Buffalo Bill and Turner
VIRGIN LAND, The American West as Symbol and Myth, by Henry Nash Smith, Harvard University Press, 298 pp., $4.50.
The curious posters and dime novel covers used to publicize "Virgin Land" must not mislead you into thinking that this book is an entertaining collection of Americana. It is a serious analytical work based on profound research into American history, not light pleasure reading.
"Virgin Land" traces the impact of the West on the consciousness of Americans by analyzing its literature and social thought from the beginning until 1892 when the frontier was officially pronounced closed. Henry Nash Smith starts out by describing the early lack of interest in penetrating the continental interior. The majority of the British, intensely preoccupied with the continued development of their maritime commercial empire, opposed westward expansion. Yet a small group led by Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson wrote prophetically of the extraordinary agrarian possibilities of the interior as well as its importance as an overland route to the Pacific.
It was Walt Whitman who gave the fullest imaginative expression to the theme of manifest destiny. He clothed the idea of westward expansion in highly idealistic terms, seeing in it a restoration of man's lost harmony with nature as well as a prelude to peace and brotherhood of nations. Then came James Fenimore Cooper who cautiously modified the romantic tradition in the novel to give America its mythological pioneer prototype in Leatherstocking.
Finally, the dime novel appeared with sterling characters of the Deadwood Dick and Buffalo Bill variety. This was the literature that percolated down to the masses and stimulated the young man to follow the setting sun through the Cumberland gap to the west.
Perhaps the most important chapter in this book contains Smith's evaluation of Frederick Jackson Turner's hypothesis that the frontier, the point where civilization meets savagery, is the vital force in American history. Smith declares that the argarian emphasis of the theory, "has tended to divert attention from the problems created by industrialization." He attacks the agrarian tradition of Turner because it has focussed all attention on the agricultural interior of the continent and prevented recognition of the vital relationship of America to the world community. These assertions are carefully reasoned and supported by prodigious research. Although they do not knock the props from beneath the classic Turner theory, they delineate with convincing clearness important limitations.