Online Texts for Craig White's Literature Courses

  • Not a critical or scholarly text but a reading text for a seminar

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Hector St. Jean de Crevecoeur

Letters

from an

American Farmer

(1782)


Crèvecœur (1735-1812)

Instructor's note: Michel Guillaume Jean de Crèvecœur (1735-1812) moved from France to New France (more or less Canada) in 1755, rose to lieutenant as a surveyor during the French and Indian War, then moved to New York state where he became a citizen, took the name Hector John St.-John, married an American woman, and bought and successfully cultivated a farm in Orange County, New York, where he began writing observations on the emerging American society.


location of New York State in USA, & Orange County in New York State

During the American Revolution Crevecoeur sought to return to France to visit his ailing father but was imprisoned by the British under suspicion of spying for three months before being released and traveling to England. There in 1782 he published Letters from an American Farmer, which became a popular best-seller for Europeans eager to learn about the emerging American society.

Following a visit to his father and after the Treaty of Paris concluded the American Revolution, Crevecoeur returned to New York City, where he learned his wife had died, his farm was ruined, and his children scattered. During the 1780s he reunited his children and served as French consul to New York. He later enlarged the Letters and offered other writings describing the early United States, but diplomatic and social conflicts between the USA, England, and France prevented these later writings from duplicating his earlier success. Crevecoeur later resettled on his father's land in France, where he died in 1713. (Trans-Atlantic culture.)

Crevecoeur's Letters remain important for describing important themes and divisions of American culture during the Founding or Origins of the United States:

The "American Dream" of opportunity, hard work, middle-class self-sufficiency.

The "melting pot" or assimilation for immigrants ("What is an American?")

Criticism of the effects of slavery not only on slaves but slaveholders ("A Visit to Charles-Town")

Romantic description of American Indian life as an escape from modernization ("Distresses of a Frontier-Man")

from Letter III: What is an American?

[Discussion questions:

  • The immigrant narrative: how is it previewed in this text?

  • The American Dream: how previewed or already apparent?

  • What other traditional American qualities associated with the USA's dominant culture? (Application: If later immigrants must assimilate, what kind of culture do they assimilate to?]

[3.1] I wish I could be acquainted with the feelings and thoughts which must agitate the heart and present themselves to the mind of an enlightened Englishman, when he first lands on this continent. He must greatly rejoice that he lived at a time to see this fair country discovered and settled; he must necessarily feel a share of national pride, when he views the chain of settlements which embellishes these extended shores. When he says to himself, this is the work of my countrymen, who, when convulsed by factions, afflicted by a variety of miseries and wants, restless and impatient, took refuge here. . . .

[3.2] He is arrived on a new continent; a modern society offers itself to his contemplation, different from what he had hitherto seen. It is not composed, as in Europe, of great lords who possess every thing and of a herd of people who have nothing. Here are no aristocratical families, no courts, no kings, no bishops, no ecclesiastical dominion, no invisible power giving to a few a very visible one; no great manufacturers employing thousands, no great refinements of luxury. The rich and the poor are not so far removed from each other as they are in Europe. Some few towns excepted, we are all tillers of the earth, from Nova Scotia to West Florida. . . .

[3.3] We are all animated with the spirit of an industry [effort, enterprise] which is unfettered and unrestrained, because each person works for himself. . . .

[Para. 3.4 below is an early and essential depiction of America as a "melting pot" of immigrants.]

[3.4] The next wish of this traveller will be to know whence came all these people? they are mixture of English, Scotch, Irish, French, Dutch, Germans, and Swedes. From this promiscuous breed, that race now called Americans have arisen. The eastern provinces [New England] must indeed be excepted, as being the unmixed descendants of Englishmen. I have heard many wish that they [New Englanders] had been more intermixed also . . . . I know it is fashionable to reflect on them [to talk poorly of New Englanders, Yankees], but I respect 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 [Puritans' literacy]; their ancient college [Harvard], the first in this hemisphere; for their industry; which to me who am but a farmer, is the criterion of everything. . . .

[3.5]  . . . urged by a variety of motives, here they [immigrants, new Americans] came. Every thing has tended to regenerate them; new laws, a new mode of living, a new social system; here they are become men: . . . here they rank as citizens. By what invisible power has this surprising metamorphosis been performed? By that of the laws and that of their industry. The laws, the indulgent laws, protect them as they arrive, stamping on them the symbol of adoption; they receive ample rewards for their labours . . .

[3.6] [more "melting pot"] What then is the American, this new man? He is either an European, or the descendant of an European, hence that strange mixture of blood, which you will find in no other country. I could point out to you a family whose grandfather was an Englishman, whose wife was Dutch, whose son married a French woman, and whose present four sons have now four wives of different nations. 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.

[3.7] He becomes an American by being received in the broad lap of our great Alma Mater [Mother Earth]. 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 . . . 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 subsistence. This is an American. . . . [For self-interest as driver of capitalism, see Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations 1776]

[The paragraphs above are among the earliest examples of immigrant assimilation and intermarriage as a "melting pot," but notice who the melting pot includes and excludes . . . .

  • includes Americans of European descent

  • excludes African Americans, Native Americans--that is, minorities, not immigrants--see below>>>]

[These paragraphs also serve as a text for "American Exceptionalism," the Neoconservative idea (as in promotions for the War in Iraq) that the USA has a unique character and mission, and therefore the USA should not imitate or be accountable to the standards of international law that govern other nations.]

from Letter IX. DESCRIPTION OF CHARLES-TOWN; THOUGHTS ON SLAVERY; ON PHYSICAL EVIL; A MELANCHOLY SCENE.

[Instructor's note: The following paragraphs contrast with the depiction of northern life above. Instead of middle-class labor and independent farmers, Southern society divides to rich and poor, black and white, owner and slave.]

[9.1] CHARLES-TOWN [i. e., Charleston, South Carolina] is, in the north [North America] , what Lima [capital of Peru]  is in the south [South America]; 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 of the province, who resort hither in quest of health and pleasure. . . . The round of pleasure, and the expences of those citizens' tables, are much superior to what you would imagine: indeed the growth of this town and province has been astonishingly rapid. . . .

[9.2] While all is joy, festivity, and happiness in Charles-Town, would you imagine that scenes of misery overspread in the country? Their ears by habit are become deaf, their hearts are hardened; they neither see, hear, nor feel for the woes of their poor slaves, from whose painful labours all their wealth proceeds. 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.

[9.3] The cracks of the whip urging these miserable beings to excessive labour, are far too distant from the gay Capital to be heard. The chosen race eat, drink, and live happy, while the unfortunate one grubs up the ground, raises indigo, or husks the rice; exposed to a sun full as scorching as their native one; without the support of good food, without the cordials of any chearing liquor.

[9.4] This great contrast has often afforded me subjects of the most afflicting meditation. On the one side, behold a people enjoying all that life affords most bewitching and pleasurable, without labour, without fatigue, hardly subjected to the trouble of wishing.

[9.5] With gold, dug from Peruvian mountains, they order vessels to the coasts of Guinea [Africa]; by virtue of that gold, wars, murders, and devastations are committed in some harmless, peaceable African neighbourhood, where dwelt innocent people, who even knew not but that all men were black. 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! There, arranged like horses at a fair, they are branded like cattle, and then driven to toil, to starve, and to languish for a few years on the different plantations of these citizens.

[9.6] And for whom must they work ? For persons they know not, and who have no other power over them than that of violence; no other right than what this accursed metal has given them! Strange order of things!

[9.7] Oh, Nature, where art thou?--Are not these blacks thy children as well as we? . . . Day after day they drudge on without any prospect of ever reaping for themselves [i.e., slavery withholds the profit motive of the American Dream or capitalism]; they are obliged to devote their lives, their limbs, their will, and every vital exertion to swell the wealth of masters; who look not upon them with half the kindness and affection with which they consider their dogs and horses. Kindness and affection are not the portion of those who till the earth, who carry the burdens, who convert the logs into useful boards. This reward, simple and natural as one would conceive it, would border on humanity; and planters must have none of it!

[compare these divisions b/w North as working-middle-class and South as rich owners and poor workers to the Journal of John Woolman, 45]

from Letter 12, “Distresses of a Frontier-Man”

[Instructor’s note: Crevecoeur, writing after the Revolutionary War devastated his farm and dispersed his family, imagines joining an American Indian community. His speculation mixes careful knowledge about the Indians with Romantic ideas.]

[12.1] I see one [possible community] on a smaller scale, and at a considerable distance, but it is within my power to reach it: and since I have ceased to consider myself as a member of the ancient state now convulsed, I willingly descend into an inferior one. I will revert into a state approaching nearer to that of nature, unencumbered either with voluminous laws, or contradictory codes . . . [F]ar removed from the accursed neighbourhood of Europeans, its 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.

[12.2] Their system is sufficiently complete to answer all the primary wants of man, and to constitute him a social being, such as he ought to be in the great forest of nature. There it is that I have resolved at any rate to transport myself and family: an eccentric thought, you may say, thus to cut asunder all former connections, and to form new ones with a people whom nature has stamped with such different characteristics! But as the happiness of my family is the only object of my wishes, I care very little where we be, or where we go, provided that we are safe, and all united together. . . .

[12.3] I am but a feller of trees, a cultivator of land, the most honourable title an American can have. I have no exploits, no discoveries, no inventions to boast of; I have cleared about 370 acres of land, some for the plough, some for the scythe; and this has occupied many years of my life. 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. . . .

[12.4] But now these pleasing expectations are gone, we must abandon the accumulated industry of nineteen years, we must fly . . . and become members of a new and strange community. . . . . Yes, I will cheerfully embrace that resource, it is an holy inspiration: by night and by day, it presents itself to my mind: I have carefully revolved the scheme; I have considered in all its future effects and tendencies, the new mode of living we must pursue, without salt, without spices, without linen and with little other clothing; the art of hunting, we must acquire, the new manners we must adopt, the new language we must speak; the dangers attending the education of my children we must endure. These changes may appear more terrific at a distance perhaps than when grown familiar by practice: what is it to us, whether we eat . . . well roasted beef, or smoked venison; cabbages, or squashes? Whether we wear neat home-spun [simple European fabrics], or good beaver [pelts for clothing]; whether we sleep on feather- beds, or on bear-skins? The difference is not worth attending to. The difficulty of the language, fear of some great intoxication [alcoholism] among the Indians; finally, the apprehension lest my younger children should be caught by that singular charm [alcohol], so dangerous at their tender years; are the only considerations that startle me.

[12.5] By what power does it come to pass, that children who have been adopted when young among these people, can never be prevailed on to re-adopt European manners? [<as in captivity narratives involving Cynthia Parker of early Texas or Mary Jemison, the White Woman of the Genessee<] Many an anxious parent I have seen last war, who at the return of the peace, went to the Indian villages where they knew their children had been carried in captivity; when to their inexpressible sorrow, they found them so perfectly Indianized, that many knew them no longer, and those whose more advanced ages permitted them to recollect their fathers and mothers, absolutely refused to follow them, and ran to their adopted parents for protection against the effusions of love their unhappy real parents lavished on them!

[12.6] Incredible as this may appear, I have heard it asserted in a thousand instances, among persons of credit. In the village of ----, where I purpose to go, there lived, about fifteen years ago, an Englishman and a Swede . . . . They were grown to the age of men when they were taken; they happily escaped the great punishment of war captives, and were obliged to marry the Squaws who had saved their lives by adoption. By the force of habit, they became at last thoroughly naturalised to this wild course of life. While I was there, their friends sent them a considerable sum of money to ransom themselves with. The Indians, their old masters, gave them their choice, and without requiring any consideration, told them, that they had been long as free as themselves. They chose to remain; and the reasons they gave me would greatly surprise you: the most perfect freedom, the ease of living, the absence of those cares and corroding solicitudes which so often prevail with us; the peculiar goodness of the soil they cultivated, for they did not trust altogether to hunting; all these, and many more motives, which I have forgot, made them prefer that life, of which we entertain such dreadful opinions.

[12.7] It cannot be, therefore, so bad as we generally conceive it to be; there must be in their social bond something singularly captivating, and far superior to any thing to be boasted of among us; for thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those Aborigines having from choice become Europeans! There must be something more congenial to our native dispositions, than the fictitious society in which we live; or else why should children, and even grown persons, become in a short time so invincibly attached to it? There must be something very bewitching in their manners, something very indelible and marked by the very hands of nature. For, take a young Indian lad, give him the best education you possibly can, load him with your bounty, with presents, nay with riches; yet he will secretly long for his native woods, which you would imagine he must have long since forgot; and on the first opportunity he can possibly find, you will see him voluntarily leave behind him all you have given him, and return with inexpressible joy to lie on the mats of his fathers. . . .

[12.8] Without temples, without priests, without kings, and without laws, they are in many instances superior to us; and the proofs of what I advance, are, that they live without care, sleep without inquietude, take life as it comes, bearing all its asperities with unparalleled patience, and die without any kind of apprehension for what they have done, or for what they expect to meet with hereafter. What system of philosophy can give us so many necessary qualifications for happiness? They most certainly are much more closely connected with nature than we are; they are her immediate children, the inhabitants of the woods are her undefiled offspring . . . .