Political Science Quarterly
Vol. 65, 1950, p. 637.

After belatedly discovering the West in the 1890's, American historians devoted the next forty years to an unrestrained apotheosis of it. Yet up to now students have skirted the transcending question: What have Americans conceived the West to be? That question has been answered with great distinction and sagacity by Henry Nash Smith in Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1950, xiv, 305 pp. $4.50) a book that will grow in reputation with the passing of time. Starting with the dream of the West as a broad highway to the Pacific (the ancient notion of the Northwest Passage, translated into land terms), Smith lays down the conception of American empire based on the engrossment of the Asiatic trade that animated, in turn, the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Thomas Hart Benton's plan for a Central National Road, and the crusade of Asa Whitney for a Pacific railway. In this vision the United States would be in the succession to Byzantium, Genoa and Venice, Portugal, the Netherlands, and England, each of which achieved an imperial greatness that rested on the Oriental mart. The more absorbing focus of life in America was, however, the agricultural frontier. Here was created another view, that of the West as the Garden of the World, a mass phantasy of a new Eden, fertile and undefiled, incorruptible and secure. Such a picture contradicted the facts of an agrarian society that depended on railroads and a world grain market, both beyond the control of an innocent yeomanry. The Garden's walls went up, nevertheless, and, as Smith shrewdly observes, these served powerfully to simulate isolationism. Squaring fact with myth was a disillusioning enterprise, though, and when it proved impossible, the emergent agrarian bitterness burst out in the fierce upheaval of the decades after the Civil War and joyous hopes turned to ashes in the fire of the Industrial Revolution. By this time, and until its revival in a modified form in 1898, the idea of empire " no longer beckons onward toward the Pacific and the Far East, but becomes, like the myth of the garden, an introspective, even narcissistic symbol." Some of Smith's conclusions may appear contrived; an occasional quotation torn from its political context acquires a new and unintended meaning; and now and then the Eastern reaction to the West seems confused with the Westerners' own. However, within his matrix the author brilliantly and with uncommon insight analyzes the attempt to find an adequate literary form for the West. In the process, Frederick Jackson Turner slips into his proper place in the history of the search--one from which even his most persistent disciples will not easily extricate him.

Columbia University