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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

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
Drexel University

In the Heath Anthology
Letters from an American Farmer
      from Letter I: "Introduction" (1782)
      from Letter II: "On the Situation, Feelings, and Pleasures of an American Farmer" (1782)
      from Letter III: "What Is an American?" (1782)
      from Letter IX: "Description of Charles Town; Thoughts on Slavery; on Physical Evil; A Melancholy Scene" (1782)
      from Letter V: Customary Education and Employment of the Inhabitants of Nantucket" (1782)
      from Letter XII: Distresses of a Frontier Man" (1782)

Other Works

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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.

Secondary Sources

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