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Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth
Virgin Land The American West as Symbol and Myth
Author: Henry Nash Smith
ISBN: 56262
Pages: 305
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Publisher: Vintage Books
Book Type: Paperback
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Smith divides "Virgin Land" into three parts. Part One "Passage to India" describes the initial path westward and the philosophy of the individuals who pushed for westward expansion (Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Hart Benton, Asa WHitney, William Gilpin and Walt Whitman). By way of a prologue, Smith notes that the idea of "Manifest Destiny" did not develop as soon as the settlers arrived, but rather was developed by American Philosophers and Politicans (and land speculators). In the first Part, Smith describes how the initial push westward was justified via the idea that a passage west would increase trade with the Orient. Smith notes that this idea dervied from 18th century Mercantilist economic theory and was therefore "archaic" (a favorite term of Smith's in this book) from the very beginning.

The Second part of the book ("The Sons of Leatherstocking") uses the literary character of Leatherstocking as an entry point for a discussion of the development of the western hero figure in literature.

A highlight of the book comes in Chapter Ten when Smith discusses the "Dime Novel Heroine". I found his discussion illuminating.

In the third and final part of the book, Smith lays out the characterstics of American Agarianism which would come to define westward expansion after the Civil War. Smith outlines the conflict between Southern Pastoralism and Nort/Western "Yeoman" Agarianism and notes how the Homestead Act was singularly influenced by this second conception of American settlement. He also documents how this same philosophy of agarianism prevented later reform of the Homestead Act even after it became clear to many that the Homestead Act had failed miserably in its goals.

Smith also discusses the struggle by authors to develop authentic western "characters" and relates that struggle to the emegerence of the "Garden of the World" symbol.


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