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Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth (Harvard Paperback, HP 21) Paperback – January 31, 1970

ISBN-13: 978-0674939554 ISBN-10: 0674939557 Edition: New Ed

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Product Details

  • Series: Harvard Paperback, HP 21
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; New Ed edition (January 31, 1970)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674939557
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674939554
  • Product Dimensions: 8.2 x 5.4 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #393,507 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


A very illuminating study in the history of ideas. Its principal theme is the rise and decline of the conception of the West as an agrarian utopia the myth of the ‘garden of the world’ that implanted itself so deeply in the imagination of nineteenth-century America. Professor Smith brings to his study an unusual adeptness in the integration of material from different fields, and, what is more important, an admirable feeling for shadings and distinctions, for the complexly organic relationship between empiric fact and what human emotion and imagination would make of it… Virgin Land achieves a kind of clarification of its subject that makes it, one feels, a landmark in the interpretation of the West. (The Nation)

Mr. Smith’s book is a work of solid scholarship on a facet of our history that has not always been assessed at its proper importance. Here…is the story of all our yesterdays. (Washington Post)

To read Virgin Land is to experience a deep intellectual excitement. (Christian Science Monitor)

This brilliant interpretative analysis will make a permanent contribution to a better understanding of the role of the West in American history. (Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences)

Customer Reviews

4.2 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

50 of 51 people found the following review helpful By S. Pactor VINE VOICE on October 30, 2003
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
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 of this book lies in how Smith demonstrates how ideology drives action (or, alternatively: how ideas drive behavior).
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".
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By T. Greer on February 18, 2010
Format: Paperback
Our stories have consequences. Such is the claim put forward by Henry Nash Smith in VIRGIN LAND: THE WEST AS SYMBOL AND MYTH. Smith's work attempts to synthesize literary criticism with historical narrative, and in the process created a classic study in American intellectual thought that serves as one of the foundational works of American Studies. Despite the importance of the ideas presented in the book, it is not one I would recommend to the casual reader. The author's ideas are not worth the time it takes to get through Smith's difficult prose and organization unless one has a special interest in the culture of 19th century America.

VIRGIN LAND is based upon an assumption that pervades the work of many twentieth century scholars of American history: the Westward expansion of the republic was the defining aspect of America's development and history. While Smith begins with an idea common to many contemporaries, he approaches the Westward expansion in a fashion remarkably different than the Turnerians of his age. Smith's focus is on symbols and myths, the "units of intellectual construction that fuse concept and emotion into an image" - in this case, the image of the American West (1). Unlike the work of historians prior, VIRGIN LAND maintains that it was not the physical frontier itself that served as the driving force of American democracy and expansion, but the *symbol* of the great unsettled expanse that held such power. The way 18th century Americans thought about the West is more important an aspect of American history than the material features of the land itself. As Smith tells it, the victory of sentiment over fact is the story of American history.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By M. P. Procter Sr. VINE VOICE on June 7, 2007
Format: Paperback
Author Henry Nash Smith has written a book which attempts to encapsulate the symbolism and mythology of the American West. Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth, "...traces the impact of the West...on the consciousness of Americans and follows the principal consequences of the impact in literature and social thought...." The work is based on the theory developed by historian Frederick Jackson Turner which states "...that our society has been shaped by the pull of a vacant continent drawing population westward...." Smith continues this study in Virgin Land through three sections (referred to as books): "Passage to India," "The Sons of Leatherstocking," and "The Garden of the World." Virgin Land's premise is that the American West was settled and developed due to the romanticism and heroics written about in eighteenth and nineteenth century poetry, books, and dime novels.

Although the term "Manifest Destiny" was not coined until the 1840s, American patriot Benjamin Franklin seized on this concept about eighty years before Andrew Jackson's followers. Throughout the latter half of the eighteenth century, Franklin insisted that North America would eventually become the largest jewel in the British crown of possessions. England would at once not only have the largest empire in the world, but the greatest navy, most favorable trade routes, and a towering economic base from which to rule. Thomas Jefferson, as Secretary of State to President George Washington and as president himself, was an early force in the exploration and development of western areas. Under the guise of scientific exploration, Jefferson commissioned several expeditions. One such event planned by Jefferson while he was ambassador to France was to send a Connecticut traveler named John Ledyard who "...
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