Letters From an American Farmer

by J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur

The author was born in France and emigrated to America, where he became a naturalized citizen in 1764. These are the letters written to his family describing his new life. Because of the slow speed of cross-Atlantic shipping, each letter was quite long; it wasn’t quite like texting today. The letters cover a wide range of topics, from farming to botany to the lives of whalers. He is a sharp observer of human nature, and surprisingly adept with the pen. I won’t delve into the book; it offers no grand thesis, just a mass of acute observations of America in the 1770s. What struck me the most was his contrast of the optimism and hard work of American culture as opposed to the demoralized idleness of Europeans. In America, hard work really did lead to wealth; back in Europe, the position of the peasant was hopeless; hard work did not enrich, it merely shortened life. This contrast permeates the book. Sadly, the belief that hard work always leads to success continues to this day, although it is belied by the fact that the most important factor in the wealth of a modern American is the wealth of his parents.
The book ends on a strange note; apparently the Revolutionary War rendered his farm in upstate New York unsafe due to the many Indian raids, and he had to abandon it. The letter wails and moans endlessly about the harshness of his situation, but never actually explains exactly what was happening.