In Virgin Land, Henry Nash Smith explores how the unsettled land to our west has played a role in the development of the American consciousness. More than a geographical region, the American West is a territory in the imagination of America which has exerted considerable influence on our nation's cultural, political, and social evolution.
In The Mind of the South W.J. Cash states that "to ignore the frontier...in setting up a conception of the social state of the Old South is to abandon reality" for the reason that the South "throughout a very great part of the period from the opening of the nineteenth century to the Civil War (in the South beyond the Mississippi until long after that war) is mainly the history of the roll of frontier upon frontier - and on to the frontier beyond" (Cash, 4.) In the same way we can say that to ignore the South in the conception of the social state of the frontier is to abandon reality. Not only did much of the frontier fall within the region we call the South, but many of the more remote part of the southeastern seaboard states existed under frontier conditions long after "the frontier" had moved west.
It is to these Southwestern frontier towns, and to their eastern counterparts, that we look for the characters of our myth-drama.
Smith presents the myth of the garden in its American form. The symbols are the yeoman farmer and the planter. One tills the soil, deriving his virtue from contact with Nature and through Nature communion with God. The other enjoys the benefits of the luscious garden given to him by God, developing virtues through intellectual, social, and spiritual pursuits. These two myths do battle in the nineteenth century for a hold on the American imagination, with the yeoman emerging as victor. But while we can easily identify the planter class, who exactly is the yeoman farmer?
He is the small independent farmer who lives a harmonious existence, free from the burden of a landlord and from the responsibility and taint of slaves (or, in the Southern version, possessed of very few, with whom he works side by side.) He is the model of self-sufficiency and the backbone of democracy.
Yet he is not alone. In fact the yeoman shares his rural landscape with his degraded cousin, the poor white.
There is not a single clear line of division between these two figures. They often have similar names and live under similar conditions; however that the two are very different in the minds of the nineteenth-century American population is very evident in literary representations of the two.
Onto the Cracker