A fascinating outsider’s view of the people, culture and natural attractions of the young United States, as seen through the eyes of a French émigré. Includes folding maps of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, which are the earliest separate maps of the islands.
Michel Guillaume Jean de Crèvecœur (1735-1813) was born to a minor noble family in Normandy and emigrated to New France in 1755. He served as a military engineer in the French colonial militia during the French and Indian War, but resigned his commission after being wounded during Montcalm’s defeat at Quebec in 1759. He claimed to have traveled widely in the future United States (though this is disputed), simplified his name to John Hector St. John, took British citizenship, and purchased a farm in Orange County, New York, where he prospered until the American Revolution. He remained a Loyalist, however, was persecuted for it by local Patriots, and in 1779 fled to New York, eventually making his way to London and finally France. He left behind his wife and two of his children, and soon thereafter his wife died, while his farm was burned. He later returned to New York in 1783 as French consul, remaining there until 1790 and then returning to France for the final time.
St. John began writing his Letters in the years prior to the Revolution, structuring it as a series of twelve letters from James, an American farmer, to an English correspondent. While in London he sold his text to publishers Thomas Davies and Lockyer Davis, and it was first published there in 1782, to great acclaim. Offered here is a “a new edition, with an accurate index”, published the following year. The work was sufficiently popular to merit a Dublin edition in 1783; a somewhat-expanded French edition (1787) translated by St. John himself; an American edition published by Matthew Carey in 1793; as well as translations into Dutch and German.
The work begins with introductory letters describing “the situation, feelings, and pleasures, of an American farmer” and addressing the question “What is an American[?],” all in highly laudatory terms. Much is made of American industry, egalitarianism, and economic and social mobility, all in favorable contrast to life in Europe. The next five letters—roughly one third of the work—focus on the “manners, customers, policy, and trade, of the inhabitants” of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, with which St. John was deeply enamored. These chapters are accompanied by important maps of the two islands. That of Nantucket is 7 ¾”h x 10 ¾”w, with 32 numbered locations identified in on the facing page; that of the Vineyard is 8”h x 10 ¼”w and offers rather more detail, including some soundings, roads, dwellings and other structures, and 9 numbered locations identified in the text.
The next chapter describes Charleston, South Carolina, with St. John offering an extended and deeply critical discussion of the town’s vast inequalities of wealth and its reliance on slavery. Successive chapters treat of snakes and hummingbirds and a visit to famed naturalist John Bartram. The final chapter treats of the “Distresses of a Frontier Man”, with James caught in forces outside his control, losing everything, and choosing to flee with his family to live in a native American village.
Taken together, the Letters offer an engaging outsider’s view of the people, culture and natural attractions of the new United States, though the tone gradually shifts—justifiably, in light of St. John’s own experience—to one of disillusionment over slavery and anxiety over the course of the American Revolution.
“Most readers know Crèvecoeur only from his famous third letter with its sunny optimism. That selective reading creates a misleading impression of his entire work, which ripens into a long exposé of the American Revolution as brutal, divisive, and hypocritical. Often misread as a champion of American independence and democracy, Crèvecoeur instead mourned the demise of British America. In its full arc, Letters reveals a descent into political madness: it better resembles Heart of Darkness than Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.” (Taylor)
Whatever the direction of Crèvecoeur’s own arc of experience, Letters from an American Farmer is compelling reading, and at least some Europeans must have chosen to focus on the portrait in the early letters of the young republic as a land of opportunity. Howes calls Letters a “description of American life of great influence in attracting European immigration in the post-revolutionary period. As literature unexcelled by any American work of the eighteenth century.”
Howes, U.S.-Iana, C883 (describing only the 1st London edition of 1782). Sabin 17496. Background from Alan Taylor, “The American Beginning: The dark side of Crevecoeur’s “Letters from an American Farmer””, The New Republic, July 18, 2013 (accessed on line April 2022).