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Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth

3.68 of 5 stars 3.68  ·  rating details  ·  146 ratings  ·  12 reviews
Examines the significance and impact of the nineteenth-century Westward movement on American literature. Bibliogs.
Paperback, 305 pages
Published January 1st 1970 by Harvard University Press (first published 1950)
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Unquestionably a classic of the American Studies tradition. Smith pulls together the history, literature, and social theory surrounding certain widely held beliefs (at least among the white, male, landowning class) about western expansion and its promise of American prosperity. The novelty of studying Edenic tropes in American history and literature has long sense worn off. But what remains useful is the distinction Smith makes between Northern and Southern agrarianism during the antebellum peri ...more
"The" work of cultural criticism on the American West. Nash Smith examines themes or myths that have defined how Americans think about the West - myths including that of the "mountain man" (Daniel Boone, Leatherstocking, etc.) and of the West as the "garden of the world" or an agrarian utopia. His readings of dime novels, noncanonical fiction, and other subliterary works were likely revolutionary when the book was first published in 1950. Nash Smith traces literary treatment of the West, suggest ...more
Mike Fink
This is a great book about a subject with which I'm more or less obsessed. Smith follows the trajectory of a number of interrelated (and sometimes actually disparate) myths about the American West as they conspire, collide, and transform throughout the course of American history--largely 19th century American history. Expansionism, slavery, the rise and fall of political parties, literary trends and novelties, the history of science: this book touches on a little bit of everything in the course ...more
As the first published work by an "American Studies" PhD in 1950, this book holds a special symbolic place in my book shelf. Although to speak collectively of "an American" way of thinking has been continually viewed as speaking too broad and thus too narrow to be academically viable, Henry Nash Smith uses literature (such as Dime Novels and James Fenimore Cooper novels) as well as mythological figures (such as Daniel Boone and Buffalo Bill) along with traditional historic narratives of a politi ...more
An excellent book on several levels. I highly recommend it for all of those interested in American History, Cultural Studies and Sociology.
The purpose of this book is to demonstrate the development of the American myth of the "Garden of the World". Smith argues (persuaively) that the idea of the American continent as a garden: fertile, lush and tamed(or tameable), deeply influenced the course of American history.

As Leo Marx said in his similarly awesome "The Machine in the Garden", the brillance
A great study of the interplay between american myths in literature and politics and social/political reality. The arguments I enjoyed the most were 1)how these myths fail us politically and 2) our lengthy inability to develop a literature that reflected the actual experience of the west. The book also reads a bit like a psychoanalysis of my imagination and is just more proof how our completely corrupted we are by literature.
A classic work that has been (rightly) critiqued thoroughly over the years, but which has nevertheless retained a freshness and power in its efforts to bring so many disciplines and sources together. And, even if the author is not always terribly sophisticated about questions of gender and class, Nash is nevertheless aware of them in ways that many of his contemporaries were not.
Many of the Western history books I have read mention this historian as being an important one to be familiar I tackled him. I hope I will grasp his significance as I continue to read more of the newer western scholarship. I found him to be quite dry.
M.k. Yost
A fascinating take on the symbolism of the American west in the nineteenth century, though Nash may have over-simplified a few things (like the presence of Native Americans already occupying those lands).
Christel Devlin
Essential reading about the growth of America across the continent. Wonderful stuff about the glories of Virginia, Kentucky, and Ohio for the early settlers.
Another touchstone text in American Studies and the "myth and symbol" school of thought. Important to have read, even if limited.
A pretty good study, but one that does seem to get hung up at times on one or two ideas.
K.O. marked it as to-read
May 06, 2015
Muqing Li
Muqing Li marked it as to-read
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