Letters from an American Farmer


J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur

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Letters from an American Farmer Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur's Letters from an American Farmer. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur

Crèvecoeur, a French immigrant, arrived in New York at age 24 in 1759. Growing up, he had received a Jesuit education at the College du Mont, but by adulthood, he had embraced deism and rejected his Catholic theological education. He also developed a deep love of English culture as a young man. In 1755, he traveled across the Atlantic to join the French army in Canada’s St. Lawrence Valley, where he served as a mapmaker and was promoted to lieutenant when the French and Indian War broke out. However, in 1759, he left the army and set out for New York, changing his name to J. Hector St. John along the way. He became an American citizen in 1765 and spent years traveling throughout the colonies as a surveyor and explorer. In 1769 he married Mehetable Tippet, and that same year, he purchased a farm in Orange County, New York, calling it Pine Hill. There he spent several happy years raising three children, developing his farm, reading, and beginning to write. But when the American Revolution broke out, since his sympathies lay with England, life became more complicated. In 1778, he was imprisoned and his papers were confiscated, and he never fully recovered his health and prosperity. Eventually, he made his way back to France, getting his Letters published in England on the way. After spending some years in French intellectual circles, in 1783 he wound up back in New York as a consular appointee of King Louis XVI. He found out that Pine Hill had been burned in an Indian raid and his wife was dead; he reunited with his children in Boston. Improbably, it turned out that the Bostonian who’d rescued his children had been rescued by Crèvecoeur in turn when shipwrecked on the French coast years earlier. Crèvecoeur’s subsequent diplomatic career was quite successful, but he missed the countryside and ultimately retired in obscurity in France.
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Historical Context of Letters from an American Farmer

The Letters’ most prominent backdrop is the American Revolution. Fought between 1775 and 1883, it was concurrent with Crèvecoeur’s writing. No doubt intentionally, the book is vague about specific events in the war and even Crèvecoeur’s views, though in the last letter, James expresses a tortured ambivalence about the war, loving America but feeling loyal to Britain. Although the character of James is a Pennsylvania farmer, the fear of violence on the frontier accords with the author, Crèvecoeur’s, location in upstate New York: he mentions raids that started at Lake Champlain and extended down the frontier. Not only was the Lake Champlain valley hotly contested between the British army and the American colonies, but the Hudson River’s strategic importance meant that one-third of the war’s battles were fought in New York State; it’s unsurprising, then, that the tone of the final letter shifts so starkly to near despair. In his final letter, James also expresses his fear that if his family lives in an Indian village, his children will be so attracted to their new lifestyle that they won’t want to return to a white European way of life. Besides reflecting Crèvecoeur’s own fears after an Indian raid destroyed his farm, James’s perspective was a common one on the early frontier, as it wasn’t unheard of for young children who assimilated into Indian cultures, whether through captivity or other circumstances, to decline to return to their families and communities of birth.

Other Books Related to Letters from an American Farmer

Letters from an American Farmer is regarded as a foundational work in the American literary tradition. A counterpoint to Crèvecoeur’s reservations about the American war for independence, Thomas Paine’s 1776 political pamphlet Common Sense presents his case for revolution. Despite Crèvecoeur’s opposition to slavery, his character James offers a fairly limited critique of the practice; Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography The Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789) thus offers an important voice that’s lacking in the Letters. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, also published around the same time as the Letters, likewise contains reflections on the American ideal of the self-made man and emerging American identity. Such reflections were picked up in a later generation from the outsider’s perspective of Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America (1835–1840).
Key Facts about Letters from an American Farmer
  • Full Title: Letters from an American Farmer
  • When Written: 1770s–1780s
  • Where Written: Orange County, New York
  • When Published: 1782
  • Literary Period: Early American
  • Genre: Novel, Epistolary Novel, Travel Narrative
  • Setting: The American colonies in the 1770s and 1780s
  • Antagonist: Oppressive government; war
  • Point of View: First Person

Extra Credit for Letters from an American Farmer

Letters to Europe. In the 50 years after its publication, Letters from an American Farmer enjoyed its greatest popularity in Europe, not in America. It went through multiple editions in England, Ireland, Germany, France, and the Netherlands. Its relative lack of popularity in America likely had to do with its author’s strong sympathies with England.

New England Namesake. The town of St. Johnsbury, Vermont, is said to have been named after author J. Hector St. John.