, the representative American is about to start Letters from an American Farmer over again. What he succeeds in doing in Letter 12 is identical to what he did in Letter 1; he reconfirms that America is a fitting subject for consideration. Although the idyll is pushed further west, it is not completely vitiated because James maintains enough faith in it to set out again. Just as the European comes to America to escape the devastation of his homeland, so James sets out for the frontier, extending the path his father followed. At the end of Letters from an American Farmer, James is poised in the everyday world of romance, uncertain whether he can ascend to the idyllic world or will instead descend to the demonic.

Letters from an American Farmer leaves the reader poised as well—at the beginning of a developing tradition of American romance. As Crèvecoeur grappled with the ambiguities he saw in American history and culture, he created a series of structures to deal with those materials that are strikingly like those developed by Cooper, Hawthorne, and Melville. Behind what at first appears to be a series of separate treatments of diverse American subjects lies a larger pattern, what Stubbs calls “an ideal truth or an abstract universal pattern beneath the surface of reality” (13). Thus, while Crèvecoeur was not a theoretician of romance as was Hawthorne, he was, nevertheless, a conscious craftsman who was led by his American materials to structures that unmistakably anticipate major works of nineteenth-century fiction like The Pioneers, The House of the Seven Gables, and The Confidence-Man.

As a result, Crèvecoeur occupies a significant position in the development of American literature. One hundred and fifty years earlier, John Winthrop confidently proclaimed that the plantations of New England would “be as a city upon a hill” as long as he and his fellow settlers fulfilled the terms of their covenant with God, and he concluded his sermon with the injunction to move forward, to “choose life, / that we, and our seed, / may live; by obeying His / voice and cleaving to Him, / for He is our life and / our prosperity” (83-84). In 1630, Winthrop could assert what America should be. Almost one hundred and fifty years after the publication of Letters from an American Farmer, F. Scott Fitzgerald could see what America had become. Like Nick Carraway, Fitzgerald recognized that the “transitory enchanted moment” was gone, that one could no longer “[hold] his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.” In 1925, Fitzgerald saw not progress, but regress, as his representative Americans “beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” (182). In 1782, Crèvecoeur struggled to develop a form through which he could show what America might still be. Like Cooper, Hawthorne, and Melville, Crèvecoeur was a man whose imagination was “shaped by the contradictions and not by the unities and harmonies of [American] culture” (Chase 1). Like his nineteenth-century successors, Crèvecoeur, too, turned to the romance to explore those contradictions, to investigate both the idyllic and the demonic sides of America, and thus to present his version of America's “intermediate identity” through his representative American.


  1. David Robinson, for example, sees in Letters “a much greater balance between the dark and the light side of human experience, even in the concluding letters” since he sees the work “as the story of the education of the narrator James, who is forced to sift out the relative values of ‘civilized’ or European society, and ‘primitive’ or American society at the book's close” (552-53). Mary Rucker sees the entire work shaped by “an important tension” between James, “whose humanitarianism is hardly more than self-indulgent sentimentality and whose approach to the natural and social orders is … strictly emotional,” and Crèvecoeur himself, “a second consciousness, antithetical and corrective, [who] undercuts James's narrative reliability either implicitly through irony or explicitly through displacement” (193). For James Mohr, “the delineation of an ideal community is not Crèvecoeur's end purpose at all, but rather the first step in developing a larger pattern. The larger pattern is almost circular and involves not simply the fulfillment of social ideals but their failure as well. The idyllic image of America which Crèvecoeur develops during the first eight letters of his book becomes the dream against which the intensity of later disillusionment is measured” (355).

  2. See also Chase (12-13).

  3. Thomas Philbrick argues that “the letter writer functions not only as a reporter … but also as a literary character endowed with a particularized and significant sensibility, equipped with a background of past experience, and meaningfully involved in the world that his letters reveal” (75).

  4. There has been considerable discussion of the epistolary form of Letters, with most critics arguing that the letters are, essentially, separate documents that produce a loose structure for the work as a whole. See Philbrick (75), Rapping (707-18), Plumstead (287), Marx (109), and Nye (35). For an especially full treatment of the relationship of James and Mr. F. B., see Béranger (73-85).

  5. Philbrick, too, recognizes the importance of “order and stability” to James (78), and he writes of Letter 2 as a “fable of government” which “anticipates in many ways what we are later to learn of the society and government of America” (98). Joel Kehler, on the other hand, views James's barnyard as important in terms of his discussion of “self-interest” (208-09).

  6. Stone also suggests the danger of James's “interven[ing] like God in the natural order” (210).

  7. For another discussion of the “moral geography” of Letters, to a different end, see Marx (107-16).

  8. Philbrick also points out that “in Charleston, the New World is already grown old” (45). Henderson echoes this, arguing that the end of Letter 9 shows “the ideal of a society ‘better’ than that of Europe … pursued by the Nemesis of History” (6).

  9. Other critics see Letter 10 as little more than a “charming interlude after the tense atmosphere of the description of Charles Town” (Lewisohn xxii); see also Nye (41). Lawrence, on the other hand, sees the letter as “a fine essay, in its primal, dark veracity” (29).

  10. Leo Marx, calling James an “exponent of the pastoral theory in America,” says that even as the farmer “veers toward the primitive” he “reaffirms the ideal of the middle landscape” (113). Philip Beidler, on the other hand, contends that Ivan's letter is “largely a desperate rhetorical ploy … to shore up the impression of confidence created” earlier and that in the final letter, “confronted with the wreckage of his former assumptions, he envisions new possibilities for their enactment in a setting even further at odds with the realities he surveys, thereby committing himself at the last to the specious rigidities of a mind hopelessly trapped within the mythic designs of its own imaginings” (61). For readings of the conclusion as “disillusionment,” see Nye (42-43), Mohr (362-63), Philbrick (85-88), and Rapping (714). Rucker argues that “Both Crèvecoeur and his persona end up where they began: James the incorrigible idealist and moral coward sustains the challenge to his assumptions and regains his comic view of the world; Crèvecoeur the pessimistic realist finds confirmation of his lack of faith in the benevolence of nature and in man and his social constructs” (211). Robinson's more charitable conclusion that Letter 12 forces a “refinement” of James's earlier view of the frontier, now “a place of hope rather than threat” (561), is much closer to my own.

  11. Elayne Rapping notes that “The narrative ends where it started, then, with a vision of an agrarian democracy. But there is irony in James's renewed faith, for his reassertion of the model's ideals take [sic] the form of prayers rather than statements” (714).

Works Cited

Beidler, Philip D. “Franklin's and Crèvecoeur's ‘Literary’ Americans.” Early American Literature 13 (1978): 50-63.

Bell, Michael Davitt. Hawthorne and the Historical Romance of New England. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1971.

Béranger, Jean F. “The Desire for Communication: Narrator and Narratee in Letters from an American Farmer.Early American Literature 12 (1977): 73-85.

Bercovitch, Sacvan. The Puritan Origins of the American Self. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1975.

Chase, Richard. The American Novel and Its Tradition. Garden City: Doubleday Anchor, 1957.

Crèvecoeur, Hector St. John de. Letters from an American Farmer. New York: The New American Library, 1963.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribners, 1925.

Frye, Northrop. The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1976.

Henderson, Harry B., III. Versions of the Past: The Historical Imagination in American Fiction. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1974.

Kehler, Joel R. “Crèvecoeur's Farmer James: A Reappraisal.” Essays in Literature 3 (1976): 206-13.

Lawrence, D. H. Studies in Classic American Literature. New York: Viking, 1964.

Lewisohn, Ludwig. Introduction. Letters from an American Farmer. By J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur. New York: Fox, Duffield, 1904.

Marx, Leo. The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. 1964; rpt. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1967.

Mohr, James C. “Calculated Disillusionment: Crèvecoeur's Letters Reconsidered.” South Atlantic Quarterly 69 (1970): [354]-63.

Nye, Russel. “Michel-Guillaume St. Jean de Crèvecoeur: Letters from an American Farmer.Landmarks of American Writing. Ed. Henning Cohen. New York: Basic Books, 1969, 32-45.

Philbrick, Thomas. St. John de Crèvecoeur. New York: Twayne, 1970.

Plumstead, A. W. “Crèvecoeur: A ‘Man of Sorrows’ and the American Revolution.” Massachusetts Review 17 (1976): 286-301.

Rapping, Elayne Antler. “Theory and Experience in Crèvecoeur's America.” American Quarterly 19 (1967): 707-18.

Robinson, David. “Crèvecoeur's James: The Education of an American Farmer.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 80 (1981): 552-70.

Rucker, Mary E. “Crèvecoeur's Letters and Enlightenment Doctrine.” Early American Literature 13 (1978): 193-212.

Smith, Henry Nash. Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth. 1950; rpt. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1970.

Stone, Albert, Jr. “Crèvecoeur's Letters and the Beginnings of an American Literature.” Emory University Quarterly 18 (1962): 197-213.

Stubbs, John Caldwell. The Pursuit of Form: A Study of Hawthorne and the Romance. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1970.

Winthrop, John. “A Model of Christian Charity.” In The American Puritans. Ed. Perry Miller. Garden City: Doubleday Anchor, 1956, 79-84.

John Hales (essay date 1985)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9998

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 violence and division of the American Revolution, and in Letter 12, “Distresses of a Frontier Man,” James explains his intention to abandon his farm and find refuge in a wilderness Indian village. This final letter offers an account of his current unhappiness and a fearful anticipation of the dangers of frontier life, the most distressing of which is the possibility that he and his family might follow the pattern of degeneration he had earlier observed in the backwoods settlements. As a sort of ear plug to the siren song of primitivism, James plans to clear a small farm in the wilderness: “As long as we keep ourselves busy in tilling the earth,” he reasons, “there is no fear of any of us becoming wild” (226). Most readers of Letters see this statement as the wishful thinking it is. Throughout the book, Crèvecoeur argues that geography determines, to a great extent, the nature of “the American, this new man”—“Men are like plants; the goodness and flavour of the fruit proceeds from the peculiar soil and exposition in which they grow” (50)—and he makes it clear that something terrible happens to human beings when they choose to live in wilderness. “By living in or near the woods,” Crèvecoeur tells us of these frontier settlers, “their actions are regulated by the wildness of the neighborhood. … Is it then surprising to see men thus situated, immersed in great and heavy labours, degenerate a little?” (57-58).

The phenomenon of wilderness degeneration appears in another sketch as much more than an interesting fact of frontier life that becomes frighteningly relevant in the changed circumstances of Letter 12. “Susquehanna,” a long sketch that remained unpublished until 1925 and has yet to be published as the single piece Crèvecoeur intended, features wilderness degeneration as the cause of the destruction of an established and thriving American community. A narrative of three visits to Wyoming, a village on the banks of the Susquehanna River in central Pennsylvania, “Susquehanna” describes a small but promising settlement of 1774 that grows into a substantial example of American progress by 1776, only to become a burning ruin in the aftermath of the Wyoming Massacre of 1778. In describing the rise and fall of Wyoming, Crèvecoeur charts an American course of empire that anticipates such later treatments of the ubiquitous theory of civilization's cyclical stages as James Fenimore Cooper's The Crater and Thomas Cole's The Course of Empire. Arguing that the political context for the massacre is finally less responsible for Wyoming's tragic end than the community's geographical setting, Crèvecoeur responds to the American preoccupation with the past empires of Europe and the future empire of America by asserting that one of America's greatest assets—the exploitable wilderness of the North American continent—also represents the greatest threat to its survival. In “Susquehanna,” Crèvecoeur takes the general problem of nature's destructive and degenerating potential that he discusses in Letters and applies it to the specific case of Wyoming. In doing so, he describes a bleak and focused possibility for America's future ruin: the sketch concludes with an apocalyptic vision of an American community swallowed and destroyed by a malevolent wilderness and its degenerated human inhabitants.

“Susquehanna” was composed in 1778, sometime between Crèvecoeur's appearance at Wyoming on July 5 of that year and his flight to the British lines in early 1779. The sketch was not included in the first printing of Letters in 1782, probably because its specific political commentary placed it with the other Revolutionary War sketches that were considered too hostile to the American cause to satisfy Crèvecoeur's Whig publisher. And although we know little about the process by which his writings were selected for Letters, it is reasonable to assume that Crèvecoeur himself wanted to exclude the more blatantly Loyalist letters from his book. By 1782, Crèvecoeur had suffered a year in British imprisonment on Long Island, had spent time in those intellectual circles of Paris that were sympathetic to the American Revolution, and, as a friend of the American cause, had begun correspondence with Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. He undoubtedly saw a future in supporting the soon-to-be-victorious American government, and while “Susquehanna”—a description of British forces decimating a Patriot community—might not have jeopardized this future, the publication of such rabidly anti-Patriot sketches as “The American Belisarius” (the story of a virtuous Loyalist tormented by his “ignorant” and “prejudiced” neighbors) would have won Crèvecoeur few friends among leaders of the new country.1 When these war sketches and other unpublished writings were discovered among the Crèvecoeur family archives in 1923, the editors of the 1925 Sketches of Eighteenth Century America—Henri L. Bourdin, Ralph H. Gabriel, and Stanley T. Williams—chose to include only the portion of the sketch describing Crèvecoeur's 1778 visit under the title “The Wyoming Massacre.” The rest of “Susquehanna” was published in the Yale Review as “Crèvecoeur on the Susquehanna, 1774-1776” in the same year Sketches was published.2

This complicated textual history makes it particularly difficult to establish Crèvecoeur's intentions for “Susquehanna,” but all available evidence suggests that he wrote the sketch as a unified whole. To be sure, it is a long, somewhat unwieldy piece, but the sketch is unified—as I will show later—by the three visits to Wyoming and by the consistent voice and point of view that runs throughout. Bourdin, Gabriel, and Williams do not claim manuscript evidence for their decision to divide the text, and A. W. Plumstead has examined Bourdin's typescript and found “no break or suggestion of a break” there (225). Although they do not say so, the editors of Sketches, in attempting to limit the size of their volume, may have decided to follow the organization of the French version of Crèvecoeur's Susquehanna travels printed in the 1787 Lettres d'un cultivateur américain. In this greatly expanded and almost entirely rewritten version, Crèvecoeur narrates only his 1774 travels in one long chapter, then describes—using a very different voice and a much less narrative form—the Wyoming Massacre in the following chapter.3

Whatever the reason for the sketch's exclusion from Crèvecoeur's first book, “Susquehanna”—unlike many of the other sketches discovered in 1923—would be at home with the letters published in 1782. It is, first of all, a letter, written with James's distinctive voice, to the “great European man” to whom Letters is addressed. Crèvecoeur's persona in “Susquehanna” displays James's engaging quirks—his studied naivete, his self-conscious sentimentality, his eagerness to engage personally with the characters and events he encounters. More important, “Susquehanna” is grounded in the same environmental assumptions that pervade Letters. Just as the Nantucket letters describe the way in which the island's inhabitants have responded to their harsh surroundings with a complex division of the poor soil and a successful “farming” of the sea, “Susquehanna” describes the Wyoming settlers' attempt to build a community in response to the rugged landscape of the Susquehanna drainage.

Indeed, the motivation for Crèvecoeur's study of Wyoming is clearly stated in Letter 1, where James questions his more worldly wise minister concerning what an American farmer could possibly teach an educated European about America. The minister's answer has been echoed again and again by Americans trying to find a worthy place in the letters of Western civilization: Europeans, the minister tells James, study the nature and history of man by examining the “musty ruins of Rome”—“old towers, useless aqueducts, or impending battlements … seeking for the origin … and for the cause of so great a decay” (16, 18). Thus, Europeans face several disadvantages. They must look back, tracing “the vestiges of a once flourishing people now extinct” through eyes “clouded with the mist of ages” (16-17). Ruins suggest more questions than they can possibly answer, and what is finally discovered will be as fragmentary as the “musty ruins” themselves. Second, James's minister implies that Europe's ruins are less remnants of past greatness than they are emblems of failure—their builders may have been “a once flourishing people,” but we dig to discover “the cause of so great a decay.” Furthermore, ancient history does not help us understand the problems of today: Europeans “amuse themselves in viewing the ruins of temples and other buildings which have very little affinity with those of the present age, and must therefore impart a knowledge which appears useless and trifling” (16). In Crèvecoeur's view, Europe is the place of past greatness that has become present failure, while America is the place of future greatness and future success, a model more worthy—and more accessible—to study: “methinks there would be much more real satisfaction in observing among us, the humble rudiments and embryos of societies spreading every where, the recent foundation of our towns, and the settlements of so many rural districts. I am sure that the rapidity of their growth would be more pleasing to behold, than the ruins of old towers, useless aqueducts, or impending battlements” (16). Rather than “submitting to the painful and useless retrospect of revolutions, desolations, and plagues,” the observer “would, on the contrary, wisely spring forward to the anticipated fields of future cultivation and improvement, to the future extent of those generations which are to replenish and embellish this boundless continent” (17).

For Crèvecoeur, then, the European course of empire, spectacular as its remnants might appear, represents a dead end. As Henry Nash Smith has pointed out, much American thinking in Crèvecoeur's time was concerned with establishing America's place as the next great empire—succeeding England in the same way Rome succeeded Greece—and most Americans assumed that their new country would prove to be the exception to the “fall” rule of the course of empire pattern. Current thinking had developed a “stages of civilization” theory that, in Smith's words, could be observed first-hand only in America:

Although in Europe the successive stages of society were naturally thought of as succeeding one another in time, so that primitive conditions could be studied only through historical and archeological research, the situation in America was quite different. When the theory of civilization became current in this country many observers were struck by its applicability to the actual state of affairs in the West. The comment was frequently made that in America one could examine side by side the social stages that were believed to have followed one another in time in the long history of the Old World.


J. A. Leo Lemay argues that Crèvecoeur's Letters may represent the first application of the stage theory and the related theory of cultural evolution to the specifics of American geography and westward movement: Crèvecoeur, Lemay writes, “thus creates what came to be the standard interpretation of civilization's progress in America.” Lemay points out that Letters had an immediate and substantial influence on such early commentators on the American experience as Benjamin Rush, Brissot de Warville, and Thomas Jefferson, and that Crèvecoeur's views have found more recent expression in the historical and literary writings of Frederick Jackson Turner and Robert E. Spiller (211, 215).

Crèvecoeur's study of the stages of civilization takes two different forms, corresponding to the approaches he takes in Letters and in “Susquehanna.” In Letters, he takes us from the highly developed civilization of eastern cities—equal in wealth and sophistication to many European cities (although far superior, in Crèvecoeur's view, in that they are free from the “feudal institutions” of Europe)—through the middle settlements, where the “simple cultivation of the earth purifies” the inhabitants, to the frontier, where, surrounded by unordered wilderness, “men are wholly left dependent on their native tempers” and are much less purified than degenerated (51-52). While Letter 3 charts this course of empire from east to west as a phenomenon Crèvecoeur has observed, he describes it only in the abstract. For his more specific examples of American society in Letters, Crèvecoeur takes an approach similar to the European perspective, significantly beginning with thriving communities—not, to be sure, musty ruins, but Nantucket and Charlestown are not “embryos”—and tracing them back to their beginnings. He introduces his detailed study of Nantucket, for example, in these terms: “My simple wish is to trace them throughout their progressive steps, from their arrival here to this present hour; to enquire by what means they have raised themselves from the most humble, the most insignificant beginnings …” (95).

Crèvecoeur's intention in “Susquehanna” is somewhat different, more along the lines of the minister's advice in Letter 1 to study “the humble rudiments and embryos of societies spreading everywhere, the recent foundations of our towns, and the settlements of so many rural districts.” The village of Wyoming, only a few years old when he first visits it in 1774, becomes Crèvecoeur's focus for this peculiarly American opportunity to “contemplate the very beginnings and out-lines of human society, which can be traced no where now but in this part of the world” (Letters 18).

While the growth of Wyoming provides the focus and touchstone for the sketch, the geography of the community's wilderness surroundings makes up the bulk of the piece—indeed, rather than naming the sketch “Wyoming,” Crèvecoeur names it for the river that shapes the region's landscape. He does not take us directly to Wyoming, as he does to Nantucket in Letters; instead, we travel with him along the same wilderness rivers and trails the settlers themselves followed. In choosing this kind of narrative structure, Crèvecoeur places us in a historical context—we glimpse, through his eyes, something of the pre-1774 experience of the settlers—and he places us in the wilderness environment in which Wyoming itself is placed. As we move in and out of wilderness, from “hideous ridges” to “smiling fields” to swamps that are a “perfect chaos,” we come to understand the role that landscape will play in the final tragedy. This constant movement from wilderness to civilization and back into wilderness enables us to understand that the geography is both promise and threat: the Susquehanna River Valley is defined by river bottoms of “inexhaustible fertility” everywhere bounded by the “hideous ridges” of pure wilderness that constantly threaten to swallow the smaller settlements and, in 1778, overwhelm even the larger and more established village of Wyoming.

The complex relationship between landscape and the fate of the people who live in the landscape is explained in broad terms in the first paragraphs of “Susquehanna.” Crèvecoeur tells us that the movement of settlers into the continent's interior is more than the result of what land is available: it is a geographically determined imperative. While the tidewater farmland of the southern colonies is constantly “enriched by the manures” provided by the ocean and “by the mud of rivers,”

This is not however the natural state of our fields in the Northern provinces. The fecundity of the earth is greatly diminished; you may in those of Jersey, New York, Connecticut, etc. already perceive a great vegetative decay. The rich coat which was composed of old decayed leaves and other particles preserved for ages by the existence of timber and sheltered from the devouring impulse of the sun by the shades it produced, is long since exhausted and gone. This it was which enriched the first settlers and procured them such abundant crops. All the art of Man can never repair this. …

In order to obtain more uniformly fertile soils, deeper loams, inexhaustible farms, which hitherto have wanted no manure, you must recede from the sea, you must ascend nearer the sources and springheads of those immense rivers everywhere traversing the great continent.

(s 554, my emphasis)

Crèvecoeur moves from this statement of the geographical necessity for westward movement into a discussion of the political implications this movement holds for settlers. Under the colony's original charter, Connecticut was granted “a continuation of territory even to the South Sea” (s 556), and many New England emigrants registered their land claims under Connecticut law. Other settlers, traveling up the Susquehanna River from the more settled southeastern regions of Pennsylvania, registered their claims in Philadelphia, and these conflicting titles, compounded by the ideological differences between the democratic small-land-holding Yankee New Englanders and the aristocratic land-speculating Pennsylvanians, erupted into the Pennamite Wars of 1771. Though he later notes that this smoldering New England/Pennsylvania division is essentially the same Patriot/Loyalist conflict that would consume Wyoming in 1778, Crèvecoeur argues that geography determines the manner and time of settlement of the Susquehanna Valley, and that political division is a consequence of the geographical fact that there are only two practical routes into the area: one accessible to New England, the other accessible to southeastern Pennsylvania—the two ends of the Susquehanna River. “The petty wars they carried on in support of their mutual claims are objects too extensive, too antecedent, and perhaps to you would appear too uninteresting,” Crèvecoeur writes to his sophisticated European correspondent. “The part which I want to select for your amusement is a geographical account of this country” (s 555).4

Crèvecoeur begins his “geographical account” with a description of the view from “the summit of the Menisink heights,” the first mountain range he encounters on his way west in 1774. This first look into the river valleys of the American interior serves an important function in the narrative: it reads as a landscape painting, a pictorial description of the geographical forces at work in “Susquehanna.” Crèvecoeur is standing on a summit in the Menisink-Shawangunk mountain range, a system of mountains that effectively separates the long-settled farmland of Orange County, New York (the location of Crèvecoeur's Pine Hill), from the rugged hills and valleys of the Delaware and Susquehanna drainages—the continent's interior, the region of future promise. His back to the settled east, Crèvecoeur looks first into the broad valley of the Delaware River, the location of the last “safe” interior settlement:

No contrast in this country can be greater and afford a more pleasing idea when on the summit of the Menisink heights, you contemplate below fruitful farms, smiling fields, noble orchards, spacious houses and barns, the substantial habitation of wealthy people settled these 120 years on those happy bottoms. Everything around is smooth, smiling and calculated for the use of Man, whilst the surrounding mountains which incompass them on every side, present nothing but huge masses of rocks and marbles, hideous ridges on which nothing hardly grows.

(s 558)

This long-settled territory (what is probably now the area around Port Jervis) represents Crèvecoeur's ideal, what Leo Marx calls the “middle landscape,” an agricultural balance between art and nature that avoids the corruption of pure art—the problem represented by the ruins of Europe and the litigious citizenry of Charlestown described in Letter 9—and the degenerating effect of pure nature—the wilderness of the American interior. The landscape Crèvecoeur describes here has thrived these 120 years because it is fertile bottom land, yearly enriched by spring floods, which welcomes the ordering fact of the plow, and the community is neatly separated from the overly complex civilization of the eastern seaboard by the geographical fact of the mountain range on which Crèvecoeur stands.5

While this community is well established—the area has weathered the dangerous period of the early years Crèvecoeur documents in Letter 3—there is still something ominous in the landscape: these “smiling fields” are surrounded by mountains “which incompass them on every side,” presenting “nothing but huge masses of rocks and marbles, hideous ridges on which nothing hardly grows.” Crèvecoeur's tone here betrays an attitude toward landscape that represents more than a farmer's preference for cultivated land over wilderness: it speaks of a deeply personal relationship between the observer and the landscape he observes. To Crèvecoeur, people's ability to order and regulate the land is an important part of the process by which they order and regulate their emotions, and so the farm becomes both a movement against the chaos of unordered nature and a reflection of a regulated, rational mind. In these terms, the process of plowing is both an external act that orders the material world, and an internal process by which one might realize his or her Enlightenment potential: “as we silently till the ground,” Crèvecoeur writes in Letters, “and muse along the odoriferous furrows of our low lands, uninterrupted either by stones or stumps; it is there that the salubrious effluvia of the earth animate our spirits and serve to inspire us …” (22). Parting the land with the plow both orders the landscape into straight lines and encourages the kind of romantic yet ultimately rational thinking that, for Crèvecoeur, defines civilization. Both the observer and the cultivated fields can “smile” because one is the reflection of the other.6

For much the same reason, barren ridges seem “hideous” because they encourage the kind of chaotic passion-driven thinking that defines the degenerate frontier settler. Land that resists farming is more than inconvenient—it represents a barrier to human progress on both the individual and societal level. Crèvecoeur idealizes America because there is always new land to be broken and cultivated, unlimited opportunity for settlers like Andrew the Hebridean to clear land, drain swamps, and plow fields, changing the “wild, woody and uncultivated” landscape into a “fine fertile, well regulated district” (Letters 45, 53).

The problem in “Susquehanna,” then, results from the peculiar geography of the river drainage: the same river that provides the “uniformly fertile soils” and “deeper loams” of the bottom lands has carved a landscape of “hideous ridges” that can never be cultivated, and Crèvecoeur recognizes this ironic relationship between the fertile bottoms and barren hills. “One would imagine,” Crèvecoeur writes, trying to make Enlightenment sense of the juxtaposition, “that by some superior art, by some anterior miracle, the ancient vegetative mould has been washed away to form those romantic plats below” (s 558-59). The result of this “anterior miracle” is that the landscape of “Susquehanna” consists of relatively small “romantic plats” immediately adjacent to—and forever limited in size and extent by—pure wilderness. Crèvecoeur describes this geographically determined limit on cultivation in terms that imply a frightening, almost violent, movement against the settled: “On the shores … are to be seen the most excellent farms, excellent houses; but these are soon terminated by the perpendicular foot of those mountains which entirely overspread this part of the province and forever prevent its aggrandisement on that side” (s 559). Crèvecoeur describes a landscape at war with itself—the best farmland on the American continent is bounded and forever limited by the most intractable wilderness.7

Between these mountains, where Crèvecoeur's trip begins, and the settlement of Wyoming, Crèvecoeur travels through a wilderness broken only by an occasional settlement—often a solitary family. Predictably, his time in these “gloomy forests” takes a psychological toll, and his description illuminates the relationship between the perceiver and his wilderness surroundings, hinting at the more profound changes that define wilderness degeneration:

I must confess ingeniously that at first I was alarmed at every distant sound and could not find myself at ease until I was either informed or I had guessed what it would be. The drumming of partridges, for instance, heard at a distance greatly resembles the discharge of cannon; the roaring of distant falls produces likewise a singular effect strangely modified either by the wind or the situation in which you stand.

(s 560-61)

“'Tis a feast for an unexperienced traveller to see the sun shine on some open'd grounds, to view clear'd fields,” Crèvecoeur writes. “You seem to be relieved from that secret uneasiness and involuntary apprehension which is always felt in the woods” (s 560). Crèvecoeur is relieved to spend one night with a family “seemingly happy and unconcerned at their hermit situation” who alone constitute the settlement of Blooming Grove, but all is not well even in this settled clearing. Perhaps thinking of his metaphor “men are like plants,” Crèvecoeur writes, “I must confess that I saw nothing here very tempting or blooming” (s 562), and this pessimistic response is at first surprising. Crèvecoeur celebrates the beginnings of another American farmer in Letters—Andrew the Hebridean—and one might expect that Crèvecoeur would view the Blooming Grove family in terms of another hopeful beginning. The difference between Blooming Grove and Andrew's farm is a difference in geographical setting. Andrew clears and drains a spot of wilderness in a largely settled area, and the surrounding farms and settlements provide the “power of example, and check of shame” (53) necessary to counter degeneration. At Blooming Grove, Crèvecoeur is uncomfortable with the confining immediacy of a wilderness of raging creeks and steep wooded hillsides, and he expresses this ambivalence in terms that, once again, suggest a violent movement of the wild against the settled: “the low lands inclosed within it have escaped being tore away by the impetuosity of this torrent” (s 562). Crèvecoeur points out that this geography will sustain a dangerous isolation by limiting the area of cultivation. Twenty-two acres is all that can be cultivated—this will be limited forever by an “impetuous torrent” on one side and mountainous wilderness on the other. As Crèvecoeur notes concerning a neighboring settlement, it is “an awful situation for so few people surrounded on each side with the most gloomy forests” (s 561). While Crèvecoeur is impressed by the industry and independence of the frontier family, he notes that their way of life is determined by their environment: “Like all the inhabitants of the forest,” Crèvecoeur's host is “a very expert hunter, I saw him with a Lancaster rifle kill a bird at 300 yards distance which I measured myself. He had brought in, the day before I arrived there, a bear which he overtook by chase” (s 563). Crèvecoeur's ideal American, of course, is not a gun-toting, bearchasing frontier man. In Letters, he argues that the necessity of hunting for food is a symptom of the general degeneration humans undergo when placed in a wilderness environment: “Thus our bad people are those who are half cultivators and half hunters; and the worst of them are those who have degenerated altogether into the hunting state” (58-59).8

In contrast to the smaller settlements Crèvecoeur encounters, Wyoming is all promise. He describes the Wyoming Valley as a long, broad, and flat landscape defined and made fertile by the Susquehanna: “this fair river issuing from the two lakes I have mentioned before, bending itself in an amazing number of curvatures to gather in its course a greater number of creeks and rivulets and to impart mankind a greater degree of benefits. Few rivers in this part of the world exhibit so great a display of the richest and fertilest land the most sanguine wish of man can possibly covet and desire” (s 566). Crèvecoeur goes on to document, in the kind of detail that may have persuaded his twentieth-century editors to exclude the passage from their book, the fecundity of the Wyoming Valley. This is, to Crèvecoeur's mind, an example of ideal American landscape: fertile lands “yearly enriched by the strong healthy slime deposited by the floods” in a valley broad enough to provide cultivable lots from 250 to 1,000 acres (s 567). The taming of the land requires industry and hard work, of course, but the result is the growth of a prosperous American community. Again, Crèvecoeur moves easily from a description of healthy soil to a description of healthy people because good land provides the foundation for his agrarian ideal, in which clearing and ordering the landscape reflects the ordering and controlling of human nature. As with the individual experience of Andrew, the combination of “good land and freedom” here results in a society marked by a degree of happiness “far superior to what is enjoyed by any civilised nation on the globe” (s 571).

Crèvecoeur leaves this happy landscape of “houses rearing up, fields cultivating, that great extent of industry open'd to a bold indefatigable enterprising people” (s 569) to travel overland to visit more settlements on the west branch of the Susquehanna. The dangerous immediacy of the wilderness on the edge of Wyoming's cultivated landscape is underlined when Crèvecoeur promptly gets lost, geographically as well as psychologically, in a very different landscape: “we were all at once suddenly stopt by a huge pine swamp which had been partly consumed by some accidental fire; immense trees burnt at the roots were oversat, one over the other in an infinite variety of directions. … In short, there was no penetrating through such a black scene of confusion; it was a perfect chaos” (s 573). This experience serves as a harsh reintroduction to Crèvecoeur's vision of wilderness. Just as the ordered farm reflects a mind in which passion is subservient to reason, the “perfect chaos” of the swamp reflects Crèvecoeur's confusion and panic. In his mind, the swamp represents more than an inconvenience—it becomes a challenge to his eighteenth-century assumptions. He spends the night in the swamp, weakened by hunger and terrorized by howling wolves that surround his camp, and although he does find his way in the morning, this experience seems to color his response to the smaller, more recently established, and less fortunate settlements he visits on the west branch. In describing these settlements, he demonstrates the way in which this divided landscape affects its inhabitants:

'Tis very surprising to observe the boldness, the undiffidence with which these new settlers scatter themselves here and there in the bosom of such an extensive country without even a previous path to direct their steps and without being in any number sufficient either to protect or assist one another. I have often met with these isolated families in my travels, and 'tis inconceivable how soon they will lose their European prejudices and embibe those of the natives. Their children born and educated at such a distance from schools and opportunities of improvement become a new breed of people neither Europeans nor yet Natives. These are not in general the best people of this country.

(s 575)

Crèvecoeur moves from this expression of primitivist theory—the wilderness environment has created “a new breed of people” who “are not in general the best people of this country”—to a description of the conflict between the New England and Pennsylvania settlers. He repeats much of the historical background given at the beginning of the sketch and, more important, he argues again that the geographical nature of the Susquehanna region has made confrontation inevitable. Too, Crèvecoeur implies that isolation in a wilderness environment encourages antipathy to fellow settlers and a readiness to use violence instead of reason in settling disagreements. The settlers on the west branch involved in the Pennamite Wars were, like Crèvecoeur's host at Blooming Grove, forced to hunt in order to survive—a process that denies civilization because it is antisocial, creating tension, not reasonable neighborliness, between frontier people. As Crèvecoeur expresses it in Letters, “a hunter wants no neighbour, he rather hates them, because he dreads the competition” (57). Without sufficient land to order, regulate, and grow what is necessary for survival, the darker impulses in all humans are allowed to take command. In describing this view of human nature, Crèvecoeur writes in “Susquehanna” that “mankind carries in their bosoms the rudiments of their own misfortunes and unhappiness, place them where you will …” (s 578). If placed in Orange County and given sufficient land, humans will be “purified” and, able to transcend these “rudiments,” will settle their differences in court. Given land that, however fertile, is limited in size and surrounded by the degenerating influence of wilderness, these settlers (“not in general the best people”) will, if prompted by political circumstances, destroy each other in senseless violence.9

Crèvecoeur travels to Wyoming in 1776 by a different route, but he discovers the same kind of tension between wilderness chaos and settlement order. This time tracing part of the route followed by the New England settlers, Crèvecoeur canoes up the Delaware River and observes the wilderness: “Bold rough projecting points in various forms and shapes present to the eyes nothing but a series of promontories frightful to behold.” In “astonishing contrast when compared to the smiling ones of the Susquehanna,” settlements here are placed in “some little bays formed by the winding of the river. A few acres of arable land have been discovered” (s 579). In describing these isolated Delaware River settlements, Crèvecoeur delineates a variation on the theme of frontier degeneration, establishing another way in which the combination of too small but fertile tracts of land and immediate wilderness changes settlers into a “new breed of people”:

The facility of navigation, the ease with which few acres are cultivated, the great field opened for hunting habituates this people to a desultory life, and in a few years they seem to be neither Europeans as we observe them in our flourishing settlements nor yet natives. This mode of life which sometimes implies a great share of laziness produces a sort of indolence, indifference, which is the consequence of limited industry.

(s 580)

It is less the harshness of this wilderness environment than the relative ease of farming and hunting that leads these settlers, not necessarily “immersed in great and heavy labours,” into degeneration. As Crèvecoeur describes the process in Letters, land cleared too easily and woods hunted too profitably lead the farmers to “trust to the natural fecundity of the earth, and therefore do little; carelessness in fencing, often exposes what little they sow to destruction … in order therefore to make up the deficiency, they go oftener to the woods.” “Once hunters,” Crèvecoeur tells us, “farewell to the plough” (57). As Leo Marx points out, Robert Beverley discovered a similar phenomenon in the too fertile regions of Virginia, where the settlers, in Beverley's words, “depend altogether upon the Liberality of Nature, without endeavouring to improve its Gifts, by Art or Industry” (85-86).

Crèvecoeur leaves the Delaware River and travels across the divide between the Delaware and Susquehanna drainages, reaching the Susquehanna River in the vicinity of Ouaquaga, a small Indian settlement a few miles north of what is now Windsor, New York. After spending a week there, he floats down the Susquehanna in the company of two Indians, arriving at Wyoming a few days later.

Wyoming is quickly achieving the promise Crèvecoeur predicted two years earlier, and he enthusiastically describes the flourishing settlements of the rapidly developing Wyoming Valley:

I observed with pleasure that a better conducted plan of industry prevailed throughout, that many of the pristine temporary huts and humble log houses were converted into neater and more substantial habitations. I saw everywhere the strong marks of growing wealth and population. … Nothing could be more pleasing than to see the embryo of future hospitality, politeness, and wealth disseminated in a prodigious manner of shapes and situations all along these banks.

(s 583)

This description of a settled and flourishing landscape concludes his 1776 narrative, and the next paragraph begins the “Wyoming Massacre” passage printed in Sketches, Crèvecoeur's narrative of the events of 1778. This is the first mention of the massacre in “Susquehanna”—indeed, midway through his 1774 description of Wyoming, Crèvecoeur seems blissfully unaware of the outcome of his piece: “It is here [Wyoming] that human nature undebased by servile tenures, horrid dependence, a multiplicity of unrelieved wants as it is in Europa reacquires its former and ancient dignity,—now lost all over the world except with us. May future revolutions never destroy so noble, so useful a prerogative” (s 571). The fact that Crèvecoeur, describing Wyoming as the “embryo of future greatness,” seems unaware of the community's fatal end would lead us to believe that “Susquehanna” was written in parts over a period of years and not as one piece in 1778, but the appearance of the “Susquehanna” manuscript suggests otherwise. Henri Bourdin, who discovered and transcribed it, believes that while Crèvecoeur may have made notes on his earlier visits, the manuscript was clearly written at one time, probably shortly after his last trip to Wyoming.10 Even if Crèvecoeur simply rewrote earlier sketches, he certainly had ample opportunity to add more direct foreshadowing, as he does in another sketch dealing with one victim of the Wyoming Massacre. In “The History of Mrs. B.,” Crèvecoeur alludes early in the narrative to her later tragic experience at Wyoming. Why then did he choose to write“Susquehanna” without the dramatic foreshadowing he applies in many of his other sketches?

One answer has to do with the critical argument concerning Crèvecoeur's innocent pose in Letters from an American Farmer. It has only recently been argued that Crèvecoeur's book may be more than a simple homage to American life that inexplicably goes wrong in the last chapter. Tyler, while finding the “two distinct notes—one of great peace, another of great pain,” still argues that the pain is more anomalous than thematic—“the reader is tempted to infer that, after all, felicity is the permanent fact there, and that suffering is but a temporary incident” (2:351, 357). Warren Barton Blake's essay on Letters, written in 1912 and still included in the currently available Dutton edition of the book, argues that these conflicting points of view prove Crèvecoeur's artlessness, and identifies such conflict as evidence that Letters has “very little obvious system” (xii).

This view of Letters may result from Crèvecoeur's first modern critics' reading what James tells us about his book more closely than they read the book itself. Letter i has been too convincing in establishing James as the artless, simple farmer, and readers have read Letters with this expectation in mind—forgetting that James is not Crèvecoeur, and that Crèvecoeur the author is more in control of his material than these critics have given him credit for. In challenging the “artlessness” of Letters, some scholars now argue that the notes of pleasure and pain run side-by-side—not sequentially—throughout Letters, and that Crèvecoeur's journey from innocence to experience is a sudden fall for James, but not for the careful reader. James C. Mohr states that life on James's farm in the first letters is supposed to be too good to be true: “the idyllic image of America which Crèvecoeur develops during the first eight letters of his book becomes the dream against which the intensity of later disillusionment is measured” (355). Taking a slightly different approach, Thomas Philbrick writes that the real subject of the book is not the American and his life in America, but the slow recognition that both man and the natural world have a basic malevolence that, if not properly contained, can emerge in human and natural violence. With Mohr, Philbrick finds that Crèvecoeur subtly prepares his reader for the fully realized violence and despair of the last letter: “Crèvecoeur's exploration of the enigma of man is conducted with such indirection in the preceding letters that its presence may go undetected in a casual reading of the book” (66).

“Susquehanna” follows a similar innocence-to-experience pattern,11 and the suddenness with which we arrive at the scene of the massacre of 1778 is the result of a very similar kind of strategy—the effect Mohr calls “calculated disillusionment.” Just as James's farm functions as an ideal against which the American reality of human and natural evil is measured, Crèvecoeur's celebration of Wyoming in 1774 and 1776 functions as a too ideal American community that represents only the illusion of dominance over the wilderness that surrounds it. If Crèvecoeur had spoken early in “Susquehanna” of Wyoming's ultimate fate, he might have sacrificed this quality of disillusionment in an ideal of American progress. Instead, Wyoming's ruin is foreshadowed both by Crèvecoeur's description of a malevolent wilderness at Wyoming's doorstep, and by his description of the violence of the Wyoming settlers' frontier neighbors. If we understand Crèvecoeur's message accurately, the Wyoming Massacre is not an anomalous expression of tragedy, but a predictable consequence of the overwhelming power of the community's geographical setting.

Crèvecoeur also arranges the narrative in a way that underlines the inevitability of the conclusion by manipulating his constant movement from wilderness to civilization to wilderness. The sketch is structured chronologically according to the three visits to Wyoming. But there is another organizing pattern at work, one in which Wyoming in 1778 takes the place of the wilderness that earlier contrasted with it. Crèvecoeur travels from the settled “romantic plats” at the beginning of the sketch into the “hideous ridges” and the isolated settlement of Blooming Grove, finally arriving at civilization—Wyoming in 1774. He leaves Wyoming and loses his way in a swamp, and he finds only degenerated settlers on the west branch and, two years later, in the tiny settlements on the upper Delaware River. He returns to civilization finally in his arrival at Wyoming in 1776. Instead of plunging into wilderness once again—as has been the pattern in the sketch so far—Crèvecoeur moves directly to Wyoming in the aftermath of the massacre of 1778. The placement of the massacre description immediately following the celebration of Wyoming in 1776 underlines the fact that Wyoming has been reclaimed by—has, indeed, become—wilderness, and the juxtaposition serves to heighten the tragedy of the “suspension of industry, and the total destruction of their noble beginning” (wm 193) that he finds in his last visit.

Crèvecoeur apparently arrived in the Wyoming Valley in July 1778, in time to witness the aftermath of the Wyoming Massacre. In her 1915 biography of Crèvecoeur, Julia Post Mitchell—writing before Bourdin's manuscript discovery—advances a theory explaining his presence at the scene of the massacre in terms of Letter 12, where James explains his intention to move to the frontier with his family. Mitchell surmises that Crèvecoeur was in the area of Wyoming for the purpose of locating a frontier retreat when he witnessed the aftermath of the massacre (49).12 If so—and there is little doubt that this is when Crèvecoeur was writing his “Distresses of a Frontier Man”—Mitchell suggests a biographical point of reference for Letter 12. James apparently believes that a token half-dozen acres of farmland will immunize him to the degenerating influence of wilderness. If, as Mitchell suggests, Crèvecoeur himself believed that he could find sanctuary in a frontier Indian village and live in “a state approaching nearer to that of nature, unencumbered either with voluminous laws, or contradictory codes … and at the same time sufficiently remote from the brutality of unconnected savage nature” (Letters 216), Wyoming's fate was evidence to the contrary. If Crèvecoeur was in the Wyoming Valley for the purpose of finding a frontier refuge, the Wyoming Massacre may have served as shocking evidence of what he had known all along, a realistic answer to the wishful thinking of Letter 12. It may be that the disillusionment that is “calculated” in “Susquehanna” was a tragic reality in Crèvecoeur's own less-calculated life.

In the context of the “Susquehanna” whole, the Wyoming Massacre proves to be more than a consequence of political division: the massacre becomes a tragedy of the community's geographical setting. Crèvecoeur alludes to the “intricate mazes of this grand quarrel” (wm 192) in describing the events leading up to the massacre, but he is still less concerned with the political aspects of revolution than with the way the geography of the American interior affects the manner—and the result—of Revolutionary violence. Crèvecoeur explains that the Loyalists were first driven from their homes in Wyoming by neighbors holding the “modern opinions” of independence from England, and that these displaced people were forced to survive in the wilderness surrounding the river communities:

Many of those who found themselves stripped of their property took refuge among the Indians. Where else could they go? Many others, tired of that perpetual tumult in which the whole settlement was involved, voluntarily took the same course; and I am told that great numbers from the extended frontiers of the middle provinces have taken the same steps,—some reduced to despair, some fearing the incursions with which they were threatened.

(wm 192)

“So strong is the power of Indian education,” Crèvecoeur explains, that whites placed in their company inevitably become “a new set of people” (wm 194). The migration from the relatively civilized river communities to Indian camps and settlements deeper in the wilderness, and the tragic consequences of this displacement, could serve as a case study illustrating the theory of wilderness degeneration Crèvecoeur sets down in Letters, providing a concrete example of how a specific group of whites forced to live “remote from the power of example, and check of shame” becomes “the most hideous parts of our society”: “As old ploughmen and new men of the woods, as Europeans and new made Indians, they contract the vices of both; they adopt the moroseness and ferocity of a native, without his mildness, or even his industry at home” (53).

Although Indians were popularly blamed for much of the Revolutionary violence on the frontier, Crèvecoeur minimizes the role Indians play in the massacre.13 There is a sense that Crèvecoeur's Indians are only doing what Indians are expected to do. The greater tragedy, in his mind, is that the displaced Europeans have themselves become savages. In the preceding portion of “Susquehanna,” Crèvecoeur describes the region as a country of widely scattered settlements inhabited by Indians and by whites who are “half cultivators and half hunters” balanced on that dangerous line between savagery and civilization. The political upheaval of the American Revolution forced numbers of new settlers into the surrounding wilderness, with predictable results: “The Europeans who had taken refuge among the natives united with them in the same scheme which had been anteriorly proposed, and set on foot by the commandant of Niagra; they were, therefore, joined by several English officers and soldiers. The whole body of these assailants seemed animated with the most vindictive passions, a sacrifice to which many innocent families as well as guilty ones were doomed to fall” (wm 196). This displacement results in a mix of Indians, British regulars, and embittered settlers who, no longer restrained by the soothing influence of settlement and community, become “animated” by their passions and join in the atrocities at Wyoming.

Having documented the cause, Crèvecoeur describes in politically objective detail the effect, and he focuses on both the human suffering and the social tragedy of the destruction of the community he had described before as “the embryo of future hospitality, politeness, and wealth.” To be sure, Crèvecoeur pays most attention to the victims of the massacre, but he has almost a larger interest in the fate of the community: Wyoming has served for four years as his study of an American community in embryo, promising with each visit to justify his earlier faith that Wyoming was large and established enough to survive its wilderness surroundings. It is in this sense that Wyoming in 1778 acts as the reality against which the earlier Wyoming becomes, in retrospect, too ideal. Crèvecoeur describes the destruction of the community in the same way he traced the building of it, and he does not miss the significance of this process of societal degeneration:

Thus perished … most of the buildings, improvements, mills, bridges, etc., which had been erected there with so much cost and industry. … The complete destruction of these extended settlements was now the next achievement which remained to be done, in order to finish their rude triumph, but it could not be the work of a few days. Houses, barns, mills, grain, everything combustible to conflagrate; cattle, horses, and stock of every kind to gather; this work demanded a considerable time. The collective industry of twelve years could not well be supposed, in so great an extent, to require in its destruction less than twelve days.

(wm 201, 204)

Crèvecoeur finds it equally significant that the settlers are forced to retrace the trail they followed in first settling the valley: “This was the very forest they had traversed with so much difficulty a few years before, but how different their circumstances!” (wm 204).

It is in this way that “Susquehanna” anticipates later American artistic and literary treatments of the course of empire paradigm: Crèvecoeur traces an example of American civilization from its wilderness beginnings to ruins reclaimed by wilderness. He begins his first visit to Wyoming in a landscape of “hideous ridges” and howling wolves, and he finds in the Wyoming settlement what seems to be a comforting antithesis to the horrible chaos of wilderness. He finds two years later an ideal American community, a kind of garden that promises to grow generations of “the American, this new man.” He describes what he finds in 1778 in terms of a landscape painting—“What a scene an eminent painter might have copied from that striking exhibition, if it had been a place where a painter could have calmly sat with the palette in his hands!” (wm 200)14—and the scene he describes is remarkably similar to what Thomas Cole, in a prospectus for The Course of Empire, would describe in the fourth painting in his series as “a tempest,—a battle, and the burning of the city … masses and groups swaying about like stormy waves … the scene of destruction” and in his fifth and final painting as “a desolate ruin … the funeral knell of departed greatness” (177-78). Cole implies the inevitability of the empire's destruction in his depiction of a piece of wilderness, a rugged cliff face that remains unchanged in the background throughout the series of five paintings, representing, as the one unchanging element, the timeless inevitability of wilderness.15 Using a similar point of reference, Crèvecoeur paints throughout “Susquehanna” an ominous wilderness represented by a series of wild animals, gloomy forests, and “hideous ridges” always threateningly adjacent to his farms and communities. Indeed, the wolves that made Crèvecoeur's “blood run cold” during the night he was lost in the woods in 1774, representing for him the danger inherent in wilderness, may well be the same wolves he describes in the concluding sentence as descending on the ruins of Wyoming as the last refugees depart: “Such was their situation, while the carcasses of their friends were left behind to feed the wolves of that wilderness on which they had so long toiled, and which they had come to improve” (wm 206). Where Cole's paintings depict a classical scene and so imply a more purely theoretical and universal idea, Crèvecoeur's sketch—like Cooper's The Crater—is more peculiarly American. The fact that Crèvecoeur's American course of empire ends with a flaming ruin similar to Cole's underlines the tragic irony of Crèvecoeur's vision: he becomes an American version of the European tourist, pondering “the vestiges of a once flourishing people now extinct.” Like the “musty ruins” of Rome, Wyoming has become an emblem of failure, not the shining example of American progress he had set out to document.

“Susquehanna” tells us that there are really two answers to Crèvecoeur's famous question, “What, then, is the American, this new man?” because there are two American landscapes, the settled and the wild. The settled land grows the Andrews, the Crèvecoeurs, the “best people” who order themselves in ordering their land; wilderness grows “our worst people,” human reflections of disordered wilderness. The tragedy Crèvecoeur relates in “Susquehanna” is the result of a geography that places the settled land in a dangerous wilderness context, threatening always the individual and social degeneration that defines, finally, the Wyoming Massacre.


  1. For information (and speculation) regarding the selection of sketches for the 1782 Letters, see Plumstead (218-21, 228-29); Philbrick (27-31); and Plotkin (391). Concerning Crèvecoeur's changing political sympathies, see Mitchell (41-87) and Jehlen (204-22).

  2. Concerning the discovery and editing of the Crèvecoeur manuscripts, see Bourdin and Williams (425-32). Much of this information is repeated in the essays provided by Bourdin (14-24), and Bourdin, Williams, and Gabriel (36-38) for Crèvecoeur, Sketches. Regarding the editing of Sketches—and the decision to delete most of “Susquehanna”—Thomas Philbrick writes: “Since the sequence of the sketches as they appear in the bound volumes of Crèvecoeur's manuscripts conveys no discernible design, the editors devised their own order, apparently modeling the organization of the book on the general pattern of the Letters. Like the twelve Letters, the twelve chapters of the Sketches begin with the depiction of rural life, move toward generalized sociological and political analysis, and end with a vivid account of the agony brought on by the coming of the Revolution.” Philbrick notes that the editors did “considerable violence” to “Susquehanna” in editing the sketch to fit within a framework that was, finally, “the work of his editors, not of Crèvecoeur himself” (108). I have reconstructed “Susquehanna” by joining the portion published in the Yale Review as “Crèvecoeur on the Susquehanna, 1774-1776” (cited as s in the text) and the portion published in Sketches as “The Wyoming Massacre” (cited as wm in the text).

  3. There is yet another twist to the textual history of “Susquehanna.” Albert E. Stone announced his intention to reassemble the two halves of the sketch in his 1981 Penguin American Library edition of Letters from an American Farmer and Sketches of Eighteenth Century America under the title “On the Susquehanna; The Wyoming Massacre.” Unfortunately, a printing error led to the inclusion of only the “On the Susquehanna” portion. Professor Stone has written me that the publisher will restore “The Wyoming Massacre” to its proper place in the second printing.

  4. Crèvecoeur describes the effect of the Pennamite Wars on a specific frontier family in “The History of Mrs. B.” in Sketches 207-20.

  5. On Crèvecoeur's version of the “middle landscape,” see Marx (107-16).

  6. See Elayne Rapping's study of the influence of the Enlightenment on Crèvecoeur's thinking.

  7. Roger Stein describes similar eighteenth- and nineteenth-century responses to the landscape of the Susquehanna drainage in Susquehanna: Images of the Settled Landscape.

  8. The French version of “Susquehanna,” translated and almost entirely rewritten by Crèvecoeur and included in the 1787 Letters, provides a dramatic example of how Crèvecoeur's primitivist theory changed during his years in Paris. In this version, he describes the Blooming Grove settlement in much more positive terms, concluding that the settlers' situation was less “awful” than “pittoresque.” He ends his description with a statement that represents a complete reversal of the view he expresses in the English Letters and in “Susquehanna”: “I believe therefore the state of the part hunter and part farmer to be superior to all the others, seeing that it offers a man a greater portion of liberty, independence, and therefore, dignity and happiness. … If, on one hand, the success of the hunt excites him to travel too-great distances into the woods, on the other hand, his wife, his children, and his fields bring him back under his roof. … He holds at the same time to the two extremes of the social chain, without having the drawbacks of either …” (3:174, my translation).

  9. The theory of wilderness degeneration continues to provide an explanation for acts of human violence. A recent magazine article describing increasing reports of assault and vandalism in national parks and forests quotes a psychologist who theorizes that “a primitive outdoor environment can spark aggressive, bullying behavior in a normally under control person” (Telford 29).

  10. Bourdin writes: “His narrative of the excursions he made in the Susquehanna Valley was not written until July, 1778, though evidence points out that they had taken place some time before 1774. … I am strongly inclined to believe that he wrote it from notes taken while on his journeys” (“The Crèvecoeur Manuscripts” 23-24). See also Bourdin and Williams, “Unpublished Manuscripts of Crèvecoeur” 431.

  11. Plumstead calls “Susquehanna” “a mini-Letters. A beautiful wilderness and a happy people are invaded by revolutionaries, killed and burned by Indians and whites” (225).

  12. Crèvecoeur was widely known to have been an eyewitness to what was to become an infamous event. Thomas Jefferson wrote to M. Soules, a Frenchman writing an account of the massacre, in 1787: “I have had a long conversation with M. Crève-coeur. He knows well that canton. He was in the neighborhood of the place [Wyoming] when it was destroyed, saw great numbers of the fugitives, aided them with his wagons, and had the story from their mouths. He committed notes to writing at the moment, which are now in Normandy, at his father's. … He says there will be a great deal to alter in your narration, and that it must assume a different face, more favorable both to the British and Indians. His veracity may be relied on” (quoted in Mitchell 48-49).

  13. Roy Harvey Pearce refers in passing to “Susquehanna” as a sketch “in which Crèvecoeur blames whites for encouraging Indian cruelty on the frontier” (141).

  14. Philbrick points out that Crèvecoeur makes conscious use here of the conventions of landscape painting in his portrayal of the massacre's aftermath: “the painterly quality of the description is exhibited in the concern for composition” (131).

  15. See Donald A. Ringe's discussion of Cole's paintings and their influence on Cooper's The Crater (28-30).

Works Cited

Blake, Warren Barton. Introduction. Letters from an American Farmer. By J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur. 1912; rpt. New York: Dutton, 1957.

Bourdin, Henri L. “The Crèvecoeur Manuscripts.” Crèvecoeur, Sketches, 14-24.

———, and Stanley T. Williams. “The Unpublished Manuscripts of Crèvecoeur.” Studies in Philology 22 (1925):425-32.

———, Stanley T. Williams, and Ralph H. Gabriel. “Note on the Text.” In Crèvecoeur, Sketches, 36-38.

Cole, Thomas. Letter to Luman Reed, 18 Sept. 1833. In Louis L. Noble, The Course of Empire, Voyage of Life, and Other Pictures of Thomas Cole. New York: Cornish, Lamport and Co., 1853, 177-78.

Crèvecoeur, J. Hector St. John de. “Crèvecoeur on the Susquehanna, 1774-1776.” Ed. H. L. Bourdin and S. T. Williams. Yale Review 24 (1925):552-84.

———. Letters from an American Farmer. 1782; rpt. Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1968.

———. Lettres d'un cultivateur américain. 3 vols. Paris: Cuchet, 1787.

———. Sketches of Eighteenth Century America. Ed. Henri L. Bourdin, Stanley T. Williams, and Ralph H. Gabriel. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1925.

———. “The Wyoming Massacre.” In Sketches, 192-206.

Jehlen, Myra. “J. Hector St. John Crèvecoeur: A Monarcho-Anarchist in Revolutionary America.” American Quarterly 31 (1979):204-22.

Lemay, J. A. Leo. “The Frontiersman from Lout to Hero.” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 88 (1978):187-223.

Marx, Leo. The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1964.

Mitchell, Julia Post. St. Jean de Crèvecoeur. 1915; rpt. New York: AMS Press, 1966.

Mohr, James C. “Calculated Disillusionment: Crèvecoeur's Letters Reconsidered.” South Atlantic Quarterly 69 (1970):354-63.

Pearce, Roy Harvey. The Savages of America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1953.

Philbrick, Thomas. St. John de Crèvecoeur. New York: Twayne, 1970.

Plotkin, Norman A. “Saint-John de Crèvecoeur Rediscovered: Critic or Panegyrist?” French Historical Studies 3 (1964):390-404.

Plumstead, A. W. “Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur.” In American Literature 1764-1789: The Revolutionary Years. Ed. Everett Emerson. Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1977, 213-31.

Rapping, Elayne. “Theory and Experience in Crèvecoeur's America.” American Quarterly 19 (1967):707-18.

Ringe, Donald A. “James Fenimore Cooper and Thomas Cole: An Analogous Technique.” American Literature 30 (1958):26-36.

Smith, Henry Nash. Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth. 1950; rpt. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1978.

Stein, Roger. Susquehanna: Images of the Settled Landscape. Binghamton, N.Y.: Roberson Center for the Arts and Sciences, 1981.

Telford, Lyn. “Tales From the Forest Primeval.” Utah Holiday 10, no. 6 (1981):25-31.

Tyler, Moses Coit. The Literary History of the American Revolution 1763-1783. 2 vols. 1897; rpt. New York: Facsimile Library, 1941.

David M. Robinson (essay date 1990)

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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.]


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 letter an agrarian version of the American dream. There he presents a vision of a society of social and economic equals, made independent through their economic dependence on the land alone yet bound together in a supportive and compassionate community. The agrarian values that James embodies in the book's opening—familial rootedness, reverence for nature, diligent work, economic egalitarianism, and an openness to those in need—are utopian in essence. They project an ideal society, the image of which becomes a stance for social criticism.2 Although Crèvecoeur's presentation of the dream has only a peripheral relation to historical truth, something of the utopian impulse of the work has survived history, continuing to present a powerful image of what America might have become before it veered into the Industrial Age. The power of Crèvecoeur's book is its utopian thrust, and as historical developments have rendered it more assuredly utopian, they have augmented the very source of its power.

But what call can Crèvecoeur's agrarian utopia legitimately have upon us? This essentially political question has been the unacknowledged subtext of much conflicting literary interpretation of the book. Recent readers of the Letters have been divided over the implications of the dramatic change of tone, some seeing the tragic later chapters as intentional deflation of the earlier optimism, and others finding grounds in the book's conclusion to preserve at least some of the values, though perhaps transmuted, of the earlier chapters.3 Certain textual questions bear directly on these conclusions, principally the fact that Letters was a chosen arrangement from a much wider variety of Crèvecoeur's manuscripts.4 Other of the manuscripts, discovered in France by Henri Bourdin in 1925, were published as Sketches of Eighteenth-Century America, a revealing miscellany of commentary on early American society.5 Thomas Philbrick has rightly called the Sketches a “non-book,” seeing it as “an anthology of heterogeneous pieces that lacks a controlling form, a coherent point of view, and a coherent theme” (p. 109). Seen in isolation, and as an aesthetic artifact, it is indeed a book of limited value. But as a shadow text to the Letters, it has enormous significance. The book's diversity adds to its importance as a barometer of the conflicting ideas and experiences that Crèvecoeur was attempting to work through in its composition. The book highlights the tensions and contradictions that are inherent in the Letters, and suggests that the “utopian mentality” embodied in the book is best regarded as a form of social criticism.6 It thus confirms the core of cultural criticism in Crèvecoeur's work, amplifying our understanding of his struggles with America's utopian possibilities. One of the most crucial of these struggles is the problem of community formation. While the promise of material gain was a significant factor in the settlement of the frontier, the excessive pursuit of wealth posed a serious obstacle to the formation of a genuine community there. Crèvecoeur depicts this obstacle clearly, but his Sketches leaves an implied rather than a fully articulated critique of this pervasive and caustic American materialism. His troubled recognition of the new nation's vulnerability to the transformation of economic opportunity into exclusionary greed is thus mapped in the Sketches. Since the new economic opportunity was the fuel of his utopian expectations, its perversion was of serious concern to him. His utopian expectations were tragically deferred as the communities of the New World were formed, and his witness to that deferral made him one of our first cultural critics.


Despite the continuing and probably irresolvable differences of interpretation of the Letters, one consensus seems to be emerging in the recent criticism. Whether one sees the book's ending as intentionally undercutting its earlier optimism or refining its earlier vision, there is a conscious utopian design and serious social criticism implied by the chosen structure of the work. As James's vision moves from the effusive praise of the possibilities of American life to the threatened destruction of those possibilities in the violence of the Revolution, he constructs a lost paradise, leaving us with the faint hope of its recovery as he moves West to live among the Indians. James's future plans have long been controversial, seeming to some like the purest escapist fantasy. This escape to the West, an “earplug to the siren song of primitivism” as John Hales has recently called it, underscores the seriousness of the tragedy that has gone on before.7 Either Crèvecoeur himself has lost his grip on the truth, or he has depicted his narrator James as having done so to augment the shock of the collapse of James's world. In either case, Crèvecoeur has left us with a vision of a crumbling American dream.8 Is that in itself a conscious political statement? Those who regard James's plan of escape as “less quixotic than it might appear,” as Myra Jehlen put it (p. 209), can also find in it an affirmation of at least some elements of the original agrarian vision that gives Letter Three its strength of appeal. In this view, James's escape represents the persistence of hope and the continuing capacity to enact it historically.9

James's escape to the West results from his victimization by political forces beyond his control, but he is not the only political victim in Crèvecoeur's work. Certain parts of the Sketches multiply and deepen the images of tragedy that resulted from the political dislocations of the Revolution. What may have seemed to be Crèvecoeur's rather mild Tory sympathies in the Letters are shown instead to be a deep suspicion of the motives of the revolutionaries and a despairing and sometimes savage attack on their intolerance for dissenting views. His opposition to the Revolution would later soften, as he established himself in France, but portions of the Sketches were written at the height of personal and social turmoil that manifested itself in a blistering critique of the Revolution.10 Ironically, this pro-loyalist perspective is of a piece with Crèvecoeur's progressive cultural criticism.

James's powerful statement of the injustice of his situation in Letter Twelve transcends its immediate political context in the Revolution and makes him a representative voice of a populace exploited for the gain of those vying for power. He senses that he is being duped into taking part in the conflict in order to serve the unacknowledged interests of those more powerful than he, and finds this a disturbing pattern of the political relations among the classes. “It is for the sake of great leaders on both sides that so much blood must be spilt; that of the people is counted as nothing. Great events are not achieved for us, though it is by us that they are principally accomplished, by the arms, the sweat, the lives of the people.”11 Recognizing that he may be doomed no matter which side he chooses, and having little or no stake in the outcome, James adopts the principle of self-preservation in his decision to flee to the West. In one sense it is a decision to opt out of the political, and now military, conflict that has engulfed the colonies. But on another level, it is fundamentally a political decision, in which James embraces what little alternative to the entrenched warring powers remains. It is less a pro-loyalist stance than a statement of agrarian self-determination.

The book offers other corroborating evidence of the hardship that the Revolution visited upon the innocent. “The Man of Sorrows” adds dramatic detail to the context of James's own predicament as described in Letter Twelve. The sketch attempts to personalize the evil of the war and show it “more visible, more affecting” (p. 342) because of its direct harm to ordinary individuals. The unnamed narrator of the piece describes the transformation of the American frontier into a nightmare of instability and violence for those who have settled there. “No imagination can conceive, no tongue can describe their calamities and their dangers. The echoes of their woods repeat no longer the blows of the axe, the crash of the falling trees, the cheerful songs of the ploughman” (p. 345). Whipsawed between revolutionary and loyalist militia and vulnerable to Indian attack, the frontier settlers epitomize the victimization of the lowly by the powerful. Although the frontier had represented to many of them an escape from political turmoil and violence, it has now become the place where violence is most terribly played out.

The sketch focuses on the fate of a farmer victimized by vigilante justice after being accused of harboring a band of loyalists and Indians. He is accosted while he is working in his field, a scene that epitomizes the disruption of the agrarian utopia by political forces. The man is hastily condemned to hang, and in the presence of his family the execution is actually begun before he is given a last-second reprieve. The incident accentuates the absolute powerlessness of an individual confronting larger political events and reinforces James's argument in the Letters about the victimization of the innocent and the powerless. While in this case the revolutionaries are more clearly the target of Crèvecoeur's attack, and the sketch therefore has a more definite loyalist orientation than the Letters, both texts share a populist sense of betrayal by larger political forces. There is no escape to the West for this farmer, and it is one of several instances in which the Sketches paints a much bleaker picture of frontier conditions and leaves much less room for hope than the Letters. But the comparison of this sketch with Letter Twelve underscores that James's plan to flee to the West is a form of political defiance.

James's planned escape raises one serious question that goes to the heart of the agrarian values that are the book's utopian center. James and his family go to the West alone. Certainly this restricts the political significance of his act and suggests one of the key limitations of Crèvecoeur's political vision, its extreme individualism. “Because personal worth for him was measured by autonomy,” Jehlen notes, “any area of mutual definition amounted to a sort of entail on the self” (p. 207). Crèvecoeur's depictions of innocent individuals persecuted by large groups or institutions suggest that he regarded social relations as inevitably restrictive of personal freedom. But it should be remembered that these are images of individual autonomy that, again and again, is shown to fail. In this sense, they are less an affirmation of individualism than an implied critique of the myth of individual autonomy. His portrayal of the individual gripped by social violence is best regarded as a nascent attempt to refine the image of agrarian autonomy by showing that it can never be absolute.

Crèvecoeur's ambivalent presentation of the relation of the individual to the larger community is therefore evidence of his groping toward a critique of a failing or destructive individualism. In Letter Twelve, James plans to flee to the West because of the destruction of the community around him. His settlement, a “thinly inhabited” area “inclosed by a chain of mountains,” cannot be secured from the marauders who are sheltered by the wilderness, “a door through which they can enter our country whenever they please.” The attacks, which “seem determined to destroy the whole chain of frontiers,” leave James and his family in continuous fear (pp. 201-02). He does not regard himself as abandoning a community; it has rather collapsed around him. Nor does he see himself launching out entirely on his own; he has aligned himself with a secure and stable new community, an Indian village with which he has had some prior contacts. It is a place of refuge to which James can transport the essential values of his agrarian life.

Similarly, the central figure in “The Man of Sorrows” is the victim of a community which has gone awry, victimized by its own uncontrollable emotions. When the vigilantes hear the accusation that the farmer has lodged potential enemies, they are “suddenly inflamed … with the most violent resentment and rage” (p. 346). As they proceed to question and torture the man, they are nearly persuaded to show him compassion until they are reminded of their own past losses. “But all of a sudden one of the company arose, more vindictive than the rest. He painted to them their conflagrated houses and barns, the murder of their relations and friends. The sudden recollection of these dreadful images wrought them up to a pitch of fury fiercer than before.” This is an image of violence begetting violence and of the dangerous emotions that can be unleashed when a community breaks down. The mob is a group working in concert but not a community, and the sketch emphasizes the extent to which a wholesome autonomy is ultimately dependent on a stable community and social order.12 Crèvecoeur does not suggest that the individual can exist outside any community but rather that the health of the community is vital to the health of the individual.

Ambivalence about the relation of the individual to the community is not, needless to say, an unusual dilemma for an American thinker, and in this respect, Crèvecoeur's problem is representative for American culture. Caught between the impulse to affirm autonomy and a felt need for a supportive community, he is driven to present the primal American cultural experience of starting anew as both an individual and a communal act. James's solid network of friends and neighbors, the various forms of support given to the new immigrant Andrew in Letter Three, and the closely knit communities on Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard are all examples of a regeneration of community that parallels the regeneration of the individual. “From nothing to start into being” (p. 83) is James's description of the regenerative effect of American social conditions on the individual, whose past is effectively swept away in the new world. But something of the same process occurs for American communities as well, as they form anew from the network of needs among the new settlers.


The possibility of renewed communal values on the frontier, and not the immediate circumstances of the Revolution, posed the gravest question to Crèvecoeur's utopian vision. While he was concerned to report what he felt were the abuses of the Revolution, his subtext is the birth and evolution of communities: could they flourish in America? Two particularly impressive meditations on this question can be found in the Sketches, each of which offers a strikingly similar depiction of the failure of community in America. “The American Belisarius” is the story of an individual farmer who settles new land and prospers, and eventually finds a new community growing up around him. “Reflections on the Manners of Americans” is a similar portrait of a successful pioneer farmer who also finds himself gradually enmeshed in community relations. In both cases, the frontier is a testing ground for the development not only of self-reliance but of effective community. The essential work of individual settlement precedes the growth of the community in each case, and the successful farmer is challenged by his relation to the community that has grown up around him and is in some sense dependent on him.

“The American Belisarius” describes the rise and fall of S. K., who embodies the best values of the American immigrant experience. The sketch contains a politically didactic message about the harm done to one individual by the Revolution, but it also ironically affirms the utopian vision of an interdependent community through its depiction of the unravelling of such a community. The community fails, but the failure is less the result of the politics of the Revolution than of greed and competition for material wealth—the real shadow over Crèvecoeur's agrarian ideal.

S. K.'s rise is the archetype of the American regeneration as Crèvecoeur had expounded it in the Letters. Having seen unsettled land beyond the frontier on a hunting expedition, he recognized its potential fertility and claimed it, and thus prepared “to begin the world anew in the bosom of this huge wilderness, where there was not even a path to guide him” (p. 409). With a combination of skill and determined hard work, he made a productive farm, and word of his success spread. Crèvecoeur is careful to note that S. K. had recognized and claimed the most fertile parts of the area and that he was a uniquely talented and disciplined farmer. Those who followed him, however, lacked this combination of circumstances and personal qualities. “Soon after these first successful essays, the fame of his happy beginning drew abundance of inferior people to that neighborhood. It was made a county, and in a short time grew populous, principally with poor people, whom some part of this barren soil could not render much richer” (p. 409). Even at the inception of this community, a loose structure of economic classes had been created. S. K. furthers that process by buying the two remaining parcels of fertile land for his brothers-in-law. “They all grew rich very fast,” the narrator tells us, in a tone that celebrates the success as a fulfillment of American promise. “This part of the scene is truly pleasing, pastoral, and edifying: three brothers, the founders of three opulent families, the creators of three valuable plantations, the promoters of the succeeding settlements that took place around them.” But this agrarian utopia is strictly limited, principally by the availability of land, and Crèvecoeur's sketch describes a benign form of feudalism taking root as a result.13 For one who had praised America in the Letters precisely because it was an escape from such feudalism, this is deeply ironic. While America represented some important differences to the immigrants, there were also strict limitations to the number of possible success stories. S. K.'s rise to prosperity was thus shadowed by numbers of others who did not thrive and who, in the harder seasons, found themselves in extreme difficulties.

S. K. is a figure of benevolence, preventing many of the newcomers from falling into absolute destitution. “In their extreme indigence, in all their unexpected disasters, they repair to this princely farmer.” As the community develops, he becomes “a father to the poor of this wilderness” (p. 411), almost single-handedly holding the community together. S. K. is a different version of the American hero and in many respects an important counter to the mythical hero who was by then taking shape in the national ideology. He finds his strength less in acquiring than in sharing, less in autonomy than in community. Of course he is an American hero with a distinctly patrician cast, and the contradiction of Crèvecoeur's sketch is that it presents the rebirth of feudalistic, not democratic, institutions.14

S. K.'s story contains elements of fable, as his generosity seems only to increase his wealth. “What he gave did not appear to diminish his stores; it seemed but a mite, and immediately to be replaced by the hand of Providence” (p. 413). But the fable has a dark turn; his generosity and prosperity become the means of his fall. “His brothers-in-law had long envied his great popularity, of which, however, he had never made the least abuse. They began to ridicule his generosity, and, from a contempt of his manner of living, they secretly passed to extreme hatred.” The envy seethed impotently for a while, but the Revolution unleashed it. “Fanned by the general impunity of the times, they, in an underhanded manner, endeavoured to represent him as inimical.” The last part of the sketch details S. K.'s unjust persecution and fall, in which he is hunted by the militia like an animal, saved only by his thorough knowledge of the countryside. Readers might be inclined to focus on the polemic against the excesses of the Revolution and the motives of many of the revolutionaries, but Crèvecoeur's description of the relation between frontier settlement and community building has more far-reaching implications. S. K. enacts on a grander scale the utopian success that James has expounded in the Letters, but his story also suggests the limits to that vision.


“Reflections on the Manners of Americans” has important affinities with “The American Belisarius” in its presentation of a frontier farmer around whom a community develops. But the subject of this sketch is less consciously conceived as a hero. He is rather “an epitome” of an individual's “progress towards the wilderness” (p. 250), one who can explain through his own experience the nature of frontier development. Significantly, Crèvecoeur proposes economic calculation as the basis of his decision to move west. He is “determined to improve his fortune by removing to a new district and resolves to purchase as much land as will afford substantial farms to every one of his children” (p. 254). It should be noted that this economic calculation is not economic necessity in the strictest sense. The protagonist begins his quest from a secure financial position, and the struggle for the frontier is presented less as a battle with nature and the Indians than as a risky capital venture.

In purchasing land, he must protect himself by a thorough knowledge of the land that is available. “What a sagacity must this common farmer have, first to enable him to choose the province, the country, the peculiar tract most agreeable to his fortune; then to resist, to withstand the sophistry of these learned men armed with all the pomp of their city arguments!” The farmer makes a thorough study of the maps and descriptions of available land and then travels into the frontier to inspect it personally, drawing on his extensive woodsmanship and knowledge of farming to make a profitable selection. After further negotiations with the landowner and legal research on other claims to the land, he makes the purchase. The obstacles to this westward movement arise from the marketplace: “This is a land-merchant who, like all other merchants, has no other rule than to get what he can.” Even after successfully locating and negotiating for his land, the farmer begins his new enterprise carrying a significant economic burden. “He purchases fifteen hundred acres at three dollars per acre to be paid in three equal yearly payments. He gives his bond for the same, and the whole tract is mortgaged as a security.” The primal engagement of the farmer with uncleared land is thus predated by an economic and legal arrangement that will color his entire career on the land.

That life requires an absolute self-reliance, the capacity to become “master of that necessary dexterity which this solitary life inspires.” But for Crèvecoeur, this complete self-sufficiency, though necessary and in many ways edifying, is incompatible with social life in its best sense. “Thus this man devoid of society learns more than ever to center every idea within that of his own welfare. To him, all that appears good, just, equitable has a necessary relation to himself and family. He has been so long alone that he has almost forgot the rest of mankind, except it is when he carries his crops on the snow to some distant market” (p. 260). Such social forgetfulness, combined with his experience of economic combat in purchasing his farm, makes him a problematic founder for an emerging community. One suspects that this farmer may have represented a more objective account of the course of American social development than S. K., whose heroic magnanimity has something of the quality of wish-projection. But in a similar pattern, the increase in settlement that overtook S. K. repeats itself, and the new community begins to place demands on him. “His granary is resorted to from all parts by other beginners, who did not come so well prepared.” But his reaction to these conditions is tellingly different. “How will he sell his grain to these people who are strangers to him? Shall he deduct the expense of carrying it to a distant mill? This would appear just; but where is the necessity of this justice? His neighbours absolutely want his supply; they can't go to other places. He therefore concludes upon having the full price. He remembers his former difficulties; no one assisted him then. Why should he assist others?” Self-sufficiency shows its other face in this instance and suggests the inherent problem of frontier community-building. In a disturbing reversal, the successful farmer is transformed into a version of his own former adversary, the land merchant. “Perhaps he takes a mortgage on his neighbour's land. But it may happen that it is already encumbered by anterior and more ponderous debts. He knows instinctively the coercive powers of the laws: he impeaches the cattle; he has proper writings drawn; he gets bonds in judgment.” This description of the development of a frontier community hardly bears the weight of utopian expectation. Even the proto-feudalistic vision that had surrounded S. K. is denied here; further removed is the utopian conception at the basis of Crèvecoeur's thought, the democratic egalitarianism of a society of yeoman freeholders.

This potential hero of the American frontier thus becomes a troubling anti-hero, enmeshed in the very marketplace that he seemed earlier to have conquered. In a further irony, the marketplace robs him of his identity as a farmer. “He becomes an innholder and a country merchant. This introduces him into all the little mysteries of self-interest, clothed under the general name of profits and emoluments.” He is further tarnished by an ethical slackening in his business dealings. “He sells for good that which perhaps he knows to be indifferent because he also knows that the ashes he has collected, the wheat he has taken in may not be so good or so clean as it was asserted. Fearful of fraud in all his dealings and transactions, he arms himself, therefore, with it.” There is a striking contrast between this portrait of the successful farmer become unscrupulous businessman and that of S. K. refusing high prices for his grain in order to protect his poorer neighbors. Although Crèvecoeur presents the farmer without explicit moral judgement, he gradually transforms his career into a negative object-lesson, implying that the farmer's transformation was the inevitable result of his social context. The sketch thus delineates the dystopic conditions of the American frontier.

The problematics of Crèvecoeur's agrarian utopia are thus attributed not to the Revolution but to the structure of frontier experience. This deepens the problem of conceiving of the loose community of the frontier in ideal terms. The arrival of the population which transforms a frontier into a civilized settlement and secures each farmer's economic status is also the process by which the agrarian dream is deferred. In “The American Belisarius” the test of S. K.'s success was “economic” in more than one sense. He was able to prosper as a farmer through the right application of his knowledge and diligence under favorable environmental conditions. But he was also economically successful in that he did not allow his economic status to rob him of his essential humanity in a posture of exclusionary greed. This was a moral success, but the essential moral question concerned the acquisition and disposal of wealth. Similarly, S. K.'s downfall was caused by the greed of his brothers-in-law, who were also envious of his popularity with the community. Their resentment arose from their inability to accept his very different sense of the appropriate stewardship of wealth. They “ridicule[d] his generosity” and felt “contempt of his manner of living” (p. 413), for he exposed by contrast their own impoverishment as social beings. Their revenge, a punishment much in the American grain, was to ostracize one who called the motive for profit into question or in any way limited it. The Revolution only gave them a pretext for their persecution. The warning implicit in “Reflections on the Manners of Americans” is similar then to that of “The American Belisarius.” This farmer shared S. K.'s economic success but failed principally because he allowed economic ambition to usurp a commitment to community in his scale of values. S. K. was victimized by those who had the same failing. The farmer in “Reflections on the Manners of Americans” has thus become a captive of his economic success. While this may seem to be a moral criticism aimed at the value system of a particular individual, that individual, we must realize, is representative of the larger society and is crucially shaped by it.


The cumulative evidence of Crèvecoeur's work suggests that he labored on the edge of a profound critique of the formation of American culture, seeing its course as a failure to realize his utopian projections. An interpretation of the cultural significance of his work must recognize that his projection of agrarian values onto the formative conditions of the nation gave him the standpoint from which these elements of social tragedy could begin to be identified. If the evidence that Crèvecoeur left seems contradictory, it at least strikes us as frank in its incomplete attempt to report on the survival of utopian hopes in America. And certainly, some of the fragmentary nature of the analysis is the direct result of Crèvecoeur's own shattered life during the late 1770s. But despite the frank and even at times dispiriting criticism of American life, there remains a core of hope in Crèvecoeur's writings that accounts for its initial impact on the reader and its continuing claim. How can we account for it?

Crèvecoeur's projection of the ideal condition of the freehold farmer loosely bound to a supportive community of social and economic equals has powerfully rendered to Americans a best image of themselves. It has proved so potent, in fact, that at times it has been taken as a report on what America is, not what it could or ought to be. The real achievement of his agrarian writing is an enduring critical perspective on the development of American society. Thus James's third letter, read in isolation from the book's later qualifications and critiques, has been seen as an articulation of the success of the American egalitarian melting-pot, rather than an incompletely realized projection of social success. Such cultural misreading has made it particularly important to recognize the way in which Crèvecoeur used his utopian model as a stance from which the course of American culture could be criticized. Perhaps he did not realize how durable that stance might be. In describing the agrarian experiment, he formulated a state of mind “incongruous with the state of reality in which it occurs,” and thus inimical to that reality.15


  1. The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1964), p. 74.

  2. See Elayne Antler Rapping, “Theory and Experience in Crèvecoeur's America,” American Quarterly, 19 (1967), 707-18, who discusses “agrarian democracy” as “an ideal social structure” (p. 707) which Crèvecoeur's Letters explores.

  3. Thomas Philbrick has argued that the change of tone in the book establishes a criticism of any overly optimistic version of the American myth and portrays James and his family as trying to “survive as parasites on the Indian community.” See St. John de Crèvecoeur (New York: Twayne, 1970), pp. 81-88. Other excellent arguments which stress the importance of the tragic nature of the ending, or distrust the viability of James's escape at the end, are Rapping, “Theory and Experience in Crèvecoeur's America”; James C. Mohr, “Calculated Disillusionment: Crèvecoeur's Letters Reconsidered,” South Atlantic Quarterly, 69 (1970), 354-63; Richard Slotkin, Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860 (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1973), pp. 263-67; and Annette Kolodny, The Lay of the Land: Metaphor as Experience and History in American Life and Letters (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1975), pp. 52-66. For the perspective that sees certain values of the opening chapters preserved even through the change of tone at the end, see Myra Jehlen, “J. Hector St. John Crèvecoeur: A Monarcho-Anarchist in Revolutionary America,” American Quarterly, 31 (1979), 204-22; and David Robinson, “Crèvecoeur's James: The Education of an American Farmer,” Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 80 (1981), 552-70.

  4. Crèvecoeur's papers have recently been acquired by the Library of Congress, and a new edition of his work by Everett Emerson is in progress.

  5. Sketches of Eighteenth-Century America, ed. Henri L. Bourdin, Ralph H. Gabriel, and Stanley T. Williams (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1925).

  6. See “The Utopian Mentality” in Karl Mannheim, Ideology and Utopia (New York: Harcourt Brace—Harvest, 1936), pp. 192-263.

  7. “The Landscape of Tragedy: Crèvecoeur's ‘Susquehanna,’” Early American Literature, 20 (1985), 39. D. H. Lawrence made a persuasive case for this point of view in his Studies in Classic American Literature (1923; rpt. New York: Penguin, 1977).

  8. For information on the personal difficulties that Crèvecoeur underwent during the Revolution, see Gay Wilson Allen and Roger Asselineau, St. John de Crèvecoeur: The Life of an American Farmer (New York: Viking, 1987), pp. 46-68.

  9. J. A. Leo Lemay has argued that Crèvecoeur's Letters marked a significant turning point in the cultural reconception of the frontiersman. See “The Frontiersman from Lout to Hero: Notes on the Significance of the Comparative Method and the Stage Theory in Early American Literature and Culture,” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, 88, Part 2 (1978), 187-223.

  10. For the details of Crèvecoeur's career in France after the Revolution, see Allen and Asselineau, pp. 68-101. “The American Belisarius” and “Landscapes” are the most blistering anti-revolutionary pieces in the Sketches.

  11. Letters from an American Farmer and Sketches of Eighteenth-Century America, ed. Albert E. Stone (New York: Penguin, 1986), p. 204. Further quotations from the Letters and the Sketches will be cited parenthetically.

  12. Jehlen also notes that Crèvecoeur's individualism is dependent on a stable and secure social order, which the British government in the colonies had represented.

  13. See Kolodny's discussion of this sketch in The Lay of the Land, in which she notes that the initial representation of the success of the community was tied to a conception of the landscape as feminine (pp. 55-56).

  14. For a different perspective on the question of feudalism, see Jehlen, who argues that S. K.'s generosity is an extension of the role of family patriarch to the community as a whole. He represented a “democratic familialism, whose enobling patriarchism had neither the source nor the purpose of the feudal aristocratic variety” (p. 215).

  15. Mannheim, p. 192. I would like to acknowledge the support of a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Stipend in completing this essay.

Stephen Carl Arch (essay date 1990)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6654

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,” he says concerning his short “History of Andrew, the Hebridean,” in Letter III, “is the progressive steps of a poor man, advancing from indigence to ease, from oppression to freedom, from obscurity and contumely to some degree of consequence.”1 James' fascination with progress is ironic, since he begins his correspondence with Mr. F. B. as a curiously static personality leading a pleasant but static existence. Letter II reveals that James' farm was left to him by his father, that he has done nothing to improve it, and that, having once considered selling it, he immediately retreated from such a potential alteration in lifestyle, fearing that in a “world so wide … there would be no room for [him]” (p. 52). James himself ingenuously admits that his life is an imitation of his father's: “I have but to tread his paths to be happy and a good man like him” (p. 53). Willingly constrained by this narrow life, James initially presents a striking contrast to Andrew the Hebridean, whose history is a record of his progression from oppressed European to free American.2

However, James, too, undergoes a “great metamorphosis” in Letters and is dislodged from his “narrow circles” (p. 65). His progress is closely linked to the epistolary form and dialogic structure of Letters. Many critics have argued that the letters and the dialogue are simply rhetorical devices that have no relevance to the work as a whole; they have argued that the letters are essentially separate documents that produce a loose structure for the whole3 or that, perhaps, the tenor and subject matter of each letter simply reveal the extent to which Crèvecoeur's own hand can be seen “pointing to the importance of some moral issue by manipulating his protagonist.”4 Thomas Philbrick has gone a bit further, arguing that the “epistolary form … is far more than a strategem by which Crèvecoeur excuses his violations of logical organization; by serving as the vehicle of characterization and narration, it spins its own strands of coherence.”5 In other words, due to its epistolary form, Letters might even be considered a “prototypical” or “germinal” American romance.6 However, these critics take away as much as they mean to give; they praise Crèvecoeur's work as much for what comes later (the “real” American romance) as for what it did, or what it tried to do, in 1782. In fact, the epistolary form and dialogic structure of Letters are much more than mere ornament. Letters is not a romance that simply and inconclusively juxtaposes opposing sets of terms (the idyllic and the demonic,7 idealism and realism,8 romanticism and skepticism), it is a philosophical work of fiction that comments on the dangers of revolution and on the inadequacies of man's fictions about himself.9

Letters begins with James, his wife, and his minister discussing Mr. F. B.'s request that James become his American correspondent. James is undecided: he is afraid that, with his “limited power of mind” and undeveloped writing skills, he will not make a good correspondent (pp. 39-40). His wife is even more reluctant, fearing both that Mr. F. B. is too sophisticated and that James' own local reputation might suffer from his being called a writer. It is the minister who convinces James to write to Mr. F. B. He points out that Mr. F. B., in his first letter to James, asserted “that writing letters is nothing more than talking on paper” and indicated that he wants “nothing of [James] but what lies within the reach of [his] experience and knowledge” (p. 41). The minister agrees with this dialogic notion of writing: “What we speak out among ourselves we call conversation,” he tells James, “and a letter is only conversation put down in black and white” (p. 44). This argument convinces James to go ahead with the project, and the record of this debate becomes Letter I. James closes with a final admonition to Mr. F. B. not to forget his limitations: “Remember, you are to give me my subjects, and on no other shall I write, lest you should blame me for an injudicious choice. … [And I will record] the spontaneous impressions which each subject may inspire” (pp. 49-50).

The first subject provided by Mr. F. B. is American husbandry, a subject on which he has apparently “conversed” at some length in his second letter to James, comparing American farming methods to those practiced in England, Russia, and Hungary. In Letter II James responds to this subject by recounting some of the “spontaneous impressions” he has experienced while working in his fields. True to his insistence that he is “neither a philosopher, politician, divine, or naturalist” (p. 49), James does not overtly discuss politics, science, or other “public” matters. Letter II is a short autobiography revealing that James owns a well-developed farm (inherited from his father), has an excellent wife and healthy children, possesses faithful and industrious Negroes, and is not troubled by unfriendly Indians. James describes an idyllic if static existence on his Pennsylvania farm.

Yet the idyllic scenes of Letter II are not quite apolitical. James links them to current issues at several points. Where, he asks rhetorically, “is that station which can confer a more substantial system of felicity than that of an American farmer possessing freedom of action, freedom of thoughts, ruled by a mode of government which requires but little from us?” (p. 52). His pleasant farm, he remarks a little later, “has established all our [i.e. his family's] rights … our rank, our freedom, our power as citizens. … This is what may be called the true and the only philosophy of an American farmer” (p. 54). The incursion of such talk into the midst of these “spontaneous impressions” could, of course, be explained by the loose organization of Letters; if the individual letters possess no necessary internal relationship to one another, a comment in Letter I need not be consistent with the method in Letter II. However, perfectly consistent with the fictional realism established in Letter I, with the psychology of a rustic such as James writing to someone he perceives as his superior, Crèvecoeur has James try to impress Mr. F. B. in this second letter. James' self-conscious asides about his own inferiority support this reading.10 So do his political views, for it seems clear that he is merely parroting the minister's arguments, indeed, the minister's vision of America, as the minister expressed them during the debate in Letter I. Here in America, the minister had told James that “‘[we] are strangers to those feudal institutions which have enslaved so many. … Misguided religion, tyranny, and absurd laws everywhere depress and afflict mankind. Here we have in some measure regained the ancient dignity of our species: our laws are simple and just …’” (pp. 42-43). James is unlearned and unlettered; in trying to shoot at something beyond his “limited abilities” in Letter II, he falls back on attitudes and ideas he has heard before. At this point, James' vision of the American dream is as much the minister's as his own.

The imagery James develops in Letter II emphasizes his unquestioning acceptance of the minister's attitudes, specifically his dichotomy between old world oppression and new world freedom. Responding to Mr. F. B.'s description of the “good and evil … to be found in all societies” (p. 51), James tells of a selfish wren that fearlessly stole the nest of a larger swallow on James' porch. The wren possesses a “spirit of injustice” that seems almost human; the swallow calls up the image of a “passive Quaker.” It seems that all of nature, including man, is in constant conflict. But not on James' farm. A peaceful and benevolent despot, James carries the wren's box to another part of the house to prevent the incident from happening again. Similarly, James describes a swarm of bees that attacks a malicious king-bird; when they quit “their military array,” the bees are snapped up one by one and eaten by the impudent bird. It is a bird-eat-bee world out there, James suggests, except that he, whose “indulgence had been carried too far,” kills the king-bird, opens his craw, and watches in surprise as many of the bees return to life (p. 56). The existence of a “Russian boor or an Hungarian peasant” may be wretched, and men around the world may be warring (as Mr. F. B.'s second letter apparently argued), but the American farmer as described by James in Letter II lives in peace and harmony in his own “narrow circles,” a lawgiver above and beyond the reach of any authority but his own. And here in America, James observes with satisfaction, “the law is to us precisely what I am in my barnyard, a bridle and check to prevent the strong and greedy from oppressing the timid and weak” (p. 57). James' world (and, by extension, his America) may not exactly be one in which the lion lies down with the lamb, but it is one in which “a curious republic of industrious hornets” can live peaceably with James' family, catching flies “even on the eyelids of [his] children” (p. 63). As described by James in Letter II, it is a buzzing garden.

In Letter III James again responds to a subject provided by Mr. F. B.'s ruminations. James' famous question, “What, then, is the American, this new man?” (p. 69), suggests that Mr. F. B. has asked him to expand upon his observations in Letter II concerning the “substantial system of felicity” enjoyed by Americans. In response, James first theorizes about the “new man,” then narrates the history of one. Theoretically, the American is a man psychologically and morally remade by his exposure to a new and expansive land. Freed from the religious, political, and spatial constraints of the old world, he is “resurrected”; he undergoes a “great metamorphosis … [that] extinguishes all his European prejudices [and allows him to forget] that mechanism of subordination, that servility of disposition which poverty had taught him” (p. 83). The American is a “regenerated” human being.

In Letter II James' “spontaneous impressions” led him to recount his personal history; in Letter III James' response to Mr. F. B. leads him beyond “impressions” (and vague politicizing) to reflection. His theory of the “new man” in America leads him, for example, to group Americans into three “separate and distinct” classes (pp. 71-73). He has gone beyond mere “feelings” to assumptions, reasons, and facts. Just so, his “History of Andrew, the Hebridean,” represents another, more extensive act of reflection: he assumes the historian's task of collecting, digesting, and arranging the events of the past. After first protesting the commonplace nature of his history, James defines his methodology: “All I wish to delineate is the progressive steps of a poor man, advancing from indigence to ease, from oppression to freedom, from obscurity and contumely to some degree of consequence … by the gradual operation of sobriety, honesty, and emigration” (p. 90). James' history of Andrew is rosy: the merchants who deal with Andrew are honest and faithful; the Indians are kind, though slightly mischievous; the neighbors display warmth and friendship; Andrew's lands and possessions prove to be fertile and flourishing. Andrew is a perfect example of the new man in America, his history a perfect “epitome” (p. 86) of the “progressive” transformation that results in that man. For the first time, James rests content with his effort in a letter, concluding that he is more content with his history of Andrew than is the “historiographer of some great prince or general [who has brought] his hero victorious to the end of a successful campaign” (p. 104). Moving from loose autobiography in Letter II to methodologically-defined biography in Letter III, James “discovers” a world outside his own narrow circles, discovers a prospect that is more “entertaining and instructive” (p. 91) than his own in its view of America and the new American man. It is still highly optimistic.

In the next five letters James, though still responding to Mr. F. B.'s earlier query concerning the precise nature of the “American,” takes it upon himself to frame the subject matter of the “conversation.” “Sensible how unable I am to lead you through so vast a maze [as America],” he writes, “let us look attentively for some small unnoticed corner” (p. 107), Nantucket Island, which can be analyzed in depth. James has come a long way from the simple farmer afraid of choosing an “injudicious” subject in Letter I. He begins his narrative of Nantucket Island with a comment on his historiographic method:

You have, no doubt, read several histories of this continent, yet there are a thousand facts, a thousand explanations, overlooked. Authors will certainly convey to you a geographical knowledge of this country; they will acquaint you with the eras of the several settlements, the foundations of our towns, the spirit of our different characters, etc., yet they do not sufficiently disclose the genius of the people. … I want not to record the annals of the island of Nantucket; its inhabitants have no annals, for they are not a race of warriors. My simple wish is to trace them throughout their progressive steps from their arrival here to this present hour; to inquire by what means they have raised themselves from the most humble, the most insignificant beginnings, to the ease and the wealth they now possess …

(pp. 107-08)

James asserts that he is a historian of America, operating not by “epitome” (as in Andrew's history) but by synecdoche. Nantucket is merely a type of America; “numberless settlements,” James says, “each distinguished by some peculiarities, present themselves [to the historian] on every side; all … realize the most sanguine wishes that a good man could form for the happiness of his race” (p. 107). Here, too, James conceives history to be the “delineation” of the “progressive steps” from poverty to wealth. But in this movement from biographer to national historian, James displays a new awareness of his task and, hence, his abilities. He has learned, quite clearly, that history can be written according to any number of methods; he has chosen, in his attempt to “disclose [America's] genius,” to examine one small area of the larger whole. This purpose explains why James devotes five letters to Nantucket Island and Martha's Vineyard, and it reflects the growing role that James' powers of reasoning play in his “conversation” with Mr. F. B.

James finds Nantucket a “happy settlement.” The Islanders enjoy “a system of rational laws founded on perfect freedom” (p. 109); their society is free from “idleness and poverty, the causes of so many crimes” elsewhere (p. 125); many people enjoy great prosperity, all “an easy subsistence” (p. 143); and slavery is not tolerated. Nantucket, it seems, is a restored Eden, a rocky island made into a garden by the “genius” and “industry” of its settlers; and, James insists, “what has happened here has and will happen everywhere else” in America (p. 110). It is, after all, only one singular scene of happiness amid the great “diffusive scene of happiness reaching from the sea-shores to the last settlements on the borders of the wilderness” (p. 154).

James' account of Nantucket Island and its inhabitants is not completely optimistic, however. Darker elements intrude. James admits that the happiness of Americans might not be as unspoiled as he had thought. It is interrupted by individual folly and by “our spirit of litigiousness” (p. 154). He also finds that the history of Nantucket and, since Nantucket functions as synecdoche, of America is tainted by the corruption which European settlers brought to the Indians in the form of smallpox and rum. Even as he writes, James points out, the descendants of those abused Indians are being annihilated. Finally, James' analysis of the history of Nantucket leads to his discovery that some of the Islanders had recently moved inland to establish a community in North Carolina named, hopefully, New Garden. But, though it is located in a much more fertile region than Nantucket, New Garden does not create the new, regenerated man of America: “It does not breed men equally hardy [to Nantucket Islanders]. … It leads too much to idleness and effeminacy” (p. 147). In his peripheral vision, James can see reasons for refuting the romantic vision of America he expressed so confidently in Letter III. He quickly tries to turn away from them.

Essentially, the five Nantucket letters comprise one unit of letters, an integrated history in which, by digging straight down into the history of one region of America instead of “cheerfully … skipping from bush to bush” along the ground (p. 90), James is made to confront realities gilded by the rhetoric of his and the minister's romantic notions. In Letter IX, then, James chooses his own subject for the first time, a sign that he has achieved a certain independence of mind. Charles Town, North Carolina, he writes to Mr. F. B., is one great scene of “joy, festivity and happiness” (p. 168). Now, however, James finds it impossible to ignore the evils that lurk behind that facade of happiness: the climate, which “renders excesses of all kinds very dangerous”; the lawyers, who slowly rob the people of their patrimony; and, crucially, the institution of slavery.

James' subject matter in Letter IX is generated, ironically, by a “spontaneous impression”: on his way to visit a planter, he comes upon a black slave suspended in a cage and left to expire of thirst, of pain, or at the beaks of birds of prey. The slave had killed the overseer of the plantation, James learns, and had been tortured and left to die by what the planter refers to as “the laws of self-preservation” (p. 179), that is, as an example to the other slaves. This scene, James somberly tells Mr. F. B., accounts for my “melancholy reflections and … for the gloomy thoughts with which I [fill] this letter” (p. 177). The scene accounts, too, for the tremendous leap James makes from the history of Nantucket in Letters IV-VIII to the “history of the earth” (p. 173) that he begins to analyze in Letter IX. Elaborating the intimations of evil he felt upon seeing the slave, James insists that the history of the world, including America, presents nothing “but crimes of the most heinous nature, committed from one end of the world to the other” (p. 173). “What, then, is man?” (p. 170), James asks, echoing his earlier, more famous question. Having moved from a history of the self, to a history of an other, to a history of a people, and now to the history of mankind, James' expanding consciousness arrives at a more basic question. Its answer is not “goodness.” Human nature is perverse (p. 174), and God has abandoned it “to all the errors, the follies, and the miseries, which [man's] most frantic rage and [his] most dangerous vices and passions can produce” (p. 173).

This letter, which James calls a “general review of human nature” (p. 177), moves from his discussion of the institution of slavery to his recognition that man is by nature wretched, his principles “poisoned in their most essential parts” (pp. 173-74). James concludes by asking whether he, having realized the true nature of man, should prefer a “primitive” life in the woods to a “civilized” life in society. The question at first seems moot: “Evil preponderates in both” states. But evil, James argues, is “more scarce, more supportable, and less enormous” in the woods than it is in “advanced” society. So, clearly, man should be happier, or less unhappy, in the pastoral state. Yet this “fact” is complicated by man's innate desire and need to people the earth. The dilemma and, more significantly, James' ambivalence are indicative of his state of mind in Letter IX as he approaches the “gloomy” scene at the end. It is as if his realization of the “true” nature of mankind, though the gradual product of his dialogue with Mr. F. B., were still too sudden and too shocking to allow any answers, any firm statements about reality. The ground has shifted beneath him.

It is not by chance, then, that Mr. F. B. initiates the discussion in Letter X, asking James to say something about snakes. Though Mr. F. B.'s choice of subject matter is more than slightly ironic, James certainly needs direction. And his recognition of the snake's presence in the new world is a painful but necessary extension of Letter IX. Shocked by his conclusions there, James wishes to turn his face away from the sight of evil: “Why would you prescribe this task?” (p. 180), he asks. James soon finds that the rattlesnake, though “perfectly inoffensive” if not touched and capable even of being tamed, is more likely to kill than not to offend. He narrates the story of a father and son who were killed by pulling on a boot that had two rattlesnake fangs lodged in it. Evil, though not seen, not suspected, preponderates. Once he first notices evil, James finds it everywhere. Retreating to a “simple grove” to watch the humming-bird, “the most beautiful of [birds],” James notes that

sometimes, from what motive I know about, it will tear and lacerate flowers into a hundred pieces, for, strange to tell, they are the most irascible of the feathered tribe. Where do passions find room in so diminutive a body? They often fight with the fury of lions until one of the combatants falls a sacrifice and dies. … [The hummingbird] is a miniature work of our Great Parent …

(p. 184)

Evil “preponderates” in man, in Nature, in every work of God, from His most “miniature work” to His most complex.

This second incident marks James' development. In Letter II he had displayed his conviction of the all-powerful nature of man by moving the box of the greedy wren to another part of the house and by shooting the rapacious king-bird that destroyed his bee population. Now, however, a bird provides the very image of passions run amok; James' “grove” is tainted by evil, and he has no power over that evil. His state of mind following this realization is imaged by an “uncommon and beautiful” battle between a black snake and a water snake described at the end of Letter X. James is puzzled by the battle, for the “vindictive rage” expressed by each combatant appears to be unfounded. “Strange was this to behold,” he writes. Like the evil he has come to recognize in these later letters versus his own natural good feelings expressed in the early letters, the black snake (the “aggressor”) and the water snake struggle, the former solely out of hate, the latter in an attempt to reach “its natural element” (p. 185). The black snake gains control at the end:

… The black snake seemed to retain its wonted superiority, for its head was exactly fixed above that of the other, which it incessantly pressed down under the water, until it was stifled and sunk. The victor no sooner perceived its enemy incapable of further resistance than, abandoning it to the current, it returned on shore and disappeared.

(p. 186)

The exit of the black snake is a metaphor for James' disappearance in Letter XI; he, too, is “stifled and sunk.” Letter XI is written by a European traveller named Iw-n Al-z who describes a visit he made to John Bartram, the famous botanist. Iw-n echoes the optimism of James' early letters: “Examine [Pennsylvania] in whatever light you will,” Iw-n begins the letter that James sends on to Mr. F. B., “the eyes as well as the mind … are equally delighted because a diffusive happiness appears in every part, happiness which is established on the broadest basis” (p. 187). Iw-n's words recall James' statement that America is “one diffusive scene of happiness”; Iw-n's optimism, however, is justified by what he finds at Bartram's farm. Emancipating their slaves, who become “new … beings” (thus fulfilling the definition of the American in Letter III), and living peacefully and peaceably themselves, Bartram and his Quaker neighbors follow the “doctrines of Jesus Christ in that simplicity with which they were delivered; a happier system could not have been devised for the use of mankind” (p. 199). Here is a “New Garden.” And its juxtaposition with James' gloomy view of the world in Letters IX and X indicates that, for Crèvecoeur, the American “dream” of Letter III is possible. He insists, however, that a just and happy society like the one Bartram has created is not an automatic effect of man's arrival on the American continent: the “new man” can more easily become a slave-owning man than he can an Adam.

James, however, continues to retreat in fear from his new perception of evil in the world. Letter I and Letter XI are dominated by voices other than James': the minister and James' wife in Letter I, Iw-n Al-z and John Bartram in Letter XI. Each is followed by a letter in which James' feelings erupt. In Letter II those passionate “feelings” (p. 53) were the result of James' memory of the fear he had experienced when he considered selling his father's farm. Afraid of his own insignificance, James rejected the larger world of experience and remained on his father's farm. Lacking experience, James' letters could only retreat to feelings and impressions, responses conditioned by the thoughts and language of the people James respected: his father, the minister, Mr. F. B. In Letter XII James again retreats to feelings: “Distresses of a Frontier Man.” Plagued by the “remembrance of dreadful scenes,” not simply the tortured slave, but the battles of the Revolution, James again faces and retreats from his own smallness: “What can an insignificant man do in the midst of these jarring contradictory parties, equally hostile to persons situated as I am?” (p. 205). The ability to reason, which he has discovered in the course of Letters, provides no answers, only more questions. “What, then, is life?” he asks, rewriting his most famous question once again. At bottom, he decides, it is “self-preservation” (p. 210). James retreats west, fleeing a world that has lost its senses.

James moves from innocence to experience, from a naive acceptance of the way of life inherited from his father and taught by his minister to a critical awareness of his own need to think, to act, and to create his own future. His progression through the literary genres of autobiography, biography, local history, national history, and epic history is merely an analogue of his intellectual and moral growth. His final step in this progression toward self-knowledge is a painful one, for what he learns to do late in his conversation with Mr. F. B. is to defictionalize his world, to dismantle the many claims colonial and revolutionary America made on behalf of rational, “objective” truth. Letters II and III reveal James' unquestioning acceptance of his father's life and of the minister's romantic version of the American dream. By the time he ends Letter IV, James makes note of the fact that the success of the Nantucket Islanders is due in part to their simplicity: “I saw neither governors nor any pageantry of state, neither ostentatious magistrates nor any individuals clothed with useless dignity: no artificial phantoms subsist here, either civil or religious” (p. 125). Those who bring their “luxurious” manners to Nantucket, James observes with satisfaction, “could not exist a month; they would be obliged to emigrate” (p. 125). Nantucket Island, in other words, like America itself, had done away with the “artificial phantoms” that oppressed man in Europe. The “false” had been discarded in favor of the “true,” the “real.”

This first suspicion of the “artificiality” of religion and government is not all-inclusive, of course. James merely extends the minister's romantic condemnation of the old world (pp. 42-44) to include its manners, government, and religion; he praises Nantucket for reducing class distinctions (pp. 125-26), establishing a government “which demands but little for its protection” (p. 109), and practicing a religion “disencumbered … from useless ceremonies and trifling forms” (p. 153). One can find a similar sort of rhetoric in many works after 1765 in America. John Adams, for one, argued that, ideally, “government [is] a plain, simple, intelligible thing, founded in nature and reason, and quite comprehensible by common sense.” America, Adams went on to say, had thrown off the “arbitrary,” artificial tyranny of the old world's canon and feudal law.11 James, however, soon begins to sense that Nantucket, though it may have simplified life in some ways, has merely replaced one fiction for another. The women of the island, for example, take a dose of opium every morning: “It is hard to conceive how a people always happy and healthy … [and] never oppressed with the vapours of idleness, yet should want the fictitious effects of opium to preserve that cheerfulness to which their temperance, their climate, their happy situation, so justly entitle them” (p. 160). Even in this simplified society, mankind willingly chooses fictions, chooses oppressions. In addition, James notices that the law, which he earlier trumpeted as “a bridle and check to prevent the strong and greedy from oppressing the timid and weak” (p. 57), is actually an instrument of oppression. In Nantucket lawyers are an “oppressive burthen under which we groan” (p. 152). The situation is even worse in Charles Town. There, society has become “slaves” to the society of lawyers. James sees that mankind will have its fictions, be its situation never so simple, free, and happy.

James' first question—“What, then, is the American, this new man?”—is followed by his realization that the American is not so different from the old man. Both are oppressed; both create fictions which complicate an otherwise natural existence. Thus his next question—“What, then, is man?”—collapses the new world-old world dichotomy. There is no “American,” no “European”; there is man. Traditionally, of course, man had been defined as a fallen creature, capable of regeneration only by the saving grace of Christ. Crèvecoeur plays with the notion of regeneration in Letters: the black slave in the cage is a Christ-figure, covered as he is by a swarm of insects “eager to feed on his mangled flesh and to drink his blood” (p. 178); the “old man” (the European) is “regenerated” (p. 68) and “resurrected” (p. 82), reborn as a “new man” (the American); the Nantucket Islanders found a settlement they name “New Garden.” But as James is exposed to the horror and the enormity of evil, he comes to realize that any notion of man's goodness is false. Man is not good. “The history of the earth!” James exclaims. “doth it present anything but crimes of the most heinous nature, committed from one end of the world to the other?” (p. 193) Men “are always at war” (p. 174); human nature is perverse; existence is but so “many errors … crimes … diseases, wants, and sufferings” (p. 177). The myths of Eden and of man's regeneration are not true: man could never have been, nor can he be, good.

James' third question—“What, then, is life?”—indicates that he has continued to strip away layers of enlightenment and romantic belief, rejecting the primacy of human culture and of man in favor of a more elemental subject, experience shorn of its fictions, its appearances. His immediate answer to the question is pessimistic, almost nihilistic: “Life appears to be a mere accident, and of the worst kind: we are born to be victims of diseases and passions, of mischance and death; better not to be than to be miserable” (p. 210). James no longer has faith in his culture and his culture's fictions. The “centre is tumbled down” (p. 211), he says in reference to his beliefs. Unable to believe in “the fictitious society in which [he] lives” (p. 214), James spends most of Letter XII justifying his decision to emigrate to an Indian village somewhere west of Pennsylvania. “Self-preservation,” he concludes, “is above all political precepts and rules, and even superior to the dearest opinions of our minds” (p. 210).

One wonders at the phrasing here: “self-preservation.” That is the phrase the slave-owner used to defend his murder of the slave in Letter IX (p. 179): language has become malleable and fluid in James' world; it does not signify. Nor, in the end, does James' romantic vision of Indian society. Though he begins to describe it in the same idealistic manner he had described America in Letter III (pp. 213-14), James steps back from that vision with an abrupt realization that he is creating a fiction: “Perhaps my imagination gilds too strongly this distant prospect …” (p. 225). There is no answer to his third question, except in the actual act of his choosing to be left, at the end, where so many later American heroes, also stripped of their illusions, of their naive fictions concerning the world around them, will be left: in a liminal space out of which they may, perhaps, project themselves anew in some extra-novelistic future.12

James' crisis at the end is Crèvecoeur's imaginative projection of the very real crisis experienced by many Americans during the Revolution. Donald Weber has convincingly shown, for example, how Revolutionary ministers, responding to the bewildering events of the 1760s and 1770s, attempted “to arrest [their] metaphysical fall into interpretive contingency, the hermeneutic void of utter disconnectedness,” by articulating a sermon rhetoric that was at first fragmented, disjointed, anti-narrative. “Language itself,” Weber writes, “became unmoored from traditional contexts, referents, and canons of style and form” during the Revolution.13 Myths, of course, are stories a culture invents to confer identity, to achieve and maintain consensus; and they are, as Richard Slotkin has shown, stories in which “the logic of myth” literally flows from “the logic of … [its] narrative.”14 In moments of ideological crisis, such as the American Revolution, those myths are challenged, disrupted, and overturned. They do not adequately explain. “New stories are required when the old no longer resonate with explanatory power.”15 The ministers Weber discusses eventually managed to accommodate “their pulpits to the secular American world of the 1790s,”16 and to invent a rhetoric and accompanying myth that accounted for changed cultural values and their own relation to those values. Their sermons became coherent and dependent on narrative once again.

Like those ministers, James experiences a “metaphysical fall into interpretive contingency.” He awakens from his unquestioning acceptance of the world of his fathers into a world in which meanings, values, and language itself are “unmoored from [their] traditional contexts.” “I had never before these calamitous times formed any such ideas” about America, about mankind, about life itself, James mourns; “I lived on, laboured and prospered, without having ever studied on what the security of my life and the foundation of my prosperity were established; I perceived them just as they left me” (p. 201). James' predicament is that, having rejected society's fictions, he has none to replace them; having descended into uncertainty, he cannot find solid ground. He has only fragments that cannot cohere into meaning, fragments from which no consensus could possibly be achieved. Seen this way, Letters provides a glimpse into that moment at which America stood poised in cultural uncertainty, having severed its ties with the old world and opted for a future the founding fathers, no more than anyone else, could yet imagine. It was that uncertainty, Robert Ferguson has written, “the possibility of collapse through internal dissension, [which] continue[d] to haunt both political considerations and the literary imagination for generations.”17 James' story itself epitomizes the “haunting” which marked American literature in the years subsequent to 1776.

It is as much a distortion of Letters to read it as a disjointed series of sketches as it is to read it as a myth of national creation or even a plea for consensus. James is no Rip Van Winkle who awakens to find consensus both in the world around him (Washington's picture as it is painted over King George's) and in his own story (which every “man, woman, [and] child in the neighborhood … knew … by heart”). He is that still-dazed Rip whose “senses [are] overpowered”18 not by liquor but by a world gone mad and by his own internalization of that madness through his recognition of the inadequacies of man's fictions about himself. And James' creator, a conservative in politics as well as in morals, is a critic of the psychological, social, and imaginative dangers of revolution, not the exuberant expansiveness of the American dream.


  1. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, Letters From An American Farmer and Sketches of Eighteenth-Century America (New York: Penguin American Library, 1981), p. 90. Subsequent page references are given parenthetically in the text. For other references to “progress,” see p. 76 (on the regression of farmers into hunters), p. 108 (on James' desire to “to trace [the Nantucket Islanders] throughout their progressive steps from their arrival here to this present hour”), p. 130 (on “the progress of [the Nantucket Islanders'] maritime schemes”), and p. 196 (on the Quakers' gradual realization that black slaves are human beings).

  2. On James' conservatism and his physical and psychic isolation, see A. W. Plumstead, “Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur,” in American Literature 1764-1789; The Revolutionary Years, ed. Everett Emerson (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1977), pp. 216-17; Mary E. Rucker, “Crèvecoeur's Letters and Enlightenment Doctrine,” EAL [Early American Literature], 13 (1978), 193-96; and Robert P. Winston, “‘Strange Order of Things!’: The Journey to Chaos in Letters From An American Farmer,EAL, 19 (1985), 249-54.

  3. See, for example, Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1964), p. 108; Russell Nye, “Michel-Guillaume St. Jean de Crèvecoeur: Letters From An American Farmer,” in Landmarks of American Writing, ed. Hennig Cohen (New York: Basic Books, 1969), p. 35; and Plumstead, “Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur,” pp. 214-15.

  4. See Winston, p. 251.

  5. Thomas Philbrick, St. John de Crèvecoeur (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1970), p. 75.

  6. See Albert Stone, “Introduction,” in Letters From An American Farmer and Sketches of Eighteenth-Century America (New York: Penguin American Library, 1981), p. 18; Winston, p. 249; and Philbrick, p. 74.

  7. See Winston.

  8. See Rucker.

  9. Jean Beranger discusses the concept of dialogue sensitively in “The Desire of Communication: Narrator and Narratee in Letters From An American Farmer,EAL, 12 (1977), 73-85. I agree with him that Letters “has a structure and is more coherent than appears at first sight” (p. 85), and that it is dialogue which provides that coherence; but my emphasis is less on the “internal” dialogue (the “desire” to communicate which manifests itself in each character's conversations) than on the narrator's progress as he engages in the primary “conversation,” the letters to and from Mr. F. B.

  10. See, for example, p. 64: “These [observations] may appear insignificant trifles to a person who has travelled through Europe and America. …”

  11. John Adams, “A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law,” in The Life and Works of John Adams, ed. Charles Francis Adams (Boston: Little Brown and Co., 1856), III, 454-55.

  12. I think here of Huck Finn, Lambert Strether, Nick Carraway, Professor St. Peter, and Tyrone Slothrop, all of whom experience a “de-fictionalizing” of their world. They are left, at the end, in symbolically liminal spaces—the Mississippi, the Atlantic Ocean, the Midwest, the Professor's study, the Zone—that might represent either pure potentiality or death.

  13. Donald Weber, Rhetoric and History in Revolutionary New England (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1988), pp. 152, 154; cf. Robert Ferguson, “‘We Hold These Truths’: Strategies of Control in the Literature of the Founders,” in Reconstructing American Literary History, ed. Sacvan Bercovitch (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1986), pp. 1-6.

  14. Quoted in Weber, p. 6.

  15. Weber, p. 154.

  16. Weber, p. 135.

  17. Ferguson, p. 4.

  18. Washington Irving, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., ed. Haskell Springer (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1978), pp. 41, 35.

Norman S. Grabo (essay date 1991)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6959

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 thrust by circumstances into one of the many bizarre corners of his remarkable career. Educated at the fine Jesuit Collège du Mont, he had spent a year or so with relatives in Salisbury, England, before emigrating to Canada in 1755. There he served with the French army until wounded at Quebec in 1759. Oddly, he cast his lot with the British Americans later that year and, after several years of traveling the frontier as a surveyor and trader (during which period he was formally adopted into the Oneida), married an American woman and purchased 120 acres of farmland in Orange County, New York. The farm—called Pine Hill—thrived, as did his family of three children.

But as hostilities between Revolutionaries and loyalists intensified, St. John, perhaps fearing for his continued control over his American property, decided to return to France to lay good legal claim to his patrimony there (not least for the sake of ensuring that his Normandy properties would pass to his elder son). In New York, awaiting passage, he suddenly found himself a victim of the times, separated from his family, and enjoying only sporadic control over the trunkload of essays and sketches he had been scribbling at over the years.1

More than thirty essays—some only a few pages in length, others more fully developed—brilliantly bespoke a new and arresting voice in American letters. While the young Yale poet Joel Barlow was reasoning himself carefully beyond a provincial American literary nationality, St. John leaped boldly into an international republic of enlightened letters for which the world of real politics was not quite ready. St. John's sketches distribute themselves according to two thematic emphases: first, the confident celebration of Arcadian possibilities under a political system that was essentially mild and enabling; second, the horror that accompanied the irrational repudiation of that system. Put somewhat differently, St. John's sketches depicted both the American dream and its brutal subversive nightmare.

Numerous echoes resound through these essays, both European and American—British poets Thomson and Cowper, the ancients Hesiod and Virgil, the French Du Bartas, and colonials Anne Bradstreet's “Quaternions” and Edward Johnson's Wonder-Working Providence. But their prose is mainly that of the newspaper essayists of the time—the many hermits, travelers, friends, and the like who by living apart from settled communities could comment wisely upon social matters. St. John assumes the same kind of dignity in his prose, an almost foreign formality of grammar and diction—long sentences, highly subordinated, heavily Latinate. It is the voice of a complacent, successful, and thankful man of means, a simple farmer, yes, but deeply read in and articulate about the book of nature on which his good feelings depend. He is not an abstruse philosopher, and his opinions on government or religion pretend a closeness to what a thoughtful farmer might generate from his very work.

Twenty years of hard traveling throughout the colonies, from the Carolinas to Maine and from Nova Scotia to the Great Lakes, and nine years of developing his New York farm had taught this farmer the pleasures of property. They were not pleasures gained without cost. Living directly off nature was precarious. Natural forces moving with majestic seasonal rhythms drove any sensible person into feverish activity. The sketch of “A Snow-storm as It Affects the American Farmer” opens on that note:

No man of the least degree of sensibility can journey through any number of years in whatever climate without often being compelled to make many useful observations on the different phenomena of Nature which surround him and without involuntarily being struck either with awe or admiration in beholding some of the elementary conflicts in the midst of which he lives. A great thunder-storm, an extensive flood, a desolating hurricane, a sudden and intense frost, an overwhelming snow-storm, a sultry day—each of these different scenes exhibits regular beauties even in spite of the damage they cause. Often whilst the heart laments the loss to the citizen, the enlightened mind, seeking for the natural causes, and astonished at the effects, awakes itself to surprise and wonder.

[p. 231]

In this sketch of the first blizzard of winter, the farmer needs more than astonishment and surprise. Indeed, surprise is a luxury he cannot afford. Animal pens have to have been prepared and fodder laid down for the stock, firewood made ready and brought in, food preserved, warm clothing and bedding readied. Then let Nature bring down her snows. All that is left is to gather the children from school and the stock from the fields.

The farmer of feelings also looks out for his neighbors when Nature shows its force, for nothing can be accomplished entirely by one's own efforts. In a new land everything requires mutual dependence—the farmer on his “amiable spouse,” farm laborers and even slaves upon the farmer's agreeable conditions. People work and play together hard because all see that groups are necessary not only for frolics, songs, and merriment (“Thoughts of an American Farmer on Various Rural Subjects,” p. 282), but also for barn raisings, swamp drainings, and rock and stump removal. Mutual interest generates both hard work and good feelings. In “On the Susquehanna: The Wyoming Massacre,” St. John wonders at the capacity of tiny communities—sometimes single families—to flourish happily in extreme isolation and in the constant danger of “fire, sickness or enemy” (pp. 360-361).

But against the dangers of Nature and isolation the American farmer who is prudent, observant, tolerant, sagacious, diligent, and industrious can, with a little help from his friends, prevail. No Tintern Abbey ruins thrilled St. John, but neat fields burgeoning with grain, grass, and orchards did. Fatted stock would stick to one's ribs all winter; dried apples came back to luscious life with a little water; the cider warmed one's bones against the blasts. There was constant cost—having to do everything yourself, having to be a bricoleur or ingenious jack-of-all-trades, having to attend to differences of soil and the plant life it would support, having to avoid killing the land. American farming in the eighteenth century was different from European, for in Europe land was limited, had been cleared for centuries, was strictly regulated, and worked by peasants ruled over by tyrannical overseers. In America the farmer had to fight rough and overgrown terrain, swamps, frosts that threw his fences over every spring, and hosts of insects, particularly mosquitoes. Labor was expensive and demanding, and quite willing to go elsewhere if treated without dignity. The land was there, but to buy it required going deeply in debt; an economy based entirely on futures was necessarily unstable; failure, a driving threat. The American farmer, St. John was fond of saying, paid his taxes in sweat and worry (“Thoughts,” pp. 266-316).

But when he succeeds—not least because of a mild British government and easy credit, as well as by unending industry—the American farmer does what seems to St. John to be natural. He builds a new house out of solid stone to manifest his rock-hard solidity, turning his original crude dwelling into a general store or tavern. Knowing that everyone else is out to mind the main chance and look out for himself, he cheats a little. “He sells for good that which perhaps he knows to be indifferent because he also knows that the ashes he has collected, the wheat he has taken in may not be so good or so clean as it was asserted. Fearful of fraud in all his dealings and transactions, he arms himself, therefore, with it. Strict integrity is not much wanted, as each is on his guard in his daily intercourse; and this mode of thinking and acting becomes habitual” (“Reflections on the Manners of the Americans,” p. 262). Believing that religious tolerance in America had bred a religious apathy that made moral and ethical corner cutting acceptable social behavior, St. John says that American farmers put their trust instead in the legal system and litigation: “The law, therefore, and its plain meaning are the only forcible standards which strike and guide their senses and become their rule of action” (p. 262). This judgment is put with neither scorn nor satire. And whatever one may think of the implied Snopesism or Babbittry of St. John's depiction, this is the class of men “who in future will replenish this huge continent, even to its utmost unknown limits, and render this new-found part of the world by far the happiest, the most potent as well as the most populous of any. Happy people! May the poor, the wretched of Europe, animated by our example, invited by our laws, avoid the fetters of their country and come in shoals to partake of our toils as well as of our happiness” (“A Snow-storm,” p. 238).

In a world of natural pests—insects, birds, lightning, serpents, mosquitoes, town rats and barn mice, grasshoppers, and who knows how many others we see not—St. John's “Man is a huge monster who devours everything and will suffer nothing to live in peace in his neighborhood” (“Thoughts,” p. 294). Nature, if not quite red in tooth and claw, is nonetheless an economy of evil, providing nothing for nothing: “Thus one species of evil is balanced by another; thus the fury of one element is repressed by the power of the other. In the midst of this great, this astonishing equipoise, Man struggles and lives” (“Thoughts,” p. 297). It seems then that the self-interest that turns the American farmer into a litigious opportunist is often in St. John's thought merely an instinctual expression driven by interlocking chains of natural parasitism. If this is Jeffersonian agrarianism, it is hardly an attractive image of either natural or social life, but it is one upon which St. John gazes open-eyed.

Throughout the sketches, man does not control or master Nature; at best he rides its capricious powers, coaxing it like the sap of maples or the swarming of bees into honeyed nurture. The most he can do is divert its evils: tarns can be drained, provision in moments of plenty can outwait the exigencies of want, and men of genius like Benjamin Franklin can devise lightning rods to drain off the vicious excesses of natural disaster:

Corn-cribs are indispensable because this grain is preserved there longer than anywhere else. You well remember their peculiar structure. Some people are, and all should be, furnished with electrical rods. The best way to place them, in order to save expense, is on a high cedar mast situated between the house and the barn. Its power will attract the lightning sufficiently to save both. Mine is so. I once saw its happy effects and blessed the inventor. My barn was then completely full. I valued it at about seven hundred pounds. What should I have done, had not the good Benjamin Franklin thought of this astonishing invention?

[“Thoughts,” p. 314]

There are moments, however, when the successful farmer, aided by devices like Franklin's, comes to feel that he is in charge, is actually managing Nature by appearing to manage his farm. Crops and livestock, slaves, servants, children, and wife become his, all of Nature becomes his, and man is what but a god in little?2

Lulled into complacent security by his material opulence, St. John's farmer is not ready for social and political upheaval. Crops can be stolen, houses and barns burned to the ground, families rousted from their beds in the middle of the night and terrorized by thugs, homes looted of all valuables, and entire farms confiscated in the name of a new self-declared revolutionary government. At least eight essays and sketches, including one lengthy play, among those in the trunk seized by the British in New York, recorded St. John's recoil in horror and confusion from the scenes of warfare. All were presumably composed between 1774 and 1779: “The English and the French Before the Revolution” adverts back to his Canadian experiences in the 1750s; “The Man of Sorrows” portrays the torture and terrorism of an innocent farmer by a gang of angry Sons of Freedom; “On the Susquehanna: The Wyoming Massacre” places the sudden, vicious destruction of that community at Wilkes-Barre against the long series of hardships by which it had been wrested from the wilderness; “History of Mrs. B.,” a short report rather like a captivity narrative, describes the consequences for a family turned from happy farmers to displaced war refugees; “The Frontier Woman” lives a nightmare of disguises, terror, distress, and barbarity; “The American Belisarius” traces the fall from prosperity of a sensible farmer at the hands of greedy, ignorant, hypocritical, and self-important patriots; “The Grotto” describes the desperate attempts of loyalist landowners to hide from the Revolutionaries; the play, “Landscapes,” shows six episodes of the frustration, humiliation, shame, and insult added to the injury of property loss; and “Distresses of a Frontier Man” abstracts the main features of the preceding sketches.

St. John's clear tory sympathies at least kept both the sketches and their author intact in British New York. His own estate was not confiscated, although the house would be lost to fire during the war. He seems to have been a man of no very deep political convictions or principles. He had apparently signed an oath of allegiance to the Revolutionary government, while at the same time he imagined himself (in “The Grotto”) bellowing out “Rule Britan[n]ia” from the bowels of a buried hideout in the forests.3 He might be considered what the satirists of the period called a “trimmer,” one who cut his politics to fit whichever party ruled at the moment.4 But he also seems indifferent to power, which he frequently condemns as a social motive (e.g., “Landscapes,” pp. 452, 473). If property conferred education, leisure, acceptance by learned men of means such as his friend Cadwallader Colden, the student of Iroquois culture and sometime lieutenant governor of New York, if it meant handsome meals and fine wines, well it did, and they were his right. He had earned them, and he failed to imagine how others might resent his superior station and manners.

His images of outrage, although cast in terms of sentimental stereotypes—brutalized innocence, lamenting women, terrified children, the homeless and hungry, petty and ignorant officialdom, thoughtless mobs of vigilantes, and venal greedy hypocrites who justified their inhuman seizures by false patriotic slogans and sentiments—are therefore tainted by his political naiveté. Property and the law by which it is secured—that law on which the shrewd farmer had relied—were both more malleable and even transferrable than St. John had appreciated. In “Landscapes,” a prominent farmer named Marston has been driven into hiding by suspicion of his British sympathies. Because he has fled his home, it is confiscated by the newly constituted local committee under the authority of militiaman Col. Templeman. Mrs. Marston, with no alternative but to accept her bitter loss, challenges the colonel's humanity and honesty. The exchange, clearly favoring Mrs. Marston's fiery prose, is very telling:

Colonel: … Where the crime lies, the lawful revenge should take place. Your husband from the beginning has been a supporter of the oppressive acts of Parliament, that venal body which wants freedom at home and loves to spread tyranny abroad. They have not to deal with the inhabitants of Bengal, I promise you. Mr. Marston has been, in short, exceedingly inimical and a bad man in the true sense of the word.

Mrs. Marston: You have so subverted the course and order of things that no one knows what is a bad man in your new political sense; but in spite of modern definition the true meaning of that word stands yet on its old foundation. A bad man is he, sir, who tears up the bowels of his native country; who subverts its best laws; who makes tyranny, informing, injustice, oppression of every kind, the cause of God; who arrests people without cause; imprisons them for whole months and seasons without hearing or inquiries; and leaves them to languish under the accumulated weight of want, despair, and disease. A bad man, sir, is he who when he had it in his power to prevent it, suffered an innocent young man to perish in a suffocating gaol, panting for breath, burnt and scorched by the most excessive fever; and yet would not release him …

[pp. 466-467]

Because each side sees the other in the wrong, each sees the other as perverting, and since both use the same language, no reconciliation between the sides seems possible. If St. John gives the nod to the impassioned rhetoric of the distraught woman, he also allows the colonel his pride of resistance to what he sees as injustice.

Indeed, what one sees from the loose collection of sketches is a writer alert to the merits of too many contrary kinds of human beings and principles for his own political good. Finally released from prison, St. John underwent several fairytalelike transformations while sailing from New York to Dublin, thence to London and, after almost a year, to France. In London he contracted with Davies and Davis for publication of a selection of his sketches, which appeared early in 1782 to immediate acclaim. J. Hector St. John had fled America in a large convoy carrying thousands of other war refugees, an ignominious and destitute scribbling farmer. Two years later, in France, he resumed his original patronymic, “de Crèvecoeur,” and under that name emerged as full-fledged author of the much read and widely esteemed Letters from an American Farmer. He had left a British-American and was now again a Frenchman at war with the British. The once American farmer was now a French knight, honored at many intellectual salons, and introduced to the leading French intellectuals of his time as the foremost authority on American life lived as Rousseau might have imagined it, and indeed enjoying the patronage and friendship of Rousseau's former mistress, Madame d'Houdetot. By 1782 Crèvecoeur was a celebrity.

He was immediately identified with his creation, the mythic American farmer, despite his strong efforts to distance himself from his narrator. If we suppose that St. John worked with his publishers on the concept of his book, several observations leap to attention. The first is that the farmer as distressed frontiersman was fully in St. John's head, written out in other sketches if not quite in the form given in Letter XII. Second, St. John knew where the trajectory of the American Farmer's career would end—in ruin, desolation, and misery. Third, that would mean that the optimism and good feelings of the first three letters were purposely enhanced—even their naiveté made especially beguiling—in the knowledge that they would be undermined or subverted by the end of the book. Letter I, especially, presumably was composed after the material of Letter XII had been thoroughly worked out and after the device of arranging the sketches as a series of epistles to a sophisticated English reader had been decided upon.

Perhaps more than any other, that first letter illustrates St. John's artistic abilities—three near-caricatures (the happy and sentimental farmer of feelings, his rustic timidity overcome by a flattering invitation; his wife the gentle scold, cynical and sharp without shrewishness; and the somewhat pompous Yale-trained minister) engage in mildly satiric dialogue that slips from narrative to dramatic presentation almost imperceptibly—all incorporated within the fiction of a letter. Comparison with his earlier play “Landscapes” illustrates at once the greater complexity of his dramatic technique in Letter I. Between the wife's warnings and the minister's judicious flattery, simple-minded Farmer James accepts the invitation to explain America to England. The debate is delicately and mildly comic, masking its own ominous foreshadowings.

What Mistress James tries to do is to keep her husband from playing the fool, putting on airs, rising above his station, trying to appear better than he is, better than their neighbors are (pp. 47-49): “Some would imagine that thee wantest to become either an assemblyman or a magistrate, which God forbid, and that thee art telling the king's men abundance of things. Instead of being well looked upon as now, and living in peace with all the world, our neighbours would be making strange surmises. … [L]et it be as great a secret as if it was some heinous crime” (p. 48). Goody James's gentle teasing seems innocent, even though it treats writing as a form of disturbing the peace. But as the letters take on an increasingly somber and melancholy tinge, the notion of scribbling as disturbing the peace deepens. In Letter XI the concept expands from writing to any kind of intellectual activity. When the simple plowman John Bertram discovered his calling as a botanist by contemplating a daisy, he generated a similar alarm in his wife: “I mentioned it to my wife, who greatly discouraged me from prosecuting my new scheme [to study plants systematically], as she called it; I was not opulent enough, she said, to dedicate much of my time to studies and labours which might rob me of that portion of it which is the only wealth of the American farmer. However, her prudent caution did not discourage me …” (p. 195). When in the apocalyptic Letter XII the American Farmer's dream is shredded by distrust and suspicion, we see the ambiguous justness of St. John's early planting.

St. John's design for Letters from an American Farmer is thus the most complex and ambiguous since William Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation, a resemblance that has not escaped notice.5 The minister reminds Farmer James that they are on the edge of a vast wilderness with an equally vast sea behind them (p. 44). James also echoes Bradford's amused astonishment at “how quick men will learn when they work for themselves” (pp. 102-103). And when the war drives him to seek refuge in a foreign society, one of his chief worries is how to keep his family together and his children from losing their English ways and manners (pp. 211, 219). But primarily it is the parallel action of watching all one's earthly hopes crumble before new political forces that pulls these books together, along with their disjunctive form.

Letters from an American Farmer is an example of the American tradition of book-as-anthology and authorship-as-editing. As in Bradford's rhapsody, the medley of subjects masks an underlying coherence. That is part of St. John's fiction, of course: Farmer James will not presume to undertake a systematic treatise on America; he will not soar to a grand overview like a majestic eagle. No, he says, “I, a feebler bird, cheerfully content myself with skipping from bush to bush and living on insignificant insects” (p. 90). The book's casual character and superficial disconnections—even the presentation of the sketches as discontinuous letters—go to justify its formal discontinuities. This rhapsodic character achieves another level of justification more consciously than it had with previous writers. That is, in describing the new American, Farmer James emphasizes diversity and variety—different things coming together not in a total blend but in an aggregate like a mosaic. Thus, he maintains, talking about frontier religion, “in a few years this mixed neighbourhood will exhibit a strange religious medley that will be neither pure Catholicism nor pure Calvinism” (p. 75). Languages will likewise mix, as will nationalities and cultures—a veritable hodgepodge of differences. So, too, is the book selected and arranged—a purposeful mosaic, not a smooth and continuous surface.

The ostensible subsurface of St. John's design seems clear enough: the happy farmer resolves to take up the task of describing his life in the New World (Letter I), he describes how it feels to be a successful freeholder (Letter II) and proceeds to generalize about “the true American freeholder” as a class (Letter III). That class could with simple industry and unadorned manners be happily productive farming stone or even plowing the ocean, as the Quakers of Nantucket prove (Letters IV-VIII). These stand in startling contrast to the southern planters near Charleston, who enjoy “all that life affords most bewitching and pleasurable, without labour, without fatigue, hardly subjected to the trouble of wishing” (p. 168). But one sees even in the fierce beauty of hummingbirds or the mortal battle of snakes Nature's lesson that appearances mislead in the struggle for survival (Letter X). The ideal plowman is—like the Quaker botanist John Bertram—he who keeps the simple virtues, continues to clear and bank his swamps, but also achieves a scientific and intellectual grasp of the Nature he cultivates, harvesting the world's respect and admiration (Letter XI). All the work and benevolence and hope, however, can explode into horror and distress in an instant, leaving the farmer in ruin and confusion (Letter XII).

Deeper still is another level of coherence that explains why the dream must turn to horror. That is St. John's underlying conviction of the universal presence of evil. The action of the Letters is at that level Farmer James's growth in consciousness of the fundamental ugliness of human existence and the falsity of any system of values and principles that pretends otherwise. This conviction wells up in one of the book's most powerful passages in Letter IX, the wrenching acknowledgment of the pellucid fragility of any human happiness. But it is coyly exposed throughout the earlier letters, which are studded with curiously wrong notes.

Take, for example, Farmer James's story of screwing a seat to his plow so that he can carry his baby son with him as he works—“its motion and that of the horses please him; he is perfectly happy and begins to chat” (p. 54). How Emersonian or Wordsworthian that pleasant image, but what educated reader would not recognize Odysseus plowing with his infant Telemachus and its ancillary associations: Odysseus's refusal to fight against Troy, his feigning madness to escape conscription by plowing with an ox and a horse, his deep ambivalence toward the Achaean campaign? These associations were age-old proverbs by the eighteenth century. And behind them, at least for more learned readers, reverberates Odysseus's descent from Sisyphus, a relationship not without pertinence to St. John's deepest purpose. Other signals of a negative side to Farmer James's insistently beamish portrayal include the havoc wreaked among the republics of bees (pp. 58-60) and massive flights of pigeons (pp. 60-61), in both of which man gains by inducing lower orders of being to betray themselves. Vermillion dye attracts the bees but stains them, allowing the observant Farmer to trace them to their honey; the birds are lured to destruction by a stool pigeon casually blinded and “fastened to a long string.” We remember Mrs. Marston's inclusion of informing among the sins of Revolutionary politics. When Fenimore Cooper replicated St. John's pigeon hunting in The Pioneers, he left no doubt about its wanton and wasteful character and the sheer blood lust it inspired. Farmer James sees merely prudence, ingenuity, and good fortune. In addition to the ominous images of the backwoods hunter in Letter III there is again a kind of thoughtless or careless disregard in the act of killing the great owl so as to send its talons with candle holders mounted on them to Mr. F. B. “Pray keep them on the table of your study for my sake” (p. 93), he writes of this bit of frontier kitsch, the sort of object that would decorate the Grangerfords' parlor.

More troubling in this set of subverting gestures is the treatment of the Nantucketers. The Quaker simplicity and industry that make the desolate island flourish delight Farmer James. Theirs is a life stripped bare of ornament and adornment—in their clothing, their food, their homes, their worship, and even their unaffected speech. The appearance of natural gaiety and good feeling won in the thundering shudders of the constant surf looks entirely admirable to James, especially as he himself experiences a sharp psychological disorientation in the presence of such constant, indefinite, and powerful force (pp. 163-164). Letter VIII somewhat undercuts this “diffusive scene of happiness”:

A singular custom prevails here among the women, at which I was greatly surprised and am really at a loss how to account for the original cause that has introduced in this primitive society so remarkable a fashion, or rather so extraordinary a want. They have adopted these many years the Asiatic custom of taking a dose of opium every morning, and so deeply rooted is it that they would be at a loss how to live without this indulgence; they would rather be deprived of any necessary than forego their favourite luxury. This is much more prevailing among the women than the men, few of the latter having caught the contagion, though the sheriff, whom I may call the first person in the island, who is an eminent physician beside and whom I had the pleasure of being well acquainted with, has for many years submitted to this custom. He takes three grains of it every day after breakfast, without the effects of which, he often told me, he was not able to transact any business.

[p. 160]

Letter IX drops the pretense almost completely—“almost,” because Farmer James views it even more as an outsider than he is in Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard. Despite Charleston's Frenchified elegance and what one supposes would have been its natural and ethnic attraction to St. John, Farmer James treats it as an exotic and sinister place. None of the values celebrated among the Quakers—health, labor, strenuous activity (p. 148)—matters. The Carolinas call into question all that Farmer James has been maintaining. Charleston is the new land with all the constraints of natural hardship removed. The ease with which opulence becomes luxury is astonishing. Where Nantucket was an extreme of natural deprivation, Carolina is an extreme of natural surplusage. Fecundity and fertility do not corrupt man; they merely provide the occasion for his inherently corrupt nature to manifest itself. At heart, St. John's man is as keenly dark as Joseph Conrad's Kurtz. Remove any need for self-restraint in a condition where there are as well no external constraints and the outcome is predictable—an unquenchable aspiration for power and an attendant social misery.

Profusion is ever the mother of wretchedness, as the history of mankind shows. Provoked by the bitter evidence of black slavery in the south, St. John writes as if he were Jonathan Edwards expounding Original Sin, a deeply embarrassed Gulliver trying to explain to common horse sense why human beings behave as badly as they do, a satanic Philip Traum sick and disgusted with human nature (pp. 173-174). But if J. Hector St. John pushes this conception of an inherent perverseness in human nature beyond even what the Jesuits taught him in Caen, if fertility is inevitably the source of misery instead of happiness—its chief example, black slavery in general, encapsulated in the emblem of the blinded, caged slave Farmer James accidentally encounters on his Charleston visit—then the ideal American Farmer is trapped in a terrible bind. The more successful he becomes, the more certain his misery.

Inside the doctrine of works St. John allows Farmer James to preach is a grim and inevitable comeuppance, a curse if not a damnation. As we can see in the visionary efforts of Timothy Dwight and Joel Barlow at about the same time, the American dream is temporary and fleeting, a steppingstone to another and transcending condition.6 Where Dwight foresees a glorified millennium and Barlow a trans national order, St. John envisions a perpetual return to beginnings. We remember that Farmer James's Minister—like Barlow and Dwight, Yale trained—has announced something like this at the very beginning. Europe is the study of the past; America, the future. The traveler to Europe submits his imagination “to the painful and useless retrospect of revolutions, desolations, and plagues,” while in America “he might contemplate the very beginnings and outlines of human society” (p. 43). What could be happier? In a visit to Bertram, however, the Russian traveler intuits an uncomfortable identity between past and future:

I view the present Americans as the seed of future nations, which will replenish this boundless continent; the Russians may be in some respects compared to you; we likewise are a new people, new, I mean, in knowledge, arts, and improvements. Who knows what revolutions Russia and America may one day bring about; we are perhaps nearer neighbours than we imagine. I view with peculiar attention all your towns. … Though their foundations are now so recent and so well remembered, yet their origin will puzzle posterity as much as we are now puzzled to ascertain the beginning of those which time has in some measure destroyed. Your new buildings, your streets, put me in mind of those of the city of Pompeii …

[p. 189]

In Letter XII St. John shows us that revolutions are eternal and internal, that going back to beginnings is itself the revolution most painful.

When Farmer James bursts upon that encaged slave, he recoils in horror from himself. “We are machines” (p. 98), he had said earlier, but now he sees directly what it means to be a machine with feelings, the victim of forces within himself as well as without. His first reaction is panic and confusion, followed by paralysis of will.7 His later personal calamity finds him tied like Gulliver among the Lilliputians, “fastened by numerous strings” (p. 205). The suspense of imagined evils locks him into a fascinated terror the way victim-birds are hypnotized by blacksnakes (pp. 180, 183). Gone are the farm and house, and with them all happiness (p. 200). Fright, horror, and shuddering anxiety alone remain, pushing Farmer James to the edge of madness (pp. 201-203). How can creatures of sentiment and reason so quickly become instruments of brutality and bloodshed (p. 204)? Of course, he has already (in Letter IX) generalized from a comfortable distance upon the monstrous character of mankind. The difference now is that personal experience has brought those generalizations home; under the immediate and personal threat of annihilation and torment he finds his social ideals and his political principles vanish (pp. 205-207).

Under the erasure of terror Farmer James is ready to consider the unthinkable. He will yield to the wild and savage, live with and like the Indians, turn to hunting, acknowledge but resist the lure of the primitive, and hope nonetheless to keep the family intact (pp. 211-214). With only this desperate alternative before him, Farmer James consciously closes his series of letters: “this is … the last letter you will receive from me” (p. 216). Had his design ended there we would not be surprised. But it did not.

Unlike his parallel Belisarius (p. 417) or the Frontier Woman (pp. 402-406), Farmer James will be with the Indians but not of them. Like Andrew the Hebridean he will accept the use of Indian lands to sustain his family. But almost at once he imagines himself improving Indian village life by the introduction of mechanical devices, prudent management, an increased emphasis upon agriculture, and regulations of trade (p. 221). One minute feeling like an ancient European ruin—“I resemble, methinks, one of the stones of a ruined arch, still retaining that pristine form which anciently fitted the place I occupied, but the centre is tumbled down” (p. 211)—he is the next undertaking “to begin the world anew” (p. 409) like the swallow driven from its nest by a wren: “The peaceable swallow, like the passive Quaker, meekly sat at a small distance and never offered the least resistance; but no sooner was the plunder carried away than the injured bird went to work with unabated ardour, and in a few days the depredations were repaired” (p. 63). The New American Farmer James can no more resist rebuilding his world than can the swallow.

But again the book's subtle organization hints at eternally renewed disaster. This new grandson of Sisyphus is doomed to ambivalent activity that ends in uncertain hope rather than assurance. When Farmer James announces that he is going to the aborigines “determined industriously to work up among them such a system of happiness as may be adequate to my future situation and may be a sufficient compensation for all my fatigues and for the misfortunes I have borne” (p. 226), we wince with the recognition that he has revealed more about “the moral evil with which we are all oppressed” (p. 227) than he himself can comprehend.8

St. John, now de Crèvecoeur, basked in the warmth of French intellectual and social approval. Letters from an American Farmer won swift praise, though often for inappropriate reasons, throughout western Europe. He prepared a French translation, which appeared in Paris at the very end of 1784, and began work on a larger French version, Lettres d'un cultivateur américain, which appeared in Paris during the summer the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia, the year of The Anarchiad, whose antidote some readers must have been sure it was. Between 1783 and 1785 Crèvecoeur served energetically and effectively to further French interests in the United States as consul in New York. But when Mathew Carey brought out the first American edition of the Letters in Philadelphia in 1793, the year of French Terror and the great yellow fever epidemic, it fell on deaf ears and did not sell.


  1. The most recent and most complete biography is Gay Wilson Allen and Roger Asselineau, St. John de Crèvecoeur: The Life of an American Farmer (New York, 1987). The strongest literary interpretation of the writings is Thomas Philbrick, St. John de Crèvecoeur (New York, 1970). One should also see A. W. Plumstead, “Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur,” in Everett Emerson, ed., American Literature, 1764-1789: The Revolutionary Years (Madison, Wis., 1977), 213-231. D. H. Lawrence's essentially appreciative commentary—a welcome piece of critical history but not one of Lawrence's best essays—is so keen to plow its own furrows that it does not much speak to Crèvecoeur's general achievement; see D. H. Lawrence, “Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur,” The Symbolic Meaning: The Uncollected Versions of Studies in Classic American Literature, ed. Armin Arnold (London, 1962), 53-70. See also Dennis D. Moore, “More Letters from the American Farmer: An Edition of Unpublished and Uncollected Essays in English by J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur” (Ph.D. diss., University of North Carolina, 1990); those sketches are described in Plumstead, “Crèvecoeur,” 225-227.

    James C. Mohr anticipated some of my observations in “Calculated Disillusionment: Crèvecoeur's Letters Reconsidered,” South Atlantic Quarterly, LXIX (1970), 354-363, but confines himself to the Letters and resists the logic of his own perceptions. That Mohr's view of the critical issue remains unchanged may be seen in J. A. Leo Lemay's introduction to Crèvecoeur in An Early American Reader (Washington, D. C., 1989), 116-117, which avoids any challenge to the widely assumed optimism of Crèvecoeur, echoing, just to choose one example, Russel B. Nye, American Literary History: 1607-1830 (New York, 1970), 154-159. Jack Salzman, William L. Hedges, and Mason I. Lowance likewise share Mohr's discomfort with what Philbrick calls Crèvecoeur's ironic and “bitter pathos” in their remarks in the Columbia Literary History of the United States, ed. Emory Elliott et al. (New York, 1988), 549-550, 187-188, 68, 150-151, respectively. None faces what Mohr called “disillusionment” squarely.

  2. Perhaps the best example of this is the Farmer's Swiftian stance, towering above an entire Virginia republic in the sketch “Ant-Hill Town,” particularly pp. 246-249.

  3. H. L. Bourdin and S. T. Williams, eds., “Crèvecoeur the Loyalist: The Grotto: An Unpublished Letter from an American Farmer,” Nation, CXXI (Sept. 23, 1925), 330.

  4. See, for example, Bruce Ingham Granger, Political Satire in the American Revolution, 1763-1783 (Ithaca, N. Y., 1960), particularly the section on “Trimmers and Traitors,” pp. 250-269, and the fate of Benjamin Towne, pp. 262-263.

  5. Philbrick, St. John de Crèvecoeur, 88; Plumstead, “Crèvecoeur,” 227.

  6. Dwight, “The Conquest of Canaan,” Book X, in The Major Poems of Timothy Dwight, ed. William J. McTaggart and William K. Bottorff (Gainesville, Fla., 1969), 259-270; Barlow, “The Vision of Columbus,” Book IX, in The Works of Joel Barlow, vol. 2, ed. William K. Bottorff and Arthur L. Ford (Gainesville, Fla., 1970), 339-358. Benjamin Franklin had talked in similar terms as early as 1731, when he projected “an united Party for Virtue, by forming … the Virtuous and good Men of all Nations into a regular Body”; The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin: A Genetic Text, ed. J. A. Leo Lemay and P. M. Zall (Knoxville, Tenn., 1981), 91-92.

  7. Philbrick, St. John de Crèvecoeur, 79.

  8. In his belated review of Nathaniel Hawthorne's Mosses from an Old Manse, Herman Melville found this “power of blackness” the driving force of literary art that joined Hawthorne to Shakespeare, implying that high art is only possible if built upon an acknowledgment of evil in the world. Melville, “Hawthorne and His Mosses,” in Jay Leyda, ed., The Portable Melville (New York, 1952), 406-408. This dismal side of the American Farmer finds a counterpart in the “dark Thoreau” described by Richard M. Bridgman in Dark Thoreau (Lincoln, Neb., 1982). Its tradition is traced brilliantly in Michael Kammen, People of Paradox: An Inquiry Concerning the Origins of American Civilization (New York, 1972).

Unless otherwise indicated, quotations and references in the text are to the Penguin Classics edition of J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer and Sketches of Eighteenth-Century America, ed. Albert E. Stone (New York, 1986), which supplants all previous editions.

Nathaniel Philbrick (essay date 1991)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5927

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 of isolated set-pieces has been shown to have a “rudimentary plot” that traces the banishment of the Letters' fictional narrator, James the Farmer, from the pre-Revolutionary Eden of his farm in Pennsylvania. While this approach has provided a convincing means of reconciling the utopian fantasy world of the book's first three letters with the equally fantastic nightmare vision that dominates the last four letters, it has proven less useful in accounting for the book's middle third: five apparently “objective” letters that describe what might seem to be an unlikely subject for an “American Farmer”—Nantucket Island (and, to a limited extent, Martha's Vineyard), cradle of the colonies' whaling fishery.1

The same critics who have done so much to broaden our awareness of the symbolic and decidedly literary richness of the Letters' beginning and end seem slightly puzzled, even bored, by its factual middle. Thomas Philbrick, in his pioneering study of Crèvecoeur, comments that the island community is “only tangentially related to [James's] own experience.”2 When critics do direct their attention to the Nantucket sequence, they have invariably related it to the utopian claims of the first three letters; given this perspective, the Nantucket sequence does little to move the “plot” of the Letters forward. Attention to shifts in narrative voice, however, reveals evidence that James's attitude to the Nantucket “utopia” is anything but static; rather, it modulates from an initial enthusiasm to an ever increasing awareness that island life may not be so ideal after all. In this way, the Nantucket sequence subtly and then directly challenges the optimistic vision of the book's beginning and contributes significantly to Crèvecoeur's gradually unfolding tale of disillusionment.


Within the Nantucket sequence, a second narrative voice emerges to compete with and, in large measure, to replace the often passionate and effusive utterances of James, the self-described “farmer of feelings.”3 The new voice proceeds from a more distanced, less emotionally involved observer, who for purposes of clarity I shall refer to as the Farmer. Whereas James typically provides personal glimpses into life on his farm, the Farmer approaches Nantucket Island as if it were a kind of sociological experiment, a society constructed “to prove what mankind can do when happily governed” (p. 107), and he publicizes his findings in a form Philbrick has equated with “the discursive exposition of the local historian and the detailed reports of the touring observer” as he applauds the Nantucketers' dedication to the Quaker values of “sobriety, honesty and industry.”4

While the Farmer has relatively little trouble convincing his readers that the Nantucketers have carved out a life of enviable industry and frugality on the island, he is less successful when describing the heart of that paradise: the not-so-idyllic business of whaling. Part of the problem stems from James's earlier condemnation of the “degenerated” hunters of the frontier in Letter 3, where he proclaims that “hunting is but a licentious idle life … [which] stimulates that propensity to rapacity and injustice” (p. 78). Critic Michael Gilmore is quite right when he says that “the whalemen themselves, pursuing and slaughtering their giant prey, are not unlike the frontiersmen who struggle for survival with the wilderness,”5 but what Gilmore fails to mention are the great lengths to which the Farmer goes to avoid just that comparison.

In an effort to keep his description of a Quaker whaling community philosophically consistent, the Farmer assiduously portrays whaling as a staid, even gentle pursuit that has more in common with agriculture than it does with a wild and frenzied hunt. The Nantucketers, according to the Farmer, “go to whaling with as much pleasure and tranquil indifference, with as strong an expectation of success, as a landsman undertakes to clear a piece of swamp.” Although it requires plenty of nerve, whaling is a “settled plan of life” (p. 141); it may require a certain “boldness of speculation,” but that quality is more akin to the savvy of a businessman than it is to the ferocity of a dragonslayer.

In his efforts to mask the inherent savagery of whaling, the Farmer's “objective” voice becomes downright clinical as he drains his sentences of their emotional content. At one point he describes a mother whale with her calf as “a favorable circumstance”; since the baby's safety “attracts all the attention of the dam” (p. 135), she is an easier target to harpoon. This from the same author who, in Sketches of Eighteenth-Century America, bursts into sympathetic tears when a beaver's home is destroyed (p. 301). Clearly, under the guise of the Farmer, Crèvecoeur is holding in check the most characteristic and essential elements of his sensibility. If it were otherwise, if Crèvecoeur failed to deflect his narrative stance from James's natural tendency to empathize, the portrayal of the Nantucket whalemen as peaceful and nonviolent would be undermined.

The Farmer's attempts to domesticate the inherent violence of the Nantucketers' livelihood reach an almost absurd climax at the end of Letter 7, when he compares whaling to skimming cream from a milk pail:

While we are clearing forests, making the face of Nature smile, draining marshes, cultivating wheat …, they yearly skim from the surface of the sea riches equally necessary. … May the citizens of Nantucket dwell long here in uninterrupted peace, undisturbed either by the waves of the surrounding element or the political commotions which sometimes agitate our continent.

[P. 154]

While this passage has the ring of concluding the sequence, Letter 8, “Peculiar Customs at Nantucket,” still remains, and in that letter, Crèvecoeur reintroduces us to the more emotionally truthful voice of James, from whom we have previously heard only briefly.

In Letter 4, the first of the sequence, the Farmer's factual, third-person description of the Nantucket waterfront, in which he offers evidence to back up his claims of Quaker simplicity and hard work, is interrupted by a sudden switch to the first person, in which the voice of James blurts out an observation that does not fit easily with what has preceded it:

At my first landing, I was much surprised at the disagreeable smell which struck me in many parts of the town; it is caused by the whale oil and is unavoidable; the neatness peculiar to these people can neither remove or prevent it.

[P. 111]

This detail about the odor of the waterfront might be just an odd, almost amusing aside from any other observer, but from James it is highly significant. Throughout Letters 1-3, he remarks on the purity and health of the air, both on his farm in particular and in America in general, and that natural feature becomes a metaphor for the fresh potential the colonies have to offer. The European “no sooner breathes our air than he forms schemes … he never would have thought of in his own country” (p. 82), we are told. James claims that while he and his American brethren plow their fields, “the salubrious effluvia of the earth animate our spirits and serve to inspire us” (p. 47). In the first letter, the minister assures James that even if his letters “be not elegant, they will smell of the woods” (p. 41), a refreshing contrast to the decadence of Europe, where “the half-ruined amphitheatres and the putrid fevers of the Campania must fill the mind with the most melancholy reflections” (p. 43).

It is no wonder, then, that James is disturbed when he discovers the wharves of Nantucket soaked in a “disagreeable smell,” for he has come to expect the smell of a place to reflect its moral essence. Although the Farmer's more impersonal voice quickly resumes the narrative, this brief moment of revelation initiates a disparity between expectation and reality that will provide the underlying tension of the next four letters of the sequence, a tension that only comes to the forefront of the narrative in Letter 8.

In evaluating this interaction of voices in the Nantucket letters, critic M. M. Bakhtin's explanation of the “dialogic” method is particularly useful:

[T]his dialogic tension between two languages and two belief systems, permits authorial intentions to be realized in such a way that we can acutely sense their presence at every point in the work. … [T]he author utilizes now one language, now another, in order to avoid giving himself up wholly to either of them; he makes use of this verbal give-and-take, this dialogue of languages at every point in his work, in order that he himself might remain as it were neutral with regard to language, a third party in a quarrel between two people.6

I would suggest that the “quarrel” intrinsic to the Nantucket sequence, as well as to the Letters as a whole, is that between James's emotionally open approach to life and the Farmer's more intellectual need to organize his observations around a pre-determined thesis. What unites these differing approaches is the similarity of their aims: to claim a utopia that will serve as a refuge from both the injustices of European monarchies and the dangers of the American wilderness. In Letter 8, however, posing James's voice against the Farmer's, Crèvecoeur implements the dialogic method in what I take to be a fascinating reassessment of the four letters that precede it.


After two anecdotal paragraphs about the island's single-horse carts and the universal habit of whittling, the Farmer ungracefully segues, without so much as a paragraph break, into a new subject:

As the sea excursions are often very long, their [the whalemen's] wives in their absence are necessarily obliged to transact business, to settle accounts, and in short, to rule and provide for their families. … The absence of so many of them [the husbands] at particular seasons leaves the town quite desolate; and this mournful situation disposes the women to go to each other's house much oftener than when their husbands are at home: hence the custom of incessant visiting has infected every one.

[P. 157]

This scene of a town emptied of men is especially “mournful” and “desolate” when we compare it to the scenes of familial togetherness on James's farm, where even his plow is equipped with a babyseat. From a very personal standpoint, James—who at one point comments that his family is so precious to him that “whenever I go abroad, it is always involuntary” (p. 54)—would certainly find this aspect of Nantucket life very troubling, even unnatural.

Indeed, James's startled voice—the presence of which is signaled by the personal pronoun—intrudes to reveal an unusual aspect of life on Nantucket.

A singular custom prevails here among the women, at which I was greatly surprised and am really at a loss how to account for the original cause that has introduced in this primitive society so remarkable a fashion, or rather so extraordinary a want. They have adopted these many years the Asiatic custom of taking a dose of opium every morning, and so deeply rooted is it that they would be at a loss how to live without this indulgence; they would rather be deprived of any necessary than forego their favourite luxury.

[P. 160]

Opium, rather than Valium, was the “Mother's Helper” of choice on Nantucket two hundred years ago, and the parallel between Nantucket and a twentieth-century commuting town emptied of men gone off to bring home the bacon (or blubber) is eerily close. The Nantucket women may uncomplainingly carry on the duties of raising a family without their husbands, but the evidence of stress is undeniable—a stress symptomatic of a society that must tear itself in half (into the two worlds of work and family) if it is to sustain itself economically.

Although the “mournful situation” of the town provides ample evidence for the addiction James observes, the Farmer, just like James, claims to be completely baffled by the habit:

It is hard to conceive how a people always happy and healthy, in consequence of the exercise and labour they undergo, never oppressed with the vapours of idleness, yet should want the fictitious effects of opium to preserve that cheerfulness to which their temperance, their climate, their happy situation, so justly entitle them.

[P. 160]

Here the Farmer sounds like Gulliver describing the Houyhnhnms; he is unwilling to draw appropriate conclusions from the evidence arrayed before him. Whereas the Farmer ignores the implications of James's observations, James struggles to come to terms with them. At first he had characterized Nantucketers' opium use as a “favourite luxury” which they would choose over any “necessary.” Later, James's unflagging empathy leads him to redefine the very nature of luxury and necessity as he relates a conversation with a Nantucket official,

who is an eminent physician beside and whom I had the pleasure of being well acquainted with. … He takes three grains of it [opium] every day after breakfast, without the effects of which, he often told me, he was not able to transact any business.

[P. 160]

No judgments are forthcoming. The doctor simply does what he has to do to enhance the performance of his duties.

Albert Stone speaks of “Crèvecoeur's use of James as an innocent mouthpiece … [which] sets up the kind of ironic interplay between naïve actor and knowing narrator that … is characteristic of many American novels and autobiographies.”7 Certainly James fulfills that function in this passage. Because James's views are posed against those of the Farmer, however, Crèvecoeur's artistic accomplishment in Letter 8 is rather more complex than Stone has allowed. The dialogic interplay of the narrative's two voices (the Farmer versus James) shifts attention from their views—stated and implied—to the beliefs of Crèvecoeur, which are embodied within the form of the whole.

The tension Crèvecoeur creates with his narrative shifts casts doubt on the authority of the Farmer's utopian view of Nantucket. James's observations do not fit comfortably into the categories developed by the Farmer, who has taken great satisfaction in advertising Nantucket as a community both happy and successful because its people enjoy “perfect freedom” and share an inherent belief in honesty and hard work. James, however, “feels” some of the problems pulsing beneath the surface calm. From the mix of scholarly, detached observation and emotional involvement emerges a rich and detailed picture of life on Nantucket, a life which is at once laudable and fraught with the usual cares of humanity.

James has broken out of his shell with the revelation of opium use; soon he steps completely out of the Farmer's role to become what Wayne Booth has termed a “narrator agent.”8 By taking a local Quaker girl to a “house of entertainment” in the Polpis area of the island, James wreaks havoc with the pat, often stereotypical attitudes of the Farmer's doctrinaire utopianism:

I … had the satisfaction of conducting thither one of the many beauties of that island (for it abounds with handsome women), dressed in all the bewitching attire of the most charming simplicity; like the rest of the company, she was cheerful without loud laughs, and smiling without affectation. … We returned as happy as we went; and the brightness of the moon kindly lengthened a day which had passed, like other agreeable ones, with singular rapidity.

[P. 162]

The “beauty” described here has a vibrant physical presence that does not correspond to the usual notion of a Quaker as a drab, polite wraith; she is more an ingenuous siren, tempting the Farmer out of his role as objective observer into a rare instance of personal participation in Nantucket life, a direct involvement that inspires a longing and lyrical look at the moon.9

As this little passage indicates, not all of James's personal experiences in the Nantucket sequence are dark and despairing. What his revelations do hold in common, however, is a fealty to emotional truth that inevitably works to subvert the glib assurances with which the Nantucket sequence begins. Because of this truthfulness, the most powerful passages of the sequence offer descriptions of a life that is too unmanageable, too threatening, too alluring to let us rest in the belief that the Nantucketers (or anyone else for that matter) have laid to rest all the problems of the world.

In the next and penultimate paragraph of Letter 8, James, now a full-blown narrator agent, takes us on a journey to Siasconset, the easternmost part of the island. Here he discovers a house overlooking an empty beach and the ocean beyond: “I had never before seen a spot better calculated to cherish contemplative ideas, perfectly unconnected with the great world, and far removed from its perturbations” (p. 163). Although James may be initially attracted to the house as a refuge from the world's confusions (a seaside version of the quiet little arbor on his farm), its view of the ocean requires, instead, that he confront the “perturbations” he has come here to escape:

[M]y eyes were involuntarily directed to the horizontal line of that watery surface, which is ever in motion and ever threatening destruction to these shores. My ears were stunned with the roar of its waves rolling one over the other, as if impelled by a superior force to overwhelm the spot on which I stood. … [W]ho is the landman that can behold without affright so singular an element?

[P. 163]

Finally we see firsthand the vast and raging “frontier” of the whalemen's hunt, site of “extensive desolations” the Farmer blithely wished would never be visited upon Nantucket in his conclusion to Letter 7. Most important, this passage provides the sequence with a metaphor of what Bakhtin has called “the brute heteroglossia of the real world”10 and foreshadows James's ultimate confrontation with the darkness that will force him to abandon his farm.

Certainly, this ocean of unmitigated reality hardly seems like a “field” suitable for passive “cultivation.” On the contrary, James now sees the sea for what it is—perilous and terrifying—not so much for the whalers who go to battle with all of the studied nonchalance of fighter pilots with the “right stuff” but for the mothers and wives who must wait and watch from their widows' walks. They are the ones at the mercy of the ocean's hypnotic and spiritually unhealthful “force,” which infects them with the babble and addictions of denial as they dart from house to house, breathing in the stench of whale oil. James's recognition that the Atlantic represents a frontier as wild and dangerous as the inland frontier he describes in Letter 3 creates as intermediate closure in the narrative which will be finalized at the end of the book. The supposed paradises of his farm and Nantucket Island are now seen as hemmed in on either side by the forces of chaos and destruction. A claustrophobic panic builds through the letters that follow as these forces march progressively closer to James's farm.

In the next paragraph the Farmer ends the Nantucket sequence by once again resorting to a farming metaphor in an attempt to domesticate the tumultuous sea: “Here … human industry has acquired a boundless field to exert itself in—a field which will not be fully cultivated in many ages!” (p. 165). That this statement (as well as its rather desperate exclamation mark) flies in the face of what James experiences on the Siasconset beach goes without saying; but in signaling the end of the Nantucket sequence, it also marks the end of the Farmer's ability to contain the volatility of James's observations. In Letter 9, which carries the action down the coast to South Carolina, the personal vision with which James confronts the sea again gains ascendancy.

This time the violence and unpredictability of the ocean are given a mutilated human face of horrifying immediacy when James describes a slave left to die in a cage. “I found myself suddenly arrested by the power of affright and terror,” he reports, “my nerves were convulsed; I trembled; I stood motionless, involuntarily contemplating the fate of this Negro in all its dismal latitude” (p. 178). In both this and the Siasconset beach scene, James's urgent, emotionally charged voice verges on hysteria. All intellectual attempts to explain away the experience are doomed to failure. A greater “truth” has been achieved at the expense of the Farmer's objectivity, but that truth is not liberating.

The interplay of narrative voices in the letters of the Nantucket sequence is indicative of James's internal struggle throughout the book—a struggle between his tendency to live emotionally in the world and his more intellectual need to distance himself from that world. The tragedy of the Letters is that James is never able to reconcile these two halves of his sensibility; his all-or-nothing emotional life constrains his intellect to provide a retreat from the world's problems rather than a means of confronting them. Little wonder, then, that when these rickety utopias get kicked asunder by the brutish “real world,” James is left intellectually rudderless.

In the final letter, the outbreak of the Revolution renders James virtually incapable of rational thought. As he laments his losses and enumerates his dreads, he admits, “I am convulsed … [;] I fly from one erratic thought to another” (pp. 209-10). But in the end he at least realizes that his previous trust in the ability of a well-run microcosm (be it his farm or Nantucket) to achieve its own independent happiness has disregarded the basic fact of man's dependence on other men:

He cannot live in solitude; he must belong to some community bound by some ties, however imperfect. … I had never before these calamitous times formed any such ideas; I lived on, laboured and prospered, without having ever studied on what the security of my life and the foundation of my prosperity were established; I perceived them just as they left me.

[P. 201]

Had he but followed his own instincts on Siasconset beach, James would have acknowledged what he fully comprehends only in the book's last letter: that man is ultimately subservient to forces outside his control and finds his only solace in community.



As Bernard Chevignard has demonstrated, the “country seat” of John and Keziah Coffin, which is mentioned in Letter 8 of Letters from an American Farmer (p. 159), was not completed until September 1777, indicating that Crèvecoeur either visited Nantucket for a second time or, a more likely alternative, received updated information about the island after the outbreak of the Revolution. Although Chevignard offers this evidence in support of his view that Crèvecoeur may have “recast and enlarged” his original letters “at a time when he had become ‘a very different man’—an uprooted and confused ‘farmer of feelings,’ who was vainly striving in hostile surroundings to ward off depersonalization, destruction, and death,”—Chevignard does not apply this insight to the Nantucket letters themselves; instead, he sees Siasconset beach as providing a “retreat” from “the evils of slavery and of war” that take over the final third of the book.11

I would suggest that Crèvecoeur did indeed “recast” his original writings about Nantucket in or after 1777, most thoroughly in the last letter in the sequence, “Peculiar Customs at Nantucket.” As I have attempted to demonstrate, the letter previous to it, which ends with a benediction that “the citizens of Nantucket dwell long here in uninterrupted peace, undisturbed … by … the political commotions which sometimes agitate our continent” (p. 154), seems to conclude the sequence as a whole. This, I would argue, is in fact the original ending of the sequence, which could have been written only before Nantucket began to experience the devastating effects of the Revolution.

As the historian Edward Byers has pointed out, Nantucket's response to the outbreak of hostilities was very similar to Crèvecoeur's:

Like Crèvecoeur himself, Nantucket sought neutrality. Prospering under the benevolent protection of a distant king, Nantucketers saw no reason to revolt. They hoped only to be left alone. But the Revolution confronted the islanders with the harsh realities of provincial and international politics they had for so long avoided. Their fellow colonists, and the British who dominated the surrounding seas, demanded that Nantucket choose sides.12

As they were for Crèvecoeur, the results were disastrous for Nantucket. As early as 1775, the General Court, then in residence at Watertown, grew suspicious that many of the islanders were assisting the British and passed resolves initially cutting off and then severely limiting exports to Nantucket. It was not long before the active port Crèvecoeur depicts in the first letter of the Nantucket sequence experienced a complete and disturbing turnaround. According to Edouard Stackpole in Nantucket in the American Revolution, “Whaleships lay idle alongside the wharves, many stripped of sails and rigging; the sloops that regularly carried supplies and provisions to and from Sherborne [on Nantucket] lay idle.”13

By the fall of 1777, both Continental and British interference had greatly impaired the Nantucketers' ability to carry on their whaling fishery. Inevitably, the Quaker whaling society Crèvecoeur had so applauded for its gentleness and virtue was wracked by the same conflicts that characterized the community surrounding his farm. As Stackpole has shown, the island became increasingly divided in its loyalties, with many influential merchants on the island (such as John and Keziah Coffin) clinging to their royal connections (financial and otherwise) while the lower and middle classes became more and more sympathetic to the Continental cause as increasing numbers of Nantucket sailors were imprisoned in the British prison hulks in New York.14 It is my contention that under these circumstances, Crèvecoeur could not help but reassess his earlier view of Nantucket as an “undisturbed” and “happy settlement.” The final letter in the sequence offers a tortured and heartfelt chronicle of that reluctant reassessment while also demonstrating Crèvecoeur's conscious artistry in adapting the Nantucket material to the developing thematic concerns of the book as a whole.

The preliminary findings of Everett and Katherine Emerson, editors of a forthcoming edition of Letters from an American Farmer based on Crèvecoeur's holograph manuscript at the Library of Congress, shed a new and intriguing light on many of these issues. While determining that Crèvecoeur “had the concept, emphases, and limitations of the [Nantucket] series formed in his mind and at least partly on paper by 1770-72,” the Emersons have identified several additional post-1772 references of the kind Chevignard described in 1984. Significantly, these later references are not included as insertions in the manuscript “but are in normal position within the lines, on the proper pages and in handwriting indistinguishable from that used through this copy of the Nantucket sequence.” Indeed, the neatness of the Nantucket manuscript distinguishes it from that of the other letters. According to the Emersons, the Nantucket letters are “written or copied as a single continuous document” with relatively few changes while “[i]n most or all the other Letters, changes in the ms. are so extensive and so radical that they suggest the extant ms. pages began as first or very early drafts and ended up, with all subsequent revisions written on the same paper, as the final drafts.” This leads the Emersons to conclude that the Nantucket manuscript “superseded an earlier one, apparently no longer extant.”15

Acknowledging that “Crèvecoeur could hardly have learned of the Coffins' happenings of 1777 without learning also of the decline of the whaling-based economy,” the Emersons rightly ask, “why did he write of Nantucket's prosperity in the present tense rather than update his discussion by at least referring to the current misfortunes?” The Emersons note that “[t]o discuss the depression that later hit the island would emphatically undercut what [Crèvecoeur had already] written, and very likely he did not have enough information to describe a Nantucket in depression, had he wished to attempt it.” He therefore inserted post-1772 details into “a document already conceived and substantially composed.”16

If the rewriting process simply involved the insertion of stray post-1772 details, however, it might have easily been accomplished through the practice of same-page revisions Crèvecoeur used elsewhere in the Letters. I would take the existence of a late, fully re-copied Nantucket manuscript as an indication that Crèvecoeur heavily revised his original Nantucket writings, if not in the initial letters, most certainly in the final letter of the sequence, in which the comforting peacetime benediction that ends Letter 7 is exchanged for the raging, war-like image of surf on the Siasconset beach. While the Emersons state that the ending of Letter 7 and other hopeful references in the sequence may date from the earlier draft, they also mention the possibility that Crèvecoeur first wrote these segments “with tongue in cheek” in the later draft, knowing full well that Nantucket was being “convulsed” by just the sorts of misfortunes the narrator wishes the island might avoid.17 Whether or not it was originally written ironically, the sentiment expressed at the end of Letter 7 is certainly at odds with not only the historical reality of Nantucket in 1777 but the emotional “truth” of the letter that follows it.

Although it is for its literary impact that we most value Letters from an American Farmer, its historical authenticity has also been assumed by and well served such scholars as Edward Byers, author of an excellent history of the island. One of the strongest indicators that the book's episodes, although conveyed in fictional form, are based on fact is a first edition of the Letters now housed in the Nantucket Atheneum. Owned at one time by George R. Young and containing marginalia written in the nineteenth century by prominent Nantucketer F. C. Sanford (which he identified with his initials), as well as several other unidentified islanders, this copy offers what is in effect a colloquy of elders commenting on the Letters. Throughout the marginalia, Sanford and the others clearly accept the account as coming from a person who has been to the island. Even when they disagree with his claims, as they do to the reference to opium use, they find fault with Crèvecoeur's sources on the island rather than accuse him of excessive fictionalizing. “A lie. Without a shadow of foundation,” writes one about drug use. Sanford chimes in, “It was only an old man's whim—Dr. Tucker and none other upon the Island,” while yet another corrects, “Dr. Tupper—not Tucker told the author that this custom prevailed, which was false.”

Although a 1905 article in the Nantucket Historical Association Proceedings asserts that on the basis of these reactions, we must discredit Crèvecoeur's claims about opium use,18 I am less inclined to take Sanford and company's righteous indignation at face value. Certainly, the tendency of Nantucketers to close ranks against off-island or “coof” criticism is legendary. In a May 1847 journal entry, in which he records his impressions after a two-week stay on the island, Emerson says that the Nantucketers are “[v]ery sensitive to every thing that dishonours the island because it hurts the value of stock till the company are poorer.”19 And, more to the point, during recent sewer work in downtown Nantucket, many small glass opium bottles, part of the debris buried after the Great Fire of 1846, were unearthed.20 Although these remains are from a different era, they make one suspect that Crèvecoeur may not have been so misguided after all. Instead, he may well have probed more deeply into the island's secret self than most local residents considered acceptable, and the denials in the margins of the Atheneum's first edition stand as an ultimate tribute to the powers of Crèvecoeur's empathetic (and James-like) insight.

Along the same lines, the Farmer's unwillingness to recognize whaling as a violent hunt almost assuredly accords with the view Nantucketers wanted to project of themselves. Indeed, it was not until Owen Chase's 1821 account of a whale sinking the Essex and the horrifying acts of cannibalism to which the survivors of the wreck were reduced, that the public imagination began to come to grips with the essential barbarity of whaling.21 It would be left to Melville to apply the full truth of this disturbing insight to the Quaker whalemen of Nantucket.


  1. Thomas Philbrick, St. John de Crèvecoeur (New York: Twayne, 1970), p. 79. Other critics who are in basic agreement with Philbrick's arguments for the thematic unity of the Letters include Albert Stone, introduction to Crèvecoeur's Letters (New York: Penguin, 1981); Michael Gilmore, introduction, Letters (London: Dent, 1971); and A. W. Plumstead, “Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur,” American Literature, 1774-1789, ed. Everett Emerson (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1977).

  2. Philbrick, Crèvecoeur, pp. 80-81; Stone, intro. to Letters, p. 16.

  3. Crèvecoeur, “Letters from an American FarmerandSketches of Eighteenth-Century America” (New York: Penguin, 1981), p. 53. Further references are provided in the text.

  4. Philbrick, Crèvecoeur, p. 44. Other critics who have commented on the change of voice in the Nantucket sequence include, among others, Russel Nye in “Michel-Guillaume St. Jean de Crèvecoeur: Letters from an American Farmer,Landmarks of American Writing, ed. Henning Cohen (New York: Basic Books, 1969), p. 39, who speaks of the “change to a less emotional mood”; and David Larson, in “The Expansive Sensibility of Michel-Guillaume Jean de Crèvecoeur,” Exploration 2 (1974): 40, who claims that “James has dwindled to a ghostly presence” by the time he arrives on Nantucket.

  5. Gilmore, intro. to Letters, p. ix.

  6. M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), p. 314.

  7. Stone, intro. to Letters, pp. 18-19.

  8. Wayne Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961), p. 153.

  9. In the French Lettres, the description of the Quaker girl is even longer and, if anything, heightens her sensuality (a translation appears in Everett Crosby's Nantucket in Print [Nantucket: Tetaukimo Press, 1946], p. 85), with detailed references to the “brightness of her complexion,” her dark and “beautiful hair,” her “charming” waist, and her “grey silk dress.”

  10. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, p. 385.

  11. Bernard Chevignard, “St. John de Crèvecoeur in the Looking Glass: Letters from an American Farmer and the Making of a Man of Letters,” Early American Literature 19 (1984): 183. However, Chevignard was not the first to note that the Nantucket sequence contains several wartime references. Emil F. Guba, in Nantucket Odyssey, rev. ed. (Lexington: Lexington Press, 1965), p. 139, determined that the Letters “describe circumstances which were non-existent in 1772. Crèvecoeur became aware of these later events presumably from a second visit to the island prior to his year's imprisonment beginning July 1779 in New York.”

  12. Edward Byers, The Nation of Nantucket: Society and Politics in an Early American Commercial Center, 1660-1820 (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1987), p. 201.

  13. Edouard Stackpole, Nantucket in the American Revolution (Nantucket: Nantucket Historical Association, 1976), p. 25.

  14. Stackpole, Nantucket in the American Revolution, p. 47.

  15. Everett and Katherine Emerson, “Dating the Nantucket Letters: Summary of Considerations 5/15/91,” 9-page memorandum made available to the author, pp. 1-2.

  16. Emersons, “Dating the Nantucket Letters,” pp. 4-5.

  17. Emersons, “Dating the Nantucket Letters,” pp. 7-8.

  18. “An American Farmer's Letters from Nantucket,” Nantucket Historical Association Proceedings 11 (1905): 43.

  19. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks, vol. 10, 1847-48, ed. Merton Sealts, Jr. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973), p. 63.

  20. Told to the author by Edward Dougan, an interpreter for the Nantucket Historical Association, who witnessed some of the excavation.

  21. The text of Owen Chase's Narrative appears in Thomas Farel Heffernan's Stove by a Whale (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1981).

Jeffrey H. Richards (essay date 1998)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8960

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 that remained in manuscript until 1925 or, in a few cases, until 1995. One of those fugitive pieces, a collection of dramatic scenes entitled “Landscapes” (1776 or 1777), is a bitter, deeply ironic denunciation of the Revolution that raises critical questions about the idealized America depicted in the famous Letter III, “What Is an American?”2 Although there is very little scholarship on “Landscapes”—indeed, on most of the originally unpublished short works—the play engages a number of significant themes raised in different contexts by Letters.3 For Crèvecoeur, the Revolution proved, at least in its early stages, to be a deeply disappointing, even horrifying event. In “Landscapes” the collapse of whig ideals, the perversion of local control over public affairs, and most especially, the dangers for domestic life in a world torn by political tumult reflect darkly the more buoyant depiction of American life in the first half of Letters.

In Letter III, Farmer James, the politically neutral narrator of Letters, seeks or promotes conditions that ensure the happiness of the individual family.4 “Landscapes,” by contrast, shows a world where whig cruelty destroys the hopes of neutrals and loyalists to recreate anything like home again. Privacy, domestic tranquility, individual religious liberty, freedom of political opinion, even master-slave relations all become casualties of a revolution that in Crèvecoeur's drama has no moral purpose. In the end, the play casts serious doubt on the ability or desire of a new republican regime to continue the policy of prosperity and tolerance to which Farmer James pays eloquent homage in Letters.

The basic narrative of “Landscapes” features as main character the chairman of a patriot committee of safety, Deacon Beatus, who oversees the wartime interrogation of suspected tories and the confiscation of their properties. Other characters include Beatus's wife, Eltha; Potter, a tavern keeper, who is being put out of business by the strife; various citizens and partisans; two slaves; and loyalist victims of the purge. The play contains an introduction; some stage directions; six interconnected scenes, each a numbered “landscape”; and a description at the end of four “plates” (not pictured in the manuscript) that may have been intended to serve as illustrations for the scenes. Although not unique among his works in having dialogue, “Landscapes” is the only piece Crèvecoeur constructed entirely as a drama.

The introduction, written in a mode of address similar to that of Farmer James, argues that the Revolution is “unnatural,” that citizens have been “allured” by “poisons and subtle sophisms” to cast off every “ancient prejudice” or allegiance.5 The narrator proposes to show scenes that are “genuine copies of originals” he has witnessed, and he asks to be judged by their fidelity to truth (pp. 426, 427). In the first landscape, the Deacon, his wife, and their son Eliphalet discuss the previous night's harassment of local tories by another son, Anthony.6 The family is suddenly visited by Squire Rearman, a suspected loyalist who has just been released from prison. Rearman complains of his treatment, his separation from his family, and the general terror instituted by the committee of safety. After Rearman leaves, Eltha announces that, despite the Sabbath, she and her husband will visit the condemned estate of a loyalist fugitive (Francis Marston) to get an early look at the household goods to be auctioned. Of Mrs. Marston, Eltha remarks, “I want to see how the woman looks with all her little Tory bastards about her” (p. 438). The next, brief scene shows Eltha and Beatus on the road as they converse with a militia officer who has tried unsuccessfully to catch Marston.

The third and fourth landscapes take place in a tavern owned by Potter, a “landlord.” The chairman and “chairwoman” have stopped on their way to Marston's and try to convince Potter that life is better under the whigs. The landlord speaks of his obedience to the new regime while indicating that his sentiments lie with the monarchical governance and Anglican worship that he associates with the region's onetime prosperity. After the couple leave, others arrive in the long fourth scene to debate the issues of the day. Some, like Colonel Tempelman and Aaron Blue-Skin (whose surname is slang for a rigid Calvinist), are warm patriots; others, like Ecclestone and the foreigner, Iwan, cast doubts on the nobility of the whig cause. The climactic moment occurs when Captain Shoreditch, a committee militia officer, brings in three Quakers as enemies of the people. That such peaceable folk have become anathema provides Crèvecoeur with a powerful illustration of the reversal of order that is the unnatural dimension of the Revolution.

Scenes five and six show martyred loyalists. In five, Beatus and Eltha examine Mrs. Marston on the whereabouts of her husband, while she takes a principled stand against the destruction of her family and civil order. In six, the committee officers meet “the woman in despair,” Martha Corwin, on the road. With her child dead and herself homeless, this victim of patriot justice gives a final voice to the suffering caused by what she sees as committee persecutions.

“Landscapes” rarely refers to the military conflict or, in any serious philosophical way, the ideological struggles of the 1770s. Rather, it focuses almost entirely on the consequences of a hostile invasion of the private domain by an anarchic instrument of terror, the committee of safety. The play's power derives from the contrast of the woeful present with the idyllic past, which Crèvecoeur had framed in Letters as a vision of “felicity” (p. 52). This type of happiness depends on the skill of the farmer's hands, the richness of his soil, and the silken bands of a “mild government” (p. 67) whose chief purpose, it appears, is to protect the intimate space of individual families from intrusion. This happiness is grounded in domesticity. The metamorphosis of the European peasant into the American farmer culminates at the happy hearth; the chief emblem of this classic transformation is the picture in Letter II of the farmer at home:

When I contemplate my wife, by my fireside, while she either spins, knits, darns, or suckles our child, I cannot describe the various emotions of love, of gratitude, of conscious pride, which thrill in my heart and often overflow in involuntary tears. I feel the necessity, the sweet pleasure, of acting my part, the part of an husband and father, with an attention and propriety which may entitle me to my good fortune.

(p. 53)

Thus the end of the American experiment is the farmer's tender contemplation of the domestic scene that is the result of his material success—and his leisure, won by agricultural labor, to write about it.7

The paean to domestic felicity comes at the beginning of Crèvecoeur's originally published text. Later letters raise disturbing issues connected to slavery (IX) and to the outbreak of wartime violence in the agricultural district (XII). The future of the happy domestic life is left in doubt when, at the end of the last letter, Farmer James thinks about retreating with his family from the chaos of revolution and living in the wilderness among the natives. Even then, however, James believes it possible to reconstitute the pre-Revolutionary family, albeit in diminished circumstances.

By and large, the prose pieces left unpublished in 1782—including “Landscapes”—are a far darker set of writings even than the last chapters of Letters. While a few, such as “Various Rural Subjects” and “Snow Storm,” continue the lighter epistolary mode made familiar in the early part of Letters, combining detailed observation of American natural and social life with commentary on the relative merits of America vis-à-vis Europe, several—“The English and the French,” “The Man of Sorrows,” “The Wyoming Massacre,” “The History of Mrs. B,” “The American Belisarius,” and “The Frontier Woman” among them—record the savagery of war, largely from the standpoint of a tory sympathizer. For its part, “Landscapes” skewers patriot laws, heroes, and politics with an irony that rivals Jonathan Swift's in intensity and loyalist propagandists' such as Jonathan Sewall in antagonism to a popular regime. It is a long distance from the elegiac yet qualifiedly hopeful tone of Letter XII to the enmity for the Revolution and the satiric vitriol contained in “Landscapes.”8

As one of the last pieces written by Crèvecoeur before he fled to New York City, “Landscapes” reveals the wider implications of the vision of America that precedes it.9 Gone is any overt reference to the process of personal transformation that Farmer James describes in Letter III: “the progressive steps of a poor man, advancing from indigence to ease, from oppression to freedom” through good habits and “emigration” (p. 90) to English America.10 Instead, we have episodes of hypocrisy, cruelty, and shocking violence in the farmer's home region, the likes of which are matched in Letters only by the horrific image of the slave dying in the cage.

Letters offers a picture of the good life, grounded in liberty and individual autonomy, where personal and familial independence are maintained by honest labor, property ownership, civil rights, mutual respect, peace, and the institution of marriage. Farmer James equates this American package of English liberties with domestic tranquility, rendered as home and polity, yet he refuses to engage in any partisan political rendering of the life he depicts. In “Landscapes,” each of the interlocking components of civil and personal felicity is blasted by the Revolution. The enemies are not outsiders but neighbors—the very whigs whose political doctrine embraces the liberties that James undogmatically affirms. For Crèvecoeur, whig practices defeat whig principles. In the name of peace, the partisans conduct terror; for domestic bliss, the patriots substitute political success. No invader could more resolutely destroy whig principles than the whigs themselves. Letter XII shows a world tilted; “Landscapes” pictures that world upside down.

The depiction of committee terror in “Landscapes” shows this reversal immediately. Beatus (no last name is given), variously called “Deacon,” “Mr. Chairman,” and “Colonel,” is presented as a Presbyterian hypocrite whose intrusive execution of laws enacted by the Continental Congress ruins the lives of the innocent. Victims of Beatus's intimidation—Squire Rearman, Landlord Potter, and Mrs. Marston—decry the loss of property that gave them some measure of happiness in the past. If there is to be politics at all, Crèvecoeur suggests, then government ought to maintain the rights of citizens to live without intrusion in domestic tranquility. The true commonwealth is in the home. Unfortunately, the relative absence of government in America makes domesticity the first target when local authority steps into the vacuum left by a doctrine of personal autonomy.

The nature of authority, particularly in the application of domestic models to the political sphere, is complexly rendered in “Landscapes.” In the introduction, Crèvecoeur's narrator invokes analogies to painting to describe what he is about to portray in dramatic terms. Crèvecoeur is known to have sketched his own farm in 1778; he probably had some awareness of European art traditions.11 The scene that shows Farmer James gazing contentedly on his wife and infant by the fire is cast in a pose reminiscent of the French rural domestic scenes painted by Jean-Baptiste Greuze, Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, and others that fix, in the manner of a stage tableau, an intensely sentimentalized bond among the family members depicted.12 The narrator calls his readers' attention to subjects and textures that would escape those who would gaze on “the pompous, the captious, the popular, the ostensible, the brilliant part of these American affairs” (p. 424). In a revealing shift of metaphor, the narrator remarks, “'Tis not the soaring eagle, rivaling the clouds in height and swiftness, I mean to show you; 'tis only the insignificant egg from which it is hatched” (p. 424). It is not the magnificent bird, also the symbol of the patriots, that he wishes to limn, but the egg and, as he adds later, “the nest in which it was hatched” (p. 425)—that is to say, the originating domicile.

But painting may not be adequate as a medium to portray all the shades of contrast between eagle and egg. To capture the desired landscape—a word that can mean “faint or shadowy representation” or “the depiction or description of something in words” as well as scenic picture—the narrator turns to drama. Reflecting the analogies drawn by Diderot in the 1750s between art and the theater and anticipating the general thrust of stage entertainments in the nineteenth century, the prospective painter becomes distressed dramatist, who turns to a genre more fully suited to represent the scenes he claims to have witnessed.13 In his own Letters II and III, as in French paintings of humble interiors, the domestic scene is rendered as a sentimental moment, a congeries of emotions, satisfactions, even wonders that, in Michael Fried's term, leads to a powerful “absorption”—in the case of Farmer James, the result of contemplating his own home-centered bliss. Crèvecoeur's earlier writing anticipates the predominating doctrine that motivates the French origination of melodrama: the establishment of a cohesive set of values rooted in home and hearth whose potential or actual disruption creates highly charged images of the ruin of virtue.14

The implications of this choice can be seen in the way Crèvecoeur represents domestic life. Where Letters focuses largely on the farmer himself as proud husband and father, “Landscapes” makes much of women as emblems for the presence or absence of home-centered virtue. As Dennis Moore rightly affirms, the primary female figures in “Landscapes” are “among Crèvecoeur's most vivid creations.”15 In fact, unlike Farmer James's wife, a woman usually seen through the filtering gaze of the farmer himself, the women in the scenes speak in their own voices, offering themselves as subjects. Yet the author was certainly aware that the depiction of the female in popular art of the time—notably the political cartoon—amounted frequently to iconographic transferral: the body of the woman was the body of the state—and thus too a symbol of the domestic sphere or, as Judith Sargent Murray called the family, “a well regulated Commonwealth.” Because women are focal for the drama, their characterization especially reflects Crèvecoeur's conception of domestic values in the farming region.16

The principal female character is Eltha, the wife of the chairman and a prototype of the vindictive Jacobin woman most memorably rendered in the figure of Charles Dickens's Madame de Farge. Eltha behaves consistently throughout the scenes; she is venal, political, calculating, and finally ruthless.17 As a woman without feeling, she implies the defeat of order in the world. Without a compassionating center—figured in the later ideology of Republican motherhood as the woman of both reason and feeling—the family becomes a dangerous force whose unrestrained desires find power in the politically destabilized world outside the home. While the chairman falsely claims to be above the cupidity of the arch-partisans, Eltha makes no such assertions and no apologies for her persecutions of loyalists.

For Crèvecoeur, whiggish republicanism destroys the home and robs its inhabitants of private life. With the sentimental centrality of the female as an icon for domestic tranquility, any alteration in the image of a woman carries symbolic weight. The woman who, through a vacuum created by the expulsion of the benevolent squirearchy, abandons attachment to home for Machiavellian maneuvering comes to represent dramatically the perversion of Lockean authority in a landscape of revolution. Unlike the loyalist women figured later in the play, Eltha appears as a perversion of female power under the old system; she trades her normal sphere, the care of those in her household, for another, the careless reordering of others' homes. Her character is not so much the cause of the Revolutionary attack on privacy as a reflection of it.

In the first landscape, Eltha, Beatus, and one son, Eliphalet, are introduced as they gather for Sunday morning prayer. When Beatus asks after another son, Anthony, Eltha excuses him by claiming, “He was all night a-Tory-hunting and did not get home till 'most break of day” (p. 428). Eltha seems to play a sentimental role, as excuser of children's lapses to the punishing father, yet because the son has been busy abusing the innocent, his mother's advocacy reveals the decay of familial values in the radical whig home. Shortly after this exchange, Squire Rearman enters, freed from a patriot jail through the protective intervention of an unnamed citizen. When Rearman criticizes the arbitrary power of the committees, Eltha urges him to court popularity by relinquishing such protection. Should the protector himself become a political liability, Rearman would be more exposed to arbitrary justice: “The chairman, to be sure, has got power, but he can't always do as he pleases. I'd have you, good sir, take notice of that. My husband is too good, and were he to follow my advice, some people would not have to reproach him, as they do, with tenderness of heart” (p. 433). Thus, even if Beatus were to show tenderness—not likely in Crèvecoeur's satire—he would find no approval for it from the mother of his children. Again, as with her son, she plays what seems to be a mediating role: defending her husband against criticism from the outside world. Nevertheless, she insists that whatever indulgence he grants his son for hunting tories not be turned toward the enemies of the state. In Crèvecoeur's vision of a whig world gone mad, domestic tenderness has no place in political relations.

In a later scene, Eltha confronts the woman whose wealthy husband, hounded by the whigs, has escaped into British-controlled territory. As a victim of the charges against her husband, Mrs. Marston is to lose her lands and home. Eltha does not sympathize with a woman who defends her husband's honor and her children's interests—what she herself has done in the first landscape—but beats her down with argument after argument, all the while picking out choice Marston family belongings for herself. Where the ideal whig, in the Stoic language of Revolutionary rhetoric, sacrifices self-interest to providential cause, Eltha inverts the formula to suggest that self-interest and cause are one and the same. When a mother gives in to an appetite for personal wealth, her inability to identify with the interests of others represents how far domestic tranquility has been perverted. Eltha's claims to represent her own family's interests become, instead, a source for fresh brutality—ironically, against the domestic world of the other—not the rightful desires of an American household.

In wartime, only the example of the widowed or violently estranged woman trying desperately to protect her brood has the possibility—such as it is—of sparking the humanity that once flourished in the countryside.18 This situation likewise prefigures the supplicating woman of nineteenth-century melodrama who evokes feeling from blunt male characters but is unable herself to right wrongs. The heroic widow here is Mrs. Marston. Eltha attacks her for being “too high” (p. 472), that is, arrogant and unrepentant before the committee. Mrs. Marston replies,

Oppression rather inflates me; misfortunes animate me. How else should I bear their weight? What precaution have I need to take? You have insulted and treated my husband worse than a slave these six months. You have hired myrmidons to hunt him, to kill him if possible; if not, to threaten setting fire to his house that he might fly to save it; and that, by flying, his extensive estate might become a sweet offering to the rulers of this county. Now you are going to strip me and his children of all we possessed, and pray, what can you do more?

(p. 472)

Mrs. Marston has heretofore regulated her home to the benefit of all, under the benign authority of her husband and, more distantly, the king. Eltha, by contrast, has not run her home with the same care, but in fact, if the actions of her sons be the proof, has shown herself to be arbitrary in use of authority. When misused domestic power spreads into the political vacuum created with the loss of the monarch, tyranny results.

Domestic life suffers further in revolution when black servants and slaves find themselves with corrupt white masters. In “Landscapes,” Crèvecoeur shows some daring as one of the first American writers to include African-American characters in a play.19 We know already from Letters that race is problematic in Crèvecoeur's rural space. As Doreen Alvarez Saar notes, in Letters both Africans and Native Americans “have been covertly excluded from the process of Americanization: they remain outside the melting pot process open to the English and the Europeans.”20 In the early pieces, Farmer James, in both his own voice and that of his wife, comments on his fat, happy slaves. In Letter IX, James cries out against the cruelties of southern slavery, which he lays at the feet of the planter class, who parade their wealth among the beau monde of the corrupt urban landscape. Most notable is the end of that letter, when James, visiting friends in South Carolina, comes across a black man caged as a punishment for wrongdoing. The man's eyes are pecked out by birds, and he is desperately thirsty; after getting water from James, he asks, in dialect, that he be poisoned and put out of his pain. James cannot oblige that last desire; instead, he must go to dinner with the slave's abusers. Symbolically, the exile and treatment of the slave can be traced in part to moral rot at the domestic core of the white household.21

In “Landscapes,” black people appear as characters or in references on several occasions but always in connection with a white household. Crèvecoeur complicates the issue of black loyalty by showing what happens to a domestically stable slave system under a whig regime.22 The first African character who enters is Tom, slave to the Deacon's family.23 At the end of the first landscape, Eltha charges Tom to ready the horses for the ride she and Beatus will take to interrogate tories. Her way of encouraging his execution of the task is to offer him whiskey on Sunday morning, to which he replies, “Tanke you, Missy. Wisky is good these cold weather for Negro” (p. 439). Not only does this add to the picture of Eltha as a religious hypocrite, but it also shows that black loyalty to patriot families must be bought through the corruption of the slave's otherwise loyal and good nature. Proper management of blacks comes from the property owner who makes it his duty to care for benighted slaves. Eltha's offering Tom alcohol shows she does not have the moral authority, grounded in her role as sentimental center of the household, to gain his natural compliance.

By contrast, Nero, the slave of Mrs. Marston, remains at his post for better reasons than Tom. Eltha asks Nero if he would come live with her son, the tory-hunting Anthony: “They say you are a good fellow, only a little Toryfied, like most of your colour” (p. 472). Nero rejects the bribe: “No, Missy, me stay and help Massa children. What do here without Nero, you been by, take all meat, all bread, all clothes?” When Eltha counters that he must be sold and might as well live with Anthony as anyone, Nero again refuses on moral grounds; “me never live with a white man who shot my master.” Responds Eltha, “You are a liar, you black dog, and I'll soon make [you] sing a new song” (p. 472). Crèvecoeur's awareness of color as a sign can be seen later. Mrs. Marston, in a long speech denouncing the overthrow of all previously revered order, remarks, “Everything is strangely perverted; black is become white, and white is become black” (pp. 478-79). For her, black means the loyal servant who contributes to the happiness of the white squire and family; for Eltha, black is nothing more than an extension of white vice, venal and corrupt.

This linkage of black characters with loyalty, in its several senses, is maintained even at the very end, after all the black characters have departed from the scene. Eltha blisters Martha Corwin for her charges against whigs: “These Tories are just like the Negroes; give them an inch, they will take an ell” (pp. 487-88). Thus the final marginalization of tories is to think of them in racial terms: the alliance between blacks and tories is one of apparent natural loyalty (and natural class distinction) and must be suppressed through the destruction of the loyalist home. Crèvecoeur's patriots here see elimination of “natural” forms of relationships, including loyal black slave to “kind” master, as key to the success of their rebellion.24

Slaves may have suffered greatly from whig attitudes, but they were not alone. Certainly, the play details cruelties that are intended to make its readers revile the perpetrators. The most pathetic victims are those who have children and the children themselves. Like melodramatists a half century later, Crèvecoeur maximizes the distress created by violence against the family by surrounding the moaning adults with suffering innocents. In the sixth landscape, the Deacon and Eltha come upon Martha Corwin, the widow of a man hanged by Lord Sterling, the patriot commander. She is mad, or so the others interpret her raving speech, but she has clearly been driven to distraction by the loss of her husband and her world. She reproves the hypocrites, as she calls them, for persecuting the defenseless and allowing her child to die, while it now lies unburied. Her last speech, the penultimate one in the play, serves as a remonstrance against the rapine spawned from seeking violent change: “Great God, give me strength and patience to wait with resignation for that day when the restoration of government shall restore to us some degree of peace and security” (p. 488). This heartrending cry resonates with Crèvecoeur's position on government: only distant and established authority, not local and upstart power, can ensure the tranquility necessary for families to live in peace.

Behind the violence that leaves the innocent dead is another casualty of war, religious toleration. Crèvecoeur, whose farmer all along has been suspicious of state religion, seeing America as that place where one is free not only to profess but also from profession, identifies his villains as Presbyterians with a marked taste for George Whitefield's sermons. Although Whitefield was an Anglican with Methodist leanings, the play voices the fear, grounded in a generic distrust of New Light enthusiasm, that an ideologically rigid Calvinism will be imposed as a state doctrine and thus intrude on the private choices made by the family. The object of his satire is clear from the first scene. After the Deacon's sons have returned home from tory hunting and Eliphalet has regaled the family with Anthony's adventures in persecution, Beatus offers up thanks:

(Here he fetches a deep sigh, and with a quivering voice, [thus] goes on.) Gracious God, pour Thy blessings on Thy favourite people. Make [us thy] chosen race to increase and prosper by the influence of Thy heavenly showers——.

(p. 429)25

The play identifies the American Calvinist rhetoric of the chosen people as a source of revolutionary violence, for it justifies acts against helpless and innocent civilians. As Squire Rearman declares, in a speech that might serve as a motto for all of Crèvecoeur's wartime essays, “Common mercy is departed (p. 431).

Crèvecoeur privileges no sect, although he clearly excoriates the Presbyterians. Rather, religion serves society only insofar as it encourages a form of social interaction that relies on mercy and tolerance. The Deacon cannot recognize that, as the squire chides him, “Tories are men as well as yourself” (p. 432); at the same time, judicial proceedings conducted under the Deacon's authority as chairman of the committee of safety are without “the least show of humanity or even reason” (p. 433). Beatus and Eltha play right into those charges in a following scene, when Eltha prophesies the new Jerusalem and the Deacon claims, “God is good; God is great; His mercy is immense. If we serve Him faithfully, I am sure, He tells my heart, that He will reward us with the spoil of our enemies” (p. 441). These “pretended saints, veteran Puritans” (p. 451), as another character, Ecclestone, calls them, are in fact inadequate interpreters of truth. Acting from passion and not from reason, ill-educated religious fanatics force a narrow Calvinism on society, destroying, in the name of God's mercy, the sustaining doctrine of family life—common mercy.26

The hypocrisy of the Revolutionaries and their self-justifying faith appears most tellingly in the long fourth landscape at the tavern. Although colonial inns sometimes had reputations for disorder, the tavern in “Landscapes” makes another house, a refuge whose internal order has been violated by the imposition of arbitrary laws of condemnation and confiscation. Once the symbol of a rightly ordered society—a place of tolerance for a variety of backgrounds and beliefs—Landlord Potter's establishment now becomes an emblem, the gathering point, for clashing voices and irreconcilable attitudes. One visitor, committee of safety member Aaron Blue-Skin, enters to denounce tories and praise God. After he leaves, Iwan, a foreign visitor, takes his measure:

This is a curious fellow, admirably well-fitted for the time. No wonder he stands so high in the estimation of the people. Profligate yet apparently religious, conceited and stubborn, he can do mischief with all the placidity of a good man and carefully avoid the ostensible parts of the sinner.

(p. 459)

Another example of social division occurs in the tavern scene at the entrance of Captain Shoreditch, his militiamen, and three Quakers, the latter tied up and under arrest for noncompliance with the laws of military support and service. Their peaceable manners and courtesy contrast with the patriot Colonel Tempelman's hotheaded denunciations of their creed; Tempelman, like the Deacon and his wife and like Aaron Blue-Skin, speaks a policy of political-sectarian cleansing. We will have an orderly society, he says, as soon as these “Toryfied gentry” (p. 467) and “pernicious” (p. 466) Quakers are expelled. Set up “New Pennsylvania” (p. 466)—a social experiment based on peace and tolerance—on the moon, says the colonel.

While the bound Quakers argue for something like Farmer James's earlier ideal of a polity in which all sects are encouraged—perhaps as checks to each other—“under the benign shadow of a just and upright government” (p. 464), the text promises affliction for the advocates of peace. The upshot of a world in which religiously inspired violence is sanctioned by law and directed primarily against the family is a choice between death or exile. The very differences between neighbors celebrated in Letters II and III as elements of a peaceful society based on mutual respect now become intolerable forms of persecution. Landlord Potter, whose establishment has mimicked the domestic in accommodating those harmless little quarrels that occur in all households, can only give away his wares and look to expulsion from his own tavern. Public spaces, once mirrors of the domestic situation of the American farmer, now become sites of the counter-domestic in which loyalty is political, not familial, and tolerance a sign of weakness, not the precondition to human metamorphosis. Given a Quaker-like refusal to join in intolerance, characters are left with flight or death as the last principled option for those who believe in common mercy. It is not much of a choice.

Throughout “Landscapes,” the language of exile makes itself felt. Mrs. Marston reminds the committee leaders that her husband has done what he can to protect his family and home, but with whig patrols out hunting and threatening to kill him, he has no choice but to flee. Perhaps laying the groundwork for his own flight from spouse and farm, Crèvecoeur portrays Francis Marston as a man of deep suffering, who must abandon those he loves to give them any chance at peace. Yet the whole effort proves futile. Mrs. Marston argues with Beatus and Eltha that forcing her husband to decide among hateful alternatives makes a mockery of his supposed free will:

They sent word that if he did not quit in three hours, the whole should be in flames. He roused himself up once more and with streaming eyes and a bleeding heart he bade me farewell. Yet this is the man you proclaim a traitor. He would have been a traitor to himself had he stayed any longer. 'Tis for my sake and that of his children, 'tis to preserve these buildings and what they contain, that he quitted. Can you in the face of that pure sun, can you say he went away out of choice?

(p. 480)

Mrs. Marston's cry reflects Crèvecoeur's locus philosophy, delineated in such sunny fashion only a few years before. Where once voluntary flight from Europe led the wanderer to the welcoming American landscape—that asylum, as Farmer James calls it—now that ground is itself spoiled, and those who remain risk treachery to themselves to stay. The domestic refuge cannot survive in a corrupted world.

In Letters, James ends by planning to flee his farm for the frontier. Although in Letter III he criticizes frontiersmen as depraved, by Letter IX he declares that, in terms of comparative corruption, cities are worse than the backwoods. Thus in Letter XII, “Distresses of a Frontier Man,” he imagines taking his family to live with the Indians, not without regret, but as a measure that will allow him some freedom to hold the hearts and minds of his children to some part of civility, even in the heart of the forest. No such possibility exists in “Landscapes.” By the time he writes the play, Crèvecoeur knows that the backwoods are full of renegade tories and Indians—the very people who attack his own home when he flees to New York City. For the exiles in the drama, wandering is all that is left.

This fate is most ruefully depicted in the sixth and final landscape, which features Martha Corwin. Her husband hanged, a child recently dead and unburied, Martha wanders the roads, a person whose sufferings ought to spur the conscience of any feeling human being. In prophetic language, Crèvecoeur puts in her mouth the most powerful accusations of the play. Responding to the cruelty of Beatus and Eltha, she cries, “Gracious God, why dost Thou suffer these rulers to plunder the widows and their children and call their rags their country's inheritance—a miserable one, which, to feed and pamper a few, leaves hundreds desolate, a prey to death and despair? And you are the chairman!” The Deacon's only response is to deny her authority: “You are mad” (p. 486).

But madness is relative. When Eltha later repeats the charge of “mad” against Martha, the victim regales her antagonist with the crux of Crèvecoeur's complaint against the Revolution, the despoliation of the domestic realm. In an ironic reversal of Letter II, which shows Farmer James admiring his wife as she nurses their child, Martha cries out to her calumniators that her milk has gone, “and my poor baby, by still suckling the dregs, fed awhile on the dregs of sorrow.” She turns on Eltha, who, in a world where domestic bliss feeds on the cozy sentiments of the heart, should be sympathetic to a suffering woman:

Aye, ma'am, that's spoken like yourself. Mingle religion with obduracy of heart, softness of speech with that unfeeling disposition which fits you so well for a chairman's wife. Despise the poor; reject the complaints of the oppressed; crush those whom your husband oversets; and our gazettes shall resound with your praise. Mad woman! Yes, I am mad to see ingratitude and hypocrisy on horseback, virtue and honesty low in the dirt.

(pp. 486-87)

Once political power hardens the heart, children may be starved, widows condemned, and all justice overturned. It is a bleak ending, promising not a good thrashing of the whigs, as an earlier anonymous pro-British play, The Battle of Brooklyn, does, but only foreseeing a long continuation of conflict, bigotry, and the destruction of domestic peace in the middle ground. In its anticipation of the melodramatic situation—the threat to domestic expressions of sentiment by implacable enemies to feeling—“Landscapes” serves as forerunner of the plays that would hold American dramatic audiences until nearly the twentieth century. Yet unlike those plays—such Anglo-American vehicles of middle-class domestic value as Douglass Jerrold's Black-Ey'd Susan or George Aiken's version of Uncle Tom's Cabin or Augustin Daly's Under the Gaslight—where salvation comes at the last minute, Crèvecoeur's play offers little hope that threats to hearth and home will, by a timely entrance, be overcome in favor of middling manners.27

Crèvecoeur cannot resist one parting shot. After the last scene, he adds four numbered paragraphs, three of which augment or repeat what has been described in the landscapes. The first paragraph describes a “copper plate” (p. 488) that shows two chained men on horseback, falling after being shot, perhaps suggesting the kind of violence perpetrated by the Deacon's son Anthony. The second illustrates the persecution of the tied Quakers by Captain Shoreditch and the militiamen. The third portrays Martha Corwin leaning against a tree, talking with Eltha and Beatus. The fourth, which may have been intended for an unwritten scene,28 reads: “A stallion rushing from the woods and covering the mare on which Eltha rides; she stoops on the neck; her husband [behind whipping] the horse, but in vain” (p. 489).29 This symbolic rape of Eltha by the backwoods stallion is the only indication of some kind of justice in the play; as such, it is crude and perplexing. The narrator's vengeance on the Revolution is to imagine the bestial humiliation of the woman, Eltha, whose corruption personifies the destruction of domestic stability. As with cartoons that displayed Britannia or America being raped or abused by leering representatives of contending countries, Crèvecoeur here makes the rape of the female emblematic of historical retribution. Omitting the scene as part of his dramatic text, he renders it at the last as a landscape of perverse violence. In this form, Crèvecoeur offers a picture of the anti-Columbia. Inverting the rape-mutilation cartoons, this final picture leaves a reader with no sympathy for the victim—and no hope for the restoration of the domestic ideal short of the violent return of the old order.

Crèvecoeur is not, at the end of his American essay-sketch-play-writing career, Farmer James. If he is to be identified with any one of his characters, it is Francis Marston, the escaping tory, who abandons his home in a futile attempt to save it. Shortly after writing his protest play against the Revolution, the author himself fled to New York, leaving family behind, perhaps hoping that his absence would increase the likelihood of mild treatment for the rest. Yet unlike Letters, in which Farmer James posits at least the possibility of a reconstructed domestic sphere among the denizens of the frontier, the voice of “Landscapes” offers a pessimistic rejection of the idea that a system of independent, well-regulated households can ensure an ordered society. In its protest, the play reveals the fundamental error behind a vision of society that relies on domestic tranquility as the end of political life. The lesson of “Landscapes,” then, is this: No society constructed on the belief that venality will be tempered by a commodious farm and fertile soil can resist the implacable surge of human passions. In other words, prosperity alone cannot combat the appeal to power fostered by revolutions. The man who gave Americans for many generations the picture of themselves they most wanted to see—the tolerant, prosperous, landholding, peaceable, and domestic people outlined in Letter III—also gave them in “Landscapes” the image of its opposite, a nightmare of popular cruelty and personal despair. And that landscape, in Crèvecoeur's time and for many years, could not be shown on any literal American stage.


  1. Originally published under his adopted American name, J. Hector St. John, Letters from an American Farmer (London, 1782; 2d ed., 1783). Most modern editions are based on the 1783 edition, which includes largely nonsubstantive corrections whose authority is difficult to identify. Editions in French, published as Letters d'un Cultivateur Américain (Paris, 1784; 1787), include material not in the 1783 English edition, but in some cases the French essays differ from the equivalent pieces in the long unpublished manuscripts in English. An authoritative edition of Letters, based on the Crèvecoeur manuscripts now owned by the Library of Congress, is being prepared by Everett Emerson and Katherine Emerson.

  2. “Landscapes” first appeared in Sketches of Eighteenth Century America: More “Letters from an American Farmer” by St. John de Crèvecoeur, ed. Henri Bourdin, Ralph Gabriel, and Stanley Williams (New Haven, 1925). Albert E. Stone, ed., Letters from an American Farmer and Sketches of Eighteenth-Century America (New York, 1981), 424-89, reprints the 1925 version and for purposes of readability is the source of all quotations from Crèvecoeur cited parenthetically in this article. Dennis D. Moore, ed., “Landskapes,” More Letters from the American Farmer: An Edition of the Essays in English Left Unpublished by Crèvecoeur (Athens, Ga., 1995), 230-93, reproduces the literal text of the manuscript in modern typography. Moore includes a more complete version of Crèvecoeur's introduction to the play and prints a few other prose pieces (separate from “Landskapes”) not found in the 1925 or 1981 versions. All passages from Stone have been checked against the text established by Moore, and significant differences are so noted.

  3. One of the first critics to take the Sketches seriously was John Brooks Moore in “The Rehabilitation of Crèvecoeur,” Sewanee Review, 35 (1927), 216-30, but few others have followed up. See, however, Emerson, “Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur and the Promise of America,” Forms and Functions of History in American Literature: Essays in Honor of Ursula Brumm, ed. Winfried Fluck, Jürgen Peper, and Willi Paul Adams (Berlin, 1981), 44-55; John Hales, “The Landscape of Tragedy: Crèvecoeur's ‘Susquehanna,’” Early American Literature, 20 (1985), 39-63; and David M. Robinson, “Community and Utopia in Crèvecoeur's Sketches,” American Literature, 62 (1990), 17-31.

    “Landscapes” is discussed in the context of other works by Crèvecoeur in Thomas Philbrick, St. John de Crèvecoeur (New York, 1970), 126-28; Manfred Putz, “Dramatic Elements and the Problem of Literary Mediation in the Works of Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur,” REAL: The Yearbook of Research in English and American Literature, 3 (1985), 111-30; Norman S. Grabo, “Crèvecoeur's American: Beginning the World Anew,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d Ser., 48 (1991), 164-65; and Moore, ed., More Letters from the American Farmer, xviii, xxi, xxii, xxiv, xxv, xxvii, xxxvii, xxxviii, xl, xlii-xlvii. There is almost nothing on “Landscapes” in studies of American drama. Two recent histories of early drama, including one that covers the 18th century quite comprehensively, ignore it entirely. See, for example, the appropriate period study in Walter J. Meserve, An Emerging Entertainment: The Drama of the American People to 1828 (Bloomington, Ind., 1977), 60-91.

  4. The use of familial language in the works of other writers has been documented by Edwin G. Burrows and Michael Wallace, “The American Revolution: The Ideology and Psychology of National Liberation,” Perspectives in American History, 6 (1972), 167-306; and Jay Fliegelman, Prodigals and Pilgrims: The American Revolution against Patriarchal Authority, 1750-1800 (Cambridge, 1982). For Crèvecoeur, the literal family's fortunes become symbolic of the national fate.

  5. The matter of voice in Crèvecoeur is complex and not easily resolved. Philbrick thinks the voice of “Landscapes” is “inappropriate” for Farmer James in St. John de Crèvecoeur, 120. Moore implicitly distinguishes the “narrator” of “Landskapes” from Farmer James in More Letters from the American Farmer, xli. However, the very format of a play makes determination of a voice in a deliberately multivocal performance problematic. Crèvecoeur includes an introduction to the play that, as will be noted, casts a grim look at the American scene. While this voice is not entirely consistent with the more naive-sounding James of Letters, a theme of declension pervades both Letters and the play. On his portrayal of a declining world in the former see Grantland S. Rice, “Crèvecoeur and the Politics of Authorship in Republican America,” EAL, [Early American Literature] 28 (1993), 91-119.

  6. As Moore's edition of the manuscript shows, Crèvecoeur inconsistently labels each part as either a “landskape” or a “scene.” Stone's edition, following the 1925 transcription, labels each part a “landscape.”

  7. For an intriguing discussion of the act of writing letters and the consequent tensions between public and private see Elizabeth Heckendorn Cook, Epistolary Bodies: Gender and Genre in the Eighteenth-Century Republic of Letters (Stanford, 1996), chap. 5.

  8. The tendency in Crèvecoeur criticism has been to see him as a hopeful, if not utopian, writer on America. This view has been promoted by decades of anthologizing Letter III, but even among scholars who see darker elements in his 1782 collection, the consensus is that there is some hope in the vision of an agrarian paradise. See, for example, Russel B. Nye, “Aristocrat in the Forest,” in American Literary History, 1607-1830 (New York, 1970), 154-59; James C. Mohr, “Calculated Disillusionment: Crèvecoeur's Letters Reconsidered,” South Atlantic Quarterly, 69 (1970), 354-63; Emerson, “Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur”; Grabo, “Crèvecoeur's American”; and Joseph Fichtelberg, “Utopic Distresses: Crèvecoeur's Letters and Revolution,” Studies in the Literary Imagination, 27 (1994), 85-101. The problem of anthologizing Crèvecoeur is succinctly analyzed by Cathy Davidson, Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America (New York, 1986), 257.

  9. Biographical information on Crèvecoeur drawn from Stone, Introduction, Letters, 7-25; Gay Wilson Allen and Roger Asselineau, St. John de Crèvecoeur: The Life of an American Farmer (New York, 1987); and Everett Emerson and Katherine Emerson, private correspondence, citing their manuscript article on Crèvecoeur for the forthcoming American National Biography.

  10. Scholars have recently tended to read Letters as an epistolary novel in order to reconcile contradictions in the text. Stephen Carl Arch, for example, makes use of the quoted passage to indicate the wholeness of Letters in “The ‘Progressive Steps’ of the Narrator in Crèvecoeur's Letters from an American Farmer,Studies in American Fiction, 18 (1990), 145-58. By reading “Landscapes” and other pieces that were not included in Letters, however, one can see that the attempts to find unity do not fully account for Crèvecoeur's thoughts on Revolutionary America.

  11. Allen and Asselineau, St. John de Crèvecoeur, 21-22, 35. In addition to his knowledge of French and other European painting, Crèvecoeur may also have seen engravings of works by the American Benjamin West, who had set up in London. See Dorinda Evans, Benjamin West and His American Students (Washington, D. C., 1980), and James Thomas Flexner, American Painting: First Flowers of Our Wilderness (Cambridge, Mass., 1947), 194-243. The painted landscape of Pine Hill is reproduced in the frontispiece of Howard Rice, Le Cultivateur Américain: Etude sur l'oeuvre de Saint John de Crèvecoeur (Paris, 1933).

  12. The relation between painting and theater for these works is discussed fully in Michael Fried, Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot (Berkeley, 1980).

  13. Definitions 4d, 4g, OED. Although the staging of plays during the middle 18th century was uncommon in America, writers during the Revolution often turned to drama as a genre suited to political topics. See Jeffrey H. Richards, Theater Enough: American Culture and the Metaphor of the World Stage, 1607-1789 (Durham, N. C., 1991), 247-91; Jared Brown, The Theatre in America during the Revolution (Cambridge, 1995); and Ginger Strand, “The Many Deaths of Montgomery: Audiences and Pamphlet Plays of the Revolution,” American Literary History, 9 (1997), 1-20.

  14. Fried, Absorption and Theatricality, esp. 7-70; Peter Brooks, The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama, and the Mode of Excess (New Haven, 1995; orig. pub. 1976), 82-93.

  15. Moore, ed., More Letters from the American Farmer, xlv. On the matter of Farmer James's wife in view of other comments by Crèvecoeur, literal and metaphorical, on women see Anna Carew-Miller, “The Language of Domesticity in Crèvecoeur's Letters from an American Farmer,EAL, 28 (1993), 248-51. D. H. Lawrence typified James's wife as the “Amiable Spouse” in his Studies in Classic American Literature (New York, 1964; orig. pub. 1923), 24.

  16. Murray, “On the Domestic Education of Children” (1790), Heath Anthology of American Literature, ed. Paul Lauter et al. (Lexington, Mass., 1990), 1:1030. A number of works have looked at the iconographic representation of females in the Revolutionary era, among them Linda K. Kerber, Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America (Chapel Hill, 1980), and Lester C. Olson, Emblems of American Community in the Revolutionary Era: A Study in Rhetorical Iconology (Washington, D. C., 1991). A recent formulation that identifies the domestic implications of the use of the abused, mutilated, violated, and fetishized body in late 18th-century images is Shirley Samuels, Romances of the Republic: Women, the Family, and Violence in the Literature of the Early American Nation (New York, 1996), 3-22.

  17. Eltha does not fit the characterization of “Crèvecoeur's women [as] stereotypes of domestic enterprise but frailty under stress” maintained by A. W. Plumstead, “Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur,” in American Literature, 1764-1789: The Revolutionary Years, ed. Emerson (Madison, 1977), 223.

  18. In another Crèvecoeur sketch, “The History of Mrs. B.,” a tory fighter recounts to the narrator the haunting story of a patriot woman with two nursing children whose heroic acceptance of her fate causes him some pangs. More famously, the image of the butchered domestic woman coalesced in the story of Jane McCrea some months after Crèvecoeur wrote “Landscapes.” See June Namias, White Captives: Gender and Ethnicity on the American Frontier (Chapel Hill, 1993), 117-44.

  19. Two earlier contenders for the honor of first do not hold up under scrutiny. Both Thomas Forrest, The Disappointment (1767), and Robert Munford, The Candidates (1770 or 1771), have characters who are referred to in the literature as black but are likely not. See David Mays, Introduction, The Disappointment; or, The Force of Credulity by Thomas Forrest (Gainesville, 1976), and Rodney M. Baine, Robert Munford: America's First Comic Dramatist (Athens, Ga., 1967), 64-65. A better candidate for first is John Leacock, The Fall of British Tyranny: Or, American Liberty Triumphant (Philadelphia, 1776).

  20. Saar, “The Heritage of American Ethnicity in Crèvecoeur's Letters from an American Farmer,” in A Mixed Race: Ethnicity in Early America, ed. Frank Shuffelton (New York, 1993), 245.

  21. Letters, 49, 53. In Letter XI, 188-89, 195-97, Farmer James quotes a traveler, Iwan, who listens with approval as the botanist John “Bertram [Bartram]” describes how he has freed slaves and admitted them to his table as freemen. Thus Crèvecoeur dodges the question of equality by reincorporating former slaves into the domestic space ruled over by a benevolent, home-centered landholder. Since he uses an Iwan in “Landscapes,” Crèvecoeur may also be saying that this foreign visitor can see the problems of race in America more clearly than an Anglo-American.

  22. In Leacock's play, the blacks in Virginia identify their interests as allied to Lord Dunmore's forces and thus are seen in the whig politics of The Fall of British Tyranny as enemies of American “freedom.” This use of the slave issue to attack patriot interests can be seen in another episode from 1776. In Westmoreland County, Va., Henry Glass's complaint to the local committee of safety that patriots' slaves were “ill used” led to his “Censure.” See Richard Barksdale Harwell, ed., The Committees of Safety of Westmoreland and Fincastle: Proceedings of the County Committees, 1774-1776 (Richmond, 1956), 52-53.

  23. The precise status of blacks in the play, as servants or slaves, is not entirely clear. In Letters, blacks routinely appear as slaves unless Crèvecoeur is trying to make a point, as in the account of John Bartram's farm. Without evidence to the contrary, I assume that Tom and Nero are slaves.

  24. Crèvecoeur's attitudes toward blacks in the letters and sketches have not yet been adequately explained. Despite his impassioned plea through Farmer James in Letter IX for the humanity of blacks, Crèvecoeur nowhere else asserts the picture of independent African-American lives that are the equivalent of whites. Blacks become part of the white domestic identity; he grants them human nature but sees them only as reflections of white treatment. Sentimentalized victims of extreme wealth in South Carolina, an easily bought drunk in “Landscapes,” utterly loyal slaves turned servants in the portrait of Bartram in Letter XI—the overall picture of black people in Crèvecoeur emphasizes control of their subjectivity through benevolent-seeming white patronage in the home. See, however, Cook, Epistolary Bodies, 164-67.

  25. Words in brackets indicate the actual words, if not spelling, of Crèvecoeur's original, replacing incorrect transcription from 1925 text. See Moore, ed., More Letters from the American Farmer, 236.

  26. Crèvecoeur's narrator also inveighs against the disruptive and, finally, antidomestic ardor of true believers in “Liberty of Worship,” one of the essays omitted in 1782.

  27. The Battle of Brooklyn. A Farce … (New York, 1776); Jerrold, Black-Ey'd Susan; or, “All in the Downs.” A Nautical and Domestic Drama … (1829), in Nineteenth-Century Plays, ed. George Rowell (London, 1953), 1-43; Aiken, Uncle Toms's Cabin; or, Life among the Lowly, a Domestic Drama … (1852), in Early American Drama, ed. Richards (New York, 1997), 373-443; Daly, Under the Gaslight; or, Life and Love in These Times (1867), in American Melodrama, ed. Daniel C. Gerould (New York, 1983), 135-81.

  28. Because he only refers to violence in speeches, never showing it on stage, I do not think Crèvecoeur really intended to write the rape into the play itself. But see Moore's note to this passage in More Letters from the American Farmer, 375.

  29. For other slight variants from the Penguin edition compare ibid., 293.

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