When, in 1759, Voltaire published his Candide: Ou, L’Optimisme (Candide: Or, All for the Best, 1759), Michel-Guillaume Jean de Crèvecur was already planning to cultivate his garden hewn out of the Pennsylvania frontier. Like Voltaire’s naïve hero, Crèvecur had seen too much of the horrors of the civilized world and was more than ready to retire to his bucolic paradise, where for nineteen years he lived in peace and happiness until the civilized world intruded on him and his family with the outbreak of the American Revolution.
The twelve essays that make up his Letters from an American Farmer are, ostensibly at least, the product of a hand unfamiliar with the pen. The opening letter presents the central theme quite clearly: The decadence of European civilization makes the American frontier one of the great hopes for a regeneration of humanity. Crèvecur wonders why people travel to Italy to “amuse themselves in viewing the ruins of temples . . . . half-ruined amphitheatres and the putrid fevers of the Campania must fill the mind with most melancholy reflections.” By contrast, Crèvecur delights in the humble rudiments of societies spreading everywhere in the colonies, people converting large forests into pleasing fields and creating thirteen provinces of easy subsistence and political harmony. He has his interlocutor say of him, “Your mind is . . . a Tabula rasa where spontaneous and strong impressions are delineated with felicity.” Similarly, he sees the American continent as a clean slate on which people can inscribe a new society and the good life. It may be said that Crèvecur is a Lockean gone romantic, but retaining just enough practical good sense to see that reality is not rosy. The book is the crude, occasionally eloquent, testimony of a man trying desperately to convince himself and his readers that it is possible to live the idealized life advocated by Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
With a becoming modesty, appropriate to a man who learned English at age sixteen, Crèvecur begins with a confession of his literary inadequacy and the announcement of his decision simply to write down what he would say. His style, however, is not smoothly colloquial. Except in a few passages in which conviction generates enthusiasm, one senses the strain of the unlettered man writing with feeling but not cunning.
The first image Crèvecur presents is perhaps a bit too idyllic for modern tastes. He dandles his little boy on the plow as his wife sits at the edge of the field knitting and praising the straightness of the furrows, while birds fill the air with summer melodies. “Who can listen unmoved to the sweet love tales of our robins told from tree to tree?” This is, nevertheless, the testimony of a man who for nineteen years actually lived at the edge of the wilderness, three hundred miles from the Atlantic. He was no Henry David Thoreau at Walden Pond, within easy walking distance of friends, family, and a highly developed New England culture at Concord. He was, instead, a responsible man who cleared 371 acres of land and raised enough crops and animals to provide for his family, black workers, and all peaceful strangers who chanced to appear at his door. Also unlike Thoreau (with whom he inevitably invites comparison), Crèvecur was acutely aware of his social responsibilities and enormously proud of the ways in which they could be fulfilled in the New World.
Crèvecur’s third epistle, “What Is an American?” caught the attention of Benjamin Franklin and the Europeans of the Age of Enlightenment: [America] is not composed, as in Europe, of great lords who possess everything, 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. . . . We are the most perfect society now existing in the world.
Enthusiastic as this description is, it is not as extravagant as it might seem; Crèvecur does not claim that the American colonists have founded the best of all possible worlds. He is, for example, acutely aware that religious influence gradually declines as one goes west and that, instead of liberating, this decline reduces humanity to a perfect state of war, each...
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Letters from an American Farmer was published in London in 1782, just as the idea of an “American” was becoming a reality. Those epistolary essays introduced the European public to America’s landscape and customs and have since served as the iconic description of a then-new people. Dennis D. Moore’s convenient, up-to-date reader’s edition situates those twelve pieces from the 1782 Letters in the context of thirteen other essays representative of Crèvecoeur’s writings in English.
The “American Farmer” of the title is Crèvecoeur’s fictional persona Farmer James, a bumpkin from rural Pennsylvania. In his Introduction to this edition, Moore places this self-effacing pose in perspective and charts Crèvecoeur’s enterprising approach to self-promotion, which involved repackaging and adapting his writings for French and English audiences.
Born in Normandy, 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 this artful, ambitious writer and cosmopolitan thinker who coined America’s most enduring metaphor: a place where “individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men.”