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Crèvecoeur's Land of the Free: Questioning the Foundations of American Hospitality from a French Perspective

Venue: Birkbeck 43 Gordon Square

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Public lecture co-hosted by Birkbeck's Centre for French, Francophone and Comparative Studies and Eighteenth-Century Research Group.

This paper investigates some of the ‘fabulous’ knots in the repeated representation of America as a hospitable land via the writings of the Franco-American J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, which are composed both in the ‘colonial period’ and after the establishment of the United States. Crèvecoeur is best known for his Letters from an American Farmer (1782), a foundational text for American identity, although analysis of his later writings in French enables an even more interesting picture to emerge. I argue that Crèvecoeur is important in unpicking the contradictions related to enslavement and to Americans’ relationship to animals and the environment; however, here I shall focus particularly on his complex and conflicted representations of the indigenous peoples of America. These both reflect and challenge the commonplaces of his day with respect to hospitable sauvages. Hospitality raises the thorny questions of (the definitions of) property and freedom. Crèvecœur’s constant refrain is that the dispossessed of the Old World migrate to the New – there to be welcomed hospitably, work as free landowners, be adopted as citizens, and, by mixing with other Americans, take on a new (hospitable) identity in the melting pot. His works, at moments, approach the genre of the prospectus encouraging immigration. However, he (an adopted Oneida) is painfully aware that neither the image of the New World as empty, nor the somewhat different myth that native peoples are properly paid for their land and that it is legally, and so justly, acquired, is true. Other stories or fragments haunt his narratives. The population of indigenous peoples in the USA was reduced by more than 90% by 1820. The Declaration of Independence (with its strange ontology picked up by Derrida) is 1776; however, it is 1924 before Congress accords a mixed blessing and recognizes Native American people as citizens of the United States...

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  • Professor Judith Still -

    Judith Still BA MSC PhD FBA is emeritus Professor of French and Critical Theory at the University of Nottingham and Vice-President (Humanities) of the British Academy. She is the author of Justice and Difference in the Works of Rousseau (1993), Feminine Economies (1997), Derrida and Hospitality (2010), Enlightenment Hospitality (2011), Derrida and Other Animals: the Boundaries of the Human (2015). She is the editor of Men's Bodies (2003), co-editor with M. Worton of Intertextuality (1990) and Textuality and Sexuality (1993); with D. Knight of Women and Representation (1995) and Theory-tinged Criticism (2009); with S. Ribeiro de Oliveira of Brazilian Feminisms (1999); with Atack et al of Women, Genre and Circumstance (2012); with S. Jordan, Disorderly Eating in Contemporary Women’s Writing (2020). She is working on the Franco-American farmer-philosopher St John de Crèvecoeur (see 10-Minute Talks: Crèvecœur: what is an American? | The British Academy).