Journal of the West|
Vol. 9, 1970.
VIRGIN LAND: The American West as Symbol and Myth (Twentieth Anniversary Reissue), by Henry Nash Smith (Cambridge: Harvard University Press: 1970). "Preface to the Twentieth Anniversary Printing," "Preface to the First Printing," Prologue; Illustrations--line drawings; Notes, Index. Pp. xviii, 306. (5-l/2"x 8-1/2"); cloth; $7.95.
In 1950, when Henry Nash Smith's Virgin Land first appeared the reviewer for the New York Times commented that this was "a study that is sure to stand as a lasting contribution to the field...." Fellow historians judged the work to be worthy of the John H. Dunning Prize and the Bancroft Prize in American history.
Even in 1970, anyone reading this work can easily understand the favorable responses which Virgin Land evoked. With thorough scholarship, grace, wit, and imagination, Smith dealt with the question, "What is the American?" in a manner that was both intellectually satisfying and entertaining.
Professor Smith's close analysis of such neglected historical materials as poetry, fiction, the dime novel, and popular performances, demonstrated the inherent contradiction in the stereotype of the "American character." As this character became both a myth and a symbol, Smith demonstrated he was, on the one hand, the naturally good man of nature, a condition made possible by the inexhaustible American frontier. On the other hand he was the child of Europe and Eastern civilization starting a new civilization which would rival the old civilizations in their own terms.
The problem of the "American character" was, of course, examined long before the year 1950. Examined, in fact, even before the political existence of the United States. The problem of whether the frontier as producing uncouth primitive or "noble savages" had troubled James Fenimore Cooper in his fiction and Frederick Jackson Turner in his now-famous hypothesis on the value of the American frontier. What Virgin Land did, for the first time in a full-length treatment, was to look at the "American character" as it had been developed in both the intellectual and popular cultures.
If this study were being published now for the first time, any 1970 reviewer would be likely to make the same critical judgments voiced twenty years ago. The influence of this work on studies since then, however, paradoxically makes this reissue somewhat dated beyond the years. Smith, it is true, makes few claims for this reissue. In the new Preface, he notes that "This reissue . . . reproduces the original printing with only minor revisions to remove some ineptitudes of style and correct a few errors of fact." Acknowledging that his subject has received serious attention in the two decades past, he concludes, ". . . none of it [the new scholarship] seems to me to cast doubt on my conclusions."
While a reissue is not intended to be a "revised edition," printing costs being what they are, and while this reviewer, at least, accepts Smith's judgment that his original thesis still stands unchallenged, the author did overlook an opportunity to make this reissue more than a reprinting. It would have been useful, for example, if Smith in his new Preface had commented upon the new scholarship, relating it to this thesis. It would have been valuable, too, if he had commented upon new developments that have run counter to some of his judgments made in 1950.
In concluding his chapter on the "Dime Novel Heroine," for example, Smith, citing Douglas Branch's 1926 study The Cowboy and His Interpreters, commented that,"The movies and the radio have tidied up the morals, or at least the manners, of the [Western melodrama] genre, but plot construction and characterization follow an apparent unbreakable pattern."
Such an observation was obvious from 1920 and 1930 movies featuring Tom Mix, Hoot Gibson, and Buck Jones. Perhaps even as late as 1950 the comment may have been generally true, but at the end of the 1960's--with motion pictures like "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid"--if it still holds, it needs some serious explanation.
Such qualifications are, of course, merely quibbles. Virgin Land belongs on the shelf of every library of the West. The reissue makes the book easily available in an attractive format.
-- PAUL T. NOLAN,