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Letters from an American Farmer   By: (1735-1813)

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Steve Harris, Charles Franks and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team.

HECTOR ST. JOHN DE CREVECOEUR

LETTERS FROM AN AMERICAN FARMER

INTRODUCTION AND NOTES BY WARREN BARTON BLAKE

INTRODUCTION

Hazlitt wrote that of the three notable writers whom the eighteenth century had produced, in the North American colonies, one was "the author (whoever he was) of the American Farmer's Letters." Crevecoeur was that unknown author; and Hazlitt said further of him that he rendered, in his own vividly characteristic manner, "not only the objects, but the feelings, of a new country." Great is the essayist's relish for passages descriptive of "a battle between two snakes," of "the dazzling, almost invisible flutter of the humming bird's wing," of the manners of "the Nantucket people, their frank simplicity, and festive rejoicings after the perils and hardships of the whale fishing." "The power to sympathise with nature, without thinking of ourselves or others, if it is not a definition of genius, comes very near to it," writes Hazlitt of our author. And his references to Crevecoeur are closed with the remark: "We have said enough of this ILLUSTRIOUS OBSCURE; for it is the rule of criticism to praise none but the over praised, and to offer fresh incense to the idol of the day."

Others, at least, have followed that "rule of criticism," and the American Farmer has long enjoyed undisturbed seclusion. Only once since the eighteenth century has there been a new edition of his Letters, that were first published at London in 1782, and reissued, with a few corrections, in the next year. The original American edition of this book about America was that published at Philadelphia in 1793, and there was no reprint till 1904, [Footnote: References may be found to American editions of 1794 and 1798, but no copies of such editions are preserved in any library to which the editor has had access.] when careless editing did all it could to destroy the value of the work, the name of whose very author was misstated. Yet the facts which we have concerning him are few enough to merit truthful presentation.

I

Except by naturalisation, the author of Letters from an American Farmer was not an American; and he was no ordinary farmer. Yet why quarrel with him for the naming of his book, or for his signing it "J. Hector Saint John," when the "Hector" of his title pages and American biographers was only a prenom de faintaisie? We owe some concessions to the author of so charming a book, to the eighteenth century Thoreau. His life is certainly more interesting than the real Thoreau's and would be, even if it did not present many contradictions. Our records of that life are in the highest degree inexact; he himself is wanting in accuracy as to the date of more than one event. The records, however, agree that Crevecoeur belonged to the petite noblesse of Normandy. The date of his birth was January 31, 1735, the place was Caen, and his full name (his great grandson and biographer vouches for it) was Michel Guillaume Jean de Crevecoeur. The boy was well enough brought up, but without more than the attention that his birth gave him the right to expect; he divided the years of his boyhood between Caen, where his father's town house stood, and the College du Mont, where the Jesuits gave him his education. A letter dated 1785 and addressed to his children tells us all that we know of his school days; though it is said, too, that he distinguished himself in mathematics. "If you only knew," the reminiscent father of a family exclaims in this letter, "in what shabby lodging, in what a dark and chilly closet, I was mewed up at your age; with what severity I was treated; how I was fed and dressed!" Already his powers of observation, that were so to distinguish him, were quickened by his old world milieu.

"From my earliest youth," he wrote in 1803, "I had a passion for taking in all the antiques that I met with: moth eaten furniture, tapestries, family portraits, Gothic manuscripts (that I had learned how to decipher), had for me an indefinable charm... Continue reading book >>




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