The surprising finish to Letters from an American Farmer raises more questions than it answers. What begins as an unquestioning (almost childlike) celebration of the American farm ends with questions about the existence of evil in an ordered universe, perhaps even doubts about whether the universe is really overseen by a supreme being at all. To complicate matters further, the text refuses to fit any neat classification. It is a work of fiction, but the form it chooses (letters written in the first person) looks like and surely intends to mimic the nonfiction forms of a memoir or real letters. At times, especially in its discussion of slavery and the history of Western civilization, the narrative reads similarly to a political treatise. While Farmer James’s character seems to give voice at times to Crevecoeur’s own thoughts, the author’s biography and the character’s life diverge in James’s decision to take his family into the wilds to live with an unnamed Native American tribe in an unnamed village. We know that Crevecoeur abandoned his own family to escape the war, obeying the law of self-preservation in the extreme, and traveled eastward to Europe, rather than toward the western American frontier.
I’m not certain these ambiguities can be reduced to a single conclusive reading. In fact, the ability to sustain multiple (even competing) readings is often the mark of great literature. But the narrative requires us to take a stance, and since Crevecoeur himself does not make his purpose plain, we must take a stance on what his purpose is (or might be).
First, I’m not certain we have enough historical information to explain the differences between Crevecoeur’s own life and the ending he chose for Farmer James. He was a world traveler, not a simple farmer, and seemed to be much more adaptable and pragmatic than his fictional narrator. Given the span of time from his first foray into farming in 1769 and the publication of the manuscript in 1782, it seems reasonable to conclude that Farmer James reflects some of the changes in attitude Crevecoeur experienced throughout his life.
But James, the character, does not pick a political side, as Crevecoeur seems to have done. He speaks largely for himself and for his family (often presumptuously, since his wife remains unnamed and more of a prop than a real character). In this sense, especially by the end of the narrative, James transcends American identity. Having passionately defended and even defined American culture in Letter III, he abandons any sense of civic obligation to his new countrymen and concludes with questions that might apply to any father or husband seeking to shield his family from violence in any country or time: Why does God permit evil if he designed the rest of creation so carefully? If all societies are imperfect, how does a father choose the best environment for his children? How much can a parent shape his/her child’s upbringing, and at what point must a parent relinquish control? Similarly, how does an individual citizen know when to pledge allegiance to country and when to seek asylum elsewhere? James’s concluding prayer to the Supreme Being feels too passionate, too earnest, to be read ironically. “View us all,” he says of his family (though he could be speaking of humanity here, as well), “with benignity, sanctify this strong conflict of regrets, wishes, and other natural passions; guide our steps through these unknown paths, and bless our future mode of life” (624). Such a prayer challenges the reduction of the American Revolution into a struggle between good and evil. Instead it highlights the uncertainty and chaos that any time of war creates for families.
Two themes seem consistent throughout Letters from an American Farmer: individualism and escape. As James says (and as Crevecoeur demonstrates himself to believe), “Self-preservation is above all political precepts and rules, and even superior to the dearest opinions of our minds; a reasonable accommodation of ourselves to the various exigencies of the times in which we live is the most irresistible precept” (621). In fact, this is the very reason James gives in Letter III for the success of the American farmer, that “his labor is founded on the basis of nature, self-interest” (607). If the American is motivated by improving his and his family’s situation, Crevecoeur suggests that surrendering these interests to national sacrifice is unnatural, perhaps even foolish.
But just like the immigrants who abandon poverty and oppression in Europe to be as “free as [they] ought to be” in America (606), Farmer James demonstrates himself in Letter XII to be an asylum seeker, which might be seen in pejorative terms as being an escapist. Immigrants fleeing religious zealotry, political persecution, and tyranny only want refuge, he seems to say. And nothing could upset that refuge more than willfully seeking war. Essentially Farmer James has decided to become an immigrant again at the end of the narrative. In Letter III he defines the American as “a new man, who acts upon new principles” (608). Is he abandoning these principles, this identity, by accepting the prospect of assimilating into an indigenous society? Or is he demonstrating a fundamental pattern of thought and behavior among European Americans, which is to flee from trouble, seek sanctuary, and start over?
Perhaps we ought to think it encouraging that Farmer James imagines himself as equal to or even somewhat subservient to the Native culture he proposes to join. His sense of entitlement (that he has the right to simply emigrate to a Native American community regardless of invitation or permission) is striking, but perhaps a modification of other forms of European imperialism. The deeper irony, which Crevecoeur could not have known, was that Farmer James would have been committing his children and their children to another century of escape and dislocation, had his pattern of settlement and escape at the prospect of war been continued. Historical hindsight has proven Paine to have the keener long view. But Crevecoeur places us in the emotional center of a family threatened by war and asks us how we might react. Would we dig in, join with others, and resist to the death? Or would we seek peace – and potentially a new home – wherever we could find it? Which is more natural or reasonable: self-preservation or patriotic sacrifice?