Wylie on Dennis D. Moore, 'More Letters from the American Farmer: An Edition of the Essays in English Left Unpublished by Crèvecoeur'
ed. Dennis D. Moore. More Letters from the American Farmer: An Edition of the Essays in English Left Unpublished by Crèvecoeur. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2019. 584 pp. $54.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8203-4104-0.
Reviewed by Roxanna E. Wylie (University of Arkansas - Fort Smith)
Published on H-Nationalism (August, 2022)
Commissioned by Evan C. Rothera (University of Arkansas - Fort Smith)
Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=57432
Dennis Moore’s More Letters From The American Farmer: An Edition of the Essays in English Left Unpublished by Crèvecoeur provides insight into everyday life of the United States during the pivotal 1770s. The letters focus on the farming population and the self-determining spirit that imbued American farmers and allowed them to thrive on the edges of society. However, it is this same revolutionary spirit that threatens all Crèvecoeur holds dear. Moore’s self-described “critical edition” is just that—a much-needed addition to colonial- and Revolutionary-era sources that provides a balanced approach to understanding the American Revolution but also a holistic view of Crèvecoeur (p. xi). Moore, associate professor of English and University Distinguished Teaching Professor at Florida State University, has a twofold approach: correction and publication. His main objective is to correct previous publication errors of Crèvecoeur’s essays by Henri Bourdin. According to Moore, these early publications contained transcription errors and missing ellipses, “inadvertently creating a distorted impression” of Crèvecoeur’s writing style, context, and content (p. xv). More Letters corrects these infractions by presenting the manuscripts in their entirety with no edits. These main objectives are reflected in his two introductions.
In his “Textual Introduction” Moore details his transcription methodology as evidence supporting his inclusion of marginal words and strikethroughs to present a comprehensive version of Crèvecoeur’s writing. Accessibility is key in understanding Crèvecoeur’s flow of thought and unfortunately, the transcriptions impede that flow and make it difficult to comprehend the author’s intent. The letters in the volume include Crèvecoeur’s irregular capitalization, lack of punctuation, misspellings, run-on sentences, eighteenth-century English spellings, and shorthand. Moore’s annotations are helpful in contextualizing Crèvecoeur’s anecdotes, but, as with all Moore’s supplemental material, his notes utilize page and line numbers yet the lines are unmarked in the text. Counting lines is cumbersome and counterintuitive. Moore’s efforts for textual integrity, though successful, are excessive in his inclusion of textual notes, and his transcription style hinders the legibility of the text. Photos of the holograph tables/headings and of the documents themselves would have been immeasurably helpful in visualizing Moore’s descriptions of the different handwritings and condition of the manuscripts. As it is, the wonder of these manuscripts is lost in endless detail.
Moore’s detailed literary analysis introduction provides the necessary tools to contextualize Crèvecoeur’s English writings within the timeline of the US War for Independence and his personal life. Moore’s use of scholarly work to analyze this edition is textually heavy and at times cumbersome. Nevertheless, his biographical information and historical references are insightful and aid in understanding Crèvecoeur’s choice of literary device and how his personal experiences add realism to his fictional narratives. Best known for his essay “What is an American?” from his Letters from an American Farmer (1782), Crèvecoeur wrote three manuscripts but only published the first in his lifetime. The second and third English manuscripts remained unpublished until the mid-1920s. These two manuscripts echo the raw emotion Crèvecoeur experienced during a war he considered devastating, becoming what Moore considers “his Loyalist pieces” that are “at the very least harshly skeptical about the Patriots’ cause” (p. xviii). Moore presumes these pieces were written in the early 1770s up through the American Revolution, even while Crèvecoeur fled the country. Eventually making his way back to his native France, Crèvecoeur stayed until the end of the war, later serving as French consul to the newly minted United States from 1783 to 1790, during which time he published French versions of the English manuscripts in this edition.
Though subject to scrutiny from many angles and literary lenses, the letters in this edition can be loosely grouped into two large themes: farming and war. These two leitmotifs intersect as one threatens to destroy the other. These fictionalized letters and melodramatic dialogue give the twenty-first-century reader a glimpse into eighteenth-century life and experience during the Age of Revolutions. The first half of the book emphasizes the realities and rewards of an agricultural society in colonial America. In these letters, an American Farmer outlines the hardships suffered by colonial farmers and the rewarding benefits of family, community, and self-sufficiency to his European counterpart. Crèvecoeur emphasizes the dominant features in American character, quipping, “the Philosophical stone of an Amèrican Farmer, is to do Every thing within his own family to Trouble his Neighboors by borrowing as Least as possible, & to abstain from buying European commodities – he that follows that golden Rule & has a good wife is almost sure of succeeding” (p. 36). Moore believes this motif of family clarifies “that for Crèvecoeur this aura of a golden age is based in domesticity,” further emphasizing “two very large tropes: the New World as utopia and the New World as a place where the Golden Age can be recaptured or reinstituted” (pp. lx, lviii). This thread of idealism and nostalgia stitches the two halves of this edition together, making a complete picture of a land of golden opportunities in upheaval and a society unraveling at the seams as war threatens the ideal. Crèvecoeur sums it up best: “this once fair this [once] happy Country, which served as an Assylum for all the Poor of Europe which supplied them all with Bread” but “now presents nothing but an extensive Wreck” (p. 156). However strongly Crèvecoeur felt at the time of this writing, Moore believes he ultimately came to terms with an altered version of his utopia, believing he “gained a different perspective on the spirit of the times. He accepted the new country, even if he could no longer identify with it sufficiently to resume his role as an American,” instead becoming a French consul to the newly minted country (p. xlviii).
Crèvecoeur traced the source of this great conflict and its subsequent violent divisiveness to unresolved conflicts, simmering dissatisfaction, class divisions, greed, and landownership disputes. He effectively uses emotive language to reflect the harsh realities facing farmers and their families caught up in the divisiveness of a civil war as neighbors turned on each other depending on their political views. Suspicion tainted relationships. Families imploded and communities crumbled. Committees censored dissenters. Poor farmers turned on their more affluent loyalist neighbors, confiscating property and goods as depicted in “Landskapes.” This dramatic script does not pull any punches in criticizing the hypocrisy in the characters of Beatus, a deacon of a local church and committee chair in charge of disposing of loyalist properties, and his wife, Eltha. The two masquerade as upright church members, yet systematically defraud loyalist families who have come under suspicion from the committees of safety. One of their victims is Mrs. Marston. Her Tory husband is on the run, having been incarcerated and escaped. It is assumed he will not take the oath of allegiance nor prove his sympathy for the cause. Beatus and Eltha epitomize the hypocrisy of the era as they turn Mrs. Marston and her children out of their house. Mrs. Marston’s belongings are confiscated, thus defrauding the very system Beatus and Eltha claim to uphold. Crèvecoeur exaggerates their duplicity, claiming that the War for Independence was “Gilded over by the Varnish of description” and had “an opaque side which it is not so Easy to distinguish,” believing it “tis absolutely Necessary to search and Minutely pervade this great Mass of artificial splendor” (p. 230).
This investigation of the gilded cause took his attention to the frontier, a scene featuring heinous acts by both sides and by Native American allies. In “Susquehanna,” he reminisces about a previous journey taken during his surveyor years through the Wyoming Valley in Pennsylvania. The progress and peacefulness of the pioneers who settled there marked several pages of his letter, but squabbles arose between settlers from Connecticut and Pennsylvania over charter rights. Resentment simmered and several skirmishes broke out until open conflict erupted in 1778, known as the Battle of Wyoming. Loyalists who had been forced out of the rebel-controlled villages came back with British regulars and Native American allies, devastating the valley and wreaking vengeance. Crèvecoeur recounts the tragedy with surprising accuracy and relays his horror in a play-by-play account of the massacre. It is this piece that Moore salvages from the publishing wreckage of the 1920s by reconstituting it in its entirety. Moore includes previous omissions including Crèvecoeur’s poignant lament over mankind’s inhumanity during war: “oh war, cruel war, fatal propensity which converts one part of the human species into carniverous animals avidly seeking to Glutt themselves with the blood of the other” (pp. 202-203).
More Letters contributes to the understanding of the complexities surrounding the emergence of a nation from a colonial society and the loss many experienced in its wake. It enriches the national narrative by giving voice to the marginalized and emphasizing the price paid for independence by all—loyalist as well as patriot.
Roxanna E. Wylie. Review of Dennis D. Moore, ed., More Letters from the American Farmer: An Edition of the Essays in English Left Unpublished by Crèvecoeur.
H-Nationalism, H-Net Reviews.