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Monday, April 13, 2020

Which Side Are You On?

When I went to work in my fields [following his marriage], I worked with more alacrity and sprightliness. I felt that I did not work for myself alone, and this encouraged me much. My wife would often come with her knitting in her hand, and sit under the shady tree, praising the straightness of my furrows and the docility of my horses. This swelled my heart and made every thing light and pleasant, and I regretted that I had not married before. I felt myself happy in my new situation, and where is that station which can confer a more substantial system of felicity than that of an American farmer…? 
-  J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer

Crevecoeur, an Anglicized Frenchman (born Michel-Guillaume-Jean de Crevecoeur -- and I apologize for not having the proper accent mark available to me on the program I'm using), initially began his New World life in Canada, fighting under General Montcalm until the defeat of the French on the Plains of Abraham. Then, resigning his commission, he traveled through New York, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut. In New York he was naturalized as a British subject and also adopted into the Oneida tribe as an honorary member. He married Mehitabel Tippett in 1769 and spent the following seven years happily farming and raising a family at home, Pine Hill, cultivating friends among his Hudson Valley neighbors, and traveling. 

But his very name — “broken heart” — perhaps presaged what was to come in the author’s life. Count seven years ahead from 1769. Crevecoeur felt himself thoroughly “American,” but to him that meant being a loyal subject of the English king. 

Susan Manning, who edited and wrote the very scholarly introduction to the Oxford World’s Classics edition of Letters from an American Farmer, calls the work “a book about identity — specifically American identity — struggling into being.” 

The book that took shape in the years before and during the American Revolution embodies the personal crisis induced by momentous political events. It is at once the fullest literary expression of America’s coming into being … and a moving exploration of the meaning of ‘revolution’ in the personality of any previously established self. 
- Susan Manning

It is easy for us to see the march of history exclusively in broad strokes: migrations, social change, important primary source documents (e.g., in this case, the Declaration of Independence), battles, treaties, etc. What gives Letters from an American Farmer its importance is not only that it was written at all and widely published but that it is a record of one man’s emotions, passions, and responses to the larger events which engulfed his life. We occasionally ask ourselves what we would have done in such-and-such a place in such-and-such a time period. More often we judge the actions of individuals in the past, forgetting to imagine ourselves in their shoes. But there is no possibility of forgetting the man and his family as we read Crevecoeur’s Letters, an epistolary-literary account of real people caught up in world-changing events beyond their control. 

So the Letters constitute a much-neglected American classic, but reading it now, during the COVID-19 crisis, when not only the United States of America but the entire world is struggling and looking for ways to maintain a semblance of normal life and find a way forward while also doing everything possible to avoid contagion in the present and “flatten the curve” (the rising curve of numbers of people infected with the virus), a year that is also an important election year in the U.S., I find added resonance in Crevecoeur’s cries of anguish.

Throughout the early Letters, the author idealizes the American experience and work ethic, particularly that of English and Scottish colonists. (Irish, not so much.) Farmers work hard and bring forth the land’s bounty, while fisherman on Nantucket and Cape Code brave the ocean to harvest subsistence and, for some, even wealth. He is full of admiration for the modest Quaker way of life but paints a picture of religious tolerance, with families of diverse faiths living side by side without acrimony. He admires also the Native Americans, calling their manners “respectable,” in sharp contrast to some of the rude European pioneers along the frontier, who live in “sloth and inactivity.” Those “back-settlers,” he remarks reprovingly, are much more in need of conversion than the Indians. But in general, he presents life along the Eastern Seaboard, on its farms and in its towns and villages, as a veritable pastoral idyll, a dream come true for the poor who fled the nobility-crushed and heavily-taxed Old World, where they had no hope of advancement.

From pastoral idyll, however, Crevecoeur descends into nightmare when he travels in the South and learns firsthand the horrors of slavery. In Charleston and in the countryside, the stories he hears and one particularly gruesome sight he sees stand in such sharp contrast with the threadbare arguments presented to him in defense of the “peculiar institution” that his very belief in God’s beneficence is shaken to the core, and he cries out from his heart —

Is there then no superintending power who conducts the moral operations of the world as well as the physical? The same sublime hand, which guides the planets round the sun with so much exactness, which preserves the arrangement of the whole with such exalted wisdom and paternal care, and prevents the vast system from falling into confusion, doth it mankind to all the errors, the follies, and the miseries, which their most frantic rage, and their most dangerous vices and passions can produce? 

As he looked about him and saw “crimes of the most heinous nature, committed from one end of the world to the other,” he could not help doubting in the existence of wise deity guiding history and ensuring progress. 

Loudly though his every feeling cried out against the evils of slavery, however, Crevecoeur himself was in no immediate personal danger as he traveled through the colonies. He was a white man, after all, an educated man, with apparently sufficient income to leave his farm in other capable hands for long periods while he traveled. A visit farther south, to self-taught botanist John Bertram in Florida, soothed for a while the agitated feelings aroused by his painful encounters in South Carolina. 

But Time is marching on, inexorably, and both Crevecoeur’s scholarly social visits and his peaceful life at home will soon be violently interrupted. The Revolution is at hand! What hope is there now for a loyal subject of the king? 

Now danger has become personal and immediate — as it was already for the slaves on those Southern plantations — and the writer now fears for the lives of his wife and children, as well as himself. Though he declares himself ready to sacrifice his own life for that of his family, staying home on the farm and helplessly waiting “the end of this catastrophe” becomes more and more unbearable. And once again the feelings that agitate his soul find expression in larger questions about the human condition.

It is for the sake of the great leaders, on both sides, that so much blood must be spilt; that of the people is counted as nothing. Great events are not achieved for us, though it is by us that they are principally accomplished; by the arms, the sweat, the lives, of the people.

Resenting historical convulsions that disrupt and even destroy ordinary, peaceful lives, at the same time he knows that he must decide

What must I do? … Shall I discard all my antient [sic] principles, shall I renounce that name, that nation, which I once held so respectable? … Must I be called a parricide, a traitor, a villain; lose the esteem of all those whom I love to preserve my own; be shunned like a rattle-snake, or be pointed at like a bear? 

As much as he loves England, he also sees “the powerful attraction” of the call to revolution, and he cannot help blaming the king for pursuing a course that will guarantee the shedding of so much innocent blood. He is a man caught in the middle. 

I cannot count the multitude of orphans this war has made, nor ascertain the immensity of blood we have lost. Some have asked whether it was a crime to resist, to repel, some parts of this evil. Others have asserted, that a resistance so general makes pardon unattainable and repentance useless…. What one party calls meritorious, the other denominates flagitious [criminal]. … What can an insignificant man do in the midst of these jarring contradictions…?

It is, after all, not only coronavirus that hovers outside our doors these days. There is also the unsettling and continuing political discord and paranoia, amazingly and alarming not set aside in the midst of a life-threatening pandemic. If anything, it is exacerbated. And what one side calls necessary, another calls criminal, while millions of ordinary Americans, who want only to work and live in peace within their families and communities, are caught in the crossfire. 

What will Crevecoeur do as the clamor of strife comes nearer? Will he be a “traitor” to the king or a “traitor” to the revolution? Of course, his future then is now long past, so what was his ultimate fate and that of his family? 

Don’t look for spoilers here. If we are going to learn anything from history, it is important that we hear not only competing interpretations but also individual voices of real human beings, as they lived through and experienced those distant times. We are not that different from those colonists — or those slaves — in eighteenth-century America. As did they, we work and love and hope, feel joy and fear, and the questions we ask of ourselves and of the universe have been asked by every generation that came before us.

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