Vol. 2, 1950, page 279.
VIRGIN LAND: THE AMERICAN WEST AS SYMBOL AND MYTH. BY HENRY
NASH SMITH. 305 PP. Harvard University Press, 1950, $4.50.
At first blush no two intellectual movements seem farther apart than the tendency in American economic and social history to redefine the role of the West in national development, and the tendency in philosophy, psychology, and literary criticism to re-emphasize the mythic and symbolic aspects of the imagination. But there is an intersection--one which even so unlikely a person as Hamlin Garland dimly foresaw almost sixty years ago when he wrote: "All of the associations called up by the spoken word, the West, were fabulous, mythic, hopeful"; and it is frequently at such intersections that the most exciting intellectual work is done.
The historical criticism of the past fifteen years has removed the West from the high place that Frederick Jackson Turner, writing in terms of demography and economic and political history, assigned to it; but Mr. Smith, who is no Turnerian, has gone far to reassert the importance of the West in more moderate, acceptable, and intellectually sophisticated terms on the ground of its mythic-symbolic role. He has written a compelling, fascinating book, which performs the double service of laying out broad areas of inquiry into the imaginative significance of the West and of probing in a close and scholarly way into several of its particular facets.
It may be too early to accept Professor J. Frank Dobie's judgment that this book is as significant as Turner's, but his statement that "It is really much wiser" will, I suspect, promptly win widespread acceptance. There is a subtlety about Mr. Smith's perceptions of the interplay between symbol and act, idea and reality, that suggests how far our best scholarship has advanced from the simpler formulas of Turner's generation.
The first part of Mr. Smith's book deals with the dream of a passage to India. The image of a commercial empire standing athwart the world's trade routes and linking the Atlantic and Pacific worlds has been a persistent theme in the American imagination. The linkage of civilization with the trade routes, an idea commonly identified with the name of Brooks Adams, was also strong in the mind of Senator Thomas Hart Benton, and in diverse ways others, like Asa Whitney, William Gilpin, and Walt Whitman, saw it too. Exalted notions of the possibilities of the West in world commerce and world unification gave an early spur to that grandiose sense of national destiny which has been so characteristic a mark of the American mind. In a second sequence, "The Sons of Leatherstocking," Mr. Smith has studied the evolving stereotype of the western hero in history and literature from Daniel Boone to Cooper's Leatherstocking, to Kit Carson, Deadwood Dick, and Buffalo Bill. He shows how these hero images exemplify the two-way pull in the American imagination between the conception of civilization, with its regard for status and its concern with gentility, and the mystique of primitivism, with its democratic impulse and its veneration for the natural man.
As in the case of Boone, the western hero could be used by different mythmakers for opposite purposes: To some, Boone was the harbinger of civilization and refinement, to others, a white Indian, the cultural primitivist par excellence. The literature of the West, early and late, in the dime novel and in serious writing, showed a persistent tension between the democratic and natural man on one side and the inherited eastern and European status aspirations of genteel fiction on the other.
The third and longest sequence of Virgin Land traces the basic myth of the American hinterland--the myth of "the Garden of the World." As early as the eighteenth century two competing images of the American future had been widely prevalent in England and colonial America. The notion of an empire based on command of the sea vied with the conception of a populous future society based on the agrarian interior of the continent. In statecraft these two primary myths called for quite different strategies, but the concept, favored by Franklin, Jefferson, and Crèvecoeur, of a continental empire based on agriculture won out.
Throughout the nineteenth century the promise of American life was interpreted in terms of the idealized yeoman farmer, working a family farm under frontier or otherwise simple rural conditions. The empire in the American heartland was to be an empire of small freeholds. Against the massive power of the freehold concept the leisure-class notions dominant among the slaveholding aristocracy shattered, as Mr. Smith sees it, and one of the major achievements of the young Republican party was its capture of the freehold symbol through its support of the Homestead bill. The appeal of the homestead system to the West "lay in the belief that it would enact by statute the fee-simple empire, the agrarian utopia of hardy and virtuous yeomen which had haunted the margination of writers about the West since the time of Crevecoeur."
Later the myth of the garden nourished isolationism. "Since evil would not conceivably originate within the walls of the garden, it must by logical necessity come rom without, and the normal strategy of defense was to build the walls higher and stop the cracks in hem." At times the myth of the garden would be self-defeating for example, when it was invoked to oppose John Wesley Powell's land forms. The safety-valve theory, persistent myth long before Turner, was also a part of the larger myth of the garden, which encouraged a tendency to set aside the problems of industrialism and poverty by suggesting that beneficent nature would take care of them. Mr. Smith concludes with a penetrating analysis of the way in which Turner's inconsistencies revealed themselves in his rhetoric. he essentially mythic character of Turner's work becomes much clear against the background of Virgin Land. From the mythic tradition of the West Turner inherited the fundamental imagery of "savagery and "civilization," which he used in his very definition of the frontier. The idea of nature had the effect of artificially severing the West from the urban East and from Europe. But the conception of civilization had the disadvantage of putting the West in a position of cultural and ethical inferiority; it implied that the West was valueless except in so far as it could reproduce the achievements of the East and ultimately of Europe. "The capital difficulty," then, "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." Turner, like Jefferson and other agrarian theorists whose notions of democracy were tied up with the fee-simple empire, was unable to evolve a theory of democracy to fit industrial, urban, post-frontier conditions. If democracy was really dependent upon a kind of primitivism, it was bound to pass along with the simple agrarian order that fostered the primitivist ideal. No brief transcription of its ideas can do justice to the structural complexity, the profound scholarship, or the range of this volume; it may be enough to say that in the long run it will probably transform in considerable degree the course of American studies bearing on the place of the West. It is one of those seminal books that grow more capacious the more the reader brings to them. There is hardly a phase of American thought about America that it does not, directly or tangentially, illuminate.
- RICHARD HOFSTADTER