Vol 13, 1951 page 202
VIRGIN LAND: THE AMERICAN WEST AS SYMBOL AND MYTH. By Henry Nash Smith. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. 1950. Pp. xiv, 305. $4.50.)
It has been said that ideas are weapons; certainly they were powerful influences in the history of the American West, as is made abundantly clear in Virgin Land. This stimulating book does not purport to give factual or systematic narrative of the westward movement; instead, it presents the West as "symbol and myth." These two words, to quote the author's own definition, are used "to designate larger or small units of the same kind of thing, namely an intellectual construction that fuses concept and emotion into an image." These products of the imagination had practical consequences. Notions widely held about westward-moving "Course of Empire" and the "Garden of the World" in the Mississippi Valley had profound effects on the political, economic and social behavior of the American people.
To the British in the eighteenth century the West beyond the Appalachian Mountains posed a problem of empire: should they try to keep the Colonists close to the sea for the sake of their maritime interests or encourage them to build up a populous agricultural society in the interior? Franklin, a far-seeing theorist, foreshadowed the safety-valve theory of the frontier with his argument that western settlement might be beneficial to British industry since cheap land would drain off workers from the eastern towns and thus discourage colonial manufactures. There was no permanent solution of the problem under Britain, but in general the development of the West throughout the nineteenth century was along lines advocated by the early agrarians.
In the early days of the republic one of the major interests in the West was the possibility of developing lines of communication and trade by means of which the original dream of Columbus--a passage to India--might be realized. Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Hart Benton, Asa Whitney, and William Gilpin, with motives in which the idealistic and the practical were sometimes strangely mixed, all shared an interest in projects for roads across the continent. To this theme of manifest destiny, Walt Whitman gave imaginative expression.
In a section headed "The Sons of Leatherstocking," the prevailing concepts about Western heroes and heroines--some fictional as in the writings of Cooper and Webber, and others as real and close to earth as Daniel Boone and Kit Carson--are examined. Here are shown some of the confusions in thought about the West, such as the two interpretations of Boone: to some he was the pioneer of empire, while to others he was the child of nature who did not want to be disturbed in his enjoyment of the simple life of the wilderness. More fundamental was the conflict in thinking about an idealized primitive society on the one hand, and ont the other, civilization with its evils and artificialities. In the search for literary expressions of these and other divergent opinions, considerable attention has been give to dime novels, which though sub-literary in style, are significant of the social historian since they reflect the dreams of the inarticulate masses.
"The Myth of the Garden," which takes up about half of the book, is devoted to the presentation and development of the idea that agriculture was to be the dominant force in the Mississippi Valley, It was there that an agrarian utopia would serve as a safety-valve for Ester discontent. The Republican party capture this "myth" with its homestead policy, but lost control of the hero of the myth, the hardy yeoman, when hard times swept across the plains and prairies and Western farmers accepted the panaceas offered by Populists and other agrarian radicals. In one of the most illumination sections in the book, the changing concepts of the farmer's role in American life are traced from Cooper to Garland.
"The last chapter in the book is devoted to a reinterpretation of the frontier theories of Frederick Jackson Turner, which, according to the Professor Smith, grew out of the "Myth of the Garden." Although the author states that it is not his intention to determine whether Turner's hypothesis is or is not a valid interpretation of American history, he indicates his general disapproval of it. Much is made of Turner's alleged inconsistencies in connection with the conflict between the opposing ideas of the goodness of nature and the progress of civilization; since Turner tied democracy to free land, he is made to face a dilemma as to its future with the passing of the frontier; and it is asserted that his immersion in the stream of agrarian intellectual influence, "had an unfortunate effect in committing him to certain archaic assumptions which hampered his approach to twentieth-century social problems" (p. 251). Insofar as this study shows the relationship between Turner's thinking and the prevailing notions in his formative years about the importance of agriculture and the place of the West in American .life, it is a significant contribution to an understand of the background of the frontier theory. Whether it presents a fair picture of Turner and his views is another matter. Granted that Professor Smith carefully documents his remarks on Turner by specific references to his words, and granted also that some of Turner's generalizations are too sweeping, it is the opinion of this reviewer that through inference and deduction Turner is made to appear more dogmatic in his theories than was the case, and that the emphasis has been shifted too much from the historian who was trying to explain what had happened to a sort of sociologist who had been caught in some rigid system of his own developing. The real Turner appears in the attitudes he manifested in class rooms and seminars as well as in what he wrote, and in his later as well as his earlier writings. As to inconsistencies, he pointed out elements of mutual hostility in pioneer ideals; as to democracy after the passing of the frontier, he suggested that there was a growing tendency to preserve it through increased governmental activity. His presidential address before the American Historical Association (1910) on "Social Forces in American History" indicates his awareness of the need for a reexamination of frontier theories in the light of changing conditions.
A few minor factual errors or questionable statements have been noted: Lewis and Clark did not reach the shore of the Pacific in 1804 (p. 19); it is not literally true that Jefferson framed the Northwest Ordnance (p. 128) since he was in France when it was drafted, although obviously it contained some of his enlightened ideas; it would be more accurate to say that Benton was defeated for rather than returned to the House of Representatives in 1854 (p. 22); and the allusion to the capture of Astoria by the British navy (p. 17) does not seem to make allowance for the previous sale of the post to the Northwest Company. But since this is primarily an interpretative study, these details are of no great significance.
With respect to its main purpose, the correlation of American literature and one aspect of American history, Virgin Land is an outstanding achievement in scholarship. It is a penetrating analysis of the ideas, often vague and contradictory, that grew up around the West; and since the West was one of the most important forces in American history, it has to do with some of the most vital aspects of our national life and thought. Added interest is given by eight pages of reproductions of sketches and drawings that set forth pictorially some of the most widely held ideas about the West and its inhabitants.
- COLIN B. GOODYKOONTZ
University of Colorado