Read Letters from an American Farmer by J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur Online


Written by an emigrant French aristocrat turned farmer, the Letters from an American Farmer (1782) posed the famous question: "What, then, is the American, this new man?," as a new nation took shape before the eyes of the world. Addressing some of American literature's most pressing concerns and identity issues, these Letters celebrate personal determination, freedom fromWritten by an emigrant French aristocrat turned farmer, the Letters from an American Farmer (1782) posed the famous question: "What, then, is the American, this new man?," as a new nation took shape before the eyes of the world. Addressing some of American literature's most pressing concerns and identity issues, these Letters celebrate personal determination, freedom from institutional oppression, and the largeness and fertility of the land. They also address darker and more symbolic elements, particularly slavery. This book is the only critical edition available of what is seen by many as the first-ever work of American literature....

Title : Letters from an American Farmer
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ISBN : 9780192838988
Format Type : Paperback
Number of Pages : 288 Pages
Status : Available For Download
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Letters from an American Farmer Reviews

  • Ben Hallman
    2019-04-12 14:30

    No, I would never have read Letters From An American Farmer had it not been assigned reading for an English class. No, I never plan on reading it again. But I might as well be pleased that I did read it. I just need a few minutes to figure out why.The historical significance of this book is much greater than its literary merit. It’s not much of a story, after all, but more of a report on the nascent American nation, with Crevecoeur taking up the thin disguise of Farmer John to send letters to the Frenchman known as “Mr. F.B.” The language used is colorful in imagery and descriptive almost to a fault, but there’s no plot, no over-arching conflict, no character development save the change in attitude Farmer John undergoes during the concluding letter. The epistolary format only exacerbates this lack of narrative cohesion, but, then again, not many people sit down to read Letters From An American Farmer because they’re looking for a rip-roaring yarn.So I guess I won’t complain too much about the format or the paucity of any traits that resemble modern fiction. Hell, novels were still a fairly shaky concept in the latter half of the 18th century, so I’ll forgo most of my bitching about the book and try to find something positive to discuss. Hmmmm.For starters, it’s old. That makes it important. And Crevecoeur’s history of being kind of a weirdo helps to maintain my interest in his reports on the goings-on in this wild and new country. Crevecoeur—er, I mean, Farmer John holds a kind disposition towards Indians, seems not to harbor much resentment towards the various religions he encounters, and makes a good case for abolition, even if he does believe that a northern-colony slave is a happy slave. Some of the images are enjoyable, such as when Farmer John kills a kingbird to save the lives of 54 bees, or when he reveals he keeps an active hornets’ nest in the living room of his parlor to rid his house of flies (not the smartest form of pest control, but definitely a way to keep the damn kids quiet.) The story of Andrew the Hebridean and his run-in with Indians is a funny diversion. Plus, my love for Nathaniel Philbrick’s In The Heart Of The Sea made Crevecoeur’s letter on Nantucket whalers fairly interesting.But Letters From An American Farmer grows long and repetitive, and the only interesting section in the latter half of the book is the letter on Charleston and slavery, which concludes with a truly horrific description of a doomed slave Farmer James encounters on the way to visit a friend. The neutral tone Crevecoeur uses for the final letter, “Distresses of a Frontier-Man,” proves frustrating as he struggles to understand the wants of the revolutionaries and the English crown, and his proposed solution to his reticence—I’m gonna go live in the woods with the Indians—greatly undermines the sincerity of the previous eleven letters.I’m happy I read this book—hell, I’m happy anytime I finish a book—but I’ve developed no profound sense of love or respect for Letters From An American Farmer. It’s an old book I never would have read except that a grade depended on it. Still, it makes for better reading than a James Patterson novel.

  • Jessica
    2019-04-21 21:26

    I don't remember how I fell over this book but I had never heard of it despite it's apparent fame and historical import. It is painful to read both for its language and its topic. The last 26 pages are the equivalent of "Can't stay here. Leaving soon to live with the Indians. Revolution imminent." Given that my desire for a little more brevity, particularly when nothing new is being provided and there is no "poetry" to the language, is most likely due to my 21st century sensibilities but surely there is a common ground somewhere in the middle. (I kind of remember it from the 1900s.)At times these letters feel very much like propaganda and bravado - America is so wonderful! We have all the land we could want (just ignore the "natives") and we are all self-made men with no vices! Come on over! But just as quickly it becomes an embarrassing portrayal of the founding of the country. Within 100 years of being a refuge for the religiously persecuted, it's already come back around to the British way or the highway - although a bit of a fuss is made about the ability for everyone to worship in the Christian church of their choice. Other Europeans are tolerated, mostly because they are rather amusing, but they'd better be abiding by British law and customs. Natives are simply to be dealt with in the same way as a pesky fly - unless they have something of value. And slaves? Oh, wonderful slaves! They are treated quite well as long as they do what they are asked to do. In fact, in the Northern states they are just as happy as free white men and given nearly all the same freedoms. Who knew? It's too hard to even get angry at such blatant ego, ignorance, and justifications - it's just shameful. I can't help comparing this book to the dystopian literature I've come to love - a world found, ravaged, spoiled, and gone mad. Unfortunately, I don't know how this one is going to end.

  • John Pistelli
    2019-03-29 18:31

    It might sound odd to call such a ubiquitous text underrated, but I think Letters from an American Farmer is just that. While most people who have taken a course in American literature or possibly even history have probably encountered this 1782 book's third chapter, which provides a utopian answer to the question "What Is an American?", the full extent of Crèvecoeur's literary invention and ambition is generally unappreciated. The Letters, often treated as an informative nonfiction tract like Franklin's Autobiography or Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia, might be better understood as an intricate philosophical fiction akin to Utopia, Candide, or Gulliver's Travels.Crèvecoeur, a somewhat shadowy Frenchman born to the minor nobility and educated by Jesuits, found himself in North America in the 1750s, fighting for his homeland in the French and Indian War. Eventually, he settled in New York and became a farmer—the experience lightly fictionalized in his letters, written ostensibly in response to a former European guest's query about the state of American society. Fleeing the Revolution as a Tory sympathizer, Crèvecoeur ended up back in France, and his American book became a European success as a proto-Romantic utopian vision of an organic, egalitarian society that would later delight Godwin and Shelley.The Letters are framed as the literary production of a simple Pennsylvania farmer named James, not that of a well-educated and upper-class traveler from Catholic Europe; its wittily metafictional and faux-diffident opening chapter shows him arguing with his wife and the local minister over whether or not such a humble and busy man should even take up the pen. The minister's suggestion that James's untutored literary style, if not learned, "will smell of the woods, and be a little wild," helps to inaugurate an aesthetic of the natural and homemade in American literature that looks forward to everything from Thoreau to Dickinson to Hemingway. Crèvecoeur's style—and it is the consciously chosen style of a literary artist, writing in an adopted language, no less—is accordingly simple and eloquent, especially in the second letter's pastoral and quietly allegorical description of life on the farm, among the birds and the bees.The famous third letter defines the American as a freeholding farmer, made fit for civil freedom by self-sufficient rural labor, and unbothered by the paraphernalia of a caste-bound, priest-ridden, crowded, and incorrigibly inegalitarian Europe:It is not composed, as in Europe, of great lords who possess every thing 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. Some few towns excepted, we are all tillers of the earth, from Nova Scotia to West Florida.He praises America as the asylum of Europe's poor, who otherwise have no country as they owe no loyalty to their landlords and oppressors, and he further claims that America's vastness will dissipate Europe's religious controversies by inducing a mild tolerance and a simple faith in a nation of self-reliant workers. Looking forward to the peoples of Europe's diverse nations and sects coming together to form a "new man," he describes America as a rational utopia of free labor. Crèvecoeur is not a mechanist of society; he holds, rather, a Romantic and organic view that "[m]en are like plants," seeing climate and locale (and, implicitly, what the next century will call, with a botanical metaphor, "culture") as wholly determining human character. Unlike the biological racist Jefferson, Crèvecoeur suggests that humanity can be reformed if they are placed in new and healthy environments. Despite his physiocratic encomium to farming, Crèvecoeur allows that America is an ecosystem made up of diverse regions: seafaring coastal dwellers make trade possible and move the goods produced by the farmers' inland labor, while dangerous and dissolute frontier dwellers do the necessary work of clearing the land for further agricultural incursion. James even claims—emphasizing this work's fictional status—that his own father was such a frontiersman, a statement implying that even the degraded hunter will eventually produce sound American offspring as the settlement of the continent progresses. Having described and hymned rural labor, the book's long middle section, a kind of prologue to Moby-Dick, takes us to an idealized Nantucket; the editors note that Crèvecoeur's geography, not unlike Shakespeare's, is largely imaginary, possibly a signal to readers to take the book as a philosophical fantasia rather than a literal report. The Nantucket whalers of the middle five chapters, like the Pennsylvania farmers of the opening three, are trained by their natural environment to become fit for American freedom: earnest in deportment, simple in religion, sedulous in labor. Like Franklin, Crèvecoeur singles out Quakers for special praise as the most Enlightened of America's sects in their austere and pacific faith.In the ninth letter, however, the utopia sours to dystopia as Crèvecoeur goes south for a visit to Charles-Town, where he encounters no plain-spoken laborers but rather parasitic lawyers, pleasure-bloated planters, and a mix of decadence and inequality that he sees as replicating the crimes of Europe. Early in the book, James had described himself, in the period's sentimental idiom, as "the farmer of feelings"; the remainder of the ninth letter is accordingly taken up with a long and despairing lament, inspired by the suffering of enslaved Africans and the hard-heartedness of their masters, on the persistence and extent of human folly, brutality, and oppression, a state of affairs that makes him question human nature itself:The history of the earth! doth it present any thing but crimes of the most heinous nature, committed from one end of the world to the other? We observe avarice, rapine, and murder, equally prevailing in all parts. History perpetually tells us, of millions of people abandoned to the caprice of the maddest princes, and of whole nations devoted to the blind fury of tyrants. Countries destroyed; nations alternately buried in ruins by other nations; some parts of the world beautifully cultivated, returned again to the pristine state; the fruits of ages of industry, the toil of thousands in a short time destroyed by a few! If one corner breathes in peace for a few years, it is, in turn, subjected, torn, and levelled; one would almost believe the principles of action in man, considered as the first agent of this planet, to be poisoned in their most essential parts.The chapter ends with a devastating scene wherein James encounters a black man in a cage, exposed for having killed a planter, and vainly tries to assist the dying, tortured victim; while James elsewhere argues that slavery in the north is a noble enterprise with freedom for African-Americans as its goal, the implicit condemnation of slavery as such and the plea for sympathy, so characteristic of the period's fiction, is starkly memorable.In subsequent letters, James regains his equanimity with pages of limpid nature description and an interpolated narrative by a Russian visitor to the eminent botanist John Bertram; the latter is particularly prescient:I view the present Americans as the seed of future nations, which will replenish this boundless continent; the Russians may be in some respects compared to you; we likewise are a new people, new I mean in knowledge, arts, and improvements. Who knows what revolutions Russia and America may one day bring about; we are perhaps nearer neighbours than we imagine.But the book ends in total collapse as the divisive Revolution politicizes everyday life, breaks up the organic community of the farmers, and drives the peaceable, non-ideological James to plan a move to the frontier, there to live with the Indians. As James's very language becomes as disordered as his situation, we realize that we have been reading a kind of novel all along, the epistolary expression of a fictional sensibility as it encounters a variety of emblematic situations:…I am seized with a fever of the mind, I am transported beyond that degree of calmness which is necessary to delineate our thoughts. I feel as if my reason wanted to leave me, as if it would burst its poor weak tenement…Trying to maintain his peaceable equanimity in a situation demanding he take sides and take up arms, a time when those calling for peace are denounced as traitors and appeasers (but when is it not such a time?), he decries war as the business of the powerful and the sorrow of the poor:As to the argument on which the dispute is founded, I know little about it. Much has been said and written on both sides, but who has a judgement capacious and clear enough to decide? The great moving principles which actuate both parties are much hid from vulgar eyes, like mine; nothing but the plausible and the probable are offered to our contemplation. The innocent class are always the victim of the few; they are in all countries and at all times the inferior agents, on which the popular phantom is erected; they clamour, and must toil, and bleed, and are always sure of meeting with oppression and rebuke. It is for the sake of the great leaders on both sides, that so much blood must be spilt; that of the people is counted as nothing.The European American utopia having failed, James sets out for a Native American utopia; while his praise of the Indians reflects idealizing and troubling stereotypes, his flight from an encroaching civilization to a supposedly simpler nature is prophetic of so many later ambiguous fictional heroes and heroines in American literature, from Hester Prynne and Ishmael and Huck Finn all the way to the creation of another bilingual Old World savant fleeing revolution—Humbert Humbert.D. H. Lawrence characteristically heckles Crèvecoeur in Studies in Classic American Literature for posing as a natural man without acknowledging nature's (and thereby his own) darkness. But this is only true if you neglect the Letters as a fictional design, a set of carefully-wrought missives from a utopia gone wrong, narrating the breakdown of an ideal man in an ideal world, Franklin's wisdom and Jefferson's idyll (and something of Rousseau's philosophy) giving way to Brockden Brown's and Poe's perversity, neoclassical pastoral darkening to Gothic horror. The book's own doubleness—its guise of plain-spoken truth concealing its status as fiction—tells us that its values and its politics cannot be taken at face value. It should be read as a novel: the first attempt, and a persuasive one, at a great American novel.

  • Mary
    2019-04-05 14:35

    "Men are like plants. The goodness and flavor of the fruit proceeds from the peculiar soil and exposition in which they grow. We are nothing but what we derive from the air we breathe, the climate we inhabit, the government we obey, the system of religion we profess, and the nature of our employment" (45).

  • Carolyn
    2019-04-13 18:11

    I am amazed at the low rating many readers have given this. I love the how these letters illustrate what it meant to be American, what private property meant to people in a with roots in feudalism. Simply beautiful.

  • Kristýna Marková
    2019-04-25 18:36

    If it weren't for my American lit course, I wouldn't even get to this. Basically the author describes how America is the best country in the world, free from royalty, no social stratification and all that jazz. Not exactly an easy read, and I wouldn't read it again.

  • Megan
    2019-04-07 17:27

    Let no one lie and say that Crevecoeur ever used 50 words to say what could be said with 5000.

  • Matt Simmons
    2019-04-14 16:10

    I began this book on a whim, recalling that I had taught an excerpt from it--the third letter--in an American literature course that focused on rural writings a few years ago. I had enjoyed that letter immensely, but had always heard that the book had some dark overtures, and was curious to see what those were like. And so, as my bedside reading for a week or so, these Letters were my companion, and I've been mulling over them constantly over the last several days.First of all, what is this book? That in itself is a strange, and revealing, question. These are a series of fictional letters, written in the voice of an humble Englishman, living and farming in the Pennsylvania backcountry, to a wealthy friend back in England. But yet, only the self-deprecating, funny and naively silly first letter and the exasperated, yet darkly optimistic, last letter provide anything in the way of the "life-events" content we would expect to find in letters. The rest, though set up as letters, works as a travel journal, study of the natural landscape, ethnography, general political theorizing, social commentary and critique, agricultural treatise, and general rumination on "the good life." Despite its fictive conceit, it's far from being an epistolary novel, but is rather something like one would have expected to see produced by one of the Roman writers--Cato the Elder or Cicero, perhaps--for its wide-ranging subject matter, interests, and rhetorical styles within the conceit of the larger, unified work.In a way, Crevecoeur seems to be providing a work that sits between--both chronologically and conceptually--the two most significant pre-1800 works in American letters: Franklin's Autobigoraphy and Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia. Crevecoeur shares their strongly-Enlightenment religious and political principles of freedom, liberty, and mild religiosity as moralistic instructor rather than deposit of transcendent Truth claims, and he gives us an extension of Franklin's inventive, creative industriousness that points towards Jefferson's fixation on land, agriculture, self-sufficient yeoman virtue, and suspicion of market capitalism and centralized government. Yet unlike those two lions of the Revolution, Crevecoeur presents a political vision that echoes the feelings of the common man everywhere: to be left alone, as he must do the work of caring for his family and doing the labours that have been presented to him, rather than to engage in the confusing, chaotic political controversies of his day. This is especially apparent in the closing letter, in which we see farmer "John" lamenting the destructive excesses of the nascent Patriot movement while admitting to his love for his fellow Americans and his understanding of their criticisms of the Crown. "John" will not raise a finger against either his neighbour or his King, his present nor his past. Rather, he will remove himself to live with the Natives, where a virtue parallel to the "American" virtues he describes in earlier letters continues to be practiced, until the shooting is over. Then, he will return and rebuild his life--a life that does not depend on government of any sort, but on the blessings of a Deistic Providence, the labour and economy of he and his family, and, most especially, the cultivation of virtue.And thus this book, which in many ways is meant to be a work of ethnography, social commentary, and natural history, becomes a meditation on the meaning of America and how we define Americans. And in an age of increased tension and conflict, its answers to these questions, its unflinching examinations of national failings (especially slavery), and the vision of the American who just can't bring himself to engage in the fratricide in which his neighbours are participating, and who simply tends his own garden while the world burns (and struggling over whether this is cowardice or not), is a vision that is especially prescient now.

  • Richard French
    2019-03-25 14:24

    April 26, 2015 A few weeks ago, I began reading an Everyman edition of this book that's almost 90 years old as background information for a piece of fiction I hope to write,I was surprised at how clearly and economically Crevecoeur wrote this book -- like a good text from the present day. It's like fiction in some ways. The author's father was a French nobleman, while the narrator-farmer says that he inherited his holdings from his father. He moves away from farming at times and brings his readers to places like Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard.The narrator is a free man, happy with his lot in life. He celebrates the benefits that come from honesty and hard work, with no aristocracy to suck up the wealth of the country. No shame is connected with moderate means. The key is to find something interesting to do that benefits others. He writes passionately and convincingly about the evils of slavery. He is also an early observer of similarities between Russia and North America. Tocqueville made the same point.With one chapter left to read, I have the impression that this work will hold its place among the classics of writing about America. April 29Finished the last chapter yesterday, which calls attention to the fictionalized nature of the text. According to Wikipedia, Crevecoeur went back to Europe during the American Revolution to be with his ailing father. The narrator, however, takes a lot of time working up a plan to bring his wife and family to a native village to escape the miseries of the fighting. The best part of the chapter for me was the reminder that the American Revolution wasn't a storybook war with inspiring pictures and little suffering.I still have a lengthy end-note to read about Crevecoeur's correspondence with people like Benjamin Franklin.

  • Ben
    2019-04-10 13:06

    As a primary source document from the immediately pre-Revolutionary War period, this book is naturally of interest to history buffs, but - speaking as a member of that tribe myself - I did not love it. The letters have a very desultory character, describing the history of Nantucket, the character of Charleston, and local hummingbirds and snakes, to give just a sample. There is no attempt at a comprehensive study of the American colonies in any sense, and those topics upon which the author alights seem completely random. Moreover, he treats them with such a childlike guilelessness that makes the reader seriously wonder just how reliable a source Mr. St. John de Crèvecœur is. He is so taken in by the opportunity in America that his descriptions of the universal quality of life there at this time would border on the unbelievable even if more objective histories of the same period that I have read didn't induce me to that feeling. For me, what was most interesting about these letters is Crèvecœur's discussions of the Native Americans at this time. It was fascinating for me to read how highly he esteemed these people, even higher than his fellow European-descendants in many cases, and yet still believes in their ultimate inferiority to Whites. I wish he had spent more time on this tension, explaining how (or indeed if) he resolved it for himself. If he had, I think that kind of insight into the colonial mind would have been the greatest value of this collection of letters.

  • Eric
    2019-04-16 18:10

    Disappointing to see this have such a low average score here. The book is written as letters to an Englishman (of which I am), which really added to it. There is romanticising of early America but it's charming in its way. To have it all decline and falter as the book grows darker towards its second half is heart wrenching. I read and discovered this out of interest for the period, perhaps that's why this review contrasts to those who were made to read it by school/college. This book is a long favourite of mine and I'm glad to have found it in my youth.

  • J. Alfred
    2019-04-05 17:23

    Probably more up the sociologist or historian's ally than my own, this is still an interesting collection of letters from the eponymous American farmer immediately preceding and during the Revolution. The letter(s) dealing with slavery (the author regards northern and southern slavery to be two very different animals) and the last, after the fighting has started, are the most worthwhile for a casual reader.

  • Jessica
    2019-03-26 20:14

    Perfectly OK. Not great, not horrible. Just in the sweet spot of "meh." America is romanticized, but considering the time period, I suppose that's part of the charm, nice and folksy. I actually like the latter half, when it takes a considerably darker turn. I don't know what that says about me and my gloomy, pessimistic sensibilities. I guess the realism here is just the right amount of grit. Other than that, I'm not going to remember it in a few months. Heck, maybe even in a few weeks.

  • Trevor
    2019-04-23 21:13

    Oh hell yes. I love this guy's style. He asserts that basically all Nantucket dwellers were morphine addicts. Crazy 18th century loose relationship with the truth, but I'm sure half of what he says is somewhat valid and it's all pretty compelling stuff. Who doesn't want to know about life on the American frontier before it moved so far west.

  • Sam Motes
    2019-03-25 17:17

    This was an interesting look into the mind of a farmer during the formative years of what would become the United States. The melting pot and strong people in charge of their destiny fill the letters. A big thanks to Nathaniel Philbrick to suggestion this read during his discussion on his book Valiant Ambition.

  • Mark Valentine
    2019-03-30 19:32

    As a tool for understanding the 18th Century colonial, reading Crevecoeur is essential. He writes as an observer and unlike Jefferson, who infuses his Notes on the State of Virginia with supporting data, Crevecoeur limits himself to impressions and hearsay. I think it an immensely valuable study on par with Tocqueville.

  • Abeer Abdullah
    2019-03-25 20:24

    Crevecoeur, at least compared to his contemporaries, is sort of a realist, and it's interesting to see a realist's perspective on The New World. I took this for survey of american literature class, and it was refreshing after reading so much unbearable puritan literature. letter 9 was the best.

  • Ladygwen
    2019-04-17 14:16

    These were an interesting contrast to other views of early America, especially in regards to the revolution. The debate over its fictionalization vs. biography is intriguing.

  • Ananya
    2019-04-01 21:14

    don't know why it's given such a low average rating. I likedwhat is an American

  • Rob
    2019-03-28 21:23

    had to read this in college. I never finished it. It was too hard to get through.

  • L.
    2019-04-18 20:32

    Jest taka zasada, że jeśli nie ma się nic do powiedzenia, to się milczy. J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, you blew it, man.

  • €l!na
    2019-03-27 13:10

    θελω η σχολη μου να κατεδαφιστει!!γινεται??????????

  • Sannie Hald
    2019-04-22 14:15

    Letter III: What is an American?

  • Brian Merritt
    2019-04-23 15:11

    Interesting and positive. It's regarded as the first piece of American Literature.

  • Skittle Booth
    2019-04-22 13:24

    An interesting peek into the past

  • A.
    2019-04-18 21:34

    Read Letter III - "What is an American?"

  • Sangeeta Paul
    2019-04-24 19:14

    Letter 3!

  • Calvin Funk
    2019-03-29 16:06

    As far as early American fiction goes, I thought this was pretty good. I like it for it's literary qualities and it's commentary on early American life.

  • Thomas
    2019-03-29 15:34

    this is one of those old books where a cool guy tells you about things he saw or heard or thought about

  • James Violand
    2019-04-16 15:21

    A Frenchman in pre-Revolutionary America up through 1782 farms in New York and corresponds with an Englishman by letter. Very enlightening.