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.