What is an American?

This week in class, our main reading will be a section from J. Hector St. John De Crevecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer (1784).  If you haven’t read Crevecoeur before, you may want to check up on his Wikipedia page.

The section we’re reading is entitled, “What is an American?”  This is part of a longer meditation on the foundations of American identity in a new world of agrarian order.  There’s a subtly sardonic tone in Crevecoeur’s writing.  Remember that this is a complex rhetorical performance that at once tries to sell Europeans on the idea of agrarian freedom in a virgin land.  Yet it’s also an inherently dishonest portrait of a “new” life of freedom.

As you read Crevecoeur, think about some of the following questions:  What is the picture of life that the writer describes?  How does Crevecoeur’s narrator depict life in America?

What does it mean to be an American, and how is it wrapped up in attitudes toward nature and people who live on the land?

What connections can we make between this brief chapter and eventual attitudes that have caused national parks become staples of “American Identity”?

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