French Travelers in Early America

Journey into Northern Pennsylvania and the State of New York

by Michel-Guillaume St. Jean de Crèvecoeur
University of Michigian, 619 pp., $15

Travels in North America in the Years 1780, 1781 and 1782 Notes by History and Culture

by Marquis de Chastellux, A Revised Translation with Introduction and Howard C. Rice Jr.
University of North Carolina Press for the Institute of Early American, 2vols. 688 pp., $15

Hector St. John, you have lied to me,” D. H. Lawrence wrote in his Studies in Classical Americal Literature. “You lied even more scurrilously to yourself. Hector St. John, you are an emotional liar.” But then Lawrence went ahead to write the best positive evaluation of Crèvecoeur’s very considerable talents as an author that we have in English. With unerring rightness he isolated his ultimate virtue in three brief sentences: “Curious that his vision sees only the lowest forms of natural life. Insects, snakes and birds he glimpses in their own mystery, their own pristine being. And straightway gives the lie to Innocent Nature.”

It is of course Crèvecoeur’s occasional inclination to syphon evil out of nature that outraged Lawrence. He will not tolerate that kind of Rousseauistic idealism: but since he was writing about Crèvecoeur’s masterpiece. Letters from an American Farmer, first published in London in 1782, Lawrence tends to sound overly severe. Crèvecoeur’s vision was pastoral, and sometimes sentimentalized, even in his best work, but he also saw things with an exactitude, and recorded them with a truthfulness, that makes Lawrence’s assertion that Crèvecoeur was an emotional liar sound a little hollow.

In his philosophical dealing with evil Crèvecoeur is no more satisfactory than any other writer touched by eighteenth-century optimism, but that need not disturb us. Few writers have ever been able to present us with the fact of evil more concretely and vividly than this French American. Although the following passage from the Letters is very well known, it is worth quoting again because it gives us the quality of Crèvecoeur at his absolute best. He is describing a walk he took through the Carolina woods one afternoon on his way to the house of a friend:

I was leisurely travelling along, attentively examining some peculiar plants which I had collected, when all at once I felt the air strongly agitated, though the day was perfectly calm and sultry. I immediately cast my eyes towards the cleared ground…in order to see whether it was not occasioned by a sudden shower; when at that instant a sound resembling a deep rough voice, uttered, as I thought, a few inarticulate monosyllables. Alarmed and surprised, I precipitately looked all round, when I perceived at about six rods distance something resembling a cage, suspended to the limbs of a tree; all the branches of which appeared covered with large birds of prey, fluttering about, and anxiously endeavouring to perch on the cage. Actuated by an involuntary motion of my hands, more than by any design of my mind, I fired at them; they all flew to a short distance, with a most hideous noise: when, horrid to think and painful to repeat, I perceived a negro, suspended in the cage, and left there to expire! I shudder when I recollect that the birds had already picked out his eyes, his cheek bones were bare; his arms had been attacked in several places, and his …

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