“Letters from an American Farmer” was published in London in 1782, just as the idea of an “American” was becoming a reality. In the essays, J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur introduced the European public to America’s landscape and customs. They have since served as the iconic description of a then-new people. Dennis D. Moore’ up-to-date reader’s edition situates those 12 pieces from the 1782 “Letters” in the context of 13 other essays representative of Crèvecoeur’s writings in English.
The “American Farmer” is Crèvecoeur’s fictional persona Farmer James, a bumpkin from rural Pennsylvania. In his introduction to this new edition, Moore charts Crèvecoeur’s enterprising approach to self-promotion, which involved repackaging and adapting his writings for French and English audiences. Moore did extensive research on the original manuscript, held in the Library of Congress Manuscript Division.
Dennis Moore will discuss and sign his new book, “Letters from an American Farmer” (Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 2013), on Friday, Nov. 22, at noon in the Mary Pickford Theater, located on the third floor of the James Madison Memorial Building, 101 Independence Ave. S.E., Washington, D.C. This Books & Beyond event is co-sponsored by the Center for the Book and the Manuscript Division. It is free and open to the public; no tickets are required.
Born in Normandy, France, Crèvecoeur came to New York in the 1750s by way of England and then Canada, traveled throughout the Colonies as a surveyor and trader, and was naturalized in 1765. The pieces he included in the 1782 “Letters” map a shift from hopefulness to disillusionment: its opening selections offer America as a utopian haven from European restrictions on personal liberty and material advancement but give way to portrayals of a land plagued by the horrors of slavery, the threat of Indian raids and revolutionary unrest.
This new edition opens up a broader perspective on Crèvecoeur, who also coined America’s most enduring metaphor: a place where “individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men.”
Dennis D. Moore is University Distinguished Teaching Professor in the English Department at Florida State University.
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Letters From An American Farmer Summary
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One of the earliest works of fiction written in America, Letters from an American Farmer first appeared in 1782 with the subtitle: Describing Certain Provincial Situations, Manners, and Customs not Generally Known; and Conveying Some Ideas of the Late and Present Interior Circumstances of the British Colonies in North America. Written in the form of letters (epistolary genre) the text by J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur can be considered historical fiction and/or creative nonfiction. Crevecoeur was born into Normandy aristocracy, eventually joined a French regiment in Canada during the French and Indian War, was wounded and ultimately spent time in Pennsylvania and New York, settling in the latter in Orange County and being naturalized as a British subject. He eventually took on the name J. Hector St. John.
For seven years leading up to the American Revolution Crevecoeur worked on Letters from anAmerican Farmer. The narrative perspective is that of a fictional American farmer named James living in Pennsylvania who through a series of twelve letters corresponds with F.B., an English gentleman. Unlike many books written in the epistolary form, such as the more contemporary 84 Charing CrossRoad by Helene Hanff, Letters from an American Farmer does not include responses from the “recipient” so presents its themes as narrative as opposed to in a dialogue. The dozen letters cover topics ranging from the development of an American identity to descriptions of New England locales, to slave trade.
The earliest letters show the author’s interest in examining what life in America and among Americans was like. The first letter introduces James who modestly questions his ability as a writer. The second letter is descriptive, explaining the environment and activities of the farm of which James is the owner and contrasts American society with the European communities of the time. The author places strong significance on man’s relationship with the physical world around him. “Men are like plants: the goodness and flavor of the fruit proceeds from the particular soil and the exposition in which they grow. We are nothing but what we derive from the air we breathe, the climate we inhabit, the government we obey, the system of religion we obey, and the nature of our employment.” The next epistle gets more philosophic and raises the question regarding what exactly an American is from the standpoint of an identity.
The next five letters are a series that focus on the Massachusetts communities of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard and of Quaker society therein. Included within the Nantucket sequence are topics such as education, employment, and customs. Following the Nantucket letters, comes a consideration of Charles Town, which later would become Charleston, and of slavery there and throughout the Southern United States regions. In it, James espouses his belief that slavery is an evil in the new American Nation that goes unseen by southerners. “…they neither see, hear, nor feel for the woes of their poor slaves from whose painful labors all their wealth proceeds.” The tenth and eleventh letters can be described of as being environmental in their focus. He writes of snakes and their practices as well as the variety and actions of hummingbirds found in and around his land. Crevecoeur goes on to discuss, via the narrative point of view of a Russian gentleman, methods of irrigation and fertilizing the soil that the botanist John Bertram invented. The twelfth and final letter, titled “Distresses of a Frontier Man” speaks of America on the eve of revolution and of the inner conflicts plaguing James as he feels torn between American and British cultures and his difficulty in determining where his allegiance lies. Finally, he turns to a discussion of the ways of life of the Native Americans among whom he ultimately intends to live.
The voices of Crevecoeur the author and James the character blend as one, as might be expected in a work of historical fiction. There is a noticeable shift in tone from optimistic to pessimistic (particularly with respect to the slavery issue being put in the forefront) as the letters move forward. Whether this is attributable to a personal political commentary deliberately advanced by the author or to an attempt to add nuances to the character is open to debate. It is possible that the former is more likely, thus the absence of “response” letters to potentially offer a juxtaposing perspective.
Letters from an American Farmer was not overly successful in America upon its initial release. It was however well received in Europe and was in fact issued in France as an expanded version in 1784. In England there was particular interest in the book upon its initial release buoyed by a general interest in the American lifestyle in conjunction with widespread interest in the period of revolution.