Preface to the Synoptic Hypertext Version of Virgin Land


About the Virgin Land Synoptic Text | About the HyperConTexts | Summary of the Virgin LandSynoptic

About the Virgin Land Synoptic Text

Henry Nash Smith's Virgin Land is a watershed American Studies text, one of the most wideranging and provocative studies of American history and culture ever produced. Derived from research which encompassed periodicals and private journals, literary fiction and popular dime novels, congressional hearings and contemporary newspapers, Smith's analysis of the significance of the West to nineteenth-century American national development is unfailingly interesting. What follows here is a synoptic hypertext of Virgin Land, written in the interest of making Smith's subject available to a wide audience--American Studies students and general readers alike--without violation of original text's copyright. With this in mind, each of Smith's chapters are summarized in around 250 words or so, and it is readily admitted that boiling down a 260-page study into something approximately one-tenth that size sacrifices some subtlety and nuance. However, considerable pains have been taken to render Smith's arguments as transparently as possible and to invoke as many of his sources as possible within these parameters. More of Smith has been preserved than has been left out.

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About the HyperConTexts

Included in the synoptic Virgin Land are links out to HyperConTexts. These hypertextual appendices are the work of the M. A. 1996 American Studies Group at the University of Virginia and are intended to 1) illuminate in greater detail some of the events, persons, and patterns of thought present in the Virgin Land synoptic text; 2) broaden, in interesting ways, its thematic and argumentative scope; and 3) embed it within a larger context of social, political, and cultural issues.

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Summary of the Virgin Land Synoptic Text

The subject of Virgin Land is the function of the West in the American imagination during the nineteenth-century, the shaping of American society by the westward pull of a "vacant continent." The study begins with an analysis of the influence of the eighteenth century vision of transcontinental trade with Asia--the British-inspired ideal of mercanilist dominion over the seas--on the theorization of national identity in the colonial period. The second part of the work scrutinizes the origin, transmission, and impact of the hunter/pathfinder figure in history and literature--as initially exemplified in Daniel Boone and Leatherstocking, respectively--on attitudes toward settlement of the West. The final third of Virgin Land details extensively the influence of the idea of the West as a Garden of the World,' in which a virtuous democratic society would grow up around the agricultural labor of yeoman farmers.

Along the way, Smith discusses the transmission of attitudes toward the West in literature, sociology, and politics, using as touchstones figures such as Jefferson, Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, Horace Greeley, and Frederick Jackson Turner. From the poetry of Walt Whitman and the "local color" realism of Hamlin Garland to the Beadle dime novels and periodical accounts of Buffalo Bill's Wild West show, Smith surveys both literary and popular fiction for clues to American ideas toward the West. He demonstrates the influence of these attitudes toward western settlement on the political machinations of the mid-century period--the "free soil" and "safety valve" theories, the Homestead Act and the reform of the public land system. Among other things, the West played a significant part in the formation of the political alliances of the Civil War.

Smith's study ends with an examination of Turner's "Significance of the Frontier in American History" essay as both a fin de siecle summation of the central tenets of American agrarianism and as a case study in the contradictions and theoretical dead-ends of the agrarian ideal. Virgin Land argues persuasively that by century's end, the inward focus and isolationist impulse of nineteenth-century westward expansion had hampered the United States' relationship to Europe. Simultaneously, the supremacy in American of contemporary (European) theories of civilization relegated settlers of the frontier to low social status and hindered acknowledgement of what was actually new and vigorous about American institutions.

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Prologue of Virgin Land Synoptic Text

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