CHAPTER 3 Hector St John de Crevecoeur
CREVECUEUR was born in France, at Caen, in the year 1735. As a boy he was sent over to England and received part of his education there. He went to Canada as a young man, served for a time with Montcalm in the war against the English, and later passed over into the United States, to become an exuberant American. He married a New England girl, and settled on the frontier. During the period of his ‘cultivating the earth’ he wrote the Letters from an American Farmer, which enjoyed great vogue in their day, in England especially, among the new reformers like Godwin and Tom Paine.
But Crevecoeur was not a mere cultivator of the earth. That was his best stunt, shall we say. He himself was more concerned with a perfect society and his own manipulation thereof, than with growing carrots. Behold him, then, trotting off import- antly and idealistically to France, leaving his farm in the wilds to be burnt by the Indians, and his wife to shift as best she might. This was during the American War of Independence, when the Noble Red Man took to behaving like his own old self. On his return to America, the American Farmer entered into public affairs and into commerce. Again tripping to France, he enjoyed himself as a littrateur Child-of-Nature-sweet-and- pure, was a friend of old Benjamin Franklin in Paris, and quite a favourite with Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Madame d’Houdetot, that literary soul.
Hazlitt, Godwin, Shelley, Coleridge, the English romanticists, were, of course, thrilled by the Letters from an American Farmer. A new world, a world of the Noble Savage and Pristine Nature and Paradisal Simplicity and all that gorgeousness that flows out of the unsullied fount of the ink-bottle. Lucky Coleridge, who got no farther than Bristol. Some of us have gone all the way.
I think this wild and noble America is the thing that I have pined for most ever since I read Fenimore Cooper, as a boy. Now I’ve got it.
Franklin is the real prartical prototype of the American. Crevecoeur is the emotional. To the European, the American is first and foremost a dollar-fiend. We tend to forget the emotional heritage of Hector St John de Crevecoeur. We tend to disbelieve, for example, in Woodrow Wilson’s wrung heart and wet hanky. Yet surely these are real enough. Aren’t they?
It wasn’t to be expected that the dry little snuff-coloured Doctor should have it all his own way. The new Americans might use venery for health or offspring, and their time for cultivating potatoes and Chicagoes, but they had got some sap in their veins after all. They had got to get a bit of luscious emotion somewhere.
I wish I could write it larger than that.
Benjamin overlooked NATURE. But the French Crevecoeur spotted it long before Thoreau and Emerson worked it up. Absolutely the safest thing to get your emotional reactions over is NATURE.
Crevecoeur’s Letters are written in a spirit of touching simplicity, almost better than Chateaubriand. You’d think neither of them would ever know how many beans make five. This American Farmer tells of the joys of creating a home in the wilderness, and of cultivating the virgin soil. Poor virgin, prostituted from the very start.
The Farmer had an Amiable Spouse and an Infant Son, his progeny. He took the Infant Son – who enjoys no other name than this –
What is thy name ?
I have no name.
I am the Infant Son –
to the fields with him, and seated the same I. S. on the shafts of the plough whilst he, the American Farmer, ploughed the potato patch. He also, the A. F., helped his Neighbours, whom no doubt he loved as himself, to build a barn, and they laboured together in the Innocent Simplicity of one of Nature’s Communities. Meanwhile the Amiable Spouse, who likewise in Blakean simplicity has No Name, cooked the dough-nuts or the pie, though these are not mentioned. No doubt she was a deep-breasted daughter of America, though she may equally well have been a flat-bosomed Methodist. She would have been an Amiable Spouse in either case, and the American Farmer asked no more. I don’t know whether her name was Lizzie or Ahoolibah, and probably Crevecoeur didn’t. Spouse was enough for him. ‘Spouse, hand me the carving knife.’
The Infant Son developed into Healthy Offspring as more appeared: no doubt Crevecoeur had used venery as directed. And so these Children of Nature toiled in the Wilds at Simple Toil with a little Honest Sweat now and then. You have the complete picture, dear reader. The American Farmer made his own Family Picture, and it is still on view. Of course the Amiable Spouse put on her best apron to be Im Bild, for all the world to see and admire.
I used to admire my head off: before I tiptoed into the Wilds and saw the shacks of the Homesteaders. Particularly the Amiable Spouse, poor thing. No wonder she never sang the song of Simple Toil in the Innocent Wilds. Poor haggard drudge, like a ghost wailing in the wilderness, nine times out of ten.
Hector St John, you have lied to me. You lied even more scurrilously to yourself. Hector St John, you are an emotional liar.
Jean Jacques, Bernardin de St Pierre, Chateaubriand, exquisite Francois Le Vaillant, you lying little lot, with your Nature-Sweet-and-Pure! Marie Antoinette got her head off for playing dairy-maid, and nobody even dusted the seats of your pants, till now, for all the lies you put over us.
But Crevecoeur was an artist as well as a liar, otherwise we would not have bothered with him. He wanted to put NATURE in his pocket, as Benjamin put the Human Being. Between them, they wanted the whole scheme of things in their pockets, and the things themselves as well. Once you’ve got the scheme of things in your pocket, you can do as you like with it, even make money out of it, if you can’t find in your heart to destroy it, as was your first intention. So H. St J. de C. tried to put Nature-Sweet-and-Pure in his pocket. But nature wasn’t having any, she poked her head out and baa-ed.
This Nature-sweet-and-pure business is only another effort at intellectualizing. Just an attempt to make all nature succumb to a few laws of the human mind. The sweet-and-pure sort of laws. Nature seemed to be behaving quite nicely, for a while. She has left off.
That’s why you get the purest intellectuals in a Garden Suburb or a Brook Farm experiment. You bet, Robinson Crusoe was a high-brow of high-brows.
You can idealize or intellectualize. Or, on the contrary, you can let the dark soul in you see for itself. An artist usually intellectualizes on top, and his dark under-consciousness goes on contradicting him beneath. This is almost laughably the case with most American artists. Crevecoeur is the first example. He is something of an artist, Franklin isn’t anything.
Crevecoeur the idealist puts over us a lot of stuff about nature and the noble savage and the innocence of toil, etc., etc. Blarney! But Crevecoeur the artist gives us glimpses of actual nature, not writ large.
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.
‘I am astonished to see,’ he writes quite early in the Letters, ‘that nothing exists but what has its enemy, one species pursue and live upon the other: unfortunately our king-birds are the destroyers of those industrious insects [the bees]; but on the other hand, these birds preserve our fields from the depredation of crows, which they pursue on the wing with great vigilance and astonishing dexterity.’
This is a sad blow to the sweet-and-pureness of Nature. But it is the voice of the artist in contrast to the voice of the ideal turtle. It is the rudimentary American vision. The glimpsing of the king-birds in winged hostility and pride is no doubt the aboriginal Indian vision carrying over. The Eagle symbol in human consciousness. Dark, swinging wings of hawk- beaked destiny, that one cannot help but feel, beating here above the wild centre of America. You look round in vain for the ‘One being Who made all things, and governs the world by His Providence’.
‘One species pursue and live upon another.’
Reconcile the two statements if you like. But, in America, act on Crevecoeur’s observation.
The horse, however, says Hector, is the friend of man, and man is the friend of the horse. But then we leave the horse no choice. And I don’t see much friend, exactly, in my sly old Indian pony, though he is quite a decent old bird.
Man, too, says Hector, is the friend of man. Whereupon the Indians burnt his farm; so he refrains from mentioning it in the Letters, for fear of invalidating his premises.
Some great hornets have fixed their nest on the ceiling of the living-room of the American Farmer, and these tiger- striped animals fly round the heads of the Healthy Offspring and the Amiable Spouse, to the gratification of the American Farmer. He liked their buzz and their tiger waspishness. Also, on the utilitarian plane, they kept the house free of flies. So Hector says. Therefore Benjamin would have approved. But of the feelings of the Amiable S., on this matter, we are not told, and after all, it was she who had to make the jam.
Another anecdote. Swallows built their nest on the veranda of the American Farm. Wrens took a fancy to the nest of the swallows. They pugnaciously (I like the word pugnaciously, it is so American) attacked the harbingers of spring, and drove them away from their nice adobe nest. The swallows returned upon opportunity. But the wrens, coming home, violently drove them forth again. Which continued until the gentle swallows patiently set about to build another nest, while the wrens sat in triumph in the usurped home. The American Farmer watched this contest with delight, and no doubt loudly applauded those little rascals of wrens. For in the Land of the Free, the greatest delight of every man is in getting the better of the other man.
Crevecoeur says he shot a king-bird that had been devouring his bees. He opened the craw and took out a vast number of bees, which little democrats, after they had lain a minute or two stunned, in the sun roused, revived, preened their wings and walked off debonair, like Jonah up the seashore; or like true Yanks escaped from the craw of the king-bird of Europe.
I don’t care whether it’s true or not. I like the picture, and see in it a parable of the American resurrection.
Its bill is as long and as sharp as a coarse sewing-needle; like the bee, nature has taught it to kind out in the calyx of flowers and blossoms those mellifluous particles that can serve it for sufficient food; and yet it seems to leave them untouched, undeprived of anything that our eyes can possibly distinguish. Where it feeds it appears as if immovable, though continually on the wing: and sometimes, from what motives I know not, it will tear and lacerate flowers into a hundred pieces; for, strange to tell, they are the most irascible of the feathered tribe. Where do passions find room in so diminutive a body ? They often fight with the fury of lions, until one of the combatants falls a sacrifice and dies. When fatigued, it has often perched within a few feet of me, and on such favourable opportunities I have surveyed it with the most minute attention. Its little eyes appear like diamonds, reflecting light on every side; most elegantly hnished in all parts, it is a miniature work of our great parent, who seems to have formed it smallest, and at the same time the most beautiful, of the winged species.
A regular little Tartar, too. Lions no bigger than inkspots ! I have read about humming-birds elsewhere, in Bates and W. H. Hudson, for example. But it is left to the American Farmer to show me the real little raging lion. Birds are evidently no angels in America, or to the true American. He sees how they start and flash their wings like little devils, and stab each other with egoistic sharp bills. But he sees also the reserved, tender shyness of the wild creature, upon occasion. Quails in winter, for instance.
Often, in the angles of the fences, where the motion of the wind prevents the snow from settling, I carry them both chaff and grain the one to feed them the other to prevent their tender feet from freezing fast to the earth, as I have frequently observed them to do.
This is beautiful, and blood-knowledge. Crevecoeur knows the touch of birds’ feet, as if they had stood with their vibrating, sharp, cold-cleaving balance, naked footed on his naked hand. It is a beautiful, barbaric tenderness of the blood. He doesn’t after all turn them into ‘little sisters of the air’, like St Francis, or start preaching to them. He knows them as strange, shy, hot-blooded concentrations of bird-presence.
The Letter about snakes and humming-birds is a fine essay, in its primal, dark veracity. The description of the fight between two snakes, a great water-snake and a large black serpent, follows the description of the humming-bird:
Strange was this to behold; two great snakes strongly adhering to the ground, mutually fastened together by means of the writhings which lashed them to each other, and stretched at their full length they pulled, but pulled in vain, and in the moments of greatest exertions that part of their bodies which was entwined seemed extremely small, while the rest appeared inflated, and now and then convulsed with strong undulations, rapidly following each other. Their eyes seemed on fire, and ready to start out of their heads; at one time the conflict seemed decided; the water-snake bent itself into two great folds, and by that operation rendered the other more than commonly outstretched. The next minute the new struggles of the black one gained an unexpected superiority, it acquired two great folds likewise, which necessarily extended the body of its adversary in proportion as it had contracted its own.
This fight, which Crevecoeur describes to a finish, he calls a sight ‘uncommon and beautiful’. He forgets the sweet-and- pureness of Nature, and is for the time a sheer ophiolater, and his chapter is as handsome a piece of ophiolatry, perhaps, as that coiled Aztec rattlesnake carved in stone.
And yet the real Crevecoeur is, in the issue, neither farmer, nor child of Nature, nor ophiolater. He goes back to France, and figures in the literary salons, and is a friend of Rousseau’s Madame d’Houdetot. Also he is a good business man, and arranges a line of shipping between France and America. It all ends in materialism, really. But the Letters tell us nothing about this.
We are left to imagine him retiring in grief to dwell with his Red Brothers under the wigwams. For the War of Independence has broken out, and the Indians are armed by the adversaries; they do dreadful work on the frontiers. While Crevecoeur is away in France his farm is destroyed, his family rendered homeless. So that the last letter laments bitterly over the war, and man’s folly and inhumanity to man.
But Crevecoeur ends his lament on a note of resolution. With his amiable spouse, and his healthy offspring, now rising in stature, he will leave the civilized coasts, where man is sophisticated, and therefore inclined to be vile, and he will go to live with the Children of Nature, the Red Men, under the wigwam. No doubt, in actual life, Crevecoeur made some distinction between the Indians who drank rum a la Franklin, and who burnt homesteads and massacred families, and those Indians, the noble Children of Nature, who peopled his own predetermined fancy. Whatever he did in actual life, in his innermost self he would not give up this self-made world, where the natural man was an object of undefiled brotherliness. Touchingly and vividly he describes his tented home near the Indian village, how he breaks the aboriginal earth to produce a little maize, while his wife weaves within the wigwam. And his imaginary efforts to save his tender offspring from the brutishness of unchristian darkness are touching and puzzling, for how can Nature, so sweet and pure under the greenwood tree, how can it have any contaminating effect ?
But it is all a swindle. Crevecoeur was off to France in high- heeled shoes and embroidered waistcoat, to pose as a literary man, and to prosper in the world. We, however, must perforce follow him into the backwoods, where the simple natural life shall be perfected, near the tented village of the Red Man.
He wanted, of course, to imagine the dark, savage way of life, to get it all off pat in his head. He wanted to know as the Indians and savages know, darkly, and in terms of otherness. He was simply crazy, as the Americans say, for this. Crazy enough! For at the same time he was absolutely detetmined that Nature is sweet and pure, that all men are brothers, and equal, and that they love one another like so many cooing doves. He was determined to have life according to his own prescription. Therefore, he wisely kept away from any too close contact with Nature, and took refuge in commerce and the material world. But yet, he was determined to know the savage way of life, to his own mind’s satisfaction. So he just faked us the last Letters. A sort of wish-fulfilment.
For the animals and savages are isolate, each one in its own pristine self. The animal lifts its head, sniffs, and knows within the dark, passionate belly. It knows at once, in dark mindless- ness. And at once it flees in immediate recoil or it crouches predatory, in the mysterious storm of exultant anticipation of seizing a victim; or it lowers its head in blank indifference again; or it advances in the insatiable wild curiosity, insatiable passion to approach that which is unspeakably strange and incalculable; or it draws near in the slow trust of wild, sensual love.
Crevecoeur wanted this kind of knowledge. But comfortably, in his head, along with his other ideas and ideals. He didn’t go too near the wigwam. Because he must have suspected that the moment he saw as the savages saw, all his fraternity and equality would go up in smoke, and his ideal world of pure sweet goodness along with it. And still worse than this, he would have to give up his own will, which insists that the world is so, because it would be nicest if it were so. Therefore he trotted back to France in high-heeled shoes, and imagined America in Paris.
He wanted his ideal state. At the same time he wanted to know the other state, the dark, savage mind. He wanted both.
Can’t be done, Hector. The one is the death of the other.
Best turn to commerce, where you may get things your own way.
He hates the dark, pre-mental life, really. He hates the true sensual mystery. But he wants to ‘know’. To KNOW. Oh, insatiable American curiosity!
He’s a liar.
But if he won’t risk knowing in flesh and blood, he’ll risk all the imagination you like.
It is amusing to see him staying away and calculating the dangers of the step which he takes so luxuriously, in his fancy, alone. He tickles his palate with a taste of true wildness, as men are so fond nowadays of tickling their palates with a taste of imaginary wickedness – just self-provoked.
‘I must tell you,’ he says, ‘that there is something in the proximity of the woods which is very singular. It is with men as it is with the plants and animals that grow and live in the forests; they are entirely different from those that live in the plains. I will candidly tell you all my thoughts, but you are not to expect that I shall advance any reasons. By living in or near the woods, their actions are regulated by the wildness of the neighbourhood. The deer often come to eat their grain, the wolves to destroy their sheep, the bears to kill their hogs, the foxes to catch their poultry. This surrounding hostility immediately puts the gun into their hands; they watch these animals, they kill some; and thus by defending their property they soon become professed hunters; this is the progress; once hunters, farewell to the plough. The chase renders them ferocious, gloomy, and unsociable; a hunter wants no neigh- bour, he rather hates them, because he dreads the competition. … Eating of wild meat, whatever you may think, tends to alter their temper….’
Crevecoeur, of course, had never intended to return as a hunter to the bosom of Nature, only as a husbandman. The hunter is a killer. The husbandman, on the other hand, brings about the birth and increase. But even the husbandman strains in dark mastery over the unwilling earth and beast; he struggles to win forth substance, he must master the soil and the strong cattle, he must have the heavy blood-knowledge, and the slow, but deep, mastery. There is no equality or selfless humility. The toiling blood swamps the idea, inevitably. For this reason the most idealist nations invent most machines. America simply teems with mechanical inventions, because nobody in America ever wants to do anything. They are idealists. Let a machine do the doing.
Again, Crevecoeur dwells on the ‘apprehension lest my younger children should be caught by that singular charm, so dangerous at their tender years’ – meaning the charm of savage life. So he goes on: ‘By what power does it come to pass that children who have been adopted when young among these people [the Indians] can never be prevailed upon to readopt European manners ? Many an anxious parent I have seen last war who, at the return of the peace, went to the Indian villages where they knew their children had been carried in captivity, when to their inexpressible sorrow they found them so perfectly Indianized that many knew them no longer, and those whose more advanced ages permitted them to recollect their fathers and mothers, absolutely refused to follow them, and ran to their adopted parents to protect them against the effusions of love their unhappy real parents lavished on them! Incredible as this may appear, I have heard it asserted in a thousand instances, among persons of credit.’
There must be in their (the Indians’) 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 be- come Europeans …
Our cat and another, Hector.
I like the picture of thousands of obdurate offspring, with faces averted from their natural white father and mother, turning resolutely to the Indians of their adoption.
I have seen some Indians whom you really couldn’t tell from white men. And I have never seen a white man who looked really like an Indian. So Hector is again a liar.
But Crevecoeur wanted to be an intellectual savage, like a great many more we have met. Sweet children of Nature. Savage and bloodthirsty children of Nature.
White Americans do try hard to intellectualize themselves. Especially white women Americans. And the latest stunt is this ‘savage’ stunt again.
White savages, with motor-cars, telephones, incomes and ideals! Savages fast inside the machine; yet savage enough, ye gods!Share It