Crèvecoeur’s Ideal American

J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur’s ideal American identity is that of a hard working, opportunity seeking people who did just that. He describes Americans as those with hardships who sought refuge on this land. By using the “national genius” (39) they brought with they grew a nation. Crèvecoeur uses nature to argue the greater value farming has over hunting.

Crèvecoeur’s letters are littered with metaphors and similies relating man to nature. He compares men to plants with the simile, “Men are like plants; the goodness and flavour of the fruit proceeds from the peculiar soil and exposition in which they grow” (45). Crèvecoeur’s writings can be seen through pastoral or deep ecology perspective because he finds harmony and nature and sees that it has an intrinsic value. He states, “we are nothing but what we derive from the air we breathe, the climate we inhabit, the government we obey, the system of religion we profess and the nature of our employment” (45). Crèvecoeur appreciates the variety of people that make up the nation and states that before useless plants in Europe who withered under oppression but through transplantation they have flourished.

He finds that those who live in the woods are in a constant state of war, especially the wild inhabitants of the woods. He believes the woods should be respected and the most hideous people live in the woods. If an Englishman reading these letters were inspired to move to America Crèvecoeur warns that not everyone who comes will grow rich in a little time, he must have “talents and inclinations” to prosper. He must quickly adopt the new American way of life of working hard. Crèvecoeur believe Europeans to be “fatigued with luxury” and describes the pleasure gained from the American landscape. Crèvecoeur creates a great advertisement for America.

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


5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by krath422 on September 7, 2011 at 8:06 pm

    I like how you ended your response by saying “Crèvecoeur creates a great advertisement for America.” The entire time reading his piece I was thinking the same thing. He uses such harsh criticism about the Europeans and puts them below Americans various times that it makes America seem like such a great place to migrate to, even though many would disagree. Saying that they need to be hard working to be able to live up to the American standard and that the majority of Europeans are used to be given their luxuries just continues this point. I agree that everyone has to work for what they want and that it shouldn’t be given to us but saying that only Americans are used to this seems slightly out of line to me. I like your mention of farming versus hunting as well because Crèvecoeur is very opinionated about Europeans as hunters and how resourceful Americans are by using our land in valuable ways and putting more hard work into our land. Overall I agree with the points you brought up because they are some of the same concerns I had while reading this piece.

  2. You mention that Crevecoeur has more of a deep ecology perspective “because he finds harmony and nature and sees that it has an intrinsic value.” I beg to differ – I see Crevecoeur as more about taming nature for it to be of value. You even mention a little later that he holds great respect for the woods, and yet anyone who hunts is wild and savage. I believe that someone with a more “deep ecological” perspective would believe that humans in harmony with nature are the ones who live off the land with whatever it provides, rather than taming it into farms and, shall I say, suburbia.

    • Posted by lcmills on September 8, 2011 at 3:22 am

      I too failed to see the deep ecology perspective in Crevecoeur’s essay. When he writes “we are nothing but…the nature of our employment” (45), there appears to be a distinct rejection of any intrinsic value to be found in the environment, American or otherwise, and intrinsic value is central to DE criticism. In fact, his perspective seems rather biased toward the pastoral. He glorifies farming as the ultimate achievement in humankind’s quest to alter our environment, a choice that shows his heavy bias toward only those parts of nature which humans deem useful. This depiction of agriculture and the savagery implied as a shared trait of all hunting peoples (which I took to include Europeans and Native Americans) served to further illuminate Crevecoeur’s biases. A deep ecologist criticizing this essay might suggest hunting is a less obtrusive, more harmonious way of life, requiring less human modification of the environment to accommodate it. I feel overall this essay was almost offensively anthropocentric.

  3. Posted by kwalley on September 7, 2011 at 9:34 pm

    I completely agree with your acknowledgement of Crèvecoeur’s depiction of Americans as useful, specifically as useful plants. Throughout the letter Crèvecoeur’s comparison to men as plants is very interesting not only because of the quote you used but also because Crèvecoeur constantly emphasizes the importance of the land in the life of the “Ideal American.” Obviously plants grow in land and through his comparison of men to plants Crèvecoeur shows that without land Americans would not be able to flourish. Within this this comparison I think it is also important to recognize Crèvecoeur’s acknowledgement of the variety and distinction among plants. Crèvecoeur says that in America there is a place for everyone, “There is room for everybody in America; has he any particular talent, or industry? he exerts it in order to procure a livelihood, and it succeeds” (57). This shows that variety is necessary to succeed both as an individual as well as for a society.

  4. It is interesting that you find that Crèvecoeur has created a great advertisement for America because I actually did not pick up on that perspective when I was reading his writing. On the whole, I found that Crèvecoeur described a less than ideal country with many of the same dysfunctions as England regarding class systems. Crèvecoeur certainly paints an ideal picture initially stating that there is “a pleasing uniformity … throughout our habitation” (40) but later on he becomes contradictory describing “the most hideous parts of society” living deep in the woods (47). My largest discrepancy with your argument is regarding how Crèvecoeur sees the intrinsic value in nature. From my interpretation of the reading, Crèvecoeur only saw the value of nature as far as it benefits humans (ie utilizing and manipulating the land with farming for human use) and not truly valuing nature for its most basic properties. This is seen most clearly in his disdain for all things wild found in true nature– clearly preferring the “pleasing meadow” over the “howling swamp” and the “fine field” over the “rough ridge” (65). Interestingly, I think both of our interpretations of his writing are somehow correct. Crèvecoeur’s endless contradictions and shameless hypocrisy make it possible for both of our opposing views to be so clearly argued.

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