WHEN I became a university student I said goodbye forever to farm life. The occupation of drudgery had contributed little to health or prosperity. By the time I was a third-year student I had pretty well buried the past hard life. Then through a course in early American literature I came upon a writer with a strange name, Michel Guillaume St. Jean de Cr`evecoeur. Selections from his ``Letters from an American Farmer,'' published in 1782, were assigned as required reading. At once I looked upon the essays with distaste for no other reason than that they reflected a way of life I had definitely foregone.
My regard for the assignment changed as rapidly as I had made up my mind to dislike it when I read a sketch of the author's life, an astonishing one with dramatic variations.
Born of a noble family in 1735 near Caen, France, Cr`evecoeur received an education in a Jesuit school and in England. He migrated to Canada before he was 20 and served under Montcalm in the French and Indian war. After mapmaking in the region of the lower Great Lakes, he traveled through the English colonies and in 1764 applied for naturalization in New York.
Settling on an Orange County farm, Cr`evecoeur married and lived as a gentleman farmer for 15 years. Having sworn allegiance to Britain and suspected as an American spy, he was imprisoned in July 1779, but released under surveillance in October.
In 1780, he returned to France where he was celebrated after the London publication of ``Letters from an American Farmer.'' The work was popular in English, French, and German. During his stay in Paris he became the prot'eg'e of Madame d'Houdetot, who was loved by Rousseau. She was influential in sending him back to New York as consul-general.
On returning to America, he found his home burned and his wife dead; his children were safe with a Boston family. From 1784 until 1790 he did everything in his power to foster good relations between his native land and America. Between 1785 and 1794 he made two trips to France. Later he lived in Germany and England. While France was under the reign of terror, Cr`evecoeur lived as a poor man in obscurity, failing in attempts to go to America. He died in 1813, having spent the last days in his ancestral home.
Friend to Franklin and Jefferson, Cr`evecoeur held beliefs similar to theirs. He believed that agriculture was the basis of wealth and should be free of governmental restrictions and unburdened by heavy taxation. He was in tune with the revolutionary 18th-century ideals prevalent in America and France. A humanitarian, he hoped for correction of many abuses, particularly poverty of the masses.
One reason for Cr`evecoeur's rank as a major figure of 18th-century literature is ``Sketches of Eighteenth Century America.'' In 1925, scholars discovered this 1780 work among number of suppressed and unpublished letters. Here he notes man's inhumanity to man, seen in slavery, civil disturbance, and war.
The significance of ``Sketches'' notwithstanding, ``Letters from an American Farmer'' is now regarded as a work of ``literary grace.'' Cr`evecoeur followed the fashion of the day by using a series of letters; yet it contains other literary forms: prose essay, short story, and dramatic monologue.
The first three letters of the 12 emphasize a new and superior society in America. Letter III, the section always found in anthologies today, answers the question ``What is an American?'' In America, he writes, ``The rich and the poor are not so far removed from each other as they are in Europe.'' Cr`evecoeur is certainly one of the first to use the familiar metaphor of America as the melting pot of the nations:
``Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world. Americans are the Western pilgrims, who are carrying along with them the great mass of art, science, vigor, and industry, which began long since in the east.''
Cr`evecoeur presents a favorable picture of American life, ``fair cities'' in ``an immense country filled with decent houses.'' America is ``one diffusive scene of happiness.'' It is not only the seat of the good life but also a land of simplicity and innocence which nourish the free man working in the soil, an idealization similar to Rousseau's. The farmer, a representative American, could serve as a pattern for all men. Tilling the soil and wisdom are closely related: `` ... the salubrious effluvia of the earth animates our spirits, and serves to inspire us.''
Cr`evecoeur shows that nature is not always beneficent. In Letter X cruel aspects are seen in snakes fighting to the death, hummingbirds growing irascible, and storms and insects striking the happy farmer.
When I returned to Cr`evecoeur many years after my university days, I was surprised to find that about a third of the ``Letters,'' IV through VIII, are devoted to Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard. Letter IX deals with the South, Charleston, S.C., and the ``physical evils'' of slavery.
In my subsequent reading of Cre`evecoeur I was charmed by the scenery's natural beauty and the simple pastoral life. Ironically I became an interested observer of farm life. Memories of farming experience I once sought to forget underwent a change. One scene in Letter II, ``On the Situation, Feelings, and Pleasures of an American Farmer,'' was an invocation to remembrance. The farmer places his child on an attached seat of a plow, and ``the odoriferous furrow exhilarates his spirits.''
As a five-year-old I often rode on my father's plow, sitting on a bar connecting the handles. I inhaled the stimulating breath from the moist, freshly turned earth. Crying field larks, blown about by the prairie wind, searched for grubs and insects in the furrows behind us. There was one great difference between Cr`evecoeur's farmer and my father - he hoped that I would never follow in his footsteps, that my education would come from books and not from the soil.
Early critics claimed that the ``Letters'' were an attempt to encourage emigration from the British Isles. Although George Washington thought the work ``afforded a great deal of profitable and amusing information,'' he believed it ``embellished with rather too flattering circumstances'' the American scene.
Opinions of Cr`evecoeur have ranged from sentimentalist to a philosophical and cultivated man, but sustained interest has assured him a permanent place in the history of American literature.