Pacific Historical Review|
Vol. 19, 1950
Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth. By Henry Nash Smith. (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1950. xiv+305 pp. $4.50)
The author, who is professor of American Literature at the University of Minnesota, states his thesis in this way: "The present study traces the impact of the West, the vacant continent beyond the frontier, on the consciousness of Americans and follows the principal consequences of this impact in literature and social thought.... The doctrine that the United States is a continental nation rather than a member with Europe of the Atlantic community has had a formative influence on the American mind and deserves historical treatment in its own right." In proving this statement, Smith has written one of the most stimulating books on the frontier since the days of Frederick Jackson Turner.
To Americans in the early nineteenth century, he maintains, there were two Wests beyond the fringe of settlements. One was the West of new trading frontiers, of the course of empire, of manifest destiny. This concept, which flowered under Thomas Jefferson, was expanded by a number of writers whose works are carefully scrutinized: Thomas Hart Benton, Asa Whitney, William Gilpin, and Walt Whitman in particular. Employing arguments that ranged from the desirability of Oriental trade to the inevitability of westward progress along an "isothermal zodiac," they made the people so aware of their nation's unique destiny that the expansion of the 1840's was only a logical implementation of long-accepted dreams.
The second West of interest to easterners was the frontier of settlement. This, in turn, was separated in the popular mind into a Wild West peopled successively by hunters, trappers, mountain men, cowboys, and badmen, and an agricultural West filled with prosaic farmers. Smith shows that James Fenimore Cooper recognized this distinction, but that he failed after twenty-five years of experimenting to develop a hero who would separate the two types satisfactorily. Later authors were more successful. In a series of brilliant chapters, Smith shows the evolution of a typically American frontier type of wild westerner, personified by Deadwood Dick, Buffalo Bill, and Calamity Jane of dime novel fame. The authors responsible had successfully assaulted the canons of gentility that lent refinement to the novels of Cooper or his contemporaries, and
by doing so had stamped a new impression of the Wild West on the eastern mind.
The agricultural West proved a more challenging theme. Early writers such as St. John de Crevecoeur and Thomas Jefferson firmly implanted on the American mind the concept of the frontier as the Garden of the World, an agricultural paradise promising abundance and happiness to all comers. Yet the central character in this Eden was the yeoman farmer, a menial of doubtful gentility, on whom aristocratic politicians and authors alike looked askance. Smith shows that this conservative viewpoint was attacked first on the political level with the Homestead Act,
a measure designed to translate into reality the dream of an agrarian utopia that had haunted the nation since the days of Jefferson. So persistent was the Garden symbol that the East relinquished belief in another of its favorite legends--that of the Great American Desert--to extend the farmer's paradise beyond the 100th meridian. Only the gradual realization that a classless society of free yeomen was doomed by the greed of land speculators and railroad monopolists forced easterners to alter their symbol of the Garden as a permanent "safety valve" for the world's downtrodden. The shattering of this dream, Smith believes, underlay the agrarian discontent of the late nineteenth century.
Literary men lagged half a century behind politicians in their acceptance of the yeoman farmer as a social equal. To such early writers as James K. Paulding and Timothy Flint he was a worthy soul who deserved polite praise--but not friendship. This conservatism Smith traces to the reaction against equalitarianism, to the traditions of the sentimental novel, to the ancient Puritan distrust of "come-outers," and to deeply rooted beliefs that agriculture represented a low stage in the evolution of society. The first step away from these archaic notions was taken in mid-century by novelists like Alice Cary who rebelled against the infliction of eastern standards of value on all the nation, but not until fifty years later did such writers as E. W. Howe and Hamlin Garland view the farmer as a human being possessed of dignity even amidst his tribulations. Thus did the myth of the Garden finally vanish, but its influence remained, Smith believes, on a later generation of historians. His final
chapter analyzes the impact of the legend on Frederick Jackson Turner's frontier hypothesis.
This extended summary has been deemed necessary to indicate the epic scope of Smith's subject and the vital importance of his conclusions. Writing--and writing beautifully--against a background of knowledge that gives weight to his conclusions, he has demonstrated the existence of a series of legends that have influenced legislation, permeated politics, and swayed American authors for two centuries. His study should lead to a reappraisal of much of our literature and to a better understanding of many phases of thought and politics.
--RAY ALLEN BILLINGTON