Epistolary Bodies: Gender and Genre in the Eighteenth-Century Republic of Letters

By Elizabeth Heckendorn Cook | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FIVE
The End of Epistolarity 'LETTERS FROM AN AMERICAN FARMER'

What the Lettres persanes has been for scholars of European Enlightenment, Crèvecoeur Letters from an American Farmer ( 1782) has been for American studies: a generic anomaly that generates ongoing intradisciplinary contestation. The terrain of the debate is familiar: while the book deploys some of the narrative techniques of conventional prose fiction, it is composed of a series of letters that provide cultural and natural-historical information about the American setting and events, to which plot and character development are subordinated. As a result, the Letters have often been treated as a collection of loosely related essays. Selections from the work are anthologized according to the ideological currents of the moment, while the rest is dismissed unread. For example, Gary B. Nash has examined how Letter III, "What Is an American?" has been used by American literature and history courses to support a "myth of a classless prerevolutionary American society . . . a sentimentalized, idealistic vision of a vanished, egalitarian America" (216). As Cathy Davidson points out, "predictably . . . the later sections of Crèvecoeur's classic are anthologized far less often than the exultant (if unrealistic) Letter III. For most readers of Crèvecoeur (who typically encounter his work in anthologies, if at all) the important analysis of American racism set forth in the latter

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