>American Historical Review
Vol. 56, 1951
No. 4, p. 905
VIRGIN LAND: THE AMERICAN WEST AS SYMBOL AND MYTH. By Henry Nash Smith. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1950. Pp. xiv, 305. $4.50)
PROFESSOR Smith offers this volume as a contribution to the history of American thought and feeling, with particular reference to certain western phenomena. His book falls into three principal divisions, "Passage to India," "The Sons of Leatherstocking," and "The Garden of the World." A prologue, "Eighteenth Century Origins," indicates his point of departure. Four essays or chapters constitute his first division. Here his piece, "The Untransacted Destiny: William Gilpin," which deals with a forgotten but interesting figure and his neglected but notable book, is easily the leading one of the group. It amounts to a real contribution well and instructively narrated.
To develop his second division the author requires six chapters, which bring together much intensive study of well-known writers like Cooper, and of suggestive or informing penmen and others of the literary half-world. Continuing the study of dime novel writers begun more than a decade ago by Merle Curti, the author extracts gold from dross, and demonstrates the growth and decay of various literary conventionalizations of such western types as the hunter, the mountain man, and the rough and ready bad man. This section is well rounded off by a chapter on "The Dime Novel Heroine."
The farmers' West is the subject of the third division. Here the author touches on agriculture and the American ideal, the politics of land, the new farmlands as a refuge (safety valve) for the defeated and dispossessed, and much else that is related thereto. All in all, then, the author has brought both a plenty of new material and has fused it with other more familiar matter to produce a stimulating study. He has been at pains to write clearly and hence his pages are pleasant ones to read, although at times when he makes play with "myths" and "symbols" the reader wearies just a little. It is to be hoped that his use of these terms will not prove catching, for in less skilled hands such terms could lead to pernicious results.
Though the design seems to encompass the subject of attention, actually the total subject, larger somewhat than Professor Smith appears to sense, eludes him in the end. This book is a part of a book. For one thing, it begins too late. It is an error of primary importance in the plan to commence the study with the middle eighteenth century. We may go back a full century and more, and find evidence relevant and apposite. Thus, when the young governor of Restoration East New Jersey landed in his new province, of set purpose he carried a hoe over his shoulder and from the hat he wore there fluttered a ribbon, of color green. The young Carteret was giving expression to seventeenth century agrarian symbolism. And but a few years later a neighbor of his, Daniel Denton of New York wrote (1670) of that province in such glowing terms that one sees that already the Atlantic West, the salt-water frontier, had imposed itself on contemporary minds. Such early matters Professor Smith has quite left out, and so the roots of his subject are left unexcavated. The point could be developed, in connection with several other aspects of the book. The passage to India theme, for example, has a genealogy that goes back to the summer of 1607, as far as this central seaboard is concerned. Jefferson inherited the problem, first posed for that geographical sector by "Western" men in late Elizabethan times.
The section on "The Sons of Leatherstocking" affords many contrasts between the western rovers and the men of the settlements, the squires, landed gentry. There is the contrast between boorishness and civilization, between life on the march and life well rooted; between reliance on primitive strength, and trust in the supporting bonds of custom. The author seems to hold that this dichotomy is purely American. But is this so? When we turn to Europe, do we not see martial and naval ways of life contrasted with home-keeping customs of the well-seated squires, the well-rooted townsmen? On one hand Drake and Hawkins, on the other Gilbert White of Selborne and a goodly company of sessile ones. Plainly, there are several English ways of life, which call out contrasting types to play distinctive roles on the wide stage that is life. And what of the opposition of officer-class tradition to bourgeois tradition in the old military monarchies on the Continent? It would seem that though the European terms may be different, yet the underlying "American" contrasts are again present. So are the American experiences, despite superficial differences, brought close to the European experiences, and hence both tend to be combined into a larger unity.
Professor Smith has made a beginning with a large subject; however, Virgin Land leaves much land still open for the tilling in many seasons yet to come.
- FULMER MOOD
University of Texas