279 America: Utopia or Dystopia?
In the beginning of Letters from an American Farmer, Farmer James claims that America is “the most perfect society now existing in the world. Here, man is as free as he ought to be…” (606). He cites the absence of kings and the feudal system to account for this “perfectness”. Without kings, citizens can own land and keep most of their produce that they farm. Everyone is happy, because everyone can be fed, there are no oppressive rules dictating in the ways people can worship, and there is no ruling class with a large disparity between the wealthy and the poor.
However, later on in the letters, Farmer James recounts the disturbing treatment of African slaves. He paints a very vivid picture of despair, torture, and horror. Right away, he sympathizes with the slaves, pleading to Nature (not God, interesting): “Are not these blacks thy children as well as we?” (616). Perhaps the most powerful and disturbing scene is when he comes across a strung up slave being eaten alive by birds and maggots. This disparity between the citizens and the slaves can be best illustrated in this quote: “The chosen race eat, drink, and live happy, while the unfortunate one grubs up the ground… exposed to a sun full as scorching as their native one; without the support of good food, without the cordials of any cheering liquor” (616).
This seemingly sudden switch in tone from the wonders and magic of America to covering the deepest and darkest trenches is what I think makes it a great example of American literature. These letters depict a newly immigrated European who sees nothing but promise, wealthy, and happiness in the country, but then discovers that not all of it is sunshine and rainbows. Even though the slaves work hard, they will never be able to reach the happiness and transcendence that European immigrants seem to enjoy.
Crevecoeur, J. Hector St. John, et al. J. Hector St. John De Crevecoeur. The Norton Anthology of American Literature, edited by Sandra M. Gustafson, W.W. Norton & Company, 2017, pp. 604–624.