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

    Contributing Editor:
    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 in society.

    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).

    Original Audience

    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), 192-203.