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St. Jean de Crevecoeur was a French American writer whose book ‘Letters from an American Farmer’ discussed life and society in early America. In this lesson, we’ll look closer at ‘Letters from an American Farmer’ and its influence on American literature.

St. Jean de Crevecoeur

What is an American? How do we define our culture and national identity? For centuries, Americans have worked to answer these questions.

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Perhaps the first person to try to define Americans was the writer St. Jean de Crevecoeur.

The writer St. Jean de Crevecoeur
St Jean de Crevecoeur

Crevecoeur was born in France in 1735 to aristocratic parents. He immigrated to what is now Canada when he was 20 and worked as a surveyor during the French and Indian War.

After the war, he moved to New York and became a farmer. In the midst of the American Revolution, he decided to go home to France to see his ailing father. However, he was imprisoned as an American spy by the British as he tried to leave New York.In 1780, he was finally allowed to leave America. The following year, he sold the text of his most famous book, Letters from an American Farmer, to a London publisher.

The book became the first successful book by an American author in Europe.

Letters from an American Farmer

Letters from an American Farmer follows a fictional correspondence between an American farmer named James and an English gentleman. In all, the book contains twelve letters from James to the gentleman, though none of the gentleman’s responses are in the book.The first letter is an introductory one, setting up the correspondence for the rest of the book. In the first letter, James sets himself up as a country farmer with little education, in contrast to the man he is writing to, who is well-educated and we can assume is a better writer than James.The second letter describes in great detail the plants and animals found on the farm where James is living. The descriptions of the unique American plants and wildlife lead into a discussion of the differences in American and European societies.

The third letter is titled What is an American?, and it both asks and answers that question explicitly. In this letter, James continues the discussion he began in the second letter, where he describes the physical nature of the country and the society that emerges from it, as well as what the American national identity is.

Map discussed in several letters in the book
Marthas Vineyard

Letters four through eight are often called the Nantucket Sequence or Nantucket Letters. They describe the Quaker people, society and lifestyle in Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard.They are followed by the ninth letter, which describes Charleston.

In particular, James talks about the practice of slavery in Charleston and other southern cities and argues for abolition.The tenth letter describes snakes and hummingbirds on James’ farm, and the eleventh letter discusses new techniques for irrigation.Finally, the twelfth letter finds James caught between three societies: the British, American Revolutionaries and Native Americans. As the Revolutionary War becomes more and more certain, James is caught between allegiances and wonders what the right path of action should be.

Themes and Style

In keeping with the character of James’ lack of education, Crevecoeur keeps a simple style. He does not use large words or flowery language. Indeed, though James explores deep philosophical issues in his letters, he does so with the everyday language of the farmer. Crops and wildlife are discussed alongside political and philosophical issues, all using the simplest words possible.One of the major themes of the book is the idea of how the land shapes humans and society. Crevecoeur returns time and again to the importance of the land in the growth of human society and examines the human relationship with the land on both an individual and national level. According to Crevecoeur, the wilderness of America and the unique challenges of its land are what shape American society.

Crevecoeur discussed slavery and abolition in his work.
Slave Arrival Illustration

In addition to the simple style and thematic focus on the environment, Crevecoeur demonstrates the disillusionment of James in the book.

The first letters are optimistic, full of joy and wonder at the farm and the New World. However, the tone of the book declines as the letters progress. Particularly in letter nine, where he discusses slavery, the character of James comes across as disillusioned in America and upset at the course it is taking.

As James descends into disillusionment, Crevecoeur uses both his early exuberance and later decline to define what it means to be American. Far beyond the land and the descriptions of society in the years leading up to the Revolutionary War, Crevecoeur’s book becomes a comment on Americanism.

Lesson Summary

St. Jean de Crevecoeur was a French aristocrat who moved to America in the 1700s and became a farmer. He wrote a fictional collection of letters from an American farmer, James, to an English gentleman. In these letters, Crevecoeur describes life in the years leading up to the Revolutionary War and explores what makes America unique and what it means to be American.

Learning Outcomes

After this lesson, you’ll be able to:

  • Discuss why St. Jean de Crevecoeur published Letters from an American Farmer
  • Describe the book’s impact on America before the Revolutionary War
  • Summarize the book’s content, themes and style

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