Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth.
By Henry Nash Smith. Harvard University Press, 1950. Pp. xiv, 305. Illustrations.
Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth is a rewarding book for those interested in the basic themes of American history or in the development of American ideas, or in the popular literature that purported to describe life on the western frontier. But the scope of the work is far less than that suggested by the title. Specifically, "The present study traces the impact of the West, the vacant continent beyond the frontier, on the consciousness of Americans and follows the principal consequences of this impact in literature and social thought down to Turner's formulation of it." Here is no consideration of the various gold rushes, of the cattle industry, of modern reclamation of the nation's vacation areas, of Indian life on mountain and plain, or of industrial expansion on the Pacific coast. In fact, the West here considered is restricted to the valley of the Mississippi as a possible agricultural "Garden of the New World" and to the region beyond only as it presented a barrier to the expansion of an American empire to the Pacific, where maritime ambitions could at last be realized by a "northwest passage to Asia."
In "Prologue: Eighteenth-Century Origins," Professor Smith traces the forerunners of Frederick Jackson Turner and his frontier thesis in the writings of Bishop Berkeley, Benjamin Franklin, Crevecoeur, Timothy Dwight, Philip Freneau and others. In "Book One: Passage to India" such visionaries as Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Hart Benton, Asa Whitney, William Gilpin, and Walt Whitman are presented as champions of "manifest destiny," of an American nation continental in scope and drawing on the riches of India, replacing Europe by Asia as our great resource and future partner.
"Book Two: The Sons of Leatherstocking" turns to the literary record. Did such heroes as Natty Bumpo, Daniel Boone, and Kit Carson as depicted in the popular writings of Cooper, Charles W. Webber, and the dime-novel fictionists truly embody American ideals of empire building and free opportunity for all or were they carriers of old European dreams concerning primitive "children of nature," perpetuating traditional class and race prejudices? After reading Professor Smith's evidence on this question one realizes the validity of his subtitle: "The American West as Symbol and Myth."
In "Book Three: The Garden of the World," which occupies the second half of the volume, the promise of free land, also, is proved to have been far more myth than reality. The agrarian utopia was rewarding only to those who had capital for the journey west, for tools, seed, and so forth. Too much of the land open for homesteads was worthless because of lack of water or lack of suitable markets. Furthermore, much of it was grabbed up by the railroads and various land companies. The literary record of agricultural pioneering became more truthful as the experiment continued. "From Caroline Kirkland to Hamlin Garland" is a pioneer essay on the emergence of realism in the literature of the Agricultural West." The conservative social attitudes of Cooper, reflected in early, sentimental novels of country life, were gradually replaced by social protest in the realistic fiction that culminated in Hamlin Garland's Main Travelled Roads.
In his final chapter, "The Myth of the Garden and Turner's Frontier Hypothesis," Professor Smith finds that Turner too often assumed that the figurative language with which he described the frontier stood for a reality that he desired but that had no basis in fact. Turner's acceptance of even conflicting myths, such as the idea that frontier society was shaped beneficently by free land and nature, and the opposing idea that the West would finally evolve into higher stages of civilization out of its frontier primitivism, led to some basic contradictions and confusions.
Certainly this book illustrates methods of approach and kinds of analysis that should prove valuable when applied to many areas of American cultural history. If the same high level of clear exposition, of original thinking, and of broad scholarship could be maintained, the results would be welcome to both scholars and intelligent "general readers."
--LEVETTE J. DAVIDSON
University of Denver