The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.
§ 8. St. Jean de Crèvecur
“The name of our Family is St. Jean, in English St. John, a name as Antient as the Conquest of England by William the Bastard.” So writes St. Jean de Crèvecœur, but he puts “J. Hector St. John” on the title-page of his imaginary Letters from an American Farmer. Born at Caen, 31 January, 1735, at the age of sixteen he went to England. A seven years’ education there may explain the superiority of his English style over his French. Emigrating to Canada, he subsequently was resident in Pennsylvania, and in 1764 became a citizen of New York. After five years he settled as a farmer in Ulster Country; at a mature age for the colonies he married Mehetable Tippet of Yonkers. He made journeys in New York and Pennsylvania, and to the west, to the south as far as Charleston—possibly to Jamaica, and into New England. In 1779, on attempting to return to France, he was imprisoned in New York City as a spy. When released, he went to England, sold his Letters for thirty guineas, and crossed to Normandy; we find him writing from Caen in 1781. Through the Countess de Houdetot of Rousseau’s Confessions he was enabled to send a copy of his book to Franklin, then (1782) on a mission abroad. Instrumental in helping Americans in England to return to this country, when Crevecœur himself came back, in 1783, it was to find his wife just dead, and his children in the care of strangers. Meanwhile he had been appointed French consul in New York. His travels with Franklin gave rise to a three-volume work, not so interesting as the Letters, entitled Voyage dans la Haute Pennsylvanie. From 1790 until his death at Sarcelles, 12 November, 1813, he lived in France.
The Letters of this “farmer of feelings” to a doubtless hypo thetical “W.S. Ecuyer” are dedicated “to the Abbé Raynal, F.R.S.”:
Of the twelve, the Introductory Letter is intentionally rambling. A former European guest having asked for a detailed account of colonial life, “neighbour James” seeks counsel of the minister, who tells him: “He that shall write a letter every day of the week will on Saturday perceive the sixth flowing from his pen much more readily than the first.” But the Farmer’s wife dissuades him, unless the plan be followed secretly, so as not to arouse gossip. A chance allusion to the speeches of “friend Edmund,” that is, of Burke, accords with the attention to style in the letters that follow. “If they be not elegant,” says the minister, “they will smell of the woods, and be a little wild”; but he also assures the Farmer: “Nature hath given you a tolerable share of good sense … some perspicuity,” and “a warmth of imagination which enables you to think with quickness.” The second letter takes up the third, on “What is an American?” relates the diverting experiences of Andrew the Hebridean, in his first meeting with Indians. In the fourth we pass to the Island of Nantucket, while the fifth describes the education and employment of the islanders. In the sixth, after an account of Martha’s Vineyard and the whale fishery, the author returns to a discussion of manners and customs, this topic continuing in the seventh and eighth. The ninth transfers us to Charleston and the South, where slavery brings the author to “an examination of what is called civilized society.” “Would you prefer the state of men in the woods to that of men in more improved situation? Evil preponderates in both.… For my part, I think the vices and miseries to be found in the latter exceed those of the former.” In the tenth, a special inquiry of the correspondent abroad is met with a dissertation on snakes and on the humming-bird. The eleventh is a letter “From Mr. Iw–n Al–z, a Russian Gentleman, describing the Visit he paid at my request to Mr. John Bertram, the celebrated Pennsylvania Botanist.” The twelfth and last pictures the distress of a “frontier man”—menaced by the savages, and unsettled by the revolt of the colonies,—who “would chearfully go even to the Mississippi, to find that repose to which we have been so long strangers”; with his appeal to the Father of Nature, to the Supreme Being whose creative power inhabits ‘the immense variety of planets,’ the volume closes