>Annals of the American Academy
Vol. 272, 1950, p. 220
SMITH, HENRY NASH. Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth. Pp. xiv, 305. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1950. $4.50.
Many books have been written about the West, most of them related, in one way or another, to the Turner interpretative theory of American history. Professor Smith has not chosen the geographic frontier, as did Frederick J. Turner, to treat it as the imminent determinism of the history of these United States. The author of the present volume is unconcerned with the validity of the claims of the Turner School of American historians, and turns his attention to the more intriguing problem of what this vast virgin land has meant in symbol and in myth.
What place has the West filled in american thinking? What effect has this extended area had on our prose, poetry, and oratory? What ideas have originated in the West or as a result of the West's being a part of the United States? Has this concept of a fertile public domain played a significant role in our milieu? These are some of the questions which are discussed in this scholarly and interesting book.
Two of the three large divisions of this treatise deal with myths. Book I treats of the passage-to-India fantasy of the West. This was essentially an empire dream which was given lip service at one time or another by Thomas Jefferson, Thomas H. Benton, Asa Whitney, William Gilpin and others. The Myth of the West as the Garden of the World (Book III) began in the minds of such distinguished Americans as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, who dreamed of a yeoman agrarian economy. Eventually, the impact of the industrial revolution on the East and the mid- West knit these two areas together and destroyed the earlier South-West garden myth.
The discussions of these two myths about American virgin land are separated by a book of six chapters on the Sons of Leatherstocking. Fact and fiction are interwoven in these segments of this volume in an excellent way. Was Daniel Boone an empire builder, or a philosopher of primitivism? What were the finer points and the weaknesses of James F. Cooper's frontier characters? How were later writers, using characters in somewhat similar natural environments, able to give greater depth to their character portrayals? How have some of the later biographers of Kit Carson improved on the earlier sketches of this rugged mountaineer? How can one account for the popularity of the dime novel? What improvements were made on the dime novel heroine before she was recognized as true to life? Professor Smith's answers to these questions may be found in Book II of this study.
All in all, this brilliant interpretative analysis will make a permanent contribution to a better understanding of the role of the West in American history.
- GEORGE C. OSBORN
University of Florida