I decided to publish my write-ups from my comprehensive exam reading fields. I am publishing them *as is.* Thus they represent my thoughts as a new PhD student. They were written between September 2011 and July 2012. The full collection is accessible here.

Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth

Henry Nash Smith

  • Henry Nash Smith, Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth (New York: Vintage Books, 1950).

Henry Nash Smith was a culture and literature researcher. Due to his research on American collective representations and identities, Smith is considered to be one of the cofounders of the discipline of American Studies. Smith conducted his research with the understanding that collective representations that come to life in the form of myth and symbolism are just as important as that which is perceived as fact. In Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth, Smith proposes that perceptions of what an American is have changed over time just as much as the country’s political, economic, and geographical situations. The most enduring of these perceptions is that the American character has been shaped by availability of virgin land along the frontier line of the West. Smith asserts that this frontier identity went through three main stages. Firstly, the West was seen as a highway to the Pacific and, subsequently, to a trade route with Asia, which would enable America to finally break free from its bonds to Britain and become its own, unique nation. The second stage of perception was dominated by a romanticized view of wilderness, which represented the antithesis to the paralyzing, wicked grips of civilization and was personified by the great, rugged, and idiosyncratic mountain man. In the third stage the West is viewed as the “garden of the world,” a great agricultural Mecca where the American character is fully defined by common man’s relationship with nature.  It is at this stage that the American democratic ideal comes into full realization, as the West is envisioned as a “homogenous society in which class stratification was of minor importance.” (156)

Smith ends his book with a discussion of Turner and his Frontier Thesis, which he views as the zenith of western myth and symbolism. Combining the major themes of each of the three stages of western perception, Turner was able to craft a masterful argument of the origin of American identity and exceptionalism that still held power in 1950 when Smith was writing and still holds power today, well over one hundred years later. The crux of Turner’s argument, according to Smith, is that he viewed America’s contact with wilderness as a rebirthing process, from which a new, distinctive identity emerged. This idea of a rebirth is in itself a myth, Smith argues, as Turner knew that it was not an actual process, but a rhetorical construct. Smith adeptly points out the paradoxical problems surrounding the issue of civilization in both the Frontier Thesis and in Francis Parkman’s Oregon Trail. Turner’s evolutionary view of civilization causes two problems. Firstly, it places farmers in one of the most primitive stages of social evolution. Secondly, civilization is the end of the process, which is seemingly inevitable, thus the forces that drove American identity are sure to dry up and then where do Americans turn? To imperialism would be Roosevelt’s answer, presumably. In Parkman, Smith sees a conflict between two different views of the West. On one hand the West is seen as a humdrum, agricultural existence. On the other hand, the West is viewed as an untamed and exciting wilderness. Smith’s main objective is to show that despite the fact that these perceptions of the West at times confound common sense and are full of contradictions and falsities, the powerful impact that they had on the American imagination and collective identity give them intellectual credence.

Smith does an excellent job of acknowledging the importance of ideas. Taken at face value, the Western frontier in American history seems like a cut and dry case of population and capitalist driven expansion. However, when one places the evolution of human perception and understanding on top of this “factual” narrative one finds an incredibly complex story that is ultimately more genuine. Smith’s treatment of western myth and symbolism is similar to Linda Nash’s examination of the correlation between the evolution of understandings and perceptions of health and America’s treatment and relationship with the environment in Inescapable Ecologies: A History of Environment, Disease, and Knowledge. One must remember that world is incredibly complex and that humanity lives in a world that is based just as much on tangibles such as earth and water as it is on thoughts and emotions.

Feature Photo: “Snow peaks, Bull Run mining district, Nevada” by T.H. O’Sullivan, 1875. Library of Congress.

Published by Jessica M. DeWitt

Dr. Jessica M. DeWitt is an environmental historian of Canada and the United States. She is passionate about the use of digital technologies to bridge the gap between the public and researchers. In addition to her community and professional work, she offers various editing and social media consultancy services.

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