| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur
J. Hector St. de Crèvecoeur 1735–1813
Written from the point of view of an ordinary man, Crèvecoeur’s Letters
from an American Farmer is the first text to ask and answer the question
“What is an American?” Although Crèvecoeur was describing life in the British
colonies in America, he used his character, James, to portray the new consciousness
of emerging American society.
Born in Caen,
Normandy, Michel-Guilluame-Jean de Crèvecoeur was the child of Norman
landowners. He was educated at the Jesuit Collège Royal de Bourbon. After he
left school in 1750, he was sent to England, where he became engaged. The
untimely death of his fiancée is believed to be the reason that Crèvecoeur left
England to begin a new life in French-held Canada in 1755. He worked as a
surveyor and cartographer during the French and Indian War. On December 16, 1759,
Crèvecoeur disembarked in New York harbor from a British vessel carrying the
defeated French troops back to France and began afresh in the British colonies.
For the next ten
years, Crèvecoeur worked as a surveyor and trader and traveled extensively. In 1765,
he became a naturalized citizen of New York. Four years later, he married and
began to farm. The outbreak of the American Revolution and the desire to see
his children’s inheritance secured were the likely reasons that Crèvecoeur
decided, in 1778, to return to France. The long and dangerous trip was
complicated by the war. After being imprisoned as a spy by the British, he was
allowed to leave the colonies in 1780. He sold the manuscript of Letters
from an American Farmer in 1781 to a London publisher and proceeded to
France. When Letters was published in 1782, its success catapulted
Crèvecoeur into French literary and intellectual circles, where he became
associated with the philosophes, a group of progressive French
intellectuals. In 1784, he wrote a French version of Letters. Crèvecoeur
returned to America in 1783 as French consul to New York, New Jersey, and
Connecticut. He found his wife dead, his farm burned, and his children
resettled in Boston. In America, Crèvecoeur continued his scientific studies
and worked closely with Thomas Jefferson to unite French and American
interests. In 1790, Crèvecoeur left America for the last time.
During the last years of his life, the uncertain political
situation in France led him to seek obscurity. In 1801, he published Voyage
dans la Haute Pennsylvanie et dans l’état de New York, which had little
commercial success. He died on November 12, 1813.
The twelve letters of Letters
from an American Farmer are held together by the movement of the fictional
narrator of the text, James, the American farmer, from happiness to despair as
he records his life as a farmer and his travels to Martha’s Vineyard,
Nantucket, and Charlestown. In the opening letters, James celebrates
America as a place where the oppressed masses of Europe are able to pursue
their own self-interest as independent landowners. In the later letters, he
deals with problems already causing divisions within the new society—slavery,
and the Revolution. Letters is a form of epistolary, philosophical
travel narrative that integrates important Enlightenment ideas into
descriptions of ordinary American life. It was widely read in the late
eighteenth century and frequently translated and reprinted, strongly
influencing European perceptions of America. It had some influence on
the ideas of the Romantics, particularly Southey and Coleridge.
Doreen Alvarez Saar
In the Heath Anthology
Letters from an American Farmer
from Letter I: "Introduction"
from Letter II: "On the Situation, Feelings, and Pleasures of an American Farmer"
from Letter III: "What Is an American?"
from Letter IX: "Description of Charles Town; Thoughts on Slavery; on Physical Evil; A Melancholy Scene"
from Letter V: Customary Education and Employment of the Inhabitants of Nantucket"
from Letter XII: Distresses of a Frontier Man"
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Letters from an American Farmer
The entire text of de Crèvecoeur's book.
D. H. Lawrence on Franklin and Crèvecoeur
Excerpts of Lawrence's remarks, provided by the American Authors site.
Perspectives in American Literature
Primary and secondary bibliographical information.
What Is an American?
Text of de Crèvecoeur's essay.
Elizabeth Cork, Epistolary Bodies: Gender and Genre in the 18th-century Republic of Letters, 1996
Thomas Philbrick, St. John de Crevecoeur, 1970
Nancy Ruttenberg, Democratic Personality: Popular Voice and the Trial of American Authorship, 1998
Gay Wilson and Roger Asserlineau, St. John de Crevecoeur: The Life of an American Farmer, 1987