J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur’s Letters From an American Farmer (1782) is another text that I made sure was on my list, despite its focus on the 19th century. In my opinion, Letters plays a vital role in the development of the American gothic mode, even though its not written within the gothic genre. The gothic is especially present in Crèvecoeur’s description of slavery, the American wilderness, and the dangers of the impending American Revolution. This is a great text to examine under the lens of the American ecogothic in particular.
I didn’t read the entirety of Letters for my list. I instead focused on the following chapters: “Introduction,” “On the Situation, Feelings, and Pleasures of an American Farmer,” “What is an American?,” “Description of Charles Town: Thoughts on Slavery; On Physical Evil; A Melancholy Scene,” and “Distresses of a Frontier Man.” I chose these based on my previous reading and on my personal interests.
Letters was written by Crèvecoeur, a French-American and British subject, seven years prior to the Revolutionary War, while he was living as a farmer near Orange County, NY. He wrote the letters from the perspective of a fictional second-generation American farmer named James in correspondence with a similarly fictional English gentleman. Upon publication, Letters was immediately popular in Europe, causing Crèvecoeur to write a French translation of the text as well. It was only moderately successful in America.
In the “Introduction” letter, farmer James accepts the request of an English gentleman (Mr. F. B.) to send him letters detailing the American way of life. James doubts his ability to correspond with the learned Mr. F. B., so he consults both his wife and the local minister. The minister tells James to write just as if he were speaking. James ultimately agrees to write to Mr F. B. under the stipulation that he will only discuss what the English gentleman asks him to discuss. James’s wife expresses concern about his writing- she doesn’t want their neighbors to know that James is writing to an English gentleman, because then they would be viewed as well-to-do and European, as opposed to plain, honest, hard-working Americans. She additionally worries that people will think James is “telling the king’s men an abundance of things” (48). Prior to this, James wonders why an educated Englishman would want to hear from a “simple citizen” farmer (50). He considers that the new civilization is probably much more interesting than the ancient ruins of places like Italy (42) and the minister makes the first of several comparisons of American men to plants:
You will appear to him something like one of our wild American plants, irregularly luxuriant in its various branches, which an European scholar may probably find ill-placed and useless… Do let Mr. F. B. see on paper a few American wild-cherry trees, such as Nature forms them here in all her unconfined vigor, in all the amplitude of their extended limbs and spreading ramifications- let him see that we are possessed with strong vegetative embryos. (46)
It is also discussed how ploughing is a particularly good labor to engage in when writing. The minister claims that he writes sermons in his head while he ploughs and then is able to actually write them down in his leisure hours (46-7).
“On the Situation, Feelings, and Pleasures of an American Farmer” describes the creatures, plants, and activities on and around James’s farm. According to James’s description, nature and the American farm operate in considerable harmony. He is very happy in America (and even imagines that the slaves in America have a better life than Russian boors and Hungarian peasants (52)), largely because of the freedom and peace of mind that comes from owning his own property and profiting off of his own hard-work. He is also very happy about having an inheritance to pass on to his children. When he considers his family and situation in life, he cries. He shares that Mr. F. B. once referred to him as the “farmer of feelings” (53)
I am very interested in the intense focus which farmer James places on the bees (and hornets and wasps) surrounding his farm. The bees are first introduced both by the “respect” he feels for them and for the ongoing battles between the “American bees” and the king-birds (55-6). He uses military language to describe a violent event between the two species on his farm (“phalanx,” “victory,” “military array”) before adding his own involvement in the fight in which he rescued 54 bees from the mouth of a king-bird (56). He admires the “republics” that they build in trees (60, 63) and provides other descriptions of the bees that seem to connect them to the American project. For example:
…they will prefer those rude, rough habitations to the best polished mahogany hive. When that is the case with mine, I seldom thwart their inclinations, it is in freedom that they work; were I to confine them, they would dwindle away and quit their labor. (58-9)
…the bees never rest nor swarm till it is replenished; for like men, it is only the want of room that induces them to quit the maternal hives. (60)
After being kind to a hive of hornets by providing them with space to move in and out of doors, he claims that “By this kind usage, they have become quite harmless” and that they “are constantly busy in catching [flies], even on the eyelids of my children” (63). By being fair and equitable with these republican bees and hornets, farmer James is able to profit from their freedom and live in peace with them.
There are a few contemporary gothic/horror depictions of bees, hornets, and wasps that I can think of presently (Stephen King’s novel The Shining features a mean hive of wasps that continually return to attack the Torrance family and the opening credits of the most recent American Horror Story season, which was concerned with American politics, contained a lot of bee imagery, partly for the concept of the ‘hive mind’ of social media and cults), but I wonder if there are more examples of the bee not only as a figure of American values, but of threat and danger (maybe Candyman?)
“What is an American?” compares the physical environment of America with the societies that emerge from it. He works to explore the aspects of the new American country and the identity of its citizens. He ultimately determines that the citizens are deeply influenced by the land upon which they live and therefore, the man who lives near the sea is very different from the frontier man, however, he at first claims that all Americans are similar: “…we are all tillers of the earth…each person works for himself…a pleasing uniformity of…habitations…” (67). He highlights the fact that the American citizens are mainly the poor of Europe who had been cast out due to overpopulation and poverty: “here they are become men: in Europe they were as so many useless plants, wanting vegetative mould and refreshing showers; they withered, and were mowed down by want, hunger, and war; but now, by the power of transplantation, like all other plants, they have taken root and flourished!” (69). But again, because he views men as plants, he highlights that the soil on which they live determines their character:
Men are like plants: the goodness and flavor of the fruit proceeds from the peculiar soil and exposition in which they grow. We are nothing but what we derive from the air we breathe, the climate we inhabit, the government we obey, the system of religion we profess, and the nature of our employment. Here you will find but few crimes these have acquired as yet no root among us. (71)
After reading this, I am immediately aware of how nicely this concept fits with the fear described by Kevin Corstorphine in his chapter in EcoGothic that the American wild could cause degeneration and ‘bewilderment’ in men (121). Corstorphine notes that Robert Bird’s preface to Nick of the Woods contained a racial theory that posited that the Native Americans were inferior to the European white race only because of the degeneration they had sustained from living in the wilderness (122). Crèvecoeur continues from this point into a more directly ecogothic line of thought:
Now we arrive near the great woods, near the last inhabited districts; there men seem to be placed still farther beyond the reach of government… There men appear to be no better than carnivorous animals of a superior rank, living on the flesh of wild animals when they can catch them…He who would wish to see America in its proper light and have a true idea of its feeble beginnings and barbarous rudiments must visit our extended line of frontiers, where the last settlers dwell… There, remote from the power of example and check of shame, many families exhibit the most hideous parts of our society… In all societies there are off-casts; this impure part serves as our precursors or pioneers. (72-3)
Finally, James recounts a story of a Scotch immigrant and his family who James helped to establish in America. This immigrant’s story is basically the American dream. He arrived “in the literal sense of the expression, stark naked” (89) and was able to become an owner of property. The chapter ends with an account of the Scotch farmer’s property and value (105).
“Description of Charles Town; Thoughts on Slavery; on Physical Evil; a Melancholy Scene” includes both an account of the institution of slavery in both Charles Town (now Charleston) and the south in general, as well as a critique of that institution. James believes that slavery is a truly evil practice that goes against everything that the new country of America should stand against. While James and other white Americans enjoy freedom and prosperity, the slave is forced to obey their master and is subject to an obscene amount of tortures, pain, and death.
This chapter would fit very well with Castronovo’s Necro Citizenship. James discusses the unseen element of slavery which helps to create wealth for the south.
While all is joy, festivity, and happiness in Charles Town, would you imagine that scenes of misery overspread in the country? Their ears by habit are become deaf, their hearts are hardened: they neither see, hear, nor feel for the woes of their poor slaves, from whose painful labors all their wealth proceeds. Here the horrors of slavery, the hardship of incessant toils, are unseen; and no one thinks with compassion of those showers of sweat and of tears which from the bodies of Africans daily drop and moisten the ground they till. (168)
This quote also demonstrates how he believes that the white southern men and women become dehumanized through the institution of slavery. Their senses are lost, so they are no longer able to feel. For the “feeling farmer,” this ability is tantamount to the state of humanity.
After describing the considerable evils that men cause on earth, he asks Mr. F. B.:
Would you prefer the state of men in the woods to that of men in a more improved situation? Evil preponderates in both; in the first they often eat each other for want of food, and in the other they often starve each other for want of room. For my part, I think the vices and miseries to be found in the latter exceed those of the former… (177)
Finally, James recounts an event which happened to him recently. While walking through the woods to dine with a friend in Charles Town, he happened upon
“…something resembling a cage, suspended to the limbs of a tree, all the branches of which appeared covered with large birds of prey, fluttering about…I fired at them; they all flew to a short distance…I perceived a Negro, suspended in the cage and left there to expire! I shudder when I recollect that the birds had already picked out his eyes; his cheek-bones were bare; his arms had been attacked in several places and his body seemed covered with a multitude of wounds. From the edges of the hollow sockets and from the lacerations with which he was disfigured, the blood slowly dropped and tinged the ground beneath. (178)
The gruesome description continues on in some detail to include the insects that then attached themselves to the man’s wounds. James is frozen with “affright and terror” and wants to help this “living spectre” (178). James is frustrated by the fact that he has no bullets with which to kill the man out of mercy, so he instead gives him some water to drink. The man begs him to put poison in the water, but, having no poison, James continues on to his dinner. He asks the slave-owner (who happens to be the man who invited James to dinner) why the slave was being punished in this manner. The slave-owner responds that the slave had “killed the overseer of the plantation” and that “the laws of self-preservation rendered such executions necessary” (179). Again, Necro-Citizenship would probably pair very well with this chapter. I am especially interested in the fact that Crèvecoeur uses the language of the gothic mode to describe the scene and that he labels the slave a living ghost (similar to Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl). Once again, we also see that the blood of the slave waters the soil of the south. Finally, it is also interesting that this occurs in the woods, possibly allowing an ecogothic reading of the scene.
“Distresses of a Frontier Man” contains the mounting American Revolution and James’s fear and dread at being in between the two sides of the war. He views the war as completely beyond his control and doesn’t know which side better deserves his allegiance. He ultimately decides to move himself and his family to a Native American territory, where he plans that they will live and flourish until the war ends.
This letter is very gothic (and ecogothic), so there is a lot to work with! His initial descriptions of his fear of invasion, as well as the stories of invasion that he hears from his fellow local farmers, are written within the gothic frame.
Necro Citizenship would also pair well with this letter. James complains that the common man is never part of the ideas behind revolutions or wars, but it is the common man whose blood must be shed in battles.
It is for the sake of the great leaders on both sides that so much blood must be spilt; that of the people is counted as nothing. Great events are not achieved for us, though it is by us that they are principally accomplished, by the arms, the sweat, the lives of the people. (204)
He notes that the European “spectators” who hear about the revolution from afar cannot truly understand the constant terror and dread that the common American citizen must experience daily (206). He shares a particularly gory imagined outcome:
Must I then, in order to be called a faithful subject, cooly and philosophically say it is necessary for the good of Britain that my children’s brains should be dashed against the walls of the house in which they were reared; that my wife should be stabbed and scalped before my face; that I should be either murthered (sp) or captivated; or that for greater expedition we should all be locked up and burnt to ashes as the family of the B—–n was?” (207)
Throughout his description of his fears, James continually seeks to follow his passions and feelings over the cool rationality that the determined the necessity of this war. In particular, he prefers instinct to reason because instinct instructs him to protect himself and his family, while reason tells him to take part in the battle.
In his decision to join the Native Americans, he seems to change his mind regarding degeneration via the environment. Instead of believing that the Native Americans have been degenerated by their habitation within the wilderness, he thinks that the white settlers are degenerated from being so distant from nature:
They most certainly are much more closely connected with Nature than we are; they are her immediate children: the inhabitants of the woods are her undefiled offspring; those of the plains are her degenerated breed, far, very far removed from her primitive laws, from her original design. (215)
He views these as his “wild, my trifling reflections” (216) and then observes that the Native Americans cannot be hired assassins, unlike the Europeans.
The passions necessary to urge these people to war cannot be roused; they cannot feel the stings of vengeance, the thirst of which alone can impel them to shed blood: far superior in their motives of action to the Europeans who, for sixpence per day, may be engaged to shed that of any people on earth. (217)
Overall, this chapter is written in a far different tone from the rest. He is disillusioned and let down. It is almost apocalyptic in its vision of impending doom.
Corstorphine, Kevin. “‘The blank darkness outside’: Ambrose Bierce and wilderness Gothic at the end of the frontier.” Ecogothic, edited by Andrew Smith and William Hughes, Manchester University Press, 2013, pp. 120-133.
Crèvecouer, J. Hector St. John. Letters From an American Farmer. Penguin Classics Edition, 1980.