- CrèvecoeurConcealing and Revealing the Secret Self
Long have I swank with anxious assayTo finden out what this hid soul may beThat doth herself so variously bewrayIn different motions.—Henry More, Psychathanasia
Few passages in Crèvecoeur’s writings may be taken at face value.—Christopher Iannini, “The Itinerant Man”
One of the most perplexing critical problems in assessing the man generally known as Michel-Guillaume-Jean de Crèvecoeur involves his literary and real-life masquerades. In a perceptive discussion of Crèvecoeur’s many masks, Grantland Rice argues for a complex matrix of identities lying beyond the simplistic dichotomies of British Loyalist and American Patriot and of a writer and his literary voices. “Crèvecoeur extended this self-fashioning to extraliterary concerns,” Rice observes, “constructing different surnames, nationalities, political and philosophical affiliations, and private and public roles throughout his life. … Crèvecoeur’s life is often wholly characterized by his skill at adapting (often simultaneously) to opposing religious, philosophical, political, and national groupings” (108). Refocusing the famous question from letter 3 of the Letters from an American Farmer—“What, then, is the American, this new man?”—we might well ask, with Rice (among others): “What then is this Crèvecoeur?” (114).
Ultimately, Rice’s question speaks to several concerns beyond topics that have heretofore provided a foundation for discussions of Crèvecoeur’s Letters and the two French “translations” he subsequently produced. Similarly, it also deemphasizes the importance of his other literary accomplishments, notably, the essays rediscovered in the twentieth century.1 Other issues that have attracted critical attention—for example, Crèvecoeur’s prophetic environmental consciousness, his sociological theories, his great sympathy for the Native Americans and their culture—must also be set to [End Page 357] one side for the moment. For as crucial as all of these may be for appreciating Crèvecoeur as both an eighteenth-century Franco-American writer and a relatively significant force in the Enlightenment, in the end they almost all fail to address what may be understood as the defining cluster of related qualities in his character: his penchant for secrecy; his suppression, obfuscation, or deliberate misrepresentation of certain events in his life; his insecurity, indeed at times, his paranoia—qualities that, far from being irrelevant, a judgment that has led to their becoming marginalized or ignored by many commentators, shrouded his life with mystery and definitively shaped all he did, and also invited deep suspicion of Crèvecoeur’s political allegiance from individuals demanding far simpler, less complex explanations of human behavior. Among the few who have addressed Crèvecoeur’s penchant for secrecy, Marcus Cunliffe has stressed its twofold importance: “These mysteries are worth unraveling, both for their own sake and for things they may tell us about the whole realm of transatlantic generalizations” (133).
To tease out an appreciation of Crèvecoeur’s obsession with secrecy, we must go back to 1759, the year he migrated to British North America and acquired his first new identity, one that would endure with modifications and adaptations for most of his life. Indeed, no one, so far as I know, has offered the not unreasonable hypothesis that the man named John Hector St. John spied for France, at least during his first ten years in British North America. Keeping before us this probability, however, may help explain many of the mysteries in Crèvecoeur’s life that most commentators have acknowledged but largely ignored.2 So fundamental in Crèvecoeur’s life was his self-nurtured secrecy and mystery—epitomized in his suppression of the history of his service in the French colonial army, his resigning his commission, and his abrupt taking up residence in British North America—that it will invite readers, in both small and large ways, ultimately to reexamine his literary achievements for which he is justly famous in a somewhat different context than has been hitherto emphasized.
Crèvecoeur never wrote and apparently never spoke about his experiences in the French army during the French and Indian War. For a man who obsessively wrote himself into his essays and short narratives, one suspects that he purposely buried...