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Sagacity in Humans and Animals: Crevecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer

Originally posted on my WordPress blog.

When reading Crecevcoeur’s Letters this week, I was drawn to Crevecoeur’s use of the word sagacity at multiple points in the text. I liked the sound and look of the word, but I didn’t have a clear sense of what it meant. I looked it up in the Oxford English Dictionary, and found that it has a few meanings that would’ve been in use at the time Crevecoeur was writing:

“Acuteness of mental discernment; aptitude for investigation or discovery; keenness and soundness of judgement in the estimation of persons and conditions, and in the adaptation of means to ends; penetration, shrewdness”

“Of animals: Exceptional intelligence; skill in the adaptation of means to ends”

It was interesting to me that there was a separate definition of sagacity reserved for animals, despite the fact that both definitions seem to communicate the same ideas. In Letters, Crevecoeur uses sagacity to describe the faculties of both animals and humans. This flexibility or fluidity reinforces Crevecoeur’s understanding of the natural world and how humans and nonhuman animals fit within it. It also underscores the tension that runs throughout Letters, a tension between subjectivity and objectivity, between seeing the earth and nonhuman animals as objects to be dominated and allowing them to have their own subjectivity.

As the narrator of Crevecoeur’s Letters, James speaks of the natural world in terms of possession, ownership, and the need for cultivation by human hands. In Letter II, James ponders, “What should we American farmers be without the distinct possession of that soil? It feeds, it clothes us; from it we draw even a great exuberancy, our best meat, our best drink; the very honey of our bees comes from this privileged spot. No wonder we should thus cherish this possession” (54). This passage also attests, however, to Crevecoeur’s belief in a physical and spiritual interconnection between humans and nonhuman world (plants, animals, and the earth itself) that allows for subjectivity for both humans and animals.

This is where I differ from Ian Finseth’s reading of Crevecoeur. Finesth argues that James’s scientific mindset about the natural world “reinforces a double objectification of the natural world, positioning nature as the object of detached analysis and as fodder for cultural commentary” (85-86). But is James really conducting a “detached analysis”? And is nature really “fodder” for cultural commentary? I also question Finseth’s choice of the word fodder, which implies that the original essence or character of nature is, at best, transformed and, at worst, lost when consumed or digested by cultural commentary. Instead, I would argue that, by making comparisons between nature and humans, James stresses the common kinship and connectedness between humans and nonhuman animals.

One of the first moments where a sense of connectedness and concern for nonhuman animals occurs is when James reflects on the rather mundane reality of eating eggs:

I never see an egg brought on my table but I feel penetrated with the wonderful change it would have undergone but for my gluttony; it might have been a gentle, useful hen leading her chicken with a care and vigilance which speaks shame to many women. A cock perhaps, arrayed with the most majestic plumes, tender to its mate, bold, courageous, endowed with an astonishing instinct, with thoughts, with memory, and every distinguishing characteristic of the reason of man. […] the sagacity of those animals which have long been the tenants of my farm astonish me; some of them seem to surpass even men in memory and sagacity. (55)

Going beyond the mere realization that his subsistence is dependent upon the deaths of animals, James imagines the lives these animals might have had. In doing so, he attributes to animals a level of consciousness and intelligence that mirrors that of humans. The image of nature is not fodder for cultural commentary. The subjectivity of the animal “tenants” impinges on and shapes James’s imagination and perception of Nature. Even the use of the word “tenants” suggests that James considers the animals as more than mere property or objects to be analyzed.

James’s observations, while scientific, aren’t as detached as Finseth claims. When relating his fascination with bees, James explains how after killing a crow (he’s careful to point out that he resisted killing the crows until they became an unavoidable nuisance) he rescues the bees he has eaten:

I killed him and immediately opened his craw, from which I took 171 bees; I laid them all on a blanket in the sun, and to my great surprise, 54 returned to life, licked themselves clean, and joyfully went back to the hive, where they probably informed their companions of such an adventure and escape as I believe had never happened before to American bees! (56)

James’s careful extraction and counting of the bees has the appearance of scientific inquiry. His motivation to undertake this inquiry, however, stems from his attachment to the bees (he says in the previous paragraph that the bees are a particular favorite of his). When the 54 bees are revived, the sense of surprise and joy James feels attests to his fondness for the animals on his farm.

The concluding scene in Letter X featuring the fight between two snakes bears mentioning here as well. James’s intense study of animals fighting brings to my mind the ant war Thoreau describes in the “Brute Neighbors” chapter of Walden. Finseth also draws a parallel between Letters and Thoreau’s Walden (although he doesn’t draw a comparison between Crevecoeur’s snake battle and Thoreau’s ant war). Finseth argues that “Walden actually serves as a revealing touchstone, for Thoreau more clearly, consistently, and self-consciously articulates an ethic of reciprocity whereby he recognizes what we might call the subjectivity of nature, that is, the idea that nature has its own integrity of meaning that transcends human definition or interpretation” (84). Finseth further distinguishes Walden and Letters by pointing out that James’s “sense of ethics involves his obligations to his fellow human beings rather than a reciprocal obligation to nature” (84). As spot-on as Finseth is with most of his analysis of Crevecoeur, I have to disagree with him here. James actually does display a “reciprocal obligation to nature,” that is at least equal, if not greater, than Thoreau’s in Walden.

While Thoreau anthropomorphizes the ants and draws overt parallels between the battling ants and humans, James’s description of the snake battle refrains from such sentimentality. Thoreau concludes his retelling of the ant battle by relating, “I never learned which party was victorious, nor the cause of the war; but I felt for the rest of that day as if I had my feelings excited and harrowed by witnessing the struggle, the ferocity and carnage, of a human battle before my door” (188-89). In contrast, James’s concluding remarks about the snakes appears disconnected: “The victor no sooner perceived its enemy incapable of farther resistance than, abandoning it to the current, it returned on shore and disappeared” (186). While this at first might seem to confirm Finseth’s assertion that James engages in detached analysis of nature, this scene also shows how James allows nonhuman nature to have an agency and subjectivity of its own, rather than imposing human subjectivities on the snakes by anthropomorphizing them.

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