Michel Guillaume Jean De Crevecoeur
Biography of Michel Guillaume Jean De Crevecoeur
Michel Guillaume Jean de Crèvecœur (December 31, 1735 – November 12, 1813), naturalized in New York as John Hector St. John, was a French-American writer. He was born in Caen, Normandy, France, to the Comte and Comtesse de Crèvecœur (Count and Countess of Crèvecœur).
In 1755, he immigrated to New France in North America. There, he served in the French and Indian War as a surveyor in the French Colonial Militia, rising to the rank of lieutenant. Following the British defeat of the French Army in 1759, he moved to New York State, then the Province of New York, where he took out citizenship, adopted the English-American name of John Hector St. John, and in 1770 married an American woman, Mehitable Tippet. He bought a sizable farm in Orange County, New York, where he prospered as a farmer. He started writing about life in the American colonies and the emergence of an American society.
In 1779, during the American Revolution, St. John tried to leave the country to return to France because of the faltering health of his father. Accompanied by his son, he crossed British-American lines to enter British-occupied New York City, where he was imprisoned as an American spy for three months without a hearing. Eventually, he was able to leave for Britain.
In 1782, in London, he published a volume of narrative essays entitled the Letters from an American Farmer. The book quickly became the first literary success by an American author in Europe and turned Crèvecœur into a celebrated figure. He was the first writer to describe to Europeans - employing many American English terms - the life on the American frontier and to explore the concept of the American Dream, portraying American society as characterized by the principles of equal opportunity and self-determination. His work provided useful information and understanding of the "New World" that helped to create an American identity in the minds of Europeans by describing an entire country rather than another regional colony. The writing celebrated American ingenuity and the uncomplicated lifestyle. It described the acceptance of religious diversity in a society being created from a variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. His application of the Latin maxim "Ubi panis ibi patria" (Where there is bread, there is my country) to early American settlers also shows an interesting insight. He once praised the middle colonies for "fair cities, substantial villages, extensive fields...decent houses, good roads, orchards, meadows, and bridges, where an hundred years ago all was wild, woody, and uncultivated."
From Britain, he sailed to France, where he was briefly reunited with his father. When the United States had been recognized by Britain following the Treaty of Paris in 1783, Crèvecœur returned to New York City. Anxious to be reunited with his family, he learned that his wife had died, his farm had been destroyed, and his children had been taken in by neighbors. Eventually, he was able to regain custody of his children. For most of the 1780s, Crèvecœur lived in New York City. The success of his book in France had led to his being taken up by an influential circle, and he was appointed the French consul for New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
In 1784, he published a two-volume version of his Letters from an American Farmer, enlarged and completely rewritten in French. A three-volume version followed in 1787. Both his English and his French books were translated into several other European languages and widely disseminated throughout Europe. For many years, Crèvecœur was identified by European readers with his fictional narrator, James, the 'American farmer', and held in high esteem by readers and fellow-writers across Europe.
By the time he published another three-volume work in 1801, entitled Voyage dans la Haute-Pensylvanie et dans l'état de New-York, however, his fame had faded and the damages of the French Revolution and its aftermath had made people less interested in the United States. His book was ignored. An abbreviated German translation appeared the following year. An English translation was not published until 1964. Much of de Crevecoeur's best work has been published posthumously, most recently as More Letters from the American Farmer: An edition of the Essays in English Left Unpublished by Crèvecœur, edited by Dennis D. Moore (Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1995).
Particularly concerned about the condition of slaves, he joined the Société des Amis des Noirs (Society of the Friends of the Blacks), founded in Paris.
In 1789, during a stay in France, he was trapped by the political upheaval that was quickly turning into the French Revolution. At risk as an aristocrat, he went into hiding, while secretly trying to gain passage to the United States. The necessary papers were finally denied to him by the new American ambassador to France, James Monroe. At the end of his life Crèvecœur returned to France and settled permanently on land he inherited from his father. On November 12, 1813, he died in Sarcelles, Val d'Oise, France.
He is the namesake of St. Johnsbury, Vermont, as suggested by Ethan Allen.