Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur (1735-1813), a French-American farmer and writer, was one of the most perceptive observers of American life in the late 18th century.
Michel Guillaume Jean de Crèvecoeur was born in Caen, France, on Jan. 31, 1735. (Later he would sign his first book J. Hector St. John.) After a Jesuit education and a visit in England, where he learned English, he served as a map maker with Louis Montcalm's army in Canada from about 1755 to 1759. He left the army but stayed in the New World, where after a good deal of traveling, working as a surveyor, and note-taking, he became a farmer, first in Ulster County, then in Orange County, N.Y.
In 1769 Crèvecoeur married Mehitable Tippet, by whom he had three children, the eldest being named America-Francés. For a time his life was idyllic, but the American Revolution interrupted it. Unwilling to commit himself to either side at the time, he tried to visit France, which led to his imprisonment by the British for 3 months. Finally, in 1780 he returned to his old home in France via Dublin and London. While in London he arranged for publication of his most famous work, Letters from an American Farmer (1782). The book provides a comprehensive picture of American life, from Nantucket to Charleston: manners, customs, education, plant and animal life. Crèvecoeur posed as a provincial who sought to answer typical European questions about America. The most memorable portion is Letter Three, "What is an American?"
The book made Crèvecoeur famous. It was published in Philadelphia, as well as in Ireland, Holland, and Germany. He prepared a second edition, in French, much enlarged and more literary: Letters d'un cultivateur américain (1784). The original English versions of some of these letters were not published until 1925 (Sketches of Eighteenth Century America). In 1783, returning to America as French consul to New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey, he found that his wife had died and two children were missing. He located the children in Boston, then established a home in New York City. He developed packet-boat service between France and New York.
In time ill health largely incapacitated Crèvecoeur. In June 1785 he returned to France, seeking to improve commercial relations between France and America. He prepared a three-volume version of the French Lettres, published in 1789, the year of his return to America and to his position as consul. He was honored by election to the American Philosophical Society. Under the pen name of Agricola, his letters on potato culture, sheep feeding, sunflower oil, and other topics were published in various American journals.
In 1790 Crèvecoeur left America for the last time. For a while he lived quietly in his father's home in Normandy, for his health was poor and the French Revolution was in progress. He kept in touch with America through a son farming in New Jersey, and he wrote his longest work. It appeared in 1801 as Le Voyage dans la Haute Pennsylvania et dans l'état de New-York (available in English as Eighteenth-Century Travels in Pennsylvania and New York, 1961). It has never been as popular as the Letters, Crèvecoeur spent 3 of his last years in Munich, where his son-in-law was minister plenipotentiary. He died in France in 1813.
Two valuable studies of Crèvecoeur in English are Julia Post Mitchell, St. Jean de Crèvecoeur (1916), and Thomas Philbrick, St. John de Crèvecoeur (1970).