Virgin Land by Henry Nash Smith is not your typical history text. It is not a retelling of the story of the west or the frontier. It is an examination of how Americans view western expansion through the myths, legends, and symbolic culture associated with it. Smith delves into the topic of what the West and the frontier meant to the American psyche. This is not a book which discusses established history but a book about what people believe about their past. This exploration of the American Western experience is important to the burgeoning American Steampunk movement. Currently the movement revolves around the abundance of Victorian and neo-Victorian British literature, dress, and ideology while the American Steam era experience has been to some extent ignored. Henry Nash Smith gives those interested in exploring the mythology of the West and the American experience a place to start.
Virgin Land reads much like an anthropology text. Smith gives us an insight into how people develop their own mythology and how this mythology would affect later historical events. The strength of the text lies in its ability to find relations between myth and the realities to which the myths refer. Smith takes the reader through various periods of American mythology relating to the frontier. We begin with the Lewis and Clark expedition and the search for a passage to the Orient and progress through to the ever expanding Mythos of the Wild West. We find not only these myths expressed in terms of superstitions, and folk tales but also in the form of larger than life heroes and heroines who populate the virtually fairy-tale West. Like the Greek and Roman heroes, the frontier was brought to life with stories of men and women whose exploits are beyond those of normal men, and much like Homer the dime novel author brought these stories to the eastern masses.
Each great civilization creates for itself its own mythical past replete with its monsters, heroes and treasure. Smith’s book sets the stage for what could be called the American mythological past. Not unlike other more ancient civilizations our American origins have been recast into something less history and something more heroic. The great frontier struggles are seen as struggles between good and evil. Often bad men are recast as heroes of the people and not so bad men are recast as their monstrous enemies. The west of American myth is populated with a menagerie of evil red Indians, larger than life mountain men, sure shot cowgirls, spring fed mountain valley paradises, and later even a masked man toting a gun filled with silver bullets. Smith provides anyone interested in the Steampunk movement perfect examples of mythological characters and situations. There is enough here to provide ample fodder for stories, novels, and more.
Virgin Land “The American West as Symbol and Myth”, By Henry Nash Smith. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1970.