Monday, September 5, 2011

American classics 1: Crevecoeur

One of the classics of early American literature, Letters from an American Farmer, by Hector St. Jean de Crèvecoeur, turned up in an anthology I was reading the other day. I hadn't looked carefully at this since my days in graduate school more than forty years ago, so I was curious to see if he had anything to say of interest here. Crèvecoeur, it will be recalled, was born in France, educated in England, and migrated to the United States and took up farming in New York state in 1765. His writing was published six years after the American Revolution and, because he addressed the question "What is an American?" and used the "melting pot" metaphor to describe this "new man," his work was regarded as important. His notion of America as chiefly a land of farmers antedated Jefferson's better-known celebration of the so-called yeoman farmer, or farmer-citizen, drawing on the same pastoral ideals that freehold farmers (not peasants), living industrious lives close to nature, would constitute a new class and a new nation. 

Looking at Crèvecoeur more critically today, I find an early expression of the American exceptionalism that became part of the American myth and which still informs and justifies America's actions at home and abroad, despite (and ignoring other problems with Crèvecoeur's formulation) the fact that we have not been a nation of farmers for more than a century. One could go on about this, but I was reading Crèvecoeur to learn whether he said anything about farming itself, and came upon this: "Men are like plants; the goodness and flavor of the fruit proceeds from the peculiar soil and exposition in which they grow." Whether or not people are like plants, the goodness and flavor of the fruit of plants does proceed from the particular soil and exposition in which they grow. This summer, that "exposition" included late deer intrusions which have taken their toll, chiefly on the dry beans; of these, the Light Red Kidney seem to have been earlier than the rest and so when the deer sampled them they were, possibly, a little too dry. Therefore they have left most of that variety alone, whereas the rest of the dry beans are nearly a total loss. In past years the deer have eaten the entire bean plants; this year they are more picky and ate just the bean pods. In future years they may learn to shell out the beans.

No comments:

Post a Comment