Southwest Review
Summer 1950, pp. xv-xviii.


Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth
By Henry Nash Smith
Harvard University Press, Cambridge $4.50

Regular readers of the Southwest Review already know more than most persons about Henry Nash Smith's thoroughgoing examination of the image of the West in the minds of nineteenth-century Americans. The heroes and heroines of Wild Western fiction, and particularly of the dime novel, have been analyzed and their large implications suggested in these pages (Winter 1943, Summer 1948, Autumn 1948, Spring 1949). These articles, revised to fit a larger scheme and amplified by a fine sequence of illustrations, form an important section of the central part of Virgin Land.

The book, however, is a far broader study than Professor Smith's published articles may have led the casual reader to expect. Its range, indeed, is breath-taking, its purpose nothing less than an exploration of the impact of the West, "the vacant continent beyond the frontier," on the consciousness of Americans from the earliest colonial times to the closing of the frontier. This intention posed some extremely difficult problems of organization, which are, in general, solved both ingeniously and neatly. It demanded, furthermore, a stalking of elusive and often mongrel ideas through swamp and chaparral and every other kind of difficult and little-known terrain--a hunt whose excitement and rewards will almost certainly astonish every thoughtful reader. What we have here, in short, is a book as remarkable for breadth as for depth, as notable for its richness of new detail as for its over-all clarity.

The structure of the book is reminiscent of that of the classic sonata or symphony. There are two main themes, each of which involves certain antithetical elements.

At the beginning, says Professor Smith, there were two different "if often mingled" conceptions of an American Empire. One was the notion of empire as command of the sea, as dominance of world trade-an idea related to British mercantilism, to the northwest passage to Asia, to "manifest destiny." The other was the notion of empire as the settlement of the fertile, wide open spaces of the continent--an idea which, "based on agrarian assumptions, more nearly corresponds to the actual course of events during the nineteenth century." These conceptions form the first main theme, and provide the chief formal divisions of the book.

Book One, "Passage to India," describes in a little more than thirty pages the development of the mercantile tradition, chiefly through analysis of the images of the West in the minds of Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Hart Benton, Asa Whitney, and William Gilpin. The section concludes with a brief chapter on Walt Whitman, the poet "who gave final imaginative expression to the theme of manifest destiny," and who saw "in the march of the pioneer army a prelude to peace and the brotherhood of nations."

Book Three, "The Garden of the World," comprising well over half of the entire book deals with the growth of the agrarian tradition, the images of the "domesticated" West. Here we meet Jefferson again, with a host of travelers, statesmen, novelists, and historians, concluding with Frederick Jackson Turner, whose frontier thesis is weighed with care. The discussion ends with remarks which suggest the scope and the present-day significance of the entire study. From the time of Franklin to that of Turner, Professor Smith observes, "the West had been a constant reminder of the importance of agriculture in American society. It had nourished an agrarian philosophy and an agrarian myth that purported to set forth the character and destinies of the nation. The philosophy and myth affirmed an admirable set of values, but they ceased very early to be useful in interpreting society as a whole because they offered no intellectual apparatus for taking account of the industrial revolution. A system revolved about a half-mystical conception of nature and held up as an ideal a rudimentary type of agriculture was powerless to confront issues arising from the advance of technology.... The agrarian tradition has also made it difficult for Americans to think of themselves as members of a world community because it has affirmed that the destiny of this country leads her away from Europe toward the agricultural interior of this continent."

These are conclusions which many will be reluctant to accept, but they follow from the evidence. When one remembers that rural sociologists scarcely dare suggest that the concept of "the family farm" stands in the way of efficient agricultural economy, their practical meaning of images and of their historical interpretation becomes obvious.

Book Two, "The Sons of Leatherstocking," contains chapters on Daniel Boone, Kit Carson, and the fiction of Cooper, the all but unknown work of Charles W. Webber, and the dime novel material previously mentioned. At first glance, this may not seem relevant to what is presented in Books One and Three. Herein, however, Professor Smith develops his second antithesis-- nature vs. civilization. The philosophical attitudes involved cannot readily be described succinctly, but once again two different and often mingled images of the West are involved. Has the West meant the idea of nature, mystical, individualistic, even anarchistic, the idea of freedom from the pernicious artificialities of older societies? Or has the West meant progress, the taming of the wilderness?

Perhaps the most serious limitation of the book is that the exposition of this second main theme does not come earlier. The conflict of nature and civilization weaves in and out of the latter two-thirds of Virgin Land, and in the end seems to become the shaping, unifying concept. The idea of nature, says Professor Smith in his final paragraph, "tended to cut the region off from the urban East and from Europe." The opposed idea of civilization had even greater disadvantages.

"It not only imposed on Westerners the stigma of social, ethical, and cultural inferiority, but prevented any recognition that the American adventure of settling the continent had brought about an irruption of novelty into history. For the theory of civilization implied that America in general, and the West a fortiori, were meaningless except in so far as they managed to reproduce the achievements of Europe. The capital difficulty of the American agrarian tradition is that it accepted the paired but contradictory ideas of nature and civilization as a general principle of historical and social interpretation. A new intellectual system was requisite before the West could be adequately dealt with in literature or its social development fully understood.

As this and the earlier quotations ought to suggest, Virgin Land is a book which should cause discussion. It uses the literary approach of myth and symbol and collective image to interpret not merely literature in its broadest sense but also politics, social history, economic thought, philosophy. The specialist may wish that this line or that had been pursued further, but no one, surely, will fail to admire the synthesis, achieved with an almost exquisite sense of balance and proportion. Virgin Land, of course, will not long be the last word on the West, but it should be a seminal study, and it deserves to be a popular one.

--Theodore Hornberger