Comparing Crèvecoeur's Letters from an American Farmer and Thoreau's Various Essays
St. Jean De Crèvecoeur's Letters from an American Farmer and Henry David Thoreau's various essays and journal entries present opposing views of what it means to be an American. To somewhat simplify, both writers agree that there are two kinds of Americans: those who are farmers and those who are not. Crèvecoeur views farmers as the true Americans, and those who are not farmers, such as frontier men, as lawless, idle, inebriated wretches (266). Sixty years later, Thoreau believes the opposite: farmers are doomed and bound to their land, and free men who own nothing posses the only true liberty (9). Both Crèvecoeur and Thoreau judge men and their professions on industry, use of nature, freedom, and lawfulness.
As America grew during these six decades, industrialization and higher education created more compact communities unable to economically provide the land needs of farmers. In Crèvecoeur's America, "some few towns excepted, we are all tillers of the earth"(263). In 1850, Thoreau's Concord was among the many towns allowing people to leave their farms for a more urban setting to house their law practices, shoe stores, or surveying businesses. The separation of farmers from the rest of society leads to intellectualizations of the profession by thinkers like Thoreau. Removed from the simple, hard labor of farming, it is easy for urbanized society to forget the farmer's purpose and importance in Western civilization.
Crèvecoeur states that "industry, which to me who am but a farmer, is the criterion of everything"(264). Indeed, a lack of industry in any vocation eventually leads to failure. Thoreau, however, sees little value in industry:
Dec. 22, 1853: Surveying the last three days. They have not yielded much that I am aware of. All I find is old boundmarks, and the slowness and dullness of farmers reconfirmed. They even complain that I walk too fast for them. Their legs have become stiff from toil. This coarse and hurried outdoor work compels me to live grossly or be inattentive to my diet. (14)
This journal excerpt implies that industry, in this case the work of surveying, is merely a bother, getting in the way of civilized living and a proper diet. Thoreau's disdain for work leads to criticism of the farmers who pay him. He portrays the farmer as a slave to his land, requiring him to work to the point of self-destruction (9). Surely the farmers that Thoreau describes did not attend Harvard and cannot earn money publishing books and lecturing. It seems naive of Thoreau, who never knew hard labor, to so freely criticize those who do. Thoreau's civility and affection for society (portrayed in his lifestyle rather than his writing) allow him to judge farmers' philosophy rather than their utility and importance in society.
Thoreau's age was the dawn of what is now called environmentalism. In the mid-nineteenth century, however, industry...