PREFACE to the HyperText Version of Henry Nash Smith's
Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth

Ian Finseth
The University of Virginia
12/9/94


As a mythological study of the American West, Virgin Land may be brought into sharper focus both by providing a more precise definition of myth that Henry Nash Smith assays, and by disentangling the thematic strands of myth that run through his landmark study. While Smith does a thorough job in describing particular myths -- their background, color, appeal to the mind, and so forth -- he is not particularly concerned with theoretical issues or with structuring his work around the various axes implied by a theoretical approach. Virgin Land is arranged more or less chronologically, tracing the concept of The West from the long-standing question for a "Passage to India," through various literary modes of expression and political and economic transformations, and finally to the settlement of the West and Frederick Jackson Turner's articulation of the "frontier hypothesis" in 1893 -- with many side roads and auxiliary topics supporting Smith's thesis along the way. An alternative method of navigating Virgin Land is to follow the individual strands of mythological construction that, taken together, weave the texture of Smith's central thesis.

The birth and life of a myth (in a sense, they never die) may be roughly divided into seven major stages of development. It should be understood that these categories are rigid in rubric only; there is significant overlap between them, and echoes from one to another. A hypertext approach to Virgin Land, however, necessarily entails some type of schematization.

The following seven sections form a "home-page," or base of operations, from which you may navigate Virgin Land mythologically. Choosing one of the seven will first take you to a brief explanation of the category and a series of thought-provoking questions, and then allow you to branch out into the book to see a variety of illustrative examples. The assortment of examples does not pretend to be comprehensive; rather, it is designed to stimulate thought and encourage an alternative vision of Smith's work.

  1. The Motivations of Myth
  2. Mechanisms of Myth's Creation
  3. The Character of Myth
  4. Dissemination of Myth
  5. The Power of Myth over History
  6. The Power of History over Myth
  7. Competition between Myths

(The numbering system below operates as follows:

16.8.7 indicates page 16, line 8, word 7

  • * partial words that begin a line are not included: "-tion of the rivers...." (rivers = word 3)
  • * partial words or sentence fragments are counted as lines, no matter how short they may be
  • * chapter headings and subheadings (e.g. Buffalo Bill and Buck Taylor) are not counted as lines
  • * spaces between lines are not counted as lines
  • * quoted passages are treated in the same fashion as the main body of text
  • * all examples start at the beginning of a sentence -- which will clarify how any numbering mistakes should be handled
  • * delete these guidelines upon execution of the file, and, should you be caught, Jim, the secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions)

THE MOTIVATIONS OF MYTH

What are the conscious or unconscious human impulses and desires that underlie the creation of a mythic construct? How do economic, religious, and political considerations, often intertwined, contribute to the process? Which societal interests are served by the myth? Which are hindered? Attempting to answer these types of questions may lead to a clearer understanding of the myth-generating power of human desire, and of the reasons that certain myths endure while others wither.

In Virgin Land, the primary motivations for a Western mythology appear to stem from *economic ambition* in settling or portraying the West (7.28.3, 28.12.1, 29.3.1) and *political considerations* in accomplishing that settlement (27.38.1, 151.8.1, 206.9.1).

MECHANISMS OF MYTH'S CREATION

Given a set of underlying motives, what is the actual process by which a myth comes into existence? When is it first uttered? Uttered a second time? How do the springs of individual thought and social interaction give rise to a concept that takes on a life of its own?

There are at least four principal mechanisms of mythologization at work in Virgin Land. The first is the active role of *individual psychology* in interpreting and describing the world, from which myth directly takes its form and color (22.35.2, 23.18.10, 30.39.8, 32.31.3, 44.8.7). Equally important is the simple *repetition* of a phrase or idea; its increasing currency; its gradual evolution from individual to social existence (32.5.9, 37.4.6, 103.22.6). After a certain threshold of self-consciousness has been crossed, myths, or the seeds of myth, can undergo *deliberate manufacture* (27.9.3, 104.7.1, 106.33.6, 255.6.11). Another important mechanism, although not as critical as the first three, is the physical and public embodiment of an idea, as in art (53.7.5).

THE CHARACTER OF MYTH

What do myths express and from where do they derive their power? What are the psychological and culture wellsprings of myth? What personal or social values do they reflect and uphold?

The myth constructs that Smith describes appeal almost universally to the *imagination* (17.18.7, 22.12.1, 186.32.1, 192.30.1) or to deeply held emotions, including *personal well-being* (170.25.7, 204.2.4) and *national identity* (9.15.7, 23.33.6, 44.3.5). Myths tend to resonate with a *preexisting ethos in society (4.3.1, 60.36.2, 91.33.7). Perhaps most importantly, myths of the West tap into powerful and often ambivalent *emotions regarding nature*, ranging from a love of nature either for its own right or as a romantic ideal, to a fear of nature as an untamed and immoral place (52.16.10, 72.4.1, 77.27.13, 79.36.1, 89.8.6).

There are uniquely American qualities to the character of the myths of the West, or, to put it more precisely, ways in which the uniqueness of the United States imparted to its myths a distinctive coloring. The dominant hues involve *liberty* (252.3.6), the *physical geography* of the United States (11.17.1, 39.35.2, 40.14.1), and the images of an *American empire* (186.8.1, 187.19.1) and an *American utopia* (32.10.6, 37.19.1, 205.38.1).

A curious feature of the myths evolving during Smith's time-frame was their habit of referring to *the past*, to Europe at the same time that they articulated a vision of America's future (8.28.7, 19.21.8, 25.10.3, 128.32.1). Yet there still abided and thrived a longing to *escape the past* and tradition (26.2.3, 44.8.7).

DISSEMINATION OF MYTH

As noted under "Mechanisms of Myth's Creation," a requisite component of the formation of a myth is repetition. At a mature stage of development, a myth will have achieved a certain ubiquity, usually through the agency of all varieties of mass media. It is possible to identify two extremes between which the dissemination of myth operates: a top-down, conscious promotion of a concept on the one hand, and on the other, the diffuse and unconscious expression of the multitude.

The main channels of media which brought myth to the public during the nineteenth century include: *literature* (60.3.1, 76.11.1, 78.26.1, 220.1.1); *biography* (85.13.1); *sub-literature* (86.38.4, 91.12.1, 92.29.1, 95.22.1, 102.8.1, 227.18.1); *newspapers and magazines* (185.6.9, 189.17.7, 254.16.7); *speeches* (26.10.1, 28.12.1); and *other documents* such as Senate papers (38.8.1). Naturally, one cannot ignore the role played by *press agents* in disseminating myth (108.19.1, 111.3.1).

THE POWER OF MYTH OVER HISTORY

Once a myth has taken on a life in the public consciousness, how does it make itself felt? How does a deeply held conception of the world inflect people's thinking and actions? How does a myth change the very face of history by influencing actual events? And how does it gravitational force distort preexisting history by draining people and events of their objective essence?

This last process, by which historical reality is molded and conscripted into the service of an idea or ambition, has been discussed at length by Roland Barthes in his essay "Myth Today." In Virgin Land, the American West and its inhabitants and representative figures are by no means stable entities; myth effects a *transformation of their intrinsic reality* (54.12.1, 85.27.1, 86.24.5, 89.5.1, 102.32.1, 103.10.11, 135.22.2, 187.17.2).

Myth's influence over people operates primarily on a psychological plane, by gradually and imperceptibly becoming part of one's *thought process* (154.33.2, 189.1.1, 192.30.1, 255.12.5) and thereby encouraging certain *ways of viewing the world* (187.24.9, 188.1.1). This psychological power of myth can be readily translated into action, or an *effect on the course of history*, often through the gears of politics (165.1.1, 180.5.8, 193.27.4, 199.10.3, 200.9.4, 259.34.8). One of the ways that myth changed the history of the West was to accelerate the *removal of native Americans* (4.15.1, 46.16.1, 126.1.9, 257.13.1).

THE POWER OF HISTORY OVER MYTH

What happens when the course of historical events renders a myth irrelevant or implausible? How flexible and successful are myths in adapting to the exigencies of their age? How do myths mature?

The most dramatic examples of how myth adapts or succumbs to history occur when *reality flatly contradicts* the assumptions or implications of a myth, often with wrenching effect (156.2.1, 179.3.1, 188.25.10, 192.32.1, 196.4.8, 247.19.1). Yet even in such cases, myths can display a remarkable *resilience* and slowness in changing (141.37.1, 159.15.2). Another dramatic reformulation can take place through the *perversion of myth* for purposes unrelated to its original motivating ideas (195.9.1, 248.3.1). But such drama is not an inevitable phenomenon. Myths can undergo *natural and predictable evolution* in accordance with the times (174.23.1).

In the realm of literature, one can identify ways in which the treatment of myth is circumscribed and shaped by the *dictates of convention* (65.11.6, 68.3.1, 70.5.1), and similarly, ways in which writers try to maintain *plausibility* by acknowledging historical fact or incorporating it into their stories and characters (84.1.1, 88.17.3, 119.29.1, 224.21.3).

COMPETITION BETWEEN MYTHS

What are we to make of myths that contradict each other, rest on divergent human values and principles, or assert fundamentally different views of the world? When myths grow obsolete or unfashionable, are they necessarily supplanted by other myths? If so, what imaginative, emotional, or political advantages do the ascendant myths possess?

In the various conceptualizations of the American West that Smith describes, there are three principal clashes: *the Cult of Nature vs. the Cult of Progress* (52.28.1, 119.29.1, 218.11.1, 256.12.1); *the Garden of the World myth vs. the Great American Desert myth* (175.3.11, 185.25.1, 189.1.1); and *the Garden of the World myth vs. the Southern Plantation myth* (133.11.1, 143.4.1, 152.26.9).

Minor competitions involve *opposing notions of empire* (12.8.1, 29.25.1), and the opposition of *agrarianism and mercantilism* (34.8.1).

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