Thoughts on the end of Letters from an American Farmer

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?


Questions for Crevecoeur, Letter IX, X, and XII

  • The anthology excerpt leaps from Letter III to Letter IX, which omits much of Crevecoeur’s original text. However, this brings into sharp relief the shift in tone from beginning to end. What changes Farmer James’ idyllic vision of American society and culture in the closing letters? Why does he view American independence so negatively?
  • We considered today the utopian aspects of Farmer James’ perspective. While we might assume that Crevecoeur projects some of his own feelings onto Farmer James the way novelists see themselves in their characters, we ought to read the narrator as a separate fictional figure who might not represent all of Crevecoeur’s opinions. In this light, we might ask what Crevecoeur is trying to accomplish by showing such a stark change in Farmer James’ outlook. Is Farmer James an innocent who shifts from naiveté to a more mature grasp of reality? Is Farmer James still just as much a dreamer at the end as at the beginning? Are we meant to read Farmer James as a dissenting (and perhaps heroic) voice arguing for social justice, like John Woolman? Is he meant to be an ironic caricature of the American, a symbol of Euro-American hypocrisy that Crevecoeur uses to critique America? Who is Farmer James, really?
  • How do you make sense of Farmer James’ closing view of Native American society? How does this connect or contrast with his earlier discussion of the melting pot, agrarian idealism, and other American values?
  • What seems significant about Crevecoeur’s portrayal of nature in these letters? Compare/contrast with Letter III or with other texts we’ve read.
  • How do you orient Crevecoeur within the Enlightenment period? What parallels or contrasts do you see between his work and the other texts we’ve discussed ?
  • For fun, consider reading D.H. Lawrence’s hilarious critical analysis of Letters from an American Farmer. This is kind of like The Onion, only in literary criticism. Great examples here of reading against the grain and having fun with close reading. Do you agree or disagree with Lawrence’s portrayal of Crevecoeur?

Questions for Crevecoeur, Letter III, What is an American?

  • Letters from an American Farmer is set in the years leading up to the American Revolution, though it was published in 1782, after the United States had successfully defined itself as an independent nation. How might that original historical context have shaped both the content of this book and its reception by the American public?
  • In what ways might this text have been shaped by Enlightenment ideas? In what ways does it contrast from other Enlightenment-era texts we’ve discussed?
  • How does Crevecoeur’s definition of American identity compare or contrast to other texts we’ve read (most recently Paine)? How does it compare to your own definition of American identity?
  • Like Franklin does in his fictional sketches, “The Way to Wealth” and “Remarks on the Savages of North America,” Crevecoeur adopts a fictional persona (Farmer James) for this narrative. What kind of image of eighteenth-century America does this fictional narrative create? How accurate is it historically, based on what you know from the biographies and from other primary readings from this period? That is, what does this narrative include and what does it exclude; or, what kind of myth of America does this story tell?
  • For Puritan writers, wilderness was synonymous with evil; nature was viewed most positively when it was tamed as a garden or farm, and the city was the metaphor most used to characterize heaven. What seems especially notable about the way Farmer James views nature?
  • If you’d like to read more widely beyond the excerpt in our anthology, see Crevecoeur’s preface in Letter 1 (where Farmer James has a conversation with a minister about how to best address his memoir to the friend in England whom he sees as his primary audience) and Letter 2 (in which James paints an idyllic picture of his life on an American farm).

Questions for Paine

  • Paine has been celebrated for his plain and accessible style. Do you agree? If so, what makes his writing more accessible than other writers we’ve read? How might you characterize his style of writing?
  • These might be classified as essays, but they are also known as political treatises, which means they intend to persuade the reader of a particular point of view. What is Paine’s thesis in Common Sense and “The Crisis”? What strategies does he use to persuade you of his argument? Which of his examples do you find most persuasive, and why? Perhaps compare/contrast with Bradford and Winthrop, who similarly wrote to confirm a particular view of Puritan destiny.
  • What evidence do you find in these essays of Paine’s beliefs or moral values? Does he articulate a particular theological or philosophical view? What can you deduce about his worldview based on these essays? If you were to present either of these essays to someone outside this class as an example of Enlightenment-era thinking, which examples might you emphasize as illustrations of Paine’s rationalism?

A fun and insightful dramatization of Paine’s voice by Ian Ruskin:

Christopher Hitchens discusses Paine on National Public Radio:

Salem: Hysteria, Poison, Both?

An excellent resource for original court records (including accounts of physical examinations of accused persons, as well as testimony against them by other witnesses) and biographies of important people featured in The Crucible is the Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive.

One of the theories about the reason for an outbreak of alleged witchcraft and accompanying hysteria in Salem in the late seventeenth century is that the food supply might have been infected by ergot, a toxic fungus that produces many of the same symptoms as people who claimed to be afflicted by witches or witchcraft. See a brief overview of the ergot theory on PBS, as well as the scholar’s doubts about how complete an explanation this offers for all of the events surrounding the famous witch trials. As she says, whatever role the fungus may have caused in sparking the original hysteria, factual evidence also points to social pressures for continuing trials and executions while this was politically expedient and for abruptly halting the legal crackdown when the tide of public opinion turned. While I find the evidence of ergot poisoning quite persuasive, I admire Caporael’s caution about explaining all events as accidental results of an ingested hallucinogen. From the day Puritans set foot in the New World, they believed Satan was opposing their progress; this is the primary explanation of hardship in Puritan literature, including William Bradford’s account of how “wickedness” broke out in the Plymouth community and Mary Rowlandson’s interpretation of her Native American captors as demoniacs. Cotton Mather’s explanation of the witch trials in “The Wonders of the Invisible World” shows that Puritans were already primed to believe in a Satanic conspiracy against their Christian society. Ergot might have simply removed any inhibitions about expressing this view and intensified already existing paranoia about spiritual warfare in everyday life.

See a dramatized overview of the ergot theory at the clip from the History Channel below.

American mythology

I was pleased that some in Friday’s discussion investigated questions of authorship, specifically how Puritan ministers might have shaped Rowlandson’s text in certain ways to serve their own purposes, perhaps inserting biblical references or emphasizing the theme of providence for doctrinal consistency. While ferreting out which passages were Rowlandson’s original and which might have been added later would require archival research (and might even then not prove conclusive), the very question of authorship clarifies a topic we’ve considered from the beginning of the course, namely, how myths or symbolic stories provide a structure for interpreting reality.

As several of you noted, Rowlandson must interpret hardship as a process of spiritual refinement if she is to hold to the Puritan view that New England was a Promised Land (also called the New Canaan or the New Jerusalem) and the English settlers were akin to ancient Israel: chosen by God with the imperative to take possession of the land. For Puritans to accept responsibility for the attacks they suffered – for them to acknowledge that they had displaced Native peoples and contributed to a history of military conflict that fueled future attacks – would be to question the spiritual calling that brought them to the New World in the first place. In this sense, the myth of New England as a New Jerusalem is not simply a factual falsehood, it is an illustration of how cultural stories of origins and identity and purpose shape a society. By becoming aware of the fact that we are always creating a national mythology, always constructing metaphors for American identity – that there is no fixed or absolute American identity – hopefully we can craft that national story more thoughtfully. Perhaps an awareness of the power of myth in shaping how we interpret history – or current events – might make us more cautious about how we tell those stories about nationhood and citizenship. We might then consider what the implications are of certain metaphors, who might be included or excluded by a particular national mythology, which stories about national origins clarify our understanding of history and which distort it. Perhaps there is, in fact, no single or unifying narrative about American identity, simply many competing narratives that, as Mary Louise Pratt says, “clash” and “grapple” for influence in the American imagination.

Rowlandson compared her captivity to that of ancient Israel in Babylon, but so did African-Americans resisting slavery. The surprise attacks on English colonies that Rowlandson describes as animalistic and savage are, in fact, the very kind of attacks American colonists used to overwhelm a superior British military. Perhaps understanding American mythology begins by clarifying who is telling the story about national identity, from what platform of power, and for what purpose.

Questions for Rowlandson, Thirteenth Remove to End

Typology: How do biblical stories or Calvinist theology help Rowlandson make sense of her captivity experience? Which of the biblical analogies do you find most meaningful in the last half her narrative? Where do you question her interpretation of her experience through biblical metaphors? Consider using this searchable online Bible to track down some of her biblical allusions. Compare/contrast Rowlandson’s use of biblical typology to the other writers we’ve discussed.

Captivity narratives: See this overview of the captivity narrative genre. In what ways do you see Rowlandson following these conventions or deviating from them in her personal account of captivity? How does her captivity narrative compare or contrast to Cabeza de Vaca’s or to John Smith’s descriptions of Native American captivity?

Hardship: We’ve seen many writers grapple with hardship or disappointment in their accounts of the New World. How does Rowlandson interpret the meaning of her suffering? What was it all for? How does her interpretation compare to other writers’ explanations of why things didn’t go as planned in the New World?

Race relations: How do the other texts we’ve read that pertain to race relations help you make sense of Rowlandson’s portraits of Native Americans? Remember that the publication date for this text is 1682, nearly two hundred years after Columbus’s first contact. What has changed about race relations in this span of time? What has stayed the same? How do you think we should respond to the explicit racism in many texts written by Europeans during this period? Should we ignore this, explain it as common for the time, or ___? What might have been some of the causes of racism during this early period?

Religion: How does Rowlandson’s discussion of religion compare and contrast with other texts that we’ve read? In what ways might she be similar to other Calvinists? In what ways might she be different? What does Rowlandson add to your understanding of the relationship between religion and American identity during this early period? (Remember we’ve seen at least three different forms of Christianity and at least three different indigenous traditions represented)

Gender: How does Rowlandson compare to the other women we’ve seen in colonial American literature (female figures in the origin stories, Eve, Hutchinson, and Bradstreet)? In what ways is she conventional as a Puritan woman? In what ways is she unconventional? Which of the male authors do you think contribute most significantly to our understanding of gender relations in early America?

American identity: Rowlandson’s narrative brings us nearly to the end of the seventeenth century. How would you define “an American” at this point in history? Is there such a thing? What does Rowlandson’s narrative contribute to our understanding of the origins and evolution of American identity from the pre-Columbian period through the seventeenth century in Puritan New England?