Hector St. Jean De Crevecoeur and the American Short Story
Contextualization: Michel Jean de Crevecoeur, born in Caen, Normandy in 1735, changed his name to J. Hector St. John
upon a move to New York City in 1759. His writings have to do with the Americas which Crevecoeur experienced during the next
several years after 1759 which he spent exploring the North Eastern portion of the colonies. His experience with the American
people, still under British rule, the geography, and his understanding of farming led him to an understanding of the American
identity from the view of an outsider. His first writings, finished before 1774, were mainly descriptions of his travels.
He then penned a few short accounts of Americans and the lives they led until Revolution broke out in the American colonies
in 1776. Although Crevecoeur was a Tory, a British sympathizer, his most read work, Letters From an American Farmer, which
was written during the Revolution and published in 1782 was taken from an American perspective. His next book, Voyage dans
la Haute Pensylvanie et dans l'etat de New-York, was published in 1801.
Salient Points: The works of Crevecoeur, meant for an audience foreign to the Americas, sought to describe the American
environment and identity. Even with his own heritage, originally hailing from France, there is a prevailing sentimentality
for nature in his writing resounds in the works of later Romantic writers. While most of Europe, primarily England, viewed
the American wilderness as a means to an economic end, Crevecoeur offered another view through description- one nature for
the sake of nature. Crevecoeur made it clear that nature was different than wilderness with the wilderness being completely
uncivilized and thereby unsuitable (http://www.vcu.edu/engweb/crev.htm). Aside from his view on the wilderness, he also identified
the American persona in his works. Crevecoeur stylized a journalistic survey of American society and landscape with a character,
James, who embodied America at the time of the Revolution.
Influence on the Short Story: In Letters From An American Farmer, Crevecoeur created the character of James, a farmer
who personified the American identity, which, combined with a detailed treatment of colonial America, makes Crevecoeur a precursor
of American creative nonfiction. Crevecoeur managed to combine details of the time around the American revolution such as
the American landscape, manners and customs, and animals of the area with the philosophical question of "what is an American";
and the persona of James, a farmer whose life is disrupted by the Revolution. Crevecoeur was also revolutionary in the way
that he used a series of letters to create the story of James to the point of creating an artificial recipient, Mr. F. B..
Crevecoeur also offered an early Romantic view of a simple and pure nature. This Romantic view would influence many English
writers such as William Hazlitt, William Godwin, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/LAWRENCE/dhlch03.htm)
as well as later American Romantics such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.
Connections to Our Class: Crevecoeur structured his Letters to follow the traditional narrative structure, granting the
reader a short exposition which James is introduced as well as James's purpose in writing these letters, depicting American
society to Mr. F.B.. Through the episodic letters, II through XI, Crevecoeur offered insight on where and how the American
people live. In the final letter, XII, Crevecoeur gave his reader both climax and resolution in the outbreak of the American
Revolution and James's flight with his family into the wilderness. His view on nature, remarked at in his descriptive accounts,
influenced later Romanticists in both England as well as in America. Crevecoeur's simplistic view of nature is identified
in the writings of Emerson and Thoreau while his use of personas, or disguises, differed greatly with other romantics such
as the writer, Edgar Allan Poe. Crevecoeur used a persona, James, to disguise himself as an American while he was in fact
a foreigner looking in on American life. Poe often did little to disguise himself in his characters, often placing his own
torments and even his own likeness on the characters he created. An example of Poe transferring his own likeness onto a character
would be the captain of the ship Discovery in the story, M.S. Found in a Bottle. Another difference between Crevecoeur and
Poe is found in their usages of nature. Crevecoeur speaks of nature as simplistic and pure while Poe often uses nature to
provide a foreboding backdrop such as Poe's description of a dreary tract of country and the white trunks of decayed trees
from the Fall of the House of Usher.
Crevecoeur, J. Hector St. John de. Letters from an American Farmer. Nation of Letters: A Concise Anthology of American
Literature. Eds. Stephen Cushman and Paul Newlin. New York: Brandywine Press, 1998