J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer

Letters from an American FarmerLetters from an American Farmer by J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It might sound odd to call such a ubiquitous text underrated, but I think Letters from an American Farmer is just that. While most people who have taken a course in American literature or history have probably encountered this 1782 book’s third chapter, which provides a utopian answer to the question “What Is an American?”, the full extent of Crèvecoeur’s literary invention and ambition is generally unappreciated. Often treated as an informative nonfiction tract like Franklin’s Autobiography or Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, the Letters might be better understood as an intricate philosophical fiction akin to Utopia, Candide, or Gulliver’s Travels.

Crèvecoeur was a somewhat shadowy Frenchman born to the minor nobility and educated by Jesuits. He found himself in North America in the 1750s, fighting for his homeland in the French and Indian War. Eventually, he settled in New York and became a farmer—the experience lightly fictionalized in his letters, written ostensibly in response to a former European guest’s query about the state of American society. Fleeing the Revolution as a Tory sympathizer, Crèvecoeur ended up back in France, and his American book became a European success as a proto-Romantic utopian vision of an organic, egalitarian society that would later delight Godwin and Shelley.

The Letters are framed as the literary production of a simple Pennsylvania farmer named James, not that of a well-educated and upper-class traveler from Catholic Europe; its wittily metafictional and faux-diffident opening chapter shows him arguing with his wife and the local minister over whether or not such a humble and busy man should even take up the pen. The minister’s suggestion that James’s untutored literary style, if not learned, “will smell of the woods, and be a little wild,” helps to inaugurate an aesthetic of the natural and homemade in American literature that looks forward to everything from Thoreau to Dickinson to Hemingway. Crèvecoeur’s style—and it is the consciously chosen style of a literary artist, writing in an adopted language, no less—is accordingly simple and eloquent, especially in the second letter’s pastoral and quietly allegorical description of life on the farm, among the birds and the bees.

The famous third letter defines the American as a freeholding farmer, made fit for civil freedom by self-sufficient rural labor, and unmenaced by the paraphernalia of a caste-bound, priest-ridden, crowded, and incorrigibly inegalitarian Europe:

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.

He praises America as the asylum of Europe’s poor, who otherwise have no country as they owe no loyalty to their landlords and oppressors, and he further claims that America’s vastness will dissipate Europe’s religious controversies by inducing a mild tolerance and a simple faith in a nation of self-reliant workers. Looking forward to the peoples of Europe’s diverse nations and sects coming together to form a “new man,” he describes America as a rational utopia of free labor.

Crèvecoeur is not a mechanist of society; he holds, rather, a Romantic and organic view that “[m]en are like plants,” seeing climate and locale (and, implicitly, what the next century will call, with a botanical metaphor, “culture”) as wholly determining human character. Unlike the biological racist Jefferson, Crèvecoeur suggests that humanity can be reformed if they are placed in new and healthy environments. Despite his physiocratic encomium to farming, Crèvecoeur allows that America is an ecosystem made up of diverse regions: seafaring coastal dwellers make trade possible and move the goods produced by the farmers’ inland labor, while dangerous and dissolute frontier dwellers do the necessary work of clearing the land for further agricultural incursion. James claims—emphasizing this work’s fictional status—that his own father was such a frontiersman, a statement implying that even the degraded hunter will eventually produce sound American offspring as the settlement of the continent progresses.

Having described and hymned rural labor, the book’s long middle section, a kind of prologue to Moby-Dick, takes us to an idealized Nantucket; the editors note that Crèvecoeur’s geography, not unlike Shakespeare’s, is largely imaginary, possibly a signal to readers to take the book as a philosophical fantasia rather than a literal report. The Nantucket whalers of the middle five chapters, like the Pennsylvania farmers of the opening three, are trained by their natural environment to become fit for American freedom: earnest in deportment, simple in religion, sedulous in labor. Like Franklin, Crèvecoeur singles out Quakers for special praise as the most Enlightened of America’s sects in their austere and pacific faith.

In the ninth letter, however, the utopia sours to dystopia as Crèvecoeur goes south for a visit to Charles-Town, where he encounters no plain-spoken laborers but rather parasitic lawyers, pleasure-bloated planters, and a mix of decadence and inequality that he sees as replicating the crimes of Europe. Early in the book, James had described himself, in the period’s sentimental idiom, as “the farmer of feelings”; the remainder of the ninth letter is accordingly taken up with a long and despairing lament, inspired by the suffering of enslaved Africans and the hard-heartedness of their masters, on the persistence and extent of human folly, brutality, and oppression, a state of affairs that makes him question human nature itself:

The history of the earth! doth it present any thing but crimes of the most heinous nature, committed from one end of the world to the other? We observe avarice, rapine, and murder, equally prevailing in all parts. History perpetually tells us, of millions of people abandoned to the caprice of the maddest princes, and of whole nations devoted to the blind fury of tyrants. Countries destroyed; nations alternately buried in ruins by other nations; some parts of the world beautifully cultivated, returned again to the pristine state; the fruits of ages of industry, the toil of thousands in a short time destroyed by a few! If one corner breathes in peace for a few years, it is, in turn, subjected, torn, and levelled; one would almost believe the principles of action in man, considered as the first agent of this planet, to be poisoned in their most essential parts.

The chapter ends with a devastating scene wherein James encounters a black man in a cage, exposed for having killed a planter, and vainly tries to assist the dying, tortured victim; while James elsewhere argues that slavery in the north is a noble enterprise with freedom for African-Americans as its goal, the implicit condemnation of slavery as such and the plea for sympathy, so characteristic of the period’s fiction, is starkly memorable.

In subsequent letters, James regains his composure with pages of limpid nature description and an interpolated narrative by a Russian visitor to the eminent botanist John Bertram; the latter is particularly prescient:

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.

But the book ends in total collapse as the divisive Revolution politicizes everyday life, breaks up the organic community of the farmers, and drives the peaceable, non-ideological James to plan a move to the frontier, there to live with the Indians. As James’s very language becomes as disordered as his situation, we realize that we have been reading a kind of novel all along, the epistolary expression of a fictional sensibility as it encounters a variety of emblematic situations:

…I am seized with a fever of the mind, I am transported beyond that degree of calmness which is necessary to delineate our thoughts. I feel as if my reason wanted to leave me, as if it would burst its poor weak tenement…

Trying to maintain his peaceable equanimity in a situation demanding he take sides and take up arms, a time when those calling for peace are denounced as traitors and appeasers (but when is it not such a time?), he decries war as the business of the powerful and the sorrow of the poor:

As to the argument on which the dispute is founded, I know little about it. Much has been said and written on both sides, but who has a judgement capacious and clear enough to decide? 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 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. 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.

The European American utopia having failed, James sets out for a Native American utopia; while his praise of the Indians reflects idealizing and troubling stereotypes, his flight from an encroaching civilization to a supposedly simpler nature is prophetic of so many later ambiguous fictional heroes and heroines in American literature, from Hester Prynne and Ishmael and Huck Finn all the way to a character created by another multilingual Old World savant fleeing revolution—Humbert Humbert.

D. H. Lawrence characteristically heckles Crèvecoeur in Studies in Classic American Literature for posing as a natural man without acknowledging nature’s (and thereby his own) darkness. But this is only true if you neglect the Letters as a fictional design, a set of carefully-wrought missives from a utopia gone wrong. The Letters narrate the breakdown of an ideal man in an ideal world. Franklin’s wisdom and Jefferson’s idyll give way to Brockden Brown’s and Poe’s perversity. Neoclassical pastoral darkens to Gothic horror. The book’s own doubleness—its guise of plain-spoken truth concealing its status as fiction—tells us that its values and its politics cannot be taken at face value. It should be read as a novel: the first attempt, and a persuasive one, at a great American novel.