In Virgin Land Henry Nash Smith examines the myths of the American West: their origins; their dissemination through forms including popular literature, political speeches and letters; and the dynamic interplay between myth, history, and collective identity.

Nash's analysis ends with the last decade of the nineteenth century, but the mythical quality of the West has become an enduring feature of American twentieth century life. And nowhere is the myth so powerful as in the movies. Though motion pictures are a distinctly twentieth century phenomenon, the silent westerns represent "old myths in new packages"; one critic in 1919 even called them the "modern dime novels." Silent film perpetuates old myths of the West, but it is in many ways a unique medium. Historically, it overlaps with the decline of the "Old West," so that it is at once an instrument for mythologizing and recording a dying frontier; indeed it often blurs the distinctions between history and myth in the personages of cowboys-turned-actors, outlaws-turned-directors, and western landscapes-turned-movie sets. Also, the silent film was a vehicle well suited for the transmission of myths to American audiences, many of whom in the earliest days of silent film were recent immigrants. By privileging action over language, silent film particularly suits the code of the Western.

The power of motion pictures to transmit American myths was not lost on contemporaries of silent film. In 1915 the poet Vachel Lindsay had this to say about the effect of motion pictures on immigrants:

He sees alien people and begins to undertand how like they are to him; he sees courage and aspiration and agony, and begins to understand himself. He begins to feel himself a brother in a race that is led by many dreams.

Early Film

Inventions, Industry, and Popular Perception of Film
Landscape, Machine, East, West

Perceptions and Uses of Land in Silent Westerns
Western Heroes

The Evolution of the Cowboy, and Portrayals of Prospectors, Pioneers, Ranchers, and Lawmen
Indians and Mexicans

Alternative cultures in the Silent Westerns
Western Heroines

Domestic life, Women Outlaws, and Serial Queens in Silent Westerns
The Western Epic

The last Silent Westerns and the end of the Old West

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Virgin Land hypertext, Henry Nash Smith