de Crèvecoeur : “What is an American?”. Biographical information and historical context. Biography of the author, part 1. Born in Normandy, France in 1731; died 1813 (also in France) Birth name Michel Guillaume Jean de Crèvecoeur; changed to J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur
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de Crèvecoeur : “What is an American?” Biographical information and historical context
Biography of the author, part 1 • Born in Normandy, France in 1731; died 1813 (also in France) • Birth name Michel Guillaume Jean de Crèvecoeur; changed to J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur • Educated in England; moved to America in 1754 • Traveled in Great Lakes region and Ohio river valley; worked as a surveyor in Pennsylvania; settled (c.1769) on a farm in Orange Co., N.Y
Biography of the author, part 2 • Wrote “Letters from an American Farmer” at his farm in New York • During the American Revolution, farm frequently overrun; de C. decided to return to Europe • Crossed army lines with permission of the British authorities • In New York City, arrested as alleged French spy and imprisoned for three months
Biography of the author, part 3 • Returned to France 1782; introduced North American potato to Normandy • Published French translation of “Letters of an American Farmer” • Returned to New York 1783; appointed French consul • Farm destroyed; wife had died; children (temporarily) missing • Returned to France 1790
Impact of de Crèvecoeur’s Work, part 1 • Esteemed in role as consul by President Washington; acquainted with Ben Franklin • More than 500 families emigrated from France to America based largely on his “lettres.” • Introduced alfalfa to North America and Potato to Normandy
Impact of de Crèvecoeur’s Work, part 2 • “Letters” one of the first texts to describe the average American • Subject matter appealed both to former colonials (Americans) and to Europeans trying to understand the new America
Fact or fiction? • Text reads like a faithful personal narrative, but… • Fictional elements in narratives not uncommon • 18th-century literature (including supposed non-fiction) did not necessarily separate art from politics; texts crafted to promote certain political and social ideologies
An interesting fact about de Crèvecoeur and a question to consider • de Crèvecoeur was not eager to participate in the American Revolution, so… • How can we reconcile his pro-new-America views with this anti-Revolution stance?
More questions: take notes on these as you read. • What kind of persona is de Crèvecoeur conveying in this piece? • Was he really a “typical American farmer”? • Which aspects of the texts seem outdated to you, and which seem applicable to today’s America?
What is his argument? • How does de Crèvecoeur define the American character? • Investigate these key themes: • industry • law • the natural environment and its influence upon human society and morality • religion