Mazes of Empire: Space and Humanity in Crèvecoeur's Letters

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J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur's Letters from an American Farmer (1782) has been read as a contribution to U.S. national culture, as a text grounded either in a cosmopolitan worldview or in loyalist interests, and as a work with espionage subtext. Despite such contrasting analyses of its political affiliations, critiques of the Letters have converged on one main point: America has invariably, perhaps unquestionably, been perceived as its central, dominant organizing topic. (1) Surprisingly, even though "America" refers to specific delineations of geographic space, a sustained reading of representations of space in the book has yet to be offered. This critical absence is intriguing both because such analysis could have shed light on the questions of political allegiance that the book raises and because spatial concerns must have been significant for the author, who was "a very capable cartographer" and surveyor (Chevignard, "Looking Glass," 185).

Focusing on the intersection of spatial and political concerns in the book, I show here that the Letters subordinates America to an interrogation of the interplay between empire--a political project that aspires to achieve global spatial integration--and humanity--an imagined construct that represents the ostensibly integrated population of globalized space. The Letters was written during a major crisis within the British empire, which led to a redefinition of its means and goals and to its shift from settler colonialism in North America to nonsettler colonization in India. The book responds to this crisis indirectly; instead of limiting its discussion to one historical moment or national culture, the Letters launches a broad critique of Eurocentric European imperialism as a project whose political, epistemological, and philosophical underpinnings are inherently problematic.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)73-105+215
JournalEarly American Literature
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2007

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Literature and Literary Theory


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