In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur

  • Introduction
  • Manuscripts and Reference Works
  • Biographies
  • Environmental Literature

American Literature J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur
Kathryn N. Gray
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 October 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0236


Crèvecœur (b. 1735–d. 1813) is best known in Anglo-American scholarship for his first publication, Letters from an American Farmer (London, 1782), an epistolary fiction closely reflecting his experiences and perceptions of life as a colonial immigrant farmer in Orange County, New York. Much of the critical heritage to date builds on assumptions about Crèvecœur’s biography: his political and national allegiances, as well as his self-consciously shaped identity as a farmer, trader, writer and diplomat. Born in Caen, France, in 1735, as Michel-Guillaume Saint-Jean de Crèvecœur, he was educated in France, and in 1755 he sailed for New France bound for a spell in the French colonial army. In 1769 he married Mehetable Tippet, settling a 250-acre farm in Pine Hill, New York, and, following the arrival of his three children, he enjoyed a happy family life. This agrarian lifestyle was upended by the Revolution: Crèvecœur left for France with his eldest son and, following imprisonment on suspicion of espionage, he finally arrived in England with his manuscript of the Letters and Sketches. He spent the next few years in France with his son. On his return to his home in New York, he found his wife had died and his other two children were being taken care of by another family. Since the late eighteenth century, Crèvecœur’s literary reputation has ebbed and flowed with the tastes of the time. While the initial publication of the English Letters and French Lettres propelled him into the refined literary circles of the Paris salons, his literary reputation ebbed in the nineteenth century, and did not pick up again until the early twentieth century, when D. H. Lawrence recognized him as part of an emerging American literary canon. His final publication, Voyage dans la haute Pensylvanie et dans l’état de New-York (1801), did not enjoy the same success as Letters or Lettres and remains relatively understudied in Anglo-American scholarship. Yet his ambiguous political allegiances during the Revolutionary War have proven fertile ground for scholars attempting to align his personal, transatlantic, colonial, and Revolutionary experiences with his writings. Traditionally, scholarship tracks his contribution to a distinctly American literary heritage. The third letter in Letters, “What Is an American?,” is a core text on American literature programs and fundamental to Crèvecœur’s reputation as an author of the American scene in the late eighteenth century. But, more recently, scholars recognize the Atlantic and cosmopolitan nature of his work and his contribution to colonial science networks, natural history, and environmental literature.

Primary Works: Editions and Translations

The majority of the English Letters and Sketches were written and conceived in pre-Revolutionary America, in the seemingly idyllic circumstances of his family farm in Pine Hill, New York. Some of the later pieces, however, allude to the devastation that slavery and the Revolution brought to his own experiences and perceptions of colonial North America. Scholars and readers of the English Letters often note the shift of optimism to pessimism in the trajectory of the Letters, with the sequencing of individual letters reflecting the optimism and opportunity that the new nation might afford the European immigrant at the beginning, to the pessimism brought by the destructive forces of war and consequences of slavery as the Letters conclude. Editions of Crèvecœur’s work fall into two broadly-defined categories: one tradition prioritizes emergent “American” contexts of Crèvecœur’s life and work, and the other offers an Atlantic perspective. We know that on his return to France, and with the publication of the English Letters and French Lettres—a more extensive and comprehensive three-volume version of Letters—Crèvecœur was a favorite in the Paris salons, enjoying the patronage of Madame d’Houdetot. This reputation and this network of contacts would, indirectly, assure him a diplomatic role to the post-Revolutionary United States.

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