Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Book Review: "Letters from an American Farmer"

This is another of my thrift store pick ups. And it's actually two books in one volume—I think. The full title is Letters from an American Farmer and Sketches of 18th-Century America. The original author is J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur (I'll call him Crevecoeur), and the editor of this volume was John Seelye. Albert E. Stone, a professor of English and chairman of the American Studies Program at the University of Iowa, wrote a long introduction.

The book was originally published in 1782 as Letters from an American Farmer. As such, it is one of the oldest history books written and published in America. For it is a history book, a contemporary one to the times it was written. It seems that Crevecoeur realized that America was something special, and he wanted to document what was happening around him. The Sketches part of the book was published much later, in 1925, having been overlooked or purposely left out.

I picked this up thinking it would be good as part of my American history studies, and that some part of it might feed into a future volume of my Documenting America series. Alas, after reading it, I'm not sure that will be possible. It's kind of hard to tell how much of this book is fact and how much is fiction. As Stone said in the introduction: "That it is fable and not essentially history, travelogue, or autobiography seems clear, not only from the details of the author's own life already recited but also by contrast with other works on the America of the Revolutionary era." So much for using it as an historical reference.

It's quite interesting how Crevecoeur puts his book together. They are supposedly letters to an Abbe Raynal, a Frenchman of some renown, telling him about conditions in America. But were these real letters, or just a literary technique? I'm reminded of Robert Southey's book of letters, allegedly from a Spaniard (I think), telling of conditions in England. It was all just Southey's fabrication. I wonder if Crevecoeur's letters are fabrications as well.

Crevecoeur was not sympathetic to the American Revolution. I've read that the colonies were evenly split. About 1/3 of the people wanted independence, 1/3 wanted to stay under Britain, and 1/3 didn't much care either way. I'd put Crevecoeur in the latter category, but leaning slightly to the British monarchy. It seems he simply didn't like the effects of war: destroying homes and farms, tearing families apart, dividing towns. I can understand that and sympathize with that sentiment. Here's a telling paragraph concerning the Revolution.
No European can possibly conceive the secret ways, the great combination of poisons and subtle sophisms which have from one end of the continent to the other allured the minds, removed every ancient prejudice, and, in short, prepared the way for the exhibition of this astonishing revolution. From restlessness, from diffidence, from that jealous state in which free men always live, to pass in the course of four years to the implicitness of belief, to passive obedience, is indeed a melancholy proof that if slavery is often extended and cherished by kings, the people, in the hour of infatuation, will sometimes become the artificers of their own misfortunes.

All in all, this wasn't a great book. The lack of historical accuracy, the old-time language, and the choice of subject matter make me unlikely to ever pick this up again. I didn't read the last 30 or so pages, a play-like dialog. I think this is garage sale material.

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