What is an American?

Joselyn Garcia
September 6, 2011

Defining and American Identity

In the letter, “What is an American,” J Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur uses imagery and simile to compare nature to the ideal American identity. For example, Crèvecoeur says “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 government we obey and the nature of our employment.” (Pg 5) Plants will not flourish gracefully if the soil they are planted is rotten. Similarly, Americans do not have the same opportunity to flourish in Europe. Most settlers, Crèvecoeur points out, come to America because of the opportunities, freedom, and equality all men seem to possess. People may start from nothing in America but surely with hard work and perseverance they are able to live a decent lifestyle. From the beginning to the end of his letter, Crèvecoeur seems to compare the American to the European. Crèvecoeur’s definition of an American is the person who “leaves behind him all of his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the mode of life he embraces, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he hold.” (pg 4) Therefore, we can see that because an American does not follow the rules of the English king but follows what the American Alma Matter says, is hard working, and submits to the American customs then that is what distinguishes him from the European. Compared the European Nature, Europeans have huge social gaps, follow unrighteous laws, and is not free. Nature is free and so man deserves the same right! Unlike Europe, there were “so many useless plants, wanting vegetative mould, and refreshing showers; they withered, and were mowed down but want, hunger, and war.” (pg4) Americans lay their roots, their foundation in America and will not wither away because we have good soil, we have fertile ground. In essence, our foundation is viewing your fellow American with equal eyes, working hard on your land and following a new system.

St. John de Crèvecoeur, J. Hector. “What is an American?” Letters from an American Farmer. New York: Dutton, 1877. 39-68. Print.

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4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by yribaf on September 6, 2011 at 7:40 pm

    What I find interesting about Crèvecoeur’s ideal American is that he relates it to a plant taking root in the earth. You mention in your blog entry that Americans “will not wither away because we have good soil, we have fertile ground,” but the only reason this is true is because the Native Americans did not cut down the forests, which is what Europeans begin doing when they get to this continent. Crèvecoeur states that “we are nothing but what we derive from the air we breathe, the climate we inhabit” (p.45) and yet no one makes the connection between the reason why the land is fertile and what they are actually doing to the land when they cut down the forest for timber and farmland. I find it rather interesting that he understands that in order to remain healthy, your environment needs to be healthy as well, but then he belittles the Europeans that choose to leave the environment the way it is and decide to hunt by saying, “Thus our bad people are those who are half cultivators and half hunters; and the worst of them are those who have degenerated altogether into the hunting state” (p.53). I don’t particularly understand why Crèvecoeur and other Europeans didn’t understand that the reason the soil was healthy was because the forest was not cut down when in Europe the soil was sterile because they cut down all the trees. I find it quite odd that Crèvecoeur would refer to the new Americans as plants that will grow strong and their roots deep when they consider it beneath them to let the forests remain the way they are so the soil can actually stay fertile. This is a contradiction in the American identity that he has described.

  2. Posted by yribaf on September 6, 2011 at 7:41 pm

    St. John de Crèvecoeur, J. Hector. “What is an American?” Letters from an American Farmer. New York: Dutton, 1877. 39-68. Print.

  3. Posted by kwalley on September 8, 2011 at 11:13 am

    I agree with your analysis of Crèvecoeur’s use of imagery and simile to compare men to plants and thus making the soil and land necessary. However what I found most disheartening about the letter was that the opportunity and equality was not afforded to all men, as Crèvecoeur made it seem. There were many Europeans who could not afford the journey to America and thus entered into indentured servitude, a beginning which would not offer them land and and consequently prosperity. Those Europeans who came from nothing still had a rough time of making anything of themselves in America. While there was more opportunity there was still a need for some prior wealth in order to gain any of those vast opportunities available in America. I find that Crèvecoeur was a little overzealous in his ideas of the grandeur and equality of America, “we are the most perfect society now existing in the world” (p. 41). While the opportunities America offered people, who would not have had similar opportunities in Europe, were vast there still much to be desired as an American. There was not nor is there a perfect society because despite every effort at equality there will always be a disparity of wealth. Being an American may have been a step in the right direction for equality but there was still much work to be done.

  4. Posted by etrotta on September 9, 2011 at 8:23 pm

    I agree with your analysis and I also have the same viewpoint as kwalley’s. I too feel that Crèvecoeur’s ideal view of America doesn’t take into consideration any of the hardships of the immigrants that came over to America and tried to establish farms. Even though the opportunities in America to escape from a lower class status and live a comfortable life were far better than the opportunities in Europe, it was still very difficult. Crèvecoeur misses that in his letter as well as the fact that many of the large, successful farmowners had slaves to work the fields.

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