Sayre considers a variety of French perspectives as a counterpoint to the Anglo-American lens, including J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur and Philip Freneau, as well as both Anglo-American and French or French Canadian travelers in “Indian territory,” including William Bartram, Jonathan Carver, John Lawson, Alexander Mackenzie, Baron de Lahontan, Pierre Charlevoix, and Jean-Baptiste Trudeau. Modernity and Its Other is an important addition to any North American historian’s bookshelf, for it brings together the social history of the European colonies and the ethnohistory of the American Indian peoples who interacted with the colonizers.
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British America before and during the Revolutionary Upheaval
I will begin by looking at the onset of modernity in the English colonies through the eyes of Saint-John de Crèvecoeur, an author who has received considerable attention, but not in this perspective. The coming of a fully market-driven society to British America did not, of course, take place all at once; it occurred progressively and over the long term. Recent historiography has generally placed the beginnings of the transition period at the turn of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, particularly in the northern colonies. In the southern colonies the new trends really started to make themselves felt in the 1740s. By the time the revolutionary "troubles" broke out and the War of Independence got under way, the social metamorphosis was everywhere far advanced, and while the American Revolution was a key turning point it played this role by unleashing social forces that were already at work but still held back to a certain extent. Already present to some degree at the end of the seventeenth and beginning of the eighteenth centuries, the traits that defined the new socioeconomic order — individualism, competition, profit seeking and a form of religiosity that sanctified it — spread and developed considerably up to the revolutionary period.
Firsthand testimony concerning the period preceding and including the Revolution is certainly not lacking. The literature is quite varied. There are in the first place many narratives of travel within the colonies, covering the countryside as well as cities and towns, on the coast and in the back country, from New England to Charlestown and Savannah. But other forms of writing were also commonly practiced that did not necessarily involve movement in space: the memoir, the diary, and the letter. Two other types of writing, while not personal testimony per se, draw largely on individual experiences: the promotional tract, intended for potential immigrants, and the modern version of the ancient genre of chorography, which offers the "history and present state of" a particular province.
The authors of these kinds of works were in the majority English, but one finds Scots, Germans, Swedes, and French among them as well. In the different national groups there were both colonial inhabitants and visitors. The social and professional situations of the writers were also diverse: they were European nobility, wealthy American landowners, merchants, doctors, scientists, churchmen, and military officers. Among the better known works are the travel accounts of the planter William Byrd II (1728), the doctor Alexander Hamilton (1744), the Swedish naturalist Pehr Kalm (1748–51), and the French aristocrat the Marquis de Chastellux (1780–82). In a different genre we might cite the correspondence of Abigail Adams, wife of the second president of the United States.
In many such works the incursions of modernity in eighteenth-century British American society are apparent in various ways. One case in point is a travel account recently republished in several collections, Sarah Kemble Knight's journal of an expedition from Boston to New Haven and New York in 1705, which allows us to see to what extent the mercantile mentality was already pervasive in the Northeast at the beginning of the century. Daughter of a Boston merchant and wife of a maritime entrepreneur, Knight herself was a businesswoman. The purpose of her trip was to settle an inheritance, and her narrative is filled with observations and anecdotes that involve commercial transactions and practices, some exorbitant or questionable, all motivated by profit seeking, that she encounters on her way.
But among these texts that bring particular perspectives to bear on the era, the writings of Saint-John de Crèvecoeur are of exceptional interest. In them we find a greater breadth and diversity of experience than are exhibited in most of the others. Crèvecoeur's viewpoint is that of someone both on the inside and the outside, and his explorations of colonial realities are both intensive (based on long-time residence in one place) and extensive (based on much travel, covering virtually all of British America). What is more, his writings radically cut across generic lines. Situated at the intersection of autobiography and sociological documentary, his texts adopt just about all of the genres of nonfiction writing mentioned earlier while often giving them a new dimension by "fictionalizing" them. This literary aspect of the writing allows for a particularly rich and subtle exploration of the author's experience of the era. In what follows I will attempt to unfold Crèvecoeur's vision of British American modernity.
In 1988 Bernard Chevignard, the foremost French authority on the work of Crèvecoeur, pointed out the continuing deficiency in biographical knowledge of this author, who had been rediscovered at the beginning of the twentieth century after a long period of neglect. It must be admitted that the progress since then has been slight. Although Dennis D. Moore's work on the manuscripts now held by the Library of Congress has clarified some issues, and Chevignard himself has encapsulated his own research in a short monograph, we are still awaiting a more substantial biography. Many uncertainties remain concerning Crèvecoeur's life, but the broad outlines are nonetheless well established. I will sketch in those that are most relevant to my analysis.
Born in Caen, France, in 1735, into a family of the petty nobility, Michel-Guillaume-Jean de Crèvecoeur joined the French army at the age of twenty and embarked for New France. Before this departure the young Crèvecoeur had visited England, and his stay there seems to have inspired him with considerable admiration for the country, particularly as regards the mechanical bent of its people. In New France he served as an engineer and cartographer but also as an artilleryman. He may have been wounded in the decisive battle in 1759 on the Plains of Abraham that was to spell defeat for the French in North America, but this is not certain. Whatever the truth of the matter may have been, in the immediate aftermath of the battle Crèvecoeur resigned his military position and moved south into the English provinces. There he took on the name of J. Hector St. John, was naturalized as a British subject, and for a good part of the following ten years traveled throughout the colonies as a topographer, surveyor, and merchant. In 1769 he married Mehitable Tippet, a woman from a wealthy New York landowning family, and settled on a farm in the Hudson Valley. During the War of Independence Crèvecoeur seems to have leaned toward the Tory side, as did his wife's family. At any rate he was harshly persecuted by local "patriots." In 1779 he crossed the patriot lines and entered New York City, then in the hands of the British. There also he encountered hostility; he was suspected of espionage for the rebels and was imprisoned for several months.
When he finally succeeded in reaching London in 1781, Crèvecoeur sold a large manuscript to a British publisher. A portion of it was published in 1782 under the title Letters from an American Farmer. Two-thirds of the whole remained in manuscript, however, until the twentieth century. A substantial part of that was published in 1925 as Sketches of Eighteenth-Century America, but the remainder appeared in book form only in 1995, in a definitive edition of the unpublished materials prepared by Moore from the original manuscripts. After arranging for the first publication of Letters, Crèvecoeur crossed the Channel, settled in Paris, and began frequenting the salon of Mme d'Houtetot, the patroness of Rousseau. Under the influence of this intellectual milieu he produced a French version of the work that differed considerably from the original. A two-volume edition of Lettres d'un cultivateur américain was published in 1784, to be followed in 1787 by a further enlarged three-volume version.
Once he returned to France Crèvecoeur again redefined his national, cultural, and linguistic identity, thoroughly reaffirming his French self. Subsequently, after a period of residence in the fledgling United States as the French consul general in New York (1783–90), he came back for good to France (with a brief interlude in Germany during the Terror), and he died there in 1813. Throughout this later period of his life he wrote in French for a French public. His main publication, aside from the two editions of Lettres d'un cultivateur américain, was Voyage dans la haute Pensylvanie et dans l'état de New York (Voyage in Upper Pennsylvania and the State of New York), which appeared in three volumes in Paris in 1801.
Crèvecoeur's writings can thus be divided into those written in English during his prolonged residency in British America and those written in French after his return to his homeland in 1781. Clearly that division also points to a deep split in his cultural identity. After reinventing himself as a British colonial he finally reentered his original French persona. The double national and cultural identification at the same time coincides with a social dichotomy. Born a French aristocrat, initiated into the traditions of a premodern class, Crèvecoeur found himself drawn, first in England and then in its colonies, to the technical prowess, industry, and mercantile enterprise that was part and parcel of British modernity.
Contrary to what might be supposed, though, the two sensibilities that inhabited Crèvecoeur are not neatly divided between his English and French periods but rather remain in a state of internal contradiction in each corpus of writings. This contradiction sometimes appears baldly, with no attempt at conciliation, but the author often articulates a kind of unstable resolution. The form this takes is different, however, in the two periods of Crèvecoeur's literary production: in the English writings the adoption of the point of view of the big landowners of New York, whose mentality had feudal as well as capitalist aspects, and in the French writings the appropriation of the perspective of the intellectual circle he frequented in Paris, which combined a Rousseauist romanticism with the encyclopedists' fascination with certain aspects of modernity.
I will concentrate on the texts in English, while bringing in occasional commentaries on the French editions by way of comparison. My purpose is to explore Crèvecoeur's perceptions of the British colonies before and during the War of Independence, and the writings in English, before he underwent the influence of the Parisian salons, are much closer to the American realities he experienced. I will draw on the original Letters and also on the Sketches, which, according to one commentator, are a kind of "shadow" to them, and on some texts from the edition of 1995 that bring in new elements.
In the English corpus one finds very little on Indians, and there is no English-language account of the travel in Indian territory that Crèvecoeur himself had undertaken. It is in the French writings that the Indian is progressively introduced, finally taking up a significant portion — about one quarter — of his Voyage dans la haute Pensylvanie. But in this book the passages dealing with Indians are largely borrowed from other sources, often from the accounts by Jonathan Carver and William Bartram that I analyze later. Although the element of personal memoir concerning Indians is thus quite limited, at the end of the chapter I will briefly deal with Crèvecoeur's representations of them.
Portrait of the British Colonies
Before discussing how the colonies are depicted in Crèvecoeur's English texts, it is necessary to address the question of narrative point of view. The opening letters of the original 1782 edition of Letters from an American Farmer set out and develop a narrative persona — James, a farmer in Pennsylvania — and the entirety of the letters in this edition are purported to be his, addressed to a European correspondent. Recent American critical analysis of that work — in isolation from the other English writings and from the French works — has sometimes treated it as a kind of epistolary novel, in which the narrator's attitudes are satirized or critiqued by Crèvecoeur, the author. The latter's point of view is thus posited as starkly different from that of James, the narrator. As scholars of Crèvecoeur's overall work have pointed out, however, Crèvecoeur himself made no such clear-cut distinction between his own voice and that of his narrator. In his personal copy of Letters from an American Farmer he at some point crossed out "James," writing "John" in its place, and in the subsequent French versions "James" became "St. John," clearly identified with the author. To complicate matters further, there is no evidence that Crèvecoeur planned the original Letters to have a novelistic structure. It is not certain, for that matter, whether he or an editor, or both, were involved in making the choice of texts to be included in the original edition. It does seem plausible, though this also is unproven, that once they had been chosen Crèvecoeur retouched or revised at least some of the letters of the original edition so as to frame the work with a fictional narrative voice and render it what Katherine and Everett Emerson aptly term "moderately coherent."
As I have already suggested, Crèvecoeur's was in fact a highly divided and conflicted sensibility, due in the first place to his social, cultural, and national displacements. His diversity of point of view is reflected in the heterogeneity of narrative voice in his writing. In the texts not included in the original edition of Letters he sometimes seems to articulate his own point of view directly, but in many cases other fictional voices are introduced. Through these voices Crèvecoeur presents different angles of perception of the American scene he has observed and different aspects of his understanding and interpretation of it. Through them he displays his many ambivalences, hesitations, and inconsistencies, but at the same time provides an exceptionally revealing, multifaceted panorama of that scene. I will therefore treat the author's various narrative personae as representing partial aspects of himself.
In many passages of Crèvecoeur's English texts, but especially in those chosen for the first edition, there seems to be a clear intent to present the British colonies as a kind of ideal. The note is struck in the very first letters, in which Farmer James lavishes praise on them and states in summary, "We are the most perfect society now existing in the world." Scattered throughout, but mainly concentrated at the beginning, one finds passages that construct an unambiguously positive conception of British America. It can be broken down into several propositions: (1) America is a melting pot ("Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men": Letters, 64). (2) It is egalitarian, with little disparity between rich and poor. (3) The backbone of America is agriculture, and its characteristic social type is the farmer ("We are a race of cultivators," says James with pride: Letters, 37). (4) The typical American farm is more or less self-sufficient ("The philosopher's stone of an American farmer is to do everything within his own family.") (5) The relentless labor of the new breed of people in America generally leads to growing wealth and a rise in social status — in short, "success." (6) American communities are characterized by solidarity, mutual aid, and hospitality.
Such is the vision that Crèvecoeur often seems to wish to project of colonial America, a vision that was doubtless nostalgic since it is likely that a considerable portion of the letters were revised, or even written, during the traumatic period of the war. But he is too lucid an observer to remain a prisoner to this simplistic stereotype. A careful reading of Letters — and especially of Sketches, which is generally more critical and "realistic" — reveals that, while they are not entirely false, each of the elements of Crèvecoeur's ideal image hides another reality. (1) The melting pot excludes at least two groups: blacks and Indians. (2) America in this period is in fact riven by sharp differences in wealth and status. (3) The dominant social type in America is not so much the farmer as the merchant, the land speculator, and the lawyer (as well as the merchant farmer in the North and the plantation owner in the South). (4) The typical farm is not truly self-sufficient but rather part of a market network. (5) The hard work of newly arrived colonists results at least as often in failure as in success. (6) Solidarity is rather marginal in the competitive society of British America.
Excerpted from "Modernity and Its Other"
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Table of ContentsList of Illustrations
Part 1. Views of Modernity: Internal/External Discovery
1. Crèvecoeur: British America before and during the Revolutionary Upheaval
2. Philip Freneau: After the Revolution
3. Moreau de Saint-Méry: Fin de Siècle
Part 2. Views of the Other: Travels in “Indian Territory”
4. The Zero Degree of the Other: Indian Violence and “Adventure” with Indians
5. Accounts of Travel in New France: Lahontan and Charlevoix
6. Anglo-American Travelers: John Lawson and Jonathan Carver
7. Travels of William Bartram, Quaker Botanist
8. Fur Traders: Alexander Mackenzie and Jean-Baptiste Trudeau
Epilogue: Into the Nineteenth Century—George Catlin
Appendix: Chronology of Historical Events, Travels, and Publications