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Crèvecoeur: What is an American?

Commentary by Hashir Ali In 1782, Crevecoeur dedicated a portion of his Letters from an American Farmer to American identity. At the publishing date, the concept “American” was still a new one. Crevecoeur set out to explore it in this well received essay. He basically portrays Americans and the vastness of American opportunity in a very affirmative way. His eulogistic attitude toward the new American identity, especially in contrast to his critical attitude toward the Old World, is conveyed not only by his words themselves, but also by the manner of his language. In fact, from the start of this excerpt, it is obvious that he views America as a highly positive institution – he uses such words as “asylum” to express his view that the newborn country is something of a refuge for success. He goes on to explain his reasoning by mentioning the “variety of motives” that urged Europeans to migrate. From the start, his tone is conversational yet didactic. His philosophy that “where there is bread, there is my country” is implicitly present throughout the piece. He argues that, in reality, oppressed Europeans “had no country”. Crevecoeur proceeds to list the ways the poor of Europe were put down. He alludes to such offenses as extreme aristocracy, unfair wealth gaps, and legal injustice while using asyndeton to convey the attitude of a casual, limited list. His argument is basically that such a state cannot truly feel like a country to its victims. At this point, he turns to detail how America has risen to rectify the neglected Europeans. Again he uses asyndeton, but this time the limitation aspect is a positive one. He says that simply “everything” has favored them and that “here they are become men”. At this point, the author introduces an extended metaphor that characterizes Letters. He compares the people to plants demonstrating how, in Europe, these same people were “useless … withered, and mowed down by want”. Crevecoeur uses powerful, illustrative language while maintaining the metaphor to describe newly righted citizens. He describes the move to the New World as “transplantation” and the consequent transformation as a “surprising metamorphosis”. Perhaps, Crevecoeur also does this to propose that the American farmer is exemplifies America. Crevecoeur carries on to describe how, in this new land, these descendents of Europeans have risen above the “ancient prejudices and manners” of their ancestors. They may marry and associate with peoples of other European nations and “are melted into a new race of men”. This piece may have been one of the earliest to introduce the concept of a “melting pot” to the American psyche. In fact, the subject matter of Letters feels familiar to the modern reader because it has thoroughly permeated American mythology. It ends on a brave, hopeful note saying that Americans’ “labors and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world” and that they will lead progress in “arts, sciences, vigor, and industry”. In all, Crevecoeur’s essay is a strong literary assertion of the political principles present in the Declaration of Independence as well as in Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. Like other political writings of the time, Letters does not distinguish artistic expression from political activism. Using long, periodic sentences, Crevecoeur manages to capture the character of average American in an artistic yet accessible way. At a time when Americans were striving to define themselves as something new and distinguished, Letters successfully romanticized all that is good in America – from work ethic to civic responsibility.