62: Henry Nash Smith’s Virgin Land

Henry Nash Smith’s Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth, is an American Studies classic.  In it, Smith both explains and justifies the American Studies myth-and-symbol method as the way to access and interpret American culture, and he applies this method to a study of the myth of the American West.  He argues that the difficulty of the myth of the American West, which is actually a subset of a larger agrarian tradition coming out of Jeffersonian democracy, is that it “accepted the paired but contradictory ideas of nature and civilization as a general principle of historical and social interpretation.”  In other words, American culture comes out of an unresolved tension about what to do with the machine in the garden.

For Smith, myths and symbols are larger and smaller units of the same thing: “an intellectual construct that fuses concept and emotion into an image.”  Further, these images are not just the world of a single mind; they are collective representations, symbols pointing to a particularly American worldview.  This worldview itself has a history, and analyzing its various incarnations in connection with their historical context helps us understand it.  In other words, myth and symbol is of necessity interdisciplinary, because it situates literary analysis within history.

By way of example, Smith analyzes one of the most persistent myths in American culture: “that our society has been shaped by the pull of a vacant continent drawing population westward,” and thus that America is a “continental nation rather than a member with Europe of an Atlantic community.”  To interrogate this myth and the role is plays in creating a unique American culture, Smith analyzes and contextualizes a wide range of texts, including the Lewis & Clark expedition, Walt Whitman’s poetry, various iterations of the “leatherstocking” or frontiersman, including Daniel Boone, Charles Webber, Kit Carson, Deadwood Dick, and Buffalo Bill (the last two of whom he links to the new dime novels in the mid-to-late 19th century), and the “master symbol of the garden.” He ends by discussing the Turner thesis as a critique of the myth of the West as an untouched, biblical garden.

Virgin Land is one of the earliest American Studies books, and it does have its problems, most notably an uncritical use of “we” to mean everyone in America, a severely undertheorized idea of how media and mass culture work (he thinks mass culture comes from the bottom up and thus represents the masses), and an existence that is restricted to the discursive realm.  But in setting agrarian and industrial traditions against one another, it sets up productive tensions between nature and civilization and between civilization and true democracy; further, Smith’s analysis suggests that national consciousness has a history, and that landscape and culture mutually shape one another.  Replace national consciousness with ideology and you have a remarkably current picture of many concerns in American Studies today.

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