>Catholic Historical Review
Vol. 36, 1950
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's analysis of the role of the West in American history is a welcome addition to the growing body of scholarly material now being made available for a re-interpretation of the significance of the frontier in American development. Having set up such a theme, he necessarily had to consider the implications of the Turner hypothesis. Although
he does not want to give the impression that he aims to determine
whether the Turner thesis is a valid interpretation of American history or not, he does present conclusions which tend to indicate that the frontier theory as enunciated by the "master and his long line of disciples" presents a number of grave dilemmas for the contemporary historian.
Professor Smith believes that Turner's agrarian code, based as it is upon the notion that American democracy has been born of free land, does not offer a completely satisfactory explanation now for "a world dominated by industry, urbanization, and international conflicts." The emphasis on the agrarian tradition, according to the author, has glorified a myth which "has impeded cooperation between farmers and factory workers in more than one crisis in our history...." Furthermore, "the contemptuous indifference" which certain aspects of the Turner doctrine may foster toward our European heritage has frequently "made it difficult for Americans to think of themselves as members of a world community...."
Yet, in spite of the current trend in the direction of a reappraisal of the significance of the West in American development, prominent American historians, as evidenced by their reaction to the Pierson criticism of 1940, are still not ready to discard all of the frontier theory. Making due allowance for the provincialism and excessive nationalism which an over-emphasis on western factors and the role of the sections may produce, Turner can be credited with having stimulated an interest and concern
about a broader treatment of American history than was typical in his day. As so frequently happens with a new approach, it often takes on the character of the interpretation instead of serving as a guide for an interpretation of a particular historical problem. Yet such a study as that compiled by Professor Smith helps to place the West in wiser perspective and indicates why a restatement of the frontier theory may be in order.
In this book the author offers more than a critical setting for the presentation of the Turner hypothesis. He has drawn upon the rich materials of American and European literary figures to expose how the West during the nineteenth century proved both a symbol and a myth for countless Americans. Interest in the Far West as a highway to the Pacific and as a means to gain a passage to India, the nature of Manifest Destiny, the characteristics of the "sons of Leatherstocking," including an appraisal of the western hero and heroine in the dime novel, along with an investigation of the nature of American agrarianism are some of the topics which receive special consideration. Professor Smith has succeeded in presenting a very stimulating analysis which integrates western political and social history with that of American literature. The reviewer only regrets that the attitudes of leading western Catholic missionaries and churchmen toward colonization and the religious factors involved in the settlement of the trans-Appalachian country did not receive more intensive treatment.
- VINCENT G. TEGEDER
St. John's University