Cover image for Posthumous America: Literary Reinventions of America at the End of the Eighteenth Century By Benjamin Hoffmann and Translated by Alan J. Singerman

Posthumous America

Literary Reinventions of America at the End of the Eighteenth Century

Benjamin Hoffmann, and Translated by Alan J. Singerman


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256 pages
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Posthumous America

Literary Reinventions of America at the End of the Eighteenth Century

Benjamin Hoffmann, and Translated by Alan J. Singerman

“Benjamin Hoffmann presents, with wonderful insight, a portrait of a young American nation by three French writers. The particular oddity of their perspective, hence the delightful originality of this work, is that what they depict in their various ways is a society and polity that they know to be no longer valid—for which Hoffmann coins the term of ‘posthumous’ narrative, sometimes tainted with nostalgia or outright fiction, in an already-archaic American landscape.”


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An Open Access edition of Posthumous America is available through PSU Press Unlocked. To access this free electronic edition click here. Print editions are also available.

Benjamin Hoffmann’s Posthumous America examines the literary idealization of a lost American past in the works of French writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

For writers such as John Hector St. John de Crèvecœur and Claude-François de Lezay-Marnésia, America was never more potent as a driving ideal than in its loss. Examining the paradoxical American paradise depicted in Crèvecœur’s Lettres d’un cultivateur américain (1784); the “uchronotopia”—the imaginary perfect society set in America and based on what France might have become without the Revolution—of Lezay-Marnésia’s Lettres écrites des rives de l’Ohio (1792); and the political and nationalistic motivations behind François-René Chateaubriand’s idealization of America in Voyage en Amérique (1827) and Mémoires d’outre-tombe (1850), Hoffmann shows how the authors’ liberties with the truth helped create the idealized and nostalgic representation of America that dominated the collective European consciousness of their times. From a historical perspective, Posthumous America works to determine when exactly these writers stopped transcribing what they actually observed in America and started giving imaginary accounts of their experiences.

A vital contribution to transatlantic studies, this detailed exploration of French perspectives on the colonial era, the War of Independence, and the birth of the American Republic sheds new light on the French fascination with America. Posthumous America will be invaluable for historians, political scientists, and specialists of literature whose scholarship looks at America through European eyes.

“Benjamin Hoffmann presents, with wonderful insight, a portrait of a young American nation by three French writers. The particular oddity of their perspective, hence the delightful originality of this work, is that what they depict in their various ways is a society and polity that they know to be no longer valid—for which Hoffmann coins the term of ‘posthumous’ narrative, sometimes tainted with nostalgia or outright fiction, in an already-archaic American landscape.”
“A welcome reexamination of major texts.”

Benjamin Hoffmann is Assistant Professor of Early Modern French Studies at The Ohio State University. His recent publications include a critical edition of Claude-François de Lezay-Marnésia’s Letters Written from the Banks of the Ohio, also published by Penn State University Press, as well as four novels in French.

About the translator:

Alan J. Singerman is Richardson Professor Emeritus of French at Davidson College, the translator of Benjamin Hoffmann’s critical edition of Letters Written from the Banks of the Ohio, and the editor and translator of Abbé Prévost’s novel The Greek Girl’s Story, both also published by Penn State University Press.

From the Introduction

New World Paradoxes

“. . . the United States is growing more quickly than this manuscript.”

—Chateaubriand, Mémoires d’outre-tombe, 1:470

Ephemeral America

At the turn of the eighteenth century, America resembled Heraclitus’s river where no one ever swims twice. Numerous travelers, novelists, and memoir writers attempted, more or less successfully, to meet a monumental challenge: to portray America in writing. Such a project bears in itself the seeds of its own failure, for at the end of the Enlightenment, America is constantly changing, and its reality never coincides with its written image at a given moment. In the interval between its discovery by a traveler and the publication of a text on its subject, this perpetually evolving country has already assumed a form that no longer resembles what had been observed by the writer. “It is difficult to present a durable picture of such a mobile entity as the United States. It is changing at the very moment at which I am writing . . . ,” remarks the French Consul François Barbé-Marbois in 1782, summarizing in two sentences the difficulty America presents to a man of letters: the writing necessarily lags behind this metamorphosing entity. What are the causes of this constant mutation?

The boundaries of the body of literature examined in this work are set by the publication of Lettres d’un cultivateur américain (1784) by Saint-John de Crèvecœur and Mémoires d’outre-tombe by Chateaubriand (1848). Between these two periods, the territory of the United States increased considerably. Beginning with the creation of four new states between 1791 and 1803, the colonization of the American continent was completed during the course of the nineteenth century through acquisitions and military conquests. While the shaky beginnings of the young Republic bred fear of the imminent failure of the union of the states that composed it—owing to the danger posed by the opponents of the federalists, the concurrent ambitions of the European nations, and the resistance of the Amerindians to the expansion of the new country into the territory beyond the Appalachians—the country founded by Washington, contrary to all expectations, managed to remain united and absorb the immense space between the Atlantic and the Pacific. This expansion was greatly facilitated in 1803 by the unexpected and providential acquisition from Napoleon’s France of Louisiana, which represents 22.3 percent of the current geographical area of the United States.

This considerable territorial increase was accompanied by a remarkable rise in population. The thirty-six censuses completed by England between 1761 and 1775 allow us to trace the demographic evolution of the American colonies: on the eve of independence, they comprised 2,300,000 inhabitants. The wave of immigration slowed between 1775 and the 1830s before surging even more: between 1851 and 1854, around 400,000 people arrived each year in the United States. Suffering from famine and sick of living in misery, the Germans and Irish constituted the most important contingent of new arrivals in the first half of the nineteenth century, joining their countrymen as well as the English, Dutch, Swedes, French, and Swiss who had preceded them. In 1830, the United States counted 12,900,000 inhabitants; in thirty years, its population nearly tripled, reaching 31,400,000 in 1860. At the same time, the cities grew so rapidly that in the space of one lifetime an individual could witness the birth of a city and its transformation into a metropolis connected to the outside world by regular maritime routes.

The uninterrupted demographic and territorial growth of the United States was accompanied by protean changes: the forests were decimated and cities arose from the ground; despite violent resistance and brilliant victories, the Amerindians were ultimately driven from lands they had occupied forever; and innumerable Europeans followed in the footsteps of their predecessors who had fled religious persecution or misery in the course of the preceding two centuries. They came from France and Santo Domingo during the Revolutions, gathering north of Philadelphia when, like Volney, Noailles, and La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt, they were not frequenting the high society of the New World after having set the tone for that of the Old World. This rapid evolution of the American society and the territory it occupied made a man of letters’s head spin when, like La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt, he set out to describe the country of Washington: “The United States is perhaps the one place in the whole world that is the most difficult to describe to those who have not traveled there themselves. It is a country that is growing everywhere; what is true today of its population, its establishments, its prices, its business was not true six months ago and will no longer be true six months from now. . . . The information that at the present time, and for many years to come, a traveler can and will be able to record the most carefully will only be memories, a means of comparison with future years.” Describing America thus presents an initial paradox: it slips away when you try to write about it. Devoting a book to it is like attempting to seize an object that perpetually eludes you.

An Elusive New World

At the turn of the eighteenth century, there is indeed an inevitable gap between a discourse on America and the current state of this land, such that no manuscript, to paraphrase Chateaubriand, could ever keep pace with the territorial and social mutations of the United States. They are like the train that recedes into the distance and can only be pictured at the place that it no longer inhabits—or like the star that may well already be dead when its light reaches us. In this respect, any literary representation of America at a particular time may be considered obsolete by definition, since it arises after the disappearance of its model: a text can at best only give a prematurely anachronistic image of a country that has already metamorphosed at the moment of its publication.

This gap between reality and representation, however, is not caused by the speed of demographic and territorial change alone, for in the case of traveling French writers, the spacio-temporal distance between the two countries greatly contributes to its increase. René Rémond thus emphasizes the importance of the time factor in accounting for the divide between the reality of America and the image it has for the French public: “Information naturally lags behind the evolution of reality, and this gap is aggravated by the persistence of the images of a faraway country that are already fixed in the public imagination.” Although it may vary according to the season, the force of the winds, and the skill of the captain, the average length of a transatlantic crossing is always significant in the period that concerns us here: the normal length of a simple round-trip is about seventy-five days. To this period, a minimum to cross the Atlantic, one must add the time that passes before setting sail; it is normal to wait eight or ten days for the cargo to be loaded or for the winds to be favorable. In the final analysis, it takes eighty days, on average, to receive in France the response to a letter sent to the United States; in fact longer, for this period does not include the letter’s travel by land. This considerable length of time is at the origin of two phenomena that take protean forms and have multiple consequences: the sedimentation of the image of America in French public opinion and its accompanying idealization.

Given that it takes a very long time to receive news from America in France, the conceptions that people may have formed of that country have ample opportunity to spread and provoke new commentaries that fix them in the minds of the contemporaries before potentially contradictory information might lead them to contest these impressions or at least to question what they thought they knew. Upon returning to France after twenty-seven years in North America, Saint-John de Crèvecœur discovered there a widely accepted idyllic representation of the United States that he did not hesitate to further with his personal testimony in order to profit from the popularity of America in public opinion to promote his Lettres d’un cultivateur américain, which were surprisingly successful throughout Europe. Likewise, after receiving numerous letters from people seeking to emigrate during his stays in Paris, Benjamin Franklin had attempted to propagate the extremely favorable opinion the French had formed of his country, widely associated with the popular but very vague concepts of liberty, tolerance, equality, and happiness. In his Avis à ceux qui voudraient s’en aller en Amérique (A Word to Those Who Would Like to go to America, 1784), Franklin nonetheless tried to discourage the hope of making a quick fortune that the French nourished by insisting on the happy mediocrity of the lot of his fellow countrymen: if extreme poverty did not exist in his country, neither did extravagant wealth.

Indeed, the distance between America and Europe allowed people to imagine El Dorado–like opportunities awaiting emigrants from across the Atlantic. As Rémond writes, “If America remains for the French imagination, in the first half of the 19th century, the height of the exotic, the reign of the fabulous, it doubtlessly owes it largely to its distance from the continent. It is thus predestined to be the locus of all utopias, whether political, social, or philanthropic; over there everything is possible, even the impossible.” A true land of milk and honey in the European imagination at the end of the eighteenth century, America undergoes an idealization that combines a variety of literary influences, among which the reminiscence of the golden age of antiquity and of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s novel Julie ou la Nouvelle Héloïse (1761) are the most frequently evoked. They are particularly prominent in the utopian project of the marquis de Lezay-Marnésia, a project whose exceptional importance is demonstrated by the number of people it involved and by the magnitude of its economic stakes, as well as by its repercussions in the history of France, the United States, and their interwoven images.

In the end, the rhythm of the modifications that occur in Washington’s land, the distance that separates the two shores of the Atlantic, and the length of time necessary to bridge it explain why the French representations of America at the turn of the eighteenth century regularly combine anachronism with inaccuracy. Nonetheless, the works that are the subject of this study stand out in the French literary production devoted to America in this period in that they do not produce an obsolete but rather a posthumous representation.

What Is Posthumous America?

A child is referred to as “posthumous” when it is born after the death of its father; likewise, a literary work is posthumous when it is published after the decease of its author. According to this definition, posthumous America is a literary representation that focuses on a past—defunct—period of American history that the writer knew firsthand and that fills him with such nostalgia that he attempts to assuage it with a retrospective recreation whose goal is to give a literary revival to the period that preceded a break in historical continuity. While an obsolete representation of America no longer gives an accurate image of the country, since it has transmogrified in the lapse of time between the experience of the itinerant writer and the publication of his work, a posthumous representation revives a historical epoch that has already vanished when the author who knew it takes up his pen.

It is still incumbent upon us to distinguish between a posthumous representation and a historical approach that would attempt to describe America’s past as rigorously as possible, since unlike the historian, who has not necessarily witnessed the period he is examining and whose legitimacy rests in part on the dispassionate relationship he cultivates with the object of his study, the author of a posthumous representation of America has traveled to the other side of the Atlantic during the period that he is recreating after the fact. Moreover, while the traveling writer does not commit to tell the truth about his experience, the deontology of the historian demands veracity.

(Exceprt ends here)