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Negotiating Nature/Wilderness:
Crèvecoeur and American Identity in Letters From an American Farmer

Ann M. Woodlief, Virginia Commonwealth University

Nature in early America seemed an obvious wilderness for Europeans coming from a natural world that had been drastically altered by centuries of human settlement. Wild nature had to be confronted and negotiated with to some degree before its fertile chaos infected the new settlers' sense of civilized self-security. Here was a relatively unhumanized world which had long functioned without "civilized" intervention. Indians, "children of the wilderness" who rarely farmed, seemed not quite human by European definitions. They were perceived either as savage, like animals, or less often (and later) noble and innocent, free of the corruptions fostered by civilization. Note What they were not was "like us" and their otherness paralleled the alienness of wild nature.

Imposing "civilized" values on wilderness was a matter of personal as well as communal identity. Meeting the reality of nature's indifference can be a profound threat to one's sense of self and self-worth. As a group, the easiest way to negotiate with wilderness, particularly with the children of nature they encountered, was not to negotiate or try to understand at all but to give battle and brook no compromise. So settlers set about their work of conquering nature, killing the animals and the Indians whenever they got in their way, harvesting whatever natural resources they could find to send back to England for something of real value, money. In time, the wilderness was sufficiently cleared into garden and farms, even unproductive clearings, the Indians fled or were bounded by reservations, and they could rest more comfortably in the assurance that the rambunctious forces of nature were in their place, under control. But of course they were not, for wilderness was not simply an external phenomenon.

By the eighteenth century many Americans were fairly content that they had successfully transformed the wilderness into an agricultural garden where the human values so touted by Jefferson, the agrarian philosopher, would flourish. Note But a Frenchman, Michel-Guillame-Jean de Crèvecoeur, who transformed himself into Hector St. John as part of his quest to become an American farmer, showed in Letters From an American Farmer that those agrarian values, especially as they erupted into the internal conflicts of the American revolution, and the developing American identity were still deeply challenged by the forces of wilderness and not restricted to a relatively remote frontier. Wilderness still stood, especially for Crèvecoeur, not only as the physical embodiment of a profoundly disturbing existential reality that challenged civilized values, but as an internal chaos threatening one's moral and psychological identity. Note Tilling the earth, he sensed, was in fact scratching the surface, and the decivilizing reality of nature's indifferent forces still loomed.

In the Letters Crèvecoeur doesn't reconcile the contradictions--which embrace sexist and racist considerations-- inherent in the strained relationship between white men Note and the American wilderness, but dramatizes and ponders them at length through his creation of Farmer James.The tension between Farmer James, the artless, sincere optimist, eager to justify distinctively American ways to Europeans, whose naivete is gradually undermined,and the more knowledgeable and European-cum-American author, Crèvecoeur, creates a complex picture rarely explored by his contemporaries of basic dilemmas faced by Americans just at the point that they announced themselves as a distinct people. Note

Crèvecoeur the man was just as complex as his description of the American experience. A man who yearned and worked for both husbandry and domestic order, he spent ten years wandering America alone, venturing into the wilds, living with Indians, even being adopted by the Oneida tribe in Connecticut. An anglophilic Frenchman of minor nobility, he adopted his new country enthusiastically, changing his name and, presumably, much of his identity. Note After he returned to France and the book was published in 1782, he was both celebrated and later ignored as the epitome of the American farmer, a role he had abandoned in reality. The boundaries of his ego were flexible enough to allow him to participate, vicariously and actually, in different kinds of lives, as well as to observe and analyze them. Likewise he emerged from his wilderness wanderings relatively unmarked beyond a driving desire for the well-ordered life of a prosperous farmer. His writing about nature and the Indian could be as almost as romantic as as his countryman Jean-Jacques Rousseau's, though with a firmer footing in reality; yet he characterized nature as a "howling wilderness," a savage and barbarous place, with equal ease.

Two opposing images of nature--which I shall call Mother Nature and wilderness-- compete in the Letters; both are deconstructed by the author, though their conflict is not comprehended by the ultimately bewildered and disillusioned Farmer James. These images are built on the base of the American farmer's need to assert vigorous control over the external wilderness, converting it to redeem himself, to transform himself into the "new man, who acts upon new principles"--the American. My emphasis, though, is less on the "new" than the "man" whose identity is so tenuous that his principles are defined primarily--although covertly--in terms of sexual and racial power.

Letter I begins with the image of bountiful Mother Nature (the new, American mother) in the context of conversation between Farmer James and the Minister about the "famed mother country, of which [James] knew very little"(39) whose people would delight in knowing "How we convert huge forests into pleasing fields." (42) The words seem innocuous, especially coming from the more sophisticated minister, but the idea of converting (implying drastic action) the huge (and thus inhuman) wilderness into fields (free of trees) that men find pleasing is hardly as naive as it may appear. The Minister continues to set a theme upon which James will enthusiastically expound in his view of nature as Alma Mater: "Here Nature opens her broad lap to receive the perpetual access of newcomers and to supply them with food." Though bountiful and broad, this lap is to be ravished even more deeply by the men who come: at this point, "it is from the surface of the ground which we till that we have gathered the wealth we possess, the surface of that ground is therefore the only thing that has hitherto been known" but future generations of Americans will "have leisure and abilities to penetrate deep and in the bowels of this continent search for the subterranean riches it no doubt contains." He continues by comparing James' way of expressing himself to "a few American wild-cherry trees, such as Nature forms them here in all her unconfined vigour, in all the amplitude of their extended limbs and spreading ramifications--let him see that we are possessed with strong vegetative embryos." (emphases mine, 46) Even as James envies the Minister's power of expression, the reader is given sexual metaphors for violation Note (though with her consent?) of nature's fertility to create distinctly "American" embryos, whose potential comes from embracing nature's "unconfined vigour."

Another note, more faintly sexual, sounded by the Minister and absorbed into the simpler speech of James, praises ploughing because it releases the mind, "as we silently till the ground and muse along the odoriferous furrows of our lowlands, uninterrupted either by stones or stumps; it is there that the salubrious effluvia of the earth animate our spirit and serve to inspire us." (47) More ominous is James' wife's equation of "Negroes to buy and to clothe" with "trees to cut down" and "fences to make," all activities not needed in England; rather than hearing him called a "scribbling farmer" she would like to hear the neighbors say, "here liveth the warm substantial family that never begrudgeth a meal of victuals or a mess of oats to any one that steps in. Look how fat and well clad their Negroes are." (49) Thus is the reader reminded that the much of the labor which Farmer James finds redeeming both himself and the land is done by his Negroes, presumably slaves, though significantly that is never mentioned (not even when he praises Bartram for freeing his slaves). Note

"Tilling the earth/soil" and "possession of the land" ring repeatedly in Farmer James' exaltation of the agrarian transformation of land and man. In Letter II, conquering nature has become the very basis of his American identity and citizenship:

the instant I enter on my own land, the bright idea of property, of exclusive right, of independence, exalt my mind. Precious soil, I say to myself, by what singular custom of law is it that thou wast made to constitute the riches of the freeholder? What should we American farmers be without the distinct possession of that soil? It feeds, it clothes us; from it we draw even a great exuberancy, our best meat, our richest drink; the very honey of our bees comes from this privileged spot. No wonder we should thus cherish its possession.... This formerly rude soil has been converted by my father into a pleasant farm, and in return, it has established all our rights; on it is founded our rank, our freedom, our power as citizens, our importance as inhabitants of such a district.... this is what may be called the true and the only philosophy of an American farmer." (emphases mine, 54)

Though he may feel some guilt as he eats an egg and thinks of the humanized hen or cock (with "every distinguishing characteristic of the reason of man") prevented by his "gluttony" (55) and wonders at the "sagacity" of his animals which seems "to surpass even men in memory and sagacity," he has no problem killing a king-bird who just ate his bees, and then turning to condemn "the singular barbarity of man" for murdering such harmless song birds. He has tamed more than the soil; even hornets nest in his parlor who through his "kindness and hospitality" have been made "useless and harmless." The main consistency in these attitudes is that he is in control, humanizing the creatures around him as it suits him. Note

The personal control of one's fate that comes from controlling nature by tilling the soil is a major theme of the famous Letter III. He is certain all Europeans would rejoice with him in the replacement of "wild, woody, and uncultivated" nature with "fair cities, substantial villages, extensive fields" and various other improvements and he states confidently, "we are all tillers of the earth," (66) a statement he will shortly challenge in his discussion of the frontier. No matter; tilling the soil is the basis for the regenerated man, a "useless plant" in Europe but "by the power of transplantation, like all other plants they have taken root and flourished"(68-9), having been "received in the broad lap of our great Alma Mater," (70) Mother Nature. He returns to the metaphor later, comparing transported Europeans to a "sprout growing at the foot of a great tree: it enjoys and draws but a little portion of sap; wrench it from the parent roots, transplant it, and it will become a tree bearing fruit also," (80) but only if they have that "great parent" of American nature blessing those who "work and till." (89-90) Fertile Mother Nature, thanks to the toil of the tiller, now gives birth to reborn or metamorphosed men.

It would be a mistake to think that Farmer James is only interested in farms, for the chapters on Nantucket and particularly on Martha's Vineyard examine other ways of reaping Nature's wealth--from the sea. In Letter VI he offers a detailed description of the whale fishery which carries the same kind of sexual/fertility subtext seen in his comments on farming. The whale they hunt is a female, preferably a dam with a calf to attract her attention and preferably not of a "dangerous species" but asleep, However her sex makes her no less docile, as she may attack their boat or pull them down by the attached cord (137-8). He professes surprise that their encounters with wild nature do not lead to "tumultuous drinking assemblies" on land, but that their lives are decent and peaceful in their domestic havens, "for they get wives very young." (141)

The very fertility of "smiling Mother Nature" which he often lauds also appears to be problematical. Note On Nantucket (in Letters IV and V), he prefers to view the farmers who have toiled vigorously to redeem barren lands (108) for he concludes, "It is but seldom that vice grows on a barren sand like this, which produces nothing without extreme labour. How could the common follies of society take root in so dispicable a soil." (125) For Farmer James, too fertile a soil "does not breed men equally hardy, nor capable to encounter dangers and fatigues," leading "too much to idleness and effeminacy" (emphasis mine), as in"softer" New Garden (in North Carolina) "where mankind reap too much, do not toil enough, and are liable to enjoy too fast the benefits of life." In other words, a real man should have to work hard to increase Nature's yield, but what about the hard working men who can not "possess" their land on any terms?

Farmer James may own Negroes to help him till his soil, but he is horrified in Letter IX at the institution of slavery. However, he blames nature, not man, wondering how "an indulgent nature, a kind parent, who, for the benefit of mankind has taken singular pains to vary the genera of plants, fruits, grain and the different products of the earth and has spread peculiar blessings in each climate" also provides man "with passions which must forever oppose his happiness." (174) Especially in the fertile land of South Carolina, "those mild climates which seem to breathe peace and happiness, the poison of slavery, the fury of despotism, and the rage of superstition are all combined against man." (176) Note He still does not seem to see the connection between exploiting the soil and exploiting slave labor, seeking rather to blame Nature for being too fertile and thus inviting the abuses perpetuated by the planters (distanced by not being called farmers or tillers of the soil). Surely Crèvecoeur meant for his readers to see the inconsistency here, and realize that at least part of Farmer James' revulsion at seeing the caged and dying Negro--another tiller of the soil but laboring for his master (and the overseer he has killed)-- must be subconscious recognition of his own complicity.

Wilderness is the other, less beneficent face Crèvecoeur presents of nature. However, this is more than an inhuman or alien force man must battle, more than barren land which forces men to toil harder; it is also the force that controls and shapes him. It is the climate that determines whether the American transplant will grow, in spite of the de-civilizing forces of geography (for he does not distinguish between geography and climate) that can dehumanize him. It is environmental determinism: "Man are like plants; the goodness and flavor of the fruit proceeds from the peculiar soil and exposition in which they grow. We are nothing but what we derive from the air we breathe, the climate we inhabit, the government we obey, the system of religion we profess, and the nature of our employment." (emphasis mine, 71)

Letter III dwells almost obsessively on how the closer men are to wilderness, the wilder they become, "no better than carnivorous animals" for they are "remote from the power of example and check of shame." (72) Virtue then seems to lie in settlements, not in nature, in the next line of settlers who will transform "that hitherto barbarous country into a fine, fertile, well-regulated district." (73) But the alert reader notices that he often pauses here to refuse pointedly to give proof: "you are not to expect that I shall advance any reasons." (76) The "natural fecundity of the earth" makes them lawless and a "mongrel breed, half civilized, half savage" (77) and obviously the worse half of each. Virtue seems to be in proportion to their cultivation of the land, although that conflicts with his later comments about Nantucket and Charles Town.

There are other inconsistencies here. Is this the same man who is suspicious of cities for nurturing the evil instincts of man, Note who says America's strength is because "individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men" (70)--and thus "mongrelized," and who celebrates nature's fertility? Indeed, where are the geography and climate that will make the truly great Americans? Not in the south, for life is too easy. Not by the sea, for there is too much trafficing with the corrupted Europeans. Perhaps where the land is barren and men have not sufficient energy to cultivate both vices and the earth? Fertility of the soil has proven a mixed blessing. And where is the much vaunted independence of the "new American" who has been "metamorphosed" in this land, if his fate is determined not by himself but by nature, particularly a wilderness which fosters his own innate evil and lawlessness? As Farmer James rails at corrupted human nature and slavery in Letter IX in Charles Town, there seems to be little hope in any climate: "Famine, diseases, elementary convulsions, human feuds, dissensions, etc., are the produce of every climate; each climate produces, besides, vices and miseries peculiar to its latitude." (174)

The fear of wilderness, or the alien and nonaccommodating aspect of nature, seems to revolve on the question of power and control. When Farmer James' control of the land is shown as illusory, as he is threatened by the forces of the Revolution as well as the evil attendant to farming he confronted in Charles Town, he sees two alternatives, and both have problems. One way of controlling nature is described in Letter XI (after Charles Town and before the Revolution) when he visits the orderly garden world of Quaker John Bartram. Note His greatest pleasure there is viewing the banks which Bartram built to drain the swamps and transform them into meadows, all with the aid of freed slaves who choose to work for him.

By Letter XI--and the outbreak of human hostilities-- such "ideal" agrarianism seems to be beyond the reach of Farmer James. He must abandon his farm (and thus his Negroes?) and move to a more suitable climate, natural and human; with desperate humor, he rejects moving to the polar regions which would mirror his internal state. Instead he turns to the "inferior" state of nature, now superior to a world encumbered with "voluminous laws or contradictory codes," wilder yet "sufficiently remote from the brutality of unconnected savage nature." (211) He will remove his family to an Indian village.

Thus the untamed (and untaming, according to Letter III) wilderness and its children become a humane retreat from the threats of human civilization which now hound him. At this point, his mixed judgments of Indians, almost as conflicted as his views of nature, surface. Previously, in Letter III he characterized Indians as morose and ferocious yet mild and industrious (77). In letter IV, he noted that Indians meet disaster whenever they mix too closely with Europeans, becoming "exposed to a variety of accidents and misfortunes to which they always fall victims."(121) There is both lament and pride in his conclusion that "they appear to be a race doomed to recede and disappear before the superior genius of the Europeans." Yet in the next letter, he praises New England Indians who "by the decency of their manner, their industry, and neatness" are "wholly Europeans and no way inferior to many of the inhabitants....sober, laborious, and religious." (133) Ordinarily, though, he seems more trouble by the mixture of Indian and white, savage and civilized, than the Indian way of life, "inferior" though it may be.

His flight from the forces of chaos in frontier Pennsylvania, which oddly enough he does not initially define other than that the "dreaded enemy" comes from the mountains where they are harboured by wilderness (perhaps he cannot bear to face that they are most likely British, like his correspondent, and Indian?), is more than just leaving his farm. Psychologically he is on the brink of madness ("I feel as if my reason wanted to leave me") for his sense of security--of self at least as much as of his land--has been subverted. He identifies himself as "but a feller of trees, a cultivator of lands, the most honourable title an American can have" (212) but admits that "I lived on, laboured and prospered, without having ever studied on what the security of my life and the foundation of my prosperity were established; I perceived them just as they left me." (201) His power over the land, and his toiling Negroes, has been revealed to him as subject to larger, destructive powers of human nature and, to the observant reader, as subject to his own lack of self-knowledge. So he turns to nature which man has not tried to "conquer" to regain the self-security he had previously bound up with possession and tilling of "his" soil. Note

However, he considers going to the Indian village with trepidation, saying three times how he fears his children may be defiled and "mongrelized." Note He notes the "singular charm" of Indian life, such that "children who have been adopted when young among these people can never be prevailed on to readopt European manners" (213): "there must be in their social bond something singularly captivating and far superior to anything to be boasted of among us; for thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those aborigines having from choice become Europeans." (213) Note Nature and true community may not be at odds after all, or has he fallen under the spell of another utopian illusion? As he says, "Perhaps my imagination gilds too strongly this distant prospect..." (225) . Clearly we have a narrator here who is deeply confused. Note

His solution to his desperate dilemma shows that he has learned little: "As long as we keep ourselves busy in tilling the earth, there is no fear of any of us becoming wild." He will turn to wilderness for salvation, yet he is determined not to become "wild" and lose his sense of superiority over nature. He shall teach this children and the Indians how to till the soil and "Thus shall we metamorphose ourselves from neat, decent, opulent planters, surrounded with every conveniency which our,external labour and internal industry could give, into a still simpler people divested of everything beside hope, food, and the raiment of the woods." (emphasis mine, 221-2) The crowning irony comes at the end where he hopes for God's "paternal blessings" as he "shall contemplate Nature in her most wild and ample extent," as he learns "to conform to [the aborigines], whatever they are." (emphasis mine, 226) His final prayer is not to Mother Nature, but to God, "O Father of nature." (227) His negotiation with nature and especially with wilderness seems, at best, a tenuous and conflicted one.

Crèvecoeur's choices in a similar crisis were dramatically different. Though equally desperate and evidently psychologically devastated during his three month captivity in New York city by the British, he abandoned his threatened farm (destroyed by fire in an Indian raid after his departure), wife, and two younger children for a difficult escape with his eldest son to England in 1780, where he finished the book, then moved on to claim his rights of inheritance in the Crèvecoeur estate in France. Although he returned to America several times and was reunited with his children (his wife having died), he would never till its soil again. After reading the Letters, one understands why.

By showing the projected capitulation to a feared wilderness of this simple and often unsuspecting farmer, caught up in internal and distinctively American contradictions he cannot--or will not--comprehend, Crèvecoeur--or St. John--showed the deep and complex insecurities underlying the sense of self-identity for the American who, unprotected by a long established (and artificial) civilization, must contend with nature's--and his own--wilderness. If there is to be any viable negotiation with American nature and a firmer basis for American identity, it would seem to follow, Americans must confront these conflicts within themselves, going beyond the limits of Farmer James.