Crévecoeur and the Two Faces of America

The back of the Penguin edition of J. Hector St. John de Crévecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer says “History” on it, and the Library of Congress has it filed (in my library, anyway, obviously absent a great deal of books) between 1,000 Places to See in the U.S. and Canada Before You Die and the John Steinbeck travelogue Travels with Charley in Search of America. This placement is a lie.

Letters from an American Farmer is full of such lies, beginning with its title. These aren’t letters—at least they’re not letters in the sense that they were never sent to anyone in particular from anyone in particular—and they’re not from an American farmer. Well, kind of. Crévecoeur was a French immigrant to the United States back before they were particularly united, and he owned a farm in Orange County, New York. But he’s not the American farmer, “James,” of the letters.

I’m not interested in figuring out why exactly Letters from an American Farmer is considered a historical text instead of the first American novel. (It was first published in 1782, nearly a decade before Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple came out in England.) My interest in the text—and this is apparently true of nearly everyone who reads it—is historical rather than literary anyway. That’s not to say that Letters from an American Farmer isn’t a delightful little book, because it is far more readable and entertaining than most historical texts from the colonial era—but I’m interested, old-fashioned critic that I am, in what it has to say about that peculiar animal, The American.

Crévecoeur, it must be said, loves America. And he loves it specifically because it has not had time to build up a civilization, as has the debased and polluted Europe from which he comes. Americans are not quite noble savages, but the primitivism of the country does ennoble its citizens: “Here we have in some measure regained the ancient dignity of our species: our laws are simple and just; we are a race of cultivators; our cultivation is unrestrained; and therefore everything is prosperous and flourishing” (Letter I). Crévecoeur manages to mix society with back-to-the-earth ideology—a difficult task, and one that can perhaps be accomplished only in a new culture like seventeenth-century America.

With this rejoicing in the simple, it’s not surprising that we see a wide strain of Enlightenment optimism in Letters from an American Farmer. The minister in the first letter, for example, tells Crévecoeur’s narrator that “your mind is what we called at Yale a tabula rasa, where spontaneous and strong impressions are delineated with facility,” referring, of course, to John Locke’s famously optimistic “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.” This optimism allows Crévecoeur to promote a very small and limited government. I see modern libertarianism in statements like the following: “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?” (Letter III). Crévecoeur sounds almost like Ayn Rand here, glorifying selfishness as though if everyone behaves selfishly, the world will come out okay.

This attitude was enormously popular in the colonial days of this country—you see the same arguments, for example, in Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and, though a bit more under the surface, in Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography. And of course, it persists today, both in Randian conservatism and in the sort of liberalism that suggests that education is the answer to every social ill. (For a good discussion of where that attitude comes from, I recommend Jay Fliegelman’s Prodigals and Pilgrims.)

But Crévecoeur is of two minds in Letters from an American Farmer. As the letters progress, things get darker. He tells us in the second letter that “Good and evil . . . are to be found in all societies, and it is in vain to seek for any spot where those ingredients are not mixed.” If the first few letters are marked primarily by the good in American society and the blithe Enlightenment optimism that good inspires, evil makes its presence more and more known as Crévecoeur continues writing.

There is a good autobiographical reason for this, incidentally. In 1779, while Crévecoeur was still working on the Letters, he was falsely imprisoned by the British as an American spy. He left the country after three months in jail, leaving his wife and most of his family behind. He would return to the United States in 1783, but he would never see his wife again, as she would die during his absence. It is no doubt difficult to believe in the inherent goodness and perfectibility of man when one is torn from one’s family by the forces of government.

You can feel this in the later letters. Crévecoeur maintains his blitheness while describing Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, but eventually his farmer heads south to Charleston, South Carolina, and all hell breaks loose. “The three principal classes of inhabitants are lawyers, planters, and merchants,” he tells us. “This is the province which has afforded to the first the richest spoils, for nothing can exceed their wealth, their power, and their influence” (Letter IX).

If he doesn’t outright blame the lawyers for slavery, he at least blames them for not stopping it. Slavery, he tells us, is our great national evil because it destroys both slave and master; neither is “permitted to partake of those ineffable sensations with which Nature inspires the hearts of fathers and mothers; they must repel them all and become callous and passive.” It destroys entire generations, “bred in the midst of slaves, [who] learn from the example of their parents to despise them and seldom conceive either from religion or philosophy any ideas that tend to make their fate less calamitous.” Crévecoeur literally sees no hope for the slaveholding South, a 180-degree reversal from his feelings about Massachusetts and Connecticut.

(It should be noted that he engages in some serious bad faith in claiming that slaves in the North “enjoy as much liberty as their masters; they are as well clad and as well fed; in health and sickness, they are tenderly taken care of; they live under the same roof and are, truly speaking, a part of our families.” This sort of statement has been counterindicated by everyone from Alexis de Toqueville to Harriet Beecher Stowe to Harriet E. Wilson’s Our Nig. It is simply not true.)

At any rate, near the end of this chapter, Crévecoeur falls to his knees, lifts his hands toward heaven, and screams the following:

The history of the earth! Doth it present anything 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 alternatively buried in ruins by other nations, some parts of the world beautifully cultivated, returned again into their pristine state, the fruits of the ages of industry, the toil of thousands in a short time destroyed by few!

No Puritan could have said this better. Crévecoeur is, it seems, only as optimistic as his surroundings. When he is in the pleasant and relatively free Northeast, he believes in the perfectibility of mankind; when he is in the South, he wants God to reign down fire from heaven on all the inhabitants of this horrible planet. This attitude is, I think, typical of the American consciousness, which veers from extreme optimism to extreme pessimism every decade and a half or so, spurred in one direction by technological innovation, bull markets, and charismatic leaders and in the other by war, economic downturns, and the Indianapolis Colts making it to the Super Bowl.

We have a few Great National Myths in this country—there’s the myth of the self-made man, which I’ll be talking about next week, and there’s the myth of social mobility. But no myth has more impact on me personally than the myth of the frontier, the myth of movement, the myth of what Frederick R. Karl calls “spatiality.” “Americans,” he tells us, “abhor a vacuum and have, accordingly, structured a literature in which they can pursue the limitless.” This pursuit takes place primarily physically: think of Huck Finn lighting out for the territory, or Rabbit fleeing his infant daughter’s funeral—or, for that matter, think of Bruce Springsteen and Mary heading off down Thunder Road “to case the Promised Land.” (Yes, casual fans—it’s case, not chase.)

My assertion here—and I know it’s taken a long time to get there—is that our national myth of the frontier stems from our national two-facedness, as demonstrated so perfectly in Letters from an American Farmer. We’re as optimistic as our surroundings, and since our optimism comes from an unspoken belief in the noble savage, it makes sense that we would head vaguely West, into open space, in order to diffuse the evil that congregates with large groups of Americans.

In Crévecoeur’s final letter, he bemoans the state of international politics, the conflict between the America he loves and the Britain to which his personal beliefs bind him. (“Must I renounce a name so ancient and so venerable?” he asks.) The only solution he can come up with is to move further into the frontier, where he and his family will become full-blown Native Americans, building a wigwam, receiving new names, and speaking Indian languages. His solution, in other words, is to try to maintain his optimism by cultivating his pessimism—he can believe in the inherent goodness of the woods only by believing in the inherent evil in Charleston. (To put it in Springsteen’s terms, Mary is only desirable in the first place because of the ghosts of her past lovers “haunt[ing] this dusty beach road in the skeleton frames of burned-out Chevrolets.” I love that song.)

Crévecoeur didn’t create American spatiality; Karl says it stretches straight back to Christopher Columbus. But, subconsciously or not, he gives us the real reason for it—he explicates our incredibly complicated attitude toward civilization and the wilderness, our constant desire to turn the latter into the former and our intense fear that we’ll succeed at it. So we have to keep moving, making new civilizations only to abandon them. As Travels with Charley in Search of America tells us, “Nearly every American hungers to move.”

Maybe the Library of Congress was on to something after all.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *