36.12: Beautifulish Americans
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In his Letters from an American Farmer, J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, or “Farmer James,” begins by speaking very highly of his new home. Originally from France but having spent time in various European nations, Farmer James seems to rejoice at the prospect of remaining in one place with so many people, all a “mixture of English, Scotch, Irish, French, Dutch, Germans, and Swedes” (606). He animatedly describes the beauty of the “fair country,” going on about its “fair cities, substantial villages, extensive fields, an immense country filled with decent houses, good roads, orchards, meadows, and bridges” (605). He states that this new land is drastically different than their old homes, with equality (ish) amongst the people. These hardy “Americans,” as he so boldly proclaims the people to be, are people of honest nature. They all live for themselves, with no “despotic prince[s]… rich abbot[s], or… mighty lord[s]” to subject to (608). He speaks highly of his American neighbors, undoubtedly thrilled by watching them all “flourish” as he describes in his awkward plant metaphor (606-607). Initially, he thinks that America, and its people, are positively wonderful.
As his letters continue, however, one can almost see his enthusiasm lessen. He begins to establish the different areas of the country, seeming to prefer the middle land as opposed to the sea coast or the woods. He declares that Americans are a new form of man, “who acts upon new principles; he must therefore entertain new ideas, and form new opinions” (608). Americans are not Europeans; they may have been born there or are European by blood, but America makes a new type of man so drastically different that the term “European” has no hold on him. While Farmer James still celebrates Americans, establishing that as long as they worship God, they are good regardless of their specific religion, he starts to grow more serious as he writes on. When he talks about slavery and the horrors he witnesses (don’t even get me started on how “singularly terrible” he thinks his situation is—I thought that the poor slave missing his eyeballs was a bit worthier of sympathy, but maybe that’s just me), he seems to get angry with slave holders (620). Even though he rejoices about how beautiful the land and the people are, he does relent about how horrible some of their practices are.
All throughout his letters, Farmer James never stops praising his surroundings, but his tone begins to change as he spends more time in the colonies. He knows that they are different than the British, thus making one of the first distinctions about being an American, yet he also acknowledges that these new Americans “brought along with them their national genius” (605). “The American ought therefore to love this country much better than that wherein either he or his forefathers were born” (607). This seems to be quite ironic for a man who will leave America to spend the rest of his days in France, the nation he was born in. He makes broad, sweeping claims about the greatness of this new land and how the American people are living life better than all others, but even he inherently knows that life there was not better than it was in the European nations. It was freer, prettier, and more successful than lives lived in Europe, yet is was also harder, more diverse, and harder to sustain than Europe as well. Why else would James decide to give up and live in a wigwam?
Above everything, I think that Farmer James establishes the idea that being an American is about success. It os about being a farmer, the best you can be, and living in a nation that is the best that it could be. It is, in large part, blinded by its own greatness and does not pay attention to the stark inequalities within its ranks. To me, Letters seems to say that early American literature is about that utopia- ignoring the world around you and building your own life the way you want to live. Also, by his own words stating that Americans are drastically different once they arrive here rather than if they stayed in Europe, he seems to have answered one of our American literature questions. If his work is considered American, then one does not necessarily have to be born here to be considered as such. This will be interesting to note as our time in class goes on. I suppose, above everything else from this reading, one thing is for sure: I too would like to give up sometimes and reside in a wigwam, James, but you just have to power through, man.