Posts Tagged ‘The Ideal American’

The Changing Role of Women in Westward Expansion

In Writing the Trail Deborah Lawrence argues that western expansion and women’s writings on the subject contrast the typical myths of the American West. Lawrence presents the idea that the strong, western woman was a far cry from, “representatives of home, church, and constraint” (Lawrence, 1). The typical myths were mainly that the West offered unclaimed land with vast opportunities with no real sacrifice, hard work, or even cost; there was land to be settled and opportunities to be capitalized on. Much like the typical American Dream, the West offered the idea of self-made worth and freedom, anyone could go westward and become successful. The American Dream and the myths of the West both retain the idea of a stable, traditional family with the husband and father at the helm and the wife and mother as the caregiver and silent support system. The writings of western women conflict this familial ideal in their development into outspoken, independent, strong women.

Lawrence argues that westward expansion allows women to change and develop their own identities: “discover a new sense of themselves in their frontier surroundings. Surrounded by chaotic and masculine environments, they rarely reflect on their losses. While they are clearly out of place, they discover that the wilderness clarifies and enhances their sense of self-possibility. Their writing validates their transformation and confirms their changed selves” (Lawrence, 5). This argument is validated in Eliza W. Farnham’s California In-doors and Out, in which Farnham recounts the daily life of a western woman. Farnham puts forth multiple accounts of her developing and changing role as a woman in the untouched, natural setting of the West, “They were so much in harmony with the general spirit of things, that we only looked on their amusing side a few moments, and presently forgot them. They represent well the harum-scarum life we led, the disregard of opinion or feeling into which we degenerated with such fearful, rapidity, that in the moments when I realized it, I sometimes feared we should never recover our old standard again” (Farnham, 93). The idea of Farnham being frightened about never being able to return to her old life as a simple and silent housewife is almost ridiculous but alludes to the fear of women of not being able to perform their domestic duties. Though Farnham presents a reluctant development there is no question that westward expansion has both enlightened and changed her.

Lawrence, Deborah. Writing the Trail. Ch./ Art:85-92 Pub. University of Iowa Press 2006


Farhham, Eliza W. California In-Doors and Out; On, How We Farm, Mine, and Live Generally in the Golden States. Ch./ Art: Excerpts p.  28-31, 91-94. Pub. Dix, Edwards & Co 1856


Crèvecoeur: Men as Plants… Question 1

In his Letter from an American Farmer: “what is an American”, Crèvecoeur describes the ideal American as the product of cultural exchange and the new, specific environment. He explains that Americans were once “scattered all over Europe”, as if to metaphorically suggest that the citizen’s of this new state came from different European origins while at the same time, suggesting that they are no longer scattered but united in their new American home (44). This connects to Crèvecoeur’s clear intentions of identifying and elucidating a sort of proto-nationalism that idealizes specific American attributes: industriousness, diverse origins, and essential equality.

In examining the reality of cultural exchange in America, Crèvecoeur explains how a large portion of cultural identity—specifically religion and generally intolerance— is lost  “evaporate[d] in the great distance it has to travel” (51). The isolation and separateness of the new American society is exemplified through the long and perilous journey. The reality is that this trip was customarily undertaken by the poor or persecuted. It serves as a real crucible; testing the fortitude of the travelers, and weeding out the weak. At the same time, Crèvecoeur employs it nearly rhetorically, explaining its effects as diffusing the gunpowder keg of Europe.

Crèvecoeur also makes the simile “Men are like plants;” that the physical environment plays a large part in an individual’s development. He explains how regional differences within the American boundaries will ultimately breed different cultural developments. This is most strongly emphasized in his examination of the back-settlers, which he warns may become barbaric or otherwise separate from his American ideal. This analogy provokes an ecocritical reading to the extent that moral considerability can be shifted towards plants; if men are like plants then plants are like men. This may be comparable to the ‘deep ecology’ philosophical perspective.

It is clear that Crèvecoeur is attempting to explain the American experience as it effects (is effecting) the development of the fledgling American society. He specifies that even though the inhabitants might have been linked to one culture or another, upon arrival a “great metamorphosis” has taken place (60), they have become citizens of one nation. The force of this metamorphosis is the “common casualt[y] of nature”, the features of American life as both a struggle and a time of growth.

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

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.




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

1. The Ideal American

Crévecoeur describes the American melting pot; a melting pot not only created by its inhabitants but also by the land. He links the American identity with nature. The identity of an American is defined by his proximity and relation to nature. The ideal American is one who is separated from the “crowded society” of England, but not so separated that he degenerates as a man (57). The ideal American is one who is “[sober, honest, and industrious]” (61). He must labor the land and not be idle and immoral. He becomes an American once he has forgotten the ways of the European; he no longer bends to their class system, and instead makes his own way (60). Crévecoeur details three environments that shape an American: the northern coast, the middle settlements, and the woods. He prefers the American of the middle settlements because they are detached enough from society to remain laborious and moral without degenerating or dealing in iniquity—the ideal American.

Americans are all immigrants. Their American identity rests in the environment in which they live in. Nature/the land is their mother. It raises them based on the sources it has to offer them. The men of the coast are raised through fishing and husbandry. They are the ones with the most interaction with society, hence, the most immoral and least American. The men of the middle settlements are raised as farmers. The fertile land supplements them for their laborious undertakings. It feeds and enriches them. The man closest to nature is raised as part of nature— as an animal. He degenerates as a man and fights with nature for his survival. The land does not supplement him, instead it hunts him; he must hunt it to survive, becoming more like an animal in the process. As Crévecoeur states, “the chase renders him ferocious, gloomy, and unsociable,” (52).

The ideal American is not an animal or a European. He is a sensible, hard working man who builds himself up from the land. He uses the fertility that surrounds him to make and establish his life. He does not idle with society and does not live a life of vice. The ideal American knows the value of labor and of his land; he works it hard so that in turn it supplies him with life.

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