J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur (1735-1813)
Doreen Alvarez Saar
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Letters is a very accessible text; the greatest difficulty in
teaching it is establishing the cultural context--the political rhetoric
of the Revolution--which makes structural sense of the whole.
Generally, students read the text as the simple story of a farmer and
as "truth" rather than as fiction. The teaching challenge is
to get students to see how political ideas structure the text. One way
into the text is to have the students read Letter II and count the references,
both direct and indirect, to the way society should be organized. In the
opening section of the letter, James compares his situation to the state
of other farmers in other nations. Later in Letter II, note how the supposedly
neutral descriptions of animals are used to talk about the conduct of humans
Students are generally intrigued by the idea that members of the colonies
were actually against the Revolution.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
In the course of Letters, through the character of James, Crèvecoeur
describes for his reader how social principles laid out by the new American
society operate in the life of an individual American. There are many interesting
themes that can be pointed out in the text: the nature of the American
character--the work ethic, the responsibility of the individual, anti-intellectualism;
the farmer as a prototype of the American character; the treatment of slaves;
the view of new immigrants and their ethnicity; literary resonances such
as the escape from civilization in Letter XII and stereotypical American
characters. One theme that is frequently overlooked is James's desire not
to participate in the Revolution. Students believe that all colonists accepted
the righteousness of the Revolutionary cause. A discussion of James's feelings
helps students recognize the constancy of division in society and is useful
for later discussions of the social and literary reactions to the Civil
War and the Vietnam War.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Eighteenth-century Americans did not share our modern idea that politics
and art must be kept separate. Thus, some forms of eighteenth-century writing
do not conform to common notions about genres and form. For an interesting
discussion of the social form of the American novel, see Jane Tompkin's
discussion of Charles Brockden Brown's novels in Sensational Designs.
Further, the form of Letters is related to other less common genres
like the philosophical travel book, which was often epistolary in form
(Montesquieu's Persian Letters is a good example).
When students read Letters, they find its substance very familiar
because much of this material has become part of the mythology of America.
Students need to be reminded that Letters was one of the first works
describing the character of the average American. Also, its American readers
were a society of colonials who had just overturned centuries of tradition
and were attempting to define themselves as something new, in order to
distinguish themselves from those who were exactly like them but born under
monarchical governments in Europe. European readers were trying to make
sense of this "new man."
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Letters is a good literary expression of the political principles
in the Declaration of Independence and Paine's
Common Sense. It is very useful to read Letters in tandem
with Book II of Timothy Dwight's Greenfield Hill, which is another
imaginative creation of the "ideal" average American.
For a quick introduction to the political rhetoric of the period, instructors
might read: pp. 82-86 in A Cultural History of the American Revolution
by Kenneth Silverman (excerpted in Early American Literature, edited
by Michael Gilmore); Chapters 1 and 2 of Gordon S. Wood's The Creation
of the American Republic; and Doreen Alvarez Saar's "Crèvecoeur's
`Thoughts on Slavery': Letters from an American Farmer and the Rhetoric
of Whig Thought" in Early American Literature (Fall 1987),