Contrast and Contradiction: The Emergent West in Crèvecoeur’s Regional Theory

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There can be no denying J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur’s prescience as a theorist of the American West. In his 1782 Letters from an American Farmer, he anticipates the doctrine of manifest destiny and the “stage theory” of frontier settlement, as well as Frederick Jackson Turner’s insight about the significance of open land for America’s optimistic character. Yet together his published and unpublished sketches of the 1770s reveal Crèvecoeur to have had relatively little interest in the West. Though prescient, his western theories are undeveloped and even contradictory. As a regionalist, he favored contrasts between Old and New Worlds and North and South. When conflicts escalated between England and America, the binary regionalist coded his distaste for political extremes in a new partiality for “middle” grounds and eventually for any safe place. Though we associate Crèvecoeur with ideas of frontier expansion and opportunity, he reflected at greatest length on frontier geographies in the context of sectional and class animosity and war. Having traveled as far west as the Mississippi, Crèvecoeur wrote most descriptively during peacetime about Nantucket Island and his own mid-Atlantic farm, missing the opportunity to make writerly capital of his western observations. While it is right to acknowledge in Crèvecoeur the early glimmers of ideas that would later shape western historiography, the writer’s English essays of the 1770s reveal an Atlantic orientation to American regionalism in the Revolutionary era. They anticipate key western theories while devoting relatively little attention to the West.

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