by Adam Holoubek
April 2009

Both Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur’s eighteenth-century Letters from an American Farmer and Henri David Thoreau’s nineteenth-century Walden present important literary themes that help define the American experience in opposition to the old European establishment of inherited, aristocratic power. Both works are concerned with the link between freedom and land ownership, but they are radically opposed in their stance toward this linkage.  According to Crèvecoeur, ultimate personal freedom in America is achieved by working and owning land, while for Thoreau, individual freedom is actually destroyed by the repressive cycle of toil and responsibility that stems from land ownership. While Crèvecoeur believes that ownership of land is a gateway to freedom in the new American society, Thoreau argues that liberating oneself from an endless cycle of work devoid of pleasure will lead to ultimate individual freedom.

Crèvecoeur’s work, stemming from enlightenment virtues, establishes the link between American land and freedom.  Immigrants are driven to America because of its freedom, mild government, and abundant possibilities for prosperity, all of which are absent in old world Europe, which is brigandaged by aristocratic churlishness. This new land is different, as it gives people the ability to fulfill their self-interested economic needs. In the new American world, man liberates himself from old world beliefs, and achieves personal freedom through farming and tilling his own land—rather than someone else’s. In other words, Crèvecoeur believes that freedom is inexorably linked to the individual ownership and farming of land, which is the basis for a future egalitarian society free of hierarchy, based entirely on enlightenment precepts.

Thoreau, like Crèvecoeur, despises the old ideas of the European class system. However, unlike Crèvecoeur, Thoreau views the ownership of land as itself oppressive and the tilling of land as a burden to young men. He views farming the land not as a gateway to freedom from an old society, but as the very tenet of the old status quo. Toiling over the land leads men into lives of quiet desperation (813) and extinguishes their hopes of breaking free from this life.  Because Thoreau ultimately believes that mankind is driven by choice and not fate, men can choose not to waste their lives toiling away at the land, bound by ownership responsibilities. According to Thoreau, the illusion of land ownership as a means to freedom forces men into predestined roles: men must own land, farm, and till, or else they are not worthy members of the collective.  This concept of freedom ironically becomes a societal opiate, and in fact keeps the masses in their place, complacent, and incapable of even fathoming a different way of life. Thoreau therefore believes that men should not be ashamed of refusing to take up land ownership, because this refusal is also a protest against oppression, and a rejection of the spiritual death.  Man should rejoice in his refusal to own or inherit land, as this is the act of achieving emotional and spiritual freedom and enlightenment from society’s dreadfully mundane expectations.

Both Crèvecoeur and Thoreau are skeptical of the old establishment. In Crèvecoeur’s mind, the old world of Europe is responsible for oppression, exploitation of the poor, poverty, and abuse of religion. Old Europe has many inequities, and its aristocratic class structure ultimately perpetuates the vicious cycle of violence against the common citizen. Crèvecoeur’s sarcasm in pointing out the flaws of the old order serves to reinforce his positive views of American society:

It [America] is not composed, as in Europe, of great lords who posses everything and of a herd of people who have nothing. Here are no aristocratic families, no courts, no kings, no bishops, no ecclesiastic dominion, no invisible power giving to very visible one; no great manufacturers employing thousands, no great refinements of luxury. The rich and poor are not as far removed from each other as in Europe. (431)

Crèvecoeur’s enlightenment views critique the old world of Europe as manipulating and ruling over the poor, whereas America is a new society with a vacuum that will be filled with equality, tolerance, and freedom. The poor in Europe had no freedom because they had to till and farm the lands of their feudal overlords, without being able to keep anything for themselves. In America, however, immigrants could use the cultural and intellectual tools they learned in Europe while serving their masters to create their own freedom. This new American identity is based on the individual’s self-interested ownership of land and its resources.

Thoreau also shares in Crèvecoeur’s hatred for the old world, but in the case of Walden, those perspectives are personified through old men who have no important advice to give to the young (814). Their life experiences are not only pointless but also dangerous. They become metaphors for lack of choice in life as representatives of a social wasteland in which only labor is acceptable. Their own experience has been so partial, and their lives have been such miserable failures that old men probably cannot tell me anything of value (814). The endless labor of old men  represents the mandatory tradition of servitude to the land, without yielding any rewards.  For both Crèvecoeur and Thoreau, then, the old ideology is partial and oppressive.

While both Crèvecoeur and Thoreau critique this old ideology, their linkage between land ownership and freedom, however, differs drastically. Crèvecoeur presents the concept of freedom as being linked to the ownership of land because a man in America is not bound by feudal laws to serve anyone but himself and his family. Americans do not labor for others and have no princes, for whom they toil, starve, and bleed. In America men are free as they ought to be (431). The farmer’s hard work is the very basis for his freedom, because by planting his own crops, he his creating his own free identity as hard work is the criterion for everything (431). The willingness to give hard labor to the land makes a man free because it is founded on the basis of self-interest (433).  Men are therefore attracted to live in America, because of its philosophy of self-interested land ownership. Thoreau, on the other hand, connects ownership of land to freedom in the opposite fashion. Thoreau believes that with land ownership comes the bondage of young men to old ideas: Seeing young men, as having misfortune to have inherited farms, houses, barns, and farming tools since these are more easily acquired than gotten rid of (811). In inheriting this toil, which is self-effacing and oppressive, young men are saddled with responsibilities that prohibit independent thought. Having inherited the burden of land ownership, they are doomed to reap no other pleasures.

Most men, even in the comparatively free country of America, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so preoccupied with the factitious cares and superfluously course labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them. Their fingers, from excessive toil, are too clumsy and tremble too much for that. The laboring man has not leisure for a true integrity (812). Because man is so chained to his work that he cannot enjoy its benefits, the ownership of land takes freedom away. Thoreau compares labor of the land to laboring under a mistaken (812) freedom where the soul of a man is soon ploughed into the soil as compost (812).

In conclusion, both Crèvecoeur and Thoreau share a suspicion of old ideals, but they drastically differ in the way they approach the link between land and freedom.  Perhaps this difference could be explained by the writers’ diverse historical and cultural contexts. Crèvecoeur was clearly the poster child for Enlightenment writing. All of his ideas are enlightenment concepts comparable to those of Locke or Rousseau. Crèvecoeur’s enlightenment principles presented an optimistic future for the new American state. Crèvecoeur’s view of a modern nation is one that can provide freedom to its citizens through the self-interested pursuit of land ownership. Thoreau, on the other hand, was coming from the era of Reformism. Thoreau’s world of mid-19th century America had caught some of the cold of old Europe, and was drastically different from Crèvecoeur’s America. Writers such as Thoreau sought to reform the negative aspects of what American society had become. Thoreau observed farmers laboring over their lands like machines without enjoying any of the benefits promised by Crèvecoeur. The ownership of land is simply another form of bondage, an antonym to freedom.  Crèvecoeur’s views concerning land and freedom ultimately stem from a positive vision of a new nation. People in America no longer toil over the land of a lord but rather create their own freedom by owning their own land. Thoreau disagrees, because he no longer views the link between land and freedom as an external struggle between the individual and the system, but rather as an internal struggle between what a person truly desires and the responsibilities society instills in him.

Works Cited

de Crèvecoeur, Hector St. John. “Letters from an American Farmer.” The Bedford Anthology of American Literature Volume I: Beginnings to 1865. Ed. by Susan Belasco and Linck Johnson. Boston, Bedford/St. Martin’s: 2008.  430-433.

Thoreau, Henry David. “Walden [From Economy].” The Bedford Anthology of American Literature Volume I: Beginnings to 1865. Ed. by Susan Belasco and Linck Johnson. Boston, Bedford/St. Martin’s: 2008. 810-815.

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