Michel-Guillaume Jean de Crèvecoeur (writing as J. Hector St. John), "What Is an American?" Letter III of Letters from an American Farmer, written late 1760s-early 1770s, publ. 1782, selections. The landscape images above depict the New York Catskill Mountains in 1761—the embodiment of American expanse and opportunity, far from the class-locked societies of Europe. Here the Frenchman Michel-Guillaume Jean de Crèvecoeur bought farmland in 1764 after having served in the French and Indian War. He married, raised a family, and lived the life of an "American farmer" until the upheaval of the American Revolution drove him first to join Loyalist refugees in New York City and then, after being imprisoned as a suspected spy by the British, back to his homeland in France. There he amassed his writings on American culture and agriculture into a series of "letters" to a fictional English recipient, publishing them in London in 1782. The most famous of these letters is the third—"What Is an American?"—long considered the classic statement of this "new man": individualistic, self-reliant, pragmatic, hard-working, a stolid man of the land free to pursue his self-defined goals and, in the process, rejecting the ideological zeal that had racked Europe for centuries. While the letteris romantic and often utopian, it reflects the real experiences of a European-born American who long pursued the question "what is an American?" As historian Edmund S. Morgan reflects, "Crèvecoeur’s answer to the question was flattering to Americans of his own day, and it still reverberates in a society that has never stopped asking the same question of itself."1 Who is Crèvecoeur’s "American"?—and what is Crèvecoeur’s "America"? What do they offer Europe and the world? On the other hand, what most distressed Crèvecoeur about the emerging American? (15 pp.)
Royall Tyler, The Contrast, comedy of manners, 1787. The first full-length play by an American and the first to be performed by a professional theater, The Contrast premiered in New York City in April 1787 to enthusiastic acclaim. It "must give sincere satisfaction to every lover of his country," wrote one critic, "to find that this, the most difficult of all the works of human genius [i.e., theater], has been attempted with such abundant success."2 Modelled after the English "comedy of manners" in which the pretensions of a social class are satirized, the play contrasts the stolid, honorable, no-airs American with the frivolous class-conscious American who aspires to European sophistication. (Amidst the subplots typical in a comedy of manners, this central contrast is emphasized in Act II, Scene 1; Act III, Scene 2; Act IV, Scene 1; and Act V, Scene 2). A multitude of related contrasts are dramatized including, as listed by cultural historian Kenneth Silverman, "revolutionary stoicism and high-mindedness against the new spirit of display and fun, republicanism against aristocracy, country against city, soldier against beau, Boston against New York, marriage against seduction, homespun against lace, the language of the heart against Frenchified elevation, American simplicity and sincerity against European affectation and preoccupation with fashion."3 Much fodder for a full-length five-act play.
The venerable American (who wins the girl in the end) is Col. Henry Manly, a Revolutionary War veteran and an officer in the Massachusetts militia during Shays’s Rebellion of 1787-1788 (as was the playwright). When he comes to New York City to appeal to the Continental Congress for pensions for his wounded fellow veterans, he visits his young sister Charlotte and is engulfed in New York wannabe society. A horrified Charlotte insists that she cannot introduce him to society wearing his regimental coat, and a servant dismisses him as an "unpolished animal." But Manly knows what he stands for and why it matters. His monologue against luxury that opens Act III, Scene II, mirrors the alarm raised by many Americans in the 1780s that consumer excess would sap the energy of the young nation and threaten its very survival (see Noah Webster and David Ramsay in this Theme). He ardently defends American patriotism, civic commitment, and simple virtue from the disparaging barbs of (the villain) Billy Dimple. In the end, Dimple is exposed as a deceitful fraud, Charlotte disavows her frivolous aspirations, and Col. Manly affirms to the audience that the "probity, virtue [and] honor" of the "unpolished" American will triumph. The first play written by Royall Tyler, a wealthy Harvard- and Yale-educated Bostonian, The Contrast merits study along with Crèvecoeur’s well-known Letters. We recommend that you read the Act-Scene summaries and study the character chart before beginning the play. Do note the poem prologue, worth a study in itself. (38 pp.)
Letters from an American Farmer was published in London in 1782, just as the idea of an “American” was becoming a reality. Those epistolary essays introduced the European public to America’s landscape and customs and have since served as the iconic description of a then-new people. Dennis D. Moore’s convenient, up-to-date reader’s edition situates those twelve pieces from the 1782 Letters in the context of thirteen other essays representative of Crèvecoeur’s writings in English.
The “American Farmer” of the title is Crèvecoeur’s fictional persona Farmer James, a bumpkin from rural Pennsylvania. In his Introduction to this edition, Moore places this self-effacing pose in perspective and charts Crèvecoeur’s enterprising approach to self-promotion, which involved repackaging and adapting his writings for French and English audiences.
Born in Normandy, Crèvecoeur came to New York in the 1750s by way of England and then Canada, traveled throughout the colonies as a surveyor and trader, and was naturalized in 1765. The pieces he included in the 1782 Letters map a shift from hopefulness to disillusionment: its opening selections offer America as a utopian haven from European restrictions on personal liberty and material advancement but give way to portrayals of a land plagued by the horrors of slavery, the threat of Indian raids, and revolutionary unrest. This new edition opens up a broader perspective on this artful, ambitious writer and cosmopolitan thinker who coined America’s most enduring metaphor: a place where “individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men.”