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Smith, Henry Nash. Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth. New York: Vintage Books, 1957.
Virgin Land was written by one of the founding scholars of American Studies. Henry Nash Smith uses the myth-symbol approach to explain the history of the American West and its effect on American policy. He defines myth-symbol as “collective representations rather that the work of a single mind…an intellectual construction that fuses concept and emotion into an image” (XI). Using political and literary giants, popular fiction, political speeches, editorials, letters, and memoirs dating from the 18th and 19th centuries as sources, Smith separated the book into three parts: Passage to India, the Sons of Leatherstocking, and Garden of the World. The first section illustrates the myth of ‘manifest destiny’, the desire of individuals to get across the continent to establish a relationship with the east and obtain the wealth that accompanies this relationship. The second part discusses the myth of the Western hero (and one heroine), including dialog regarding the “white Indian” and Dime Novels. The final section of Virgin Land hits on three main themes, with much discussion to reinforce the concepts: the idealized yeoman farmer, the west as salvation for those in trouble, and nature versus civilization. The book ends with an analysis of Turner’s 1893 speech about the frontier’s role of shaping America. Scholars following Smith’s footsteps used Virgin Land as a stepping stone, making it a key, although sometimes outdated, text for landscape and American studies. [L. Plumley]