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J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur (1735-1813)

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Questions for Discussion and Writing

Letters from an American Farmer (1782) meditates on a now-famous question, "What is an American?" If there is truth in the proposition that one key American trait is the constant, collective reopening of this very question, then a long and culturally important discussion begins here, with Crèvecoeur's attempt to answer. His life story makes it clear that he was a wandering soul, with regard to landscapes, nationality, and politics. And such wanderers, who have felt the complex pull of affinity with and exile from the United States, have been among the nation's most eloquent and prophetic writers.

1. Crèvecoeur presents America as he imagines it would appear to a literate visitor from England or Europe. In the opening pages of Letters, what sort of "Europe" does he imagine, both as a place to be from and as a contrast to the new republic in the New World?

2. Read the three paragraphs which begin with the sentence "Men are like plants; the goodness and flavor of the fruit proceeds from the peculiar soil and exposition in which they grow." What scientific and Enlightenment assumptions underlie Crèvecoeur's reasoning here? How would you compare them to basic assumptions of Benjamin Franklin? Of Jonathan Edwards?

3. Crèvecoeur expresses a complex ambivalence about life in the "great woods" which covered the United States only a few miles west of the eighteenth-century eastern settlements. What does he see as the beneficial effects of this scattering of farmers and settlers on the frontier? What are the "most hideous" results of this scattering?

4. At various points in the Letters, Crèvecoeur seems to treat religious doctrines as formulations to be diluted and melded with one another, and to be relegated to a sideline interest of hard-working yeoman farmers, rather than conserved fervently and whole. In the meditation on race slavery in Letter IX, however (beginning with "A clergyman settled a few years ago at George-town . . ."), he seems to read American religious convictions and beliefs as requiring an end to slavery. How do these two perspectives on religious belief combine or collide in the Letters? When Harriet Beecher Stowe writes against slavery two generations later, she too invokes religious principle and attacks religious practices in America before the Civil War. How would you compare Stowe's overview of American moral life with Crèvecoeur's?