Review of “Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth”

VIRGIN LAND: THE AMERICAN WEST AS    SYMBOL AND MYTH

by Henry Nash Smith; Reviewed by

Paul Edward Ewing

Henry Nash Smith’s Virgin Land traces the evolution of ideas about the American West from colonial times through the formulation of the frontier thesis by Frederick Jackson Turner. Smith deals with three key myths, myths being defined as “intellectual constructions  that fuse concept and emotion into an image.” American writers and intellectuals viewed the West first as a “Passage to India,” then as the realm of the “Sons of Leatherstocking,” and finally as “The Garden of the World.” Each of these notions about the West built on its predecessors and culminated in Turner’s frontier thesis.

The earliest perceptions of the American West were rooted in the mercantilist and aristocratic notions  of America’s founding fathers. Men like Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson interpreted the American West from an  eighteenth century “enlightened” frame of reference. Up until their emergence upon the scene, the Trans-Appalachian West was little more than “a waste and howling wilderness, where none inhabited but hellish fiends, and brutish men that devils worshiped.’’[i]

Ben Franklin was the first to put forth the “safety valve” notion of the West as a place to absorb the surplus population of the seaboard colonies. Philip Freneau and Hugh Henry Brackenridge spoke of “the Rising Glory of America,” perhaps the first expression of the idea of continental or manifest destiny. In the latter style Timothy Dwight in 1794 wrote the following lines:

All hail, thou western world…..

       Soon shall thy sons across the mainland roam,

       And claim on far Pacific shores, their home.[ii]

The Mississippi River, in Freneau’s view, made the Nile appear a “rivulet and the Danube a mere Ditch.” [iii]     Although Thomas Jefferson was firmly rooted in the agrarian and aristocratic tradition of his time, he broke free of this philosophy in his attitude toward the West. For Thomas Jefferson was the father of American westward exploration. In commissioning the Lewis and Clark expedition, Jefferson opened “a highway to the Pacific.” The Lewis and Clark expedition became a legend in its own right. It was the “enactment of a myth that embodied the future.” [iv] Lewis and Clark blazed a trail not only over the land but right through the consciousness of all Americans. The dream of a highway across America, once implanted in American imaginations, could not be shaken.

Jefferson’s myth of a highway to the Pacific conformed well with another already existing notion, that of the “passage to India.” Ever since Marco Polo, Europeans had been seeking a new route to the mysterious fortunes of  Macao and Cathay. When Lewis and Clark reached the Pacific in 1804, the dream of a passage to India was resurrected. Thomas Hart Benton and Asa Whitney took it from there.

Benton, a Jacksonian Democrat, believed that Jefferson’s purpose in commissioning Lewis and Clark was “to open overland commercial relations with Asia.”[v] Although he was mistaken in this belief, that did nothing to halt the momentum of the myth. Benton eventually disregarded his earlier notion that the Rocky Mountains marked the end of the American empire. Benton saw American commercial expansion to the Pacific as inevitable. He believed that trade with the Orient would free the United States from dependence on European trade.

Asa Whitney added to Benton’s myth the notion that the new passage to India would be laid with iron rails. For Whitney was the chief congressional spokesman for a transcontinental railroad. He believed in the inherent “creative power” of such a railroad. Once built, farms, villages and towns would spring up overnight. Whitney’s notion of the railroad’s construction differed from his rival’s, Stephen A. Douglas. Douglas felt the railroad should be built gradually, haphazardly by American farmers. Whitney believed foreign labor should build the railroad according to a central government plan and at once.

William Gilpin, Benton’s intellectual heir, believed that it was the “untransacted destiny” of the American people to conquer the continent. Gilpin believed that this process would take place gradually as “each phase of American development emerged upon a higher level with its westward thrust.”[vi] Like Whitney, Gilpin believed that a transcontinental railway was the best way in which to bring about this development. But while he drew upon Benton and Whitney, Gilpin added his own emphasis on the American farmer, who he felt were the standard bearers of the Western advance, and an odd sort of geographical determination based on the ideas of Alexander von Humboldt.

Smith calls Walt Whitman “the poet of Manifest Destiny.” Although an inhabitant of the eastern seaboard Whitman overcame the provincialism of the East in his praise of the entire continent. Whitman was aware of a dichotomy that existed between the civilized East and the uncivilized West. The East was intellectual and restrictive, the West untamed and free. Nature ruled the West, not the archaic feudal institutions of man. It was in the environment of nature, untamed and free, that the pioneer and mountain man roamed. And it is to these heroes that the attention of Virgin Land now turns.

Before describing specific heroes of the West, Smith points out the early distinction made between the agricultural West and the Wild West. The traditional attitude toward the inhabitants of the agricultural West was crude in the extreme. Frances Parkman wrote of such people in 1842 that they were “a race of boors about as uncouth, mean, and stupid as the hogs they seem chiefly to delight in.”[vii] The men of the Wild West on the other hand were the vanguard of the frontier; they measured a continent with Paul Bunyan strides. Parkman was a “primitivist,” a person who prized the uncivilized over the civilized, if only in the realm of his romantic imagination. Primitivism contrasted sharply with the official “cult of progress” which foresaw the taming and civilizing of the West. It is no accident that the myth of Daniel Boone incorporates both trends.

According to the primitivist interpretation, Boone was a “fugitive from civilization,” a man continually moving west whenever anyone settled within a hundred miles of him. The opposite view was that Boone was actually helping to settle the West.[viii] John M. Peck’s life of Boone fashioned the hero in the latter mode. Boone had been “a creature of Providence ordained by Heaven as a pioneer in the wilderness to advance the civilization and extension of his country.”[ix] On the other hand, James J. Perkins wrote in 1846 for the North American Review that Boone was “drawn to the wilderness by a love of nature.”[x] He was a “White Indian” who would perish in a civilized state. Obviously, the Wild Western hero could serve either master, primitivist or progressive.

James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking introduced the problem of social order to the myth of the frontier. Like Boone, Leatherstocking was a man who loved the freedom of the woods and, conversely, hated the prison that was civilization. A contemporary poet wrote of such a lifestyle that “I cannot wonder that many men have chosen to pass their life in the woods.”[xi] Leatherstocking was a symbol of “anarchic freedom.”[xii] The problem is “did this interpretation conform to Cooper’s intention in drawing the character?”[xiii]

Apparently not, at least not completely. Cooper, like all intellectuals of his time, was “strongly devoted to the principle of social order.”[xiv] Like other romantic primitivists though, he loved the free realm of nature as well. The conflict between the civilized and primitive, never clearly resolved in Cooper, found an expression in the character of Leatherstocking. Leatherstocking, though king of the woods, spoke a dialect that marked him as socially inferior in his own day. Primitivism had certain limits and the character of Leatherstocking exhibits them.

The primitivist tradition found its most absurd expression in the writing of Charles William Webber. Webber’s Old Hicks, published in 1848, recounts the story of an expedition in Texas. True to his philosophy of the savage, Webber states that the highest human truths are found in the savage social state and that “the great geniuses are, and have been essentially savages.”[xv] Webber stretched the bonds of credulity when he described a mythical “peaceful valley” where the antelope ate out of the hands of the Texas rangers. He was taken seriously, for a while. But myths too have their limits, and Webber’s ideas were eventually relegated to history’s scrapbook of eccentricities.

A more enduring myth was that of the Mountain Man. This myth had substantial basis in fact because such characters actually roamed the Rockies during the fur trade of the 1830’s. With the character of the mountain man, the wild Western hero took on increased ferocity and barbarity. These men fled to the Rockies to escape law and order. They were the epitome of anarchy on the frontier. A more lawless and savage band of men would be difficult to conceive. For the mountain man “the security and protection of the laws have no attraction. He wants no other means of defense than his rifle which is his daily companion.”xvii Such wild, fearless, and self-reliant men came to inhabit the pages of the dime novels, published by the millions in the three decades between 1860 and 1890.

Erastus Beadle, the chief publisher of the dime novels, probably did more than any other single individual to popularize the Western myth. Written for a popular audience the dime novels boiled down to the essentials of Western heroism into simple formula plots with highly predictable outcomes. The first dime novels were based on the Leatherstocking type, but one younger and more genteel.[xvi] Dime novel “Leatherstockings” differ from their predecessor in that they did not speak in a dialect and the could fall in love and marry. “Deadwood Dick,” constantly menaced by lovesick female villains, eventually married Calamity Jane. Buffalo Bill, a literary legend based on the life of William Cody, contributed much to the growing myth of the cowboy. In Mike Fink fashion, “Mustang Sam” boasted that “he was got by a bull whale out o’ a iceberg.”[xvii] The dime store novel heroes were self-made men whose gun-slinging talents were only exceeded by their bravado. Needless to say, the myth of the Wild Western hero was characterized by escalating levels of violence.

Even dime store novels heroines could not escape the taint of violence, in fact they joined in enthusiastically. “Hurricane Nell” was prone to go on vendettas. Her marksmanship and horsemanship were excellent. “Phantom Moll” was the first Beadle female to smoke a cigarette. There was an Amazon-like quality to these women that differed remarkably from Cooper’s insipid pastoral females. By the late 1890’s heroes and heroines alike were reduced to almost comic-book simplicity. Caricature had replaced character.

The decline of the Western hero came at a time when a new myth, the myth of the Garden, was ascending. The heyday of the cowboy and the mountain man was over. As Smith says, “the forces which were to control the future did not originate in the Wild West but in the domesticated West.”[xviii] The myth of the garden posited the view that the yeoman farmer working his own land was the prime mover of the nation.

This myth has an old and venerable tradition in American thought. St. John deCrevecoeur and Thomas Jefferson both put much faith in “freeman tilling their own acres.”[xix] Jefferson believed that cities were “sores on the body politic” and that the strength of democracy rested on the backs of yeoman farmers. Timothy Flint, like Jefferson, saw America’s most important choice as one between cities and farms. Flint was equally committed to the dream of an agrarian democratic utopia. Certain aspects of this dream, however, did not square well with the institution of plantation slavery.

First and foremost, the yeoman farmer was free and the slave was not. It was only natural that by the 1850’s southerners “had become actively hostile to the yeoman ideal.”[xx] Southerners believed in the “myth of the plantation,” a notion based on “aristocratic masters, brilliant and charming heroines and devoted slaves.”[xxi] The southern myth was one of a static, nearly feudal state of agriculture. This view did not conform to emerging American realities and it too, like Webber’s eccentric primitivism, was destined to fall by the wayside. It seems that the myths most likely to survive in American intellectual life are those that most accurately reflect social conditions.

“The new Calculus of Western Energies” involved commerce, cities and elaborate transportation networks. A technological revolution was overtaking American society. Neither the plantation myth nor the myth of the yeoman farmer could hold out permanently under its influence. Jessop W. Scott, Whig editor of the Toledo Blade, was the first to see that the new Western society would be urban not rural in nature.

Yet old dreams die hard and the agrarian myth lived on. Scott was probably the exception rather that the rule. The 1850 Homestead Act promised to open large sections of the west to free-soil yeoman farmers. But the dream of this agrarian utopia was sabotaged by the railroad companies and big-time speculators. The idea of the western lands as a safety valve was enthusiastically reiterated only to be disproved by hard economic realities. Horace Greeley’s dictum to “Go West Young Man” often ended in failure, disappointment and heartbreak for those who did. Consequently there was a dearth of inspiration for any successful literature on the agricultural West. What there is, like the writings of Hamlin Garland, speaks of poisoned fruit in the Garden of the West:

So this is the reality of the dream. This is the ‘homestead in the Golden West, embowered in trees, beside the purling brook.’ A shanty on a barren plain, hot and lone as a desert. My God. [xxii]

This seems vaguely reminiscent of the very earliest view of the West put forth in this paper, that of a “waste and howling wilderness.”

But it was the wilderness that shaped American history and ideals according to Frederick Jackson Turner. According to Smith it is the agricultural West that figures most strongly in Turner’s hypothesis that the frontier explained the course of American development. Democracy grew out of the free land of the American frontier. Turner wrote that democracy “came stark and strong and full of life out of the American forest.”[xxiii] Turner subscribed to the “safety-valve” theory as had many of his predecessors: “No grave social problem could exist while the wilderness at the edge of civilization opened wide its portals to all who were oppressed.”[xxiv] Essentially, Smith says, Turner adopted most of the features of the agrarian ideal in his frontier thesis. Turner could not envision the survival of democracy in the absence of free land. Turner’s myth of the frontier, then, was not a new myth or a new idea. It was essentially a restatement of previous myths about the meaning of  “virgin land” in America.



[i]   Ibid.,  p. 4

[ii]  Ibid.,  p. 10

[iii]  Ibid.,  p. 11

[iv]   Ibid.,  p. 17

[v]  Ibid.,  p. 23

[vi] Ibid.,  p. 37

[vii]Ibid.,  p. 51

[viii] Ibid., p. 54

[ix]  Ibid., p. 57

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid., p. 60

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Ibid.,  p. 61

[xv] Ibid.,  p 73

[xvi]Ibid.,  p. 96

[xvii] Ibid.,  p. 95

[xviii]  Ibid.,  p. 123

[xix] Ibid.,  p. 128

[xx]Ibid.,  p. 143

[xxi]Ibid.,  p. 151

[xxii]Ibid.,  p. 248

[xxiii] Ibid.,  p. 253

[xxiv]Ibid.,  p. 254

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