50 pages 1 hour read

J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur

Letters From An American Farmer

Nonfiction | Collection of Letters | Adult | Published in 1782

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Summary and Study Guide


First published in 1782, J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer is widely regarded as one of the earliest examples of American literature and a highly-influential epistolary text that includes elements of both fiction and nonfiction.

The first letter is a modest response to Mr. F.B.’s request that James write to him with information about life in America. In it, James expresses insecurity about his ability to complete such a task, wondering if F.B. could not find someone more educated to write to him. James’s wife shares this concern, and suggests the Mr. F.B. may be mocking James. However, James’s minister is more encouraging and talks at length about the superiority of American egalitarianism compared to Europe’s rigid hierarchies and oppressive relationships. 

As well as providing more detail about the environment in which James lives, the second letter continues to explore differences between Europe and America, with James criticizing the traditional hierarchies of the former and celebrating the freedom, opportunity, and equality of the latter. This is explored in further detail in the third letter, which examines American identity. James looks at the cultural differences as allowing a unique national character to thrive in the freedom of the New World. This character is simple, humble, honest, and generous, and the product of Americans’ ability to work in peace and freedom for the benefit of themselves, their families, and their communities, rather than for the ruling classes of Europe.

Letters IV to VIII are focused on a particular location: Nantucket. James recounts his time visiting the island and explores many of the inhabitants’ customs and practices, as well as other aspects of their culture. He discusses the origins of the island’s colonial settlement, the religious practices of the Quakers, the fishing and whaling industries, and the ways the location and lifestyles of the community shape the character of its inhabitants. In many respects, James presents the community as an ideal example of what American life can be—sober, industrious, egalitarian, and humble—presenting it as a microcosm of all that is good in American society.

Letter IX represents a turning point; having witnessed a slave left to die horribly in a cage, James begins to question the goodness of humanity. He wonders how the inhabitants of Charles Town, where he saw the dying man, are able to turn a blind-eye to the horrors and abuses of slavery, and suggests that the institution must be ended. His discussion in general moves away from the optimism and celebration that characterize the earlier letters and take on a more somber and skeptical outlook. This is offset by letter X, which is largely a discussion of snakes native to North America, provided at the request of Mr. F.B.

Letter XI is another digression as it comes from a Russia visitor to America. The Russian recounts his time spent visiting a celebrated botanist and learning about his career and the innovations he has established on his farm. The visitor is impressed not only with the botanist’s farming skills but also with his hospitality and his humble lifestyle, picking up many of the themes and interests of the letters written by James. The final letter returns to the more somber and skeptical tones of Letter IX, as James discusses the encroaching American Revolutionary War. Torn between loyalties to the nation of his birth, Britain, and his new home, James condemns the violence and chaos of war and decides to flee from both sides and to live among a group of Native Americans.