Letters from an American Farmer

   Posted by: rring   in Americana, Classes

[Posted by Jacob Miller ’14, for AMST 838/438 “America Collects Itself”]

J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur is an 18th century French writer, most famous for his expository work recounting the cultural and structural identity of the newly forged American colonies to the European world. At a time where colonists were fashioning their own identity and Europeans wondered about the makeup of this “new world” society, Crevecoeur attempted to bring his own interpretation of this new American identity. One of Crevecoeur’s most popular works both today and during his writing career was a volume of narrative essays published under the title, Letters From an American Farmer.   Written from the perspective of a fictional American farmer, James, living in the Quaker colony of Pennsylvania, these essays are a direct attempt at depicting the American condition from the corrupting evils of slavery, to descriptions of local animals, plants and trees, as well as descriptions of Quaker society on the islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. Crevecoeur spent an extensive amount of time in the colonies of New York and Pennsylvania before the Revolutionary War, even purchasing 120 acres of farmland in Orange County, New York and marrying Mehitable Tippet, the daughter of a wealthy landowner. He even became a naturalized citizen in New York in 1765.[1]

Letters From an American Farmer ImageIn the Watkinson, I handled and read sections from a copy of the text published in 1783 in London, printed by T. Davies. One of the most interesting aspects of this particular book was the incredibly detailed and expertly inserted foldout map of the island of Nantucket. This version of the text also bore the lengthy original title of Letters from an American farmer: describing certain provincial situations, manner, and customs not generally known; and conveying some idea of the late and present interior circumstances of the British colonies in North America. While thorough, this title has been shortened in the more recent publications. While the subject matter of this letters is extensive, I found Letter III and Letter IX to address the most interesting aspects and problems facing our newly forged nation.

Letter III is titled “What is An American?” This letter attempts to assign meaning and parameters to the culture of America. Recognizing the multi-cultural heritage of the new nation, Crevecoeur, as James, writes, “The next wish of this traveler will be to know whence came all these people? They are a mixture of English, Scotch, Irish, French, Dutch, Germans, and Swedes. From This promiscuous breed, that race now called Americans has arisen.” With this mosaic of cultural heritage as the foundation, Crevecoeur builds to address the very question of citizenship as a right. “Can a wretch who wanders about, who works and saves, whose life is a continual scene of sore affliction or pinching penury; can that man call England or any other kingdom his country?” While part of a multifaceted depiction, I think this argument is one of the more poignant pieces of Crevecoeur’s constructed American identity. For Crevecoeur, the removal of predetermined societal clout based on birth or caste is the basic right of every American. The removal of monarchical society and the ability to be socially mobile, based solely on how hard you are willing to work is an idealized, and arguably accurate depiction of the early years of colonial life. In order to examine this depiction critically, one must compartmentalize the reality that these rights were only allotted to white men, and this land, which is depicted as free and ready for cultivation and enterprise originally belonged to now displaced native populations. In some ways, the recognition of this reality taints the idealized tone of this early work of America cultural study.

Crevecoeur does mention the Indian tribes in this letter; however, it is part of a comparison that contains the lingering social hierarchies that he celebrates absence of in American society. One of the sections deconstructs the structure of society to a primal level. In this letter Crevecoeur also argues that colonists brought order and structure to a savage world. The settlements, buildings, religious and governmental organizations that have been established are in many ways an inherently positive civilizing force in the region. He compares these interior and coastal towns with the frontier areas near the “great woods.” “There, remote from the power of example and check of shame, many families exhibit the most hideous parts of our society.” He goes on to state that they exist and live off the wild; therefore, this wild permeates its way into their existence and behavior.

Letter IX titled “Description of Charles-Town; Thoughts on Slavery; On Physical Evil; A Melancholy Scene” is also very interesting and an important critique of slavery. Crevecoeur paints a portrait of the stanch contrast in the populace of this town.  “The inhabitants are the gayest in America; it is caked the centre of our beau monde, and is always filled with the richest plants of the province, who resort hither in quest of health and pleasure.” This is the Charles-Town at the top of the social spectrum, those lawyers, planters and merchants who reap the rewards of an economy based on the sweat equity of slaves. The world of the slave is depicted much differently as “they are obliged to devote their lives, their limbs, their will, and every vital exertion to swell the wealth of masters.” This contrast is chilling and Crevecoeur seems ahead of his time stating through James, “I hope the time draws near when they will be all emancipated.”

This collection of letters is any incredibly important depiction of early life in our country. It shows the founding principles and cultural identity that resulted from the conditions and societal climate of early colonial America. While slightly hypocritical and shaped by a catering to its largely European audience, this work contextualizes and provides an insider look at the founding of a nation. Crevecoeur brought the American colonies and frontier to a worldwide audience and handling a text from the very time that people were reading about the nation I call my home for the first time was a fascinating experience.

[1] J. Hector St. John De Crevecoeur. (1735-1813). E-publisher LiterNet. Edited by Albena Bakratcheva. 2009 http://liternet.bg/ebook/amerikanska/bio/j_de_crevecoeur.htm

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