Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Staying Awake for Henry Nash Smith
Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth

Henry Nash Smith’s book is one of THE quintessential American Studies books. Dear God, how I tried to like it. I promise that I’ll like other ones in the future. I’m afraid that not liking Bercovitch and Smith will mark me as some sort of American Studies weakling—but fear not! I’ll have plenty of good things to say about Richard Slotkin soon enough. Staying awake for Henry Nash Smith should be evidence enough of my commitment.

Let’s orient Smith within the American Studies timeline. Parrington, Perry Miller, and F.O. Matthiesen came first. Leo Marx was Smith’s student. Bercovitch and Slotkin followed much later. Writing in the late 1940s, Smith begins by explaining his reliance on myth and symbol as important elements of “intellectual construction” of his “collective representations.” He further explains that he doesn’t mean to imply that there’s any “empirical” evidence to support the use of myths and symbols as strategies for interpreting and understanding culture, but rather that “they exist on a different plane” because they “exert a decided influence on practical affairs” (XI).

The first section of the book is actually pretty good. Smith states as his purpose to examine “the impact of the West, the vacant continent beyond the frontier, on the consciousness of Americans” so that he can determine its effect on “the literature and social thought down to Turner’s formulation of it” (4). It’s at once a remarkable purpose because of its interdisciplinary nature.

Smith begins by saying that early in America’s history the image of the Western frontier was of an evil place. Michael Wigglesworth described it in 1662 as “a ‘devil’s den,’

A waste and howling wilderness,
Where none inhabited
But hellish fiends, and brutish men
That devils worshiped. (4)

But by the eighteenth century, that image of the place as evil had diminished. The West was still a mystery, though, since the frontier belonged to the French.

Smith spends some time talking about what, historically, the country’s original leaders viewed as the future for America. Jefferson’s idea was that the at some point, “North America would be peopled by descendants of the original English colonists,” but when the Louisiana Purchase occurred, he thought that the property west of the Mississippi “should be turned into an Indian reservation for at least fifty years.” Jefferson thought that that property should be reserved, that “(e)migrants should be forbidden to cross the river ‘until we shall have filled up all the vacant country on this side’” (15).

Instead, though, the exploration of the region occurred (largely during Jefferson’s presidency), and according to Smith, the “importance of the Lewis and Clark expedition lay on the level of imagination: it was drama, it was the enactment of a myth that embodied the future. It gave tangible substance to what had been merely an idea, and established the image of a highway across the continent so firmly in the minds of Americans that repeated failures could not shake it” (17). From there, populating the whole continent became inevitable. The discovery of the Oregon Trail and people began moving West (18).

When Lewis and Clark reached the West coast, they reignited a dream of finding “a passage to India” (19). Columbus, you may recall, had been looking for India and its spices to trade. And the seventeenth century colonists had sought this passage, sending explorers west from Virginia with the thought that India could only be a matter of ten days’ travel past the Alleghenies (19).

The interesting part of this curiosity of a passage to India was its impracticality. Trade from the passage would never have been possible until the mid-nineteenth century, when the railroad was built cross country. But Smith points out that “the idea of a passage to India, with its associated images of fabulous wealth, of ivory and apes and peacocks, led a vigorous existence on the level of imagination entirely apart from its practicability” (22). This is an important historic mythic belief in American history, great evidence of the kind of idea that guides the policies and actions of people in a way that, in retrospect, we can see is impractical or inexplicable. It’s a great example of the myth-and-symbol school’s working well.

A little later, the notion of trade with the Orient became less impractical. Thomas Hart Benton was a great proponent of American expansionism; he believed that “trade with the Orient [would] emancipate the United States from its dependence on Europe” and that the U.S. would “go on to nationalize their character by establishing a system of commerce adapted to their geographical position and free from European interference” (26).

Now a very interesting point about Benton was that he was much influenced by Montesquieu, believing that “a republican government could not survive too great an extension of its boundaries” (26). Thus, it was his idea that the people who settled the West coast would form their own nation. But, he said, that territorial change wouldn’t “hamper American commercial expansion into the Orient because the new Pacific republic” would be an ally to the U.S. against all the European powers (26). So, obviously, Benton didn’t have his way because one of the reasons why the decision was made to keep the U.S. together, risking having a republican government with such large boundaries, was to resist the powerful forces of the old country in Europe.

Benton was important for many reasons. He was responsible for the railroads being built. He wanted the federal government to build the tracks and then lease them to private operators of trains (27). However, he finally had to turn to private capitalists to build them (after he could get no support from the government) (31).

Smith next takes up William Gilpin, who followed Benton as an expansionist. The important thing to know about Gilpin was that he was instrumental not just in encouraging westward expansion but he also encouraged study of physical geography. In fact, he thought that German geographer Alexander von Humboldt’s idea of the “isothermal zodiac” was justification for “the westward course of the empire” (39). Not only that, but, Gilpin thought, “If the earth is the final arbiter of human destinies then the student of society should direct his gaze toward nature rather than history.” Now this is an important idea—particularly judging from what comes next. Smith summarizes his thought still more: “The important thing about man is not his past, but his biological adjustment to his milieu which is a matter of the present and of the future” (41). So that is an important idea, essentially that the way people adjust to the place where they are determines the way they act. This has much to do with the idea of SPACE AND PLACE.

Smith next takes up Whitman’s idea of Manifest Destiny, which connects neatly with Gilpin’s idea, essentially the same thing. Whitman said, “the poet of America ‘incarnates its geography and natural life and rivers and lakes’” (qtd. in Smith 44). Smith says Whitman set out “to sing the whole continent.” Whitman himself said that Leaves of Grass was for “the trans-Mississippi region, for the Great Plains, for the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific slope” (45). The idea of the discussion of Whitman is to demonstrate that he mythicized America as a nation from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

The second section of the book deals with the “sons of Leatherstocking.” How it does drone on. In the beginning of the chapter, “Daniel Boone: Empire Builder or Philosopher of Primitivism?” Smith discusses Francis Parkman’s journal when he was staying Lake George. Parkman describes it as a nice place for gentlemen, “but now, for the most part, it is occupied by a race of boors about as uncouth, mean, and stupid as the hobs they seem chiefly to delight in” (51). Smith takes issue with the “class bias underlying the judgment,” noting that it “was one of the dominant forces shaping the nineteenth century attitudes toward the West” (51). However, when Parkman moved away from the agricultural east out into the forest in the West, his opinions seem to have changed about nature (52). Historians call this phenomenon—when “young gentlemen of leisure” amused themselves in the “slightly decadent cult of wilderness and savagery”—primitivism (52). As a result of his primitivism, Parkman opposed any development or civilization of the west. Such an opposition to progress was unusual.

Daniel Boone is difficult to categorize because of the conflicting myths about him. Was he the kind of guy who would reject developing in the interest of preserving the wild, or did he want to civilize his new surroundings and work to get along with all kinds of people?
Smith goes on to compare Boone with Cooper’s Leatherstocking, and while he notes a number of surface similarities, he notes far more differences.

Smith next takes up the idea of “The Innocence and Wildness of Nature,” citing Cooper’s description of Leatherstocking, that “he could at any instant open his heart to God without having to strip it of the cares and wickedness of the settlements” (71). In other words, living in nature gave him a certain purity. Smith says, “Civilization is pernicious also because it interposes a veil of superficiality between the individual and the natural objects of experience” (72).

To illustrate these points of nature, Smith brings up the work of an obscure Kentuckian writer, Charles W. Webber, who “tried and failed to construct an interpretation of the Western wilderness within the framework of primitivism” (72). Smith calls his brand of writing “pompous” and “moralistic.” But at the time, he was considered to be a talent and was compared with Melville (76).

The early generation of these “fictional Wild West heroes,” says Smith, “were primarily symbols of anarchic freedom” (81). The next generation might be typified by stories of Kit Carson, which Smiths says were a part of a body of work called “steam literature” because the books were “printed on the newly introduced rotary steam presses” (87).

From there, into the mid-nineteenth century came the advent of the dime novel. Erasmus Beadle was one famous author who produced many of the “subliterary” form (90). The books were produced in a large-scale, almost assembly line fashion. Writers “could turn out a thousand words an hour for twelve hours at a stretch (91). Unbelievable!! Characters in these books were everyday heroes, low class, so that the audience could relate to them.

Dime novels also had heroines. A classic way of introducing a less-than-passive woman character who could ride a horse and shoot a gun was to have an Indian woman who could ride and shoot well—and then to learn that she had been captured and was really white (112). That would legitimize her in the views of the audience. Great device! Women could also be strong and powerful—but only if their motive was vengeance (115).

The next section is called “The Garden of the World.” This part opens up with a quotation from de Crevecoeur. Here Smith discusses “the agrarian philosophy,” which dictates that “agriculture is the only source of real wealth; that every man has a natural right to land; that labor expended in cultivating the earth confers a valid title to it,” etc. (126). The wide expanse of the West offered so much promise because, as far as Franklin and Crevecoeur believed, “the waiting West promised an indefinite expansion of a simple agricultural society became the most certain guarantee that the United States would for a long age maintain its republican institutions. Not for many centuries would the vacant lands be filled and an overcrowded population fall into the depravity of crowded Europe” (128).

In another chapter, Smith takes up “The Yeoman ideal,” which he viewed as the “fusion of eighteenth century agrarian theory with the observation of American experience beyond the Alleghenies” (135). The yeoman farmer was “the hero of a myth, of the myth of mid-nineteenth-century America” (135). To own land gave independence the likes of which had been impossible in Europe (136).

The South, however, was “actively hostile to the yeoman ideal” (145). A slave-oriented society with enormous plantations was a different kind of society. Even the humor was different. Smith says that Southwestern humor used “its own striking symbols,” ones which later went on to have “important consequences for American literature” (in the work of Mark Twain, for example) (145). However, the South seemed to fit outside the descriptions Smith had given heretofore of what constituted America.

Smith notes that the idea of the agrarian idea stuck around for a long time. In fact, he notes that perhaps one of the most interesting parts of studying the intellectual history of the U.S. is to observe how slowly the idea dissipated, even in the face of the growth of the industrial age (159). What finally began to erode the reliance on agriculture was the arrival of the steam engine in the Mississippi valley (160).

The Homestead Act had been a mid-nineteenth-century attempt to have a utopian, agrarian country, but it generally failed; what succeeded better was the railroad (190). One reason Smith gives is that the agrarian society was not in keeping with the speed of the industrial revolution, which is certainly true. However, he also speculates that “early efforts to deal with the agricultural West in literature prove that the frontier farmer could not be made into an acceptable hero [...] At the same time his low social status made it impossible to elaborate his gentility” (215).

The study of stages of civilization were understood in Europe to be related to a succession in time. However, people began to believe of the U.S. that “one could examine side by side the social states that were believed to have followed one another in the long history of the Old World” (219). William Darby, author of the 1918 Emigrant’s Guide, wrote “New Orleans represented the summit of cultivation, refinement, and luxury. The plantations of the lower Mississippi likewise offered ‘all that art, aided by wealth, can produce’” (219). But west from there, “along the Sabine, the way of life of the scattered inhabitants suggested ‘the utmost verge of inhabited earth, and the earliest dawn of improvement’” (219).

A little later (and at the merciful end), Smith writes of Frederick Jackson Turner’s influential essay, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” Smith believes Turner’s to be the most important piece of writing about the West. Directed against two main schools of historians at the time, the essay disputes both the idea that American history should be interpreted through the lens of slavery and that American history should be interpreted as outgrowths of British institutions. Turner, in fact as an undergrad, gave a speech where he announced that the age of kings and aristocrats was over, proclaiming the newest age of humanity—specifically of farmers—begun (252).

Smith notes that the fact that our society has such strong roots in agrarianism makes for strong political biases. For one, we tend to have a “covert distrust of the city and of everything connected with industry” (260). If that sounded archaic a year or two ago, the recent presidential election should have settled that question for any present-day disbelievers! Further, says Smith, the “agrarian tradition has also made it difficult for Americans to think of themselves as members of a world community because it has affirmed that the destiny of this country leads her away from Europe toward the agricultural interior of the continent” (260).

Smith definitely answers some questions about individualism among Americans, and he has some good things that I might to apply to discussions of space and place. I still have to prop my eyes open when I read.

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