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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 body seemed covered with a multitude of wounds. From the edges of the hollow sockets and from the lacerations with which he was disfigured, the blood slowly dropped, and tinged the ground beneath. No sooner were the birds flown than swarms of insects covered the whole body of the unfortunate wretch, eager to feed on his mangled flesh and to drink his blood…The living spectre, though deprived of his eyes, could still distinctly hear, and in his uncouth dialect begged me to give him some water to allay his thirst…A shell ready fixed to a pole, which had been used by some negroes, presented itself to me; filled it with water, and with trembling hands I guided it to the quivering lips of the wretched sufferer. Urged by the irresistible power of thirst, he endeavoured to meet it, as he instinctively guessed its approach by the noise it made in passing through the bars of the cage. “Tankè, you whitè man, tankè you, putè some poison in and givè me.” “How long have you been hanging there?” I asked him. “Two days, and me no die.”

There is no emotional lying here. If, in the full context of the passage, Crèvecoeur attempts to absorb some of the shock by intimations of a benevolent universe, the fact remains that he has rendered evil for us in an unforgettable picture that cannot be qualified by any of the polite social lies that are bound to intrude occasionally in the writing of any eighteenth-century gentleman.

Crèvecoeur knew the American of his time thoroughly. He had traveled as far west as Detroit, and had explored southward in the vicinity of the Ohio. He had been for years a farmer in New York, a resident in Pennsylvania, and he knew both New England and the South. The confidence that springs from long firsthand familiarity with the landscapes, the vegetation, and the fauna he describes makes his letters into masterpieces of minute observation; but over and above this his language often suggests an imaginative intimacy with his subjects that can be ascribed only to a peculiar genius. Even on so unlikely a subject as a pet rattlesnake he can be ingratiating:

I once saw a tamed one, as gentle as you can possibly conceive a reptile to be; it took to the water and swam whenever it pleased: and when the boys to whom it belonged called it back, their summons was readily obeyed. It had been deprived of its fangs by the preceding method: they often stroked it with a soft brush, and this friction seemed to cause the most pleasing sensations, for it would turn on its back to enjoy it, as a cat does before the fire.

Crèvecoeur shares with Marianne Moore a passionate appreciation of the smaller, meticulous forms of life. His essay, “Ant-Hill Town,” from Sketches of Eighteenth Century America, first published in 1925, is a masterpiece of its kind: and he confers on the gorgeous hummingbird with its minuscule ferocities a magnificence and a grandeur of which the eagle might not be ashamed. This is the kind of writing in which he fulfilled his genius, but he was capable of it only for so long as he remained in America.

Somewhat surprisingly for a Frenchman, Crèvecoeur sided with the Loyalists during the Revolution, and in 1780 he sailed for England, later returning to France. This was the end of him as a writer in whom it is possible to be seriously interested. At home again, he became a close friend of Rousseau’s former mistress, Madame D’Houdetot, and that Rousseauistic idealism that D. H. Lawrence had recognized even in the Letters now begins to predominate. If one thinks Lawrence was wrong in calling the Crèvecoeur of the early Letters an emotional liar, there is no doubt that Voyage dans la Haute Pensylvanie et dans l’Etat de New York, published in three volumes in 1801, justifies the charge. These volumes now completely translated into English for the first time by Clarissa Spencer Bostelmann, present a picture of the American wilderness that is almost as romanticized as Chateaubriand’s. Exactness of observation has vanished in the pursuit of picturesque effects broadly sketched in; accurate description has given way to blurred rhetoric; empathic intimacy with his subjects has been replaced by false feeling and shameless moralizing, and sentimental clichés sprinkle the pages. Crèvecoeur, who had been perhaps the freshest and most original writer America had produced up to 1780, by 1801 had become thoroughly conventionalized in a bad tradition.

It is not difficult to understand why this happened. He was writing from notes made many years before. The experiences he was recording had lost all immediacy—so much so that he resorts to the hackneyed literary device of claiming the Journey had been transcribed from a manuscript discovered in a chest cast up from a shipwreck. And there was the influence of Madame d’Houdetot and her circle, encouraging him to be literary in the worst way. A great part of the work is cast in the form of interminable speeches purporting to be the conversation of frontiersmen, but there is very little of the virgin forests in their idiom. Even the Redskins could have held their own in Madame d’Houdetot’s salon:

Perhaps,” replied the Indian, “man was born vindictive and ferocious, or perhaps he became like that through necessity and habit. But how can one analyze a creature as self-contradictory, who now raises himself to the sublimity of the highest virtues, and now descends to the lowest degree of vice—to the most atrocious crime; a being, a creature whose nature takes pleasure in being an Attila or a Marcus Aurelius, an imbecile or a Newton?”

About the time the American Farmer was returning to France, another Frenchman, the Marquis de Chastellux, arrived in America as third in command of the French Expeditionary Force that had been sent to assist the Revolution. He was the author of an historical-philosophical treatise, De la Felicité, inordinately admired by Voltaire. As the Marquis had recently been elected one of the immortals of the French Academy it was doubtless inevitable that he should have recorded his impressions in an account privately printed for the edification of his friends. The first complete authorized edition of Voyages appeared in 1786; the first translation into English, on which the present text is based, was published in London the following year.

Chastellux was an amiable aristocrat whose interest in the woods was distinctly limited. Although he tries to do his duty towards natural history by incorporating some notes borrowed from a friend on the sex life of the opossum, his heart isn’t really in it. Nevertheless, his manner has its own French charm, and he can make his meeting with a mockingbird in Virginia (vol. 2, pp. 379-80) sound like a flirtation in a drawing room.

But Travels in North America is chiefly interesting for the picture it affords of American colonial society. Chastellux’s social position and military command naturally brought him into touch with the wealthiest and most cultivated circles America could offer, but nevertheless the impression of affluence and gentility that one derives from these pages comes as something of a surprise. Chastellux is partial to describing genteel dinner parties, and his book is virtually aglow with the lustre of polished mahogany, old silver, and subdued conversation rising politely between the toasts. Moreover, he gives amazingly complete information on the quality of inn accommodations up and down the eastern seaboard. The eighteenth-century taverns at their best appear to have been decidedly superior to the motels that have replaced them.

Although Chastellux was fighting for the rebels, it must be remembered that the America he knew was shortly to become Federalist America, strong in its aristocratic, anti-democratic prejudices. To read Travels in North America is to meet the forebears of the men and women Henry James and Edith Wharton were to write about some generations later. For example, there is Mrs. Plater:

…should any stern philosopher be disposed to censor French manners, I would not advise him to do so in the presence of Mrs. Plater…She is typical of Philadelphia’s charming women; her taste is as delicate as her health: an enthusiast to excess for all French fashions, she is only waiting for the end of this little revolution, to effect a still greater one in the manners of her country.

Then there are Mr. and Mrs. Powel, also of Philadelphia:

Mr. Powel…has traveled in Europe and has brought back from there a taste for the fine arts; his house is adorned with valuable prints and good copies of several Italian paintings. Mrs. Powel has not traveled, but she has read a good deal, and profitably: it would be unjust perhaps to say, that she differs in this respect from most other American ladies; but what chiefly distinguishes her is her taste for conversation and the truly European manner in which she uses her wit and knowledge.

Americans of this and related breeds populate Chastellux’s book by the dozen, not the least conspicuous among them being General Washington himself. We are shown a society still deeply English in its attachments and manners, but with modifications that mark it as essentially American. “If music and the fine arts prosper in Philadelphia,” the Marquis writes, “if society there becomes easy and gay, and they learn to accept pleasure when it presents itself, without a formal invitation, then they will be able to enjoy all the advantages peculiar to their manners and government, without having to envy Europe for anything.” But to accept pleasure when it presents itself was the terrifying task that Lambert Strether and most of James’s other Americans were still laboring at when the twentieth century opened. And for Chastellux the freedom permitted unmarried American girls that was to become so rich a vein for native fiction was already an object of particular attention. The following anecdote reminiscent of those little stories Henry James so frequently heard while dining out which became the seed from which so many of his stories grew, indicates the reversal that had already occurred between the American and European codes concerning the freedom granted to maidens and married women respectively:

Mrs. Carter, a young and pretty woman, whose husband is concerned in furnishing our army with provision, and lives at present at Newport, once told me that, going “down one morning into her husband’s office, not much dressed up, but in a rather elegant informal French dress, a farmer from Massachusetts, who was there on business, seemed surprised at seeing her, and asked who this young lady might be. He was told that it was Mrs. Carter. “Well!” he replied, loud enough for her to hear him, “if she’s a wife and a mother, she shouldn’t be so well dressed.”

Travels in North America has been beautifully produced, and Mr. Howard C. Rice, Jr., has written an excellent Introduction. The Marquis de Chastellux has given us not only one of the most readable books on Revolutionary America, but from the viewpoint of the literary student, one of the most illum-

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