1. Crèvecoeur’s Ideal American

J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur utilizes his letter “What is an American” to advance his view that environments reflect the moral and political identity of their denizens.  Crèvecoeur describes Americans as the “individuals of all nations [who] are melted into a new race of man” (43).  In defining this “new race,” he subscribes strongly to his view that men “owe all their different modifications either to government or other local circumstances” (65-66).  Americans are categorized into three groups.  Those on the coast, owing to how they “feed more on fish than on flesh,” are more “bold and enterprising” (45).  Those farther inland are described as being purified by the earth, and “government…religion…[and] the rank of independent freeholders, must necessarily inspire them with sentiments, very little known in Europe” (45).  Finally, those on the farthest outreaches of the colonies are far from government and order, and are thus “no better than carnivorous animals of a superior rank” (46).

In contrast, Crèvecoeur characterizes Europe as forbidding due to “The severity of the climate, the inclemency of the seasons, the sterility of the soil, [and] the tempestuousness of the sea” (66).  In so doing, Crèvecoeur betrays more in his way of thinking than simple environmental determinism; he is using these environments as political analogies.  Europe is described as harsh and forbidding due to its rigid political and economic structure, where society is “composed…of great lords who possess everything, and of a herd of people who have nothing” (40).  On the other hand, he characterizes the American environment by “my verdant fields, my fair navigable rivers, and my green mountains” (67-68).  This Edenic environment symbolizes Crèvecoeur’s belief in individual freedom that goes beyond the stuffy inflexibility of Europe, where individuals determine their own worth and “each person works for himself” (40).  This is not to say that Crèvecoeur is an anarchist who completely disbelieves in the benefits of a governmental structure; his backhanded description of the frontiersman from above betrays this much.  Rather, Crèvecoeur believes the ideal American is an individualist who works with what he is given to make the best possible life for himself, a view somewhat akin to classical liberalism, and Crèvecoeur deems the unfettered American landscape as the perfect symbol of this outlook.

 

References

 

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 rebsheppard on September 7, 2011 at 9:49 pm

    Your insights into the (potential) allegorical implications of Crèvecoeur’s writing are enlightening and, for the most part, agreeable, with a few semantical caveats. The idea that “environments reflect the moral and political identity of their denizens” according to Crèvecoeur reads nicely as a sentence, but I’m not so sure that the author’s portrait of the American environment reflects the identities and ideologies held by its occupants as much as its occupants (and writers, intellectuals etc.) ascribe meaning to the land in order to form a sort of national identity themselves.

    I really enjoyed how you analyzed the writer’s depiction of Europe as a cold, unforgiving place as an analogy for its political and social climate; this comparison is well-founded and supported by textual evidence beyond what you cited. However, I was confused by your description of Crèvecoeur’s America as a place of wondrous rugged individualism juxtaposed next to an analogous (although negative) depiction of stuffy “Europe, where individuals determine their own worth and “each person works for himself.” This sentence struck a rather collectivist cord in my imagination, as of your descriptions of both America and Europe seem to reference nods to individualism–although when associated with America, the notion takes on a distinctly positive tone. I think that the best summation of Crèvecoeur’s American characterization is offered when he writes, “His labor is founded on the basis of nature, self interest. Can it want a stronger allurement?” (Crèvecoeur, 44).

    I appreciate your astute and challenging post.

  2. Posted by rebsheppard on September 7, 2011 at 9:55 pm

    citation:
    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 christys21 on September 7, 2011 at 11:55 pm

    I thought the qoute “Individuals of all nations (who) are melted into a new race of man” to be an on point description of what Crevecoeur would have defined as an American.
    He pondered on this thought for a good amount of time; considering how there was no true, blood American.
    Someone who had come to the country, was hard working, and had some kind of desire to eventually own a piece of land, could be defined as an American.

    This short qoute, although it is void of many other small details Crevecoeur discusses in his essay, is very true and up front. Even today, there is no clear-cut definition of what or who an American is. The United States is a melting pot of individuals from all countries around the world, trying to work hard and eventually own something of value.

  4. Posted by michaelmichaelsmith on September 8, 2011 at 12:44 am

    I also enjoyed you bringing up the climate of Europe as an analogy to the hierarchical, rigid political and social systems that so many looked to escape from. “The American is a new man, who acts upon new principles; he must therefore entertain new ideas, and form new opinions.” (44). This American can do so because as opposed to Europe, the colonies are an expansive, unmolded physical and political landscape. Those who come here forget the “mechanism of subordination,” ( 60) “and embarks in designs he never would have thought of in his own country.” (58) Just as the weather, soil and classism of Europe strangled the vitality of its inhabitants, this new land reawakens individuals to their own potential and encourages them to develop untethered political ideologies and to enrich themselves from an abundance of profitable labors.

    Ref:
    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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