Academic journal article Early American Literature

Drain, Baby! Drain? Cultivating Swamps and Citizens in Crevecoeur's Immigrant Sketches

Academic journal article Early American Literature

Drain, Baby! Drain? Cultivating Swamps and Citizens in Crevecoeur's Immigrant Sketches

Article excerpt

Abstract: The article explores the theme of swamp cultivation in J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur's sketches about immigrants who become citizens. It focuses on Crevecoeur's attitudes toward swamps, highlighting the environmental dimensions of Americanization as immigrant characters learn how to cultivate wetlands in Letters from an American Farmer (1782) and his lesser-studied French works. As the essay argues, Crevecoeur depicts American civic identities emerging through a dialogic relationship in which humans modify nature as much as nature modifies humans. Particular emphasis is given to the political significance of wetlands, meadow companies, water exhaustion, and beaver habitats in his texts to examine how notions of belonging are structured around attitudes toward swamps in his sketches about becoming an American.

KEYWORDS: J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, ecology, ecocriticism, wetlands in literature, immigrants in literature, meadow companies, civic identities, land use in literature, Letters from an American Farmer, Lettres d'un cultivateur americain, Voyage dans la Haute Pensylvanie et dans l'etat de New York

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On March 24, 1772, the General Assembly of New York appointed a recently naturalized French immigrant named Hector Saint John--more commonly known today as J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur--to be a manager of the Crommeline's Creek Meadow Company. To increase the availability of land for tillage and pasturage in Orange County, the assembly passed this drainage act to cultivate the swamps and bog meadows, "which are frequently drowned and rendered unfit for use by the overflowing of the Creek" (New York State Legislature 429). The experience made a considerable impression on Crevecoeur, who incorporated swamp cultivation into his semifictional accounts of American life in Letters from an American Farmer (1782), Lettres d'un cultivateur americain (1784, 1787), and Voyage dans la Haute Pensylvanie et dans l'etat de New-York (1801). (1) Although Crevecoeur personally benefited from drainage acts, his fictionalized sketches about immigrants depict a range of attitudes toward swamps that are oriented toward both cultivation and conservation. These attitudes emerge through the development of an intimate knowledge of how wetlands function, what effects they have on humans, and what effect humans have on them. Perhaps because of the prevalence of coastal wetlands in North America, Americanization exhibits a distinctly ecological quality as Crevecoeur's immigrant characters learn how to negotiate the assemblages of organic and inorganic matter that constitute swamps, bogs, and marshes. (2) Becoming an American materializes, in part, through attitudes about and responsibilities toward wetland ecosystems that are intimate, situational, and communal. As the attitudes toward swamps in four sketches about immigrants suggest, Crevecoeur imagines Americans to be ecological citizens, (3) or people--almost invariably white, middle-class men--whose embeddedness within interconnecting networks of human and nonhuman life animates their feelings of civic agency and belonging. (4)

Between the publication of Letters in 1782 and Voyage in 1801, a chorus of "Drain, baby! Drain!" reverberated throughout the transatlantic world, inciting people to reclaim wetlands by construing the practice as an act benefiting the public good. In agricultural manuals, immigration tracts, and American legislatures, swamps were feared for being infectious, unruly environments that jeopardized the health of Euro-American communities and violated their aesthetic and economic norms. Published a decade before Letters, American Husbandry (1773), for example, classifies swamps, bogs, and marshes as insalubrious, unwholesome environments that needed to be either avoided or cultivated. Echoing this sentiment in his immigration tract, Information to Europeans Who Are Disposed to Migrate to the United States (1790), Benjamin Rush advises the prospective immigrant "to drain and cultivate his low grounds, as soon as they are cleared" in order to obviate the effects of their "morbid effluvia" (6). …

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