For our first book of the month recommendation, I picked one of my favorite interdisciplinary essays on the American West as a fundamental pivot in the shaping of American history and national image.
Kicking off with the origins of the westward movement myths in the 18th century, Henry Nash Smith’s seminal work is a
thorough analysis of the chief characters, symbols, and representations related with the American West, right to the turn of the 20th century following Turner’s frontier hypothesis.
Blending literary criticism with history, the author explores the cultural dimensions of politics and vice versa, bridging the distance between sociohistorical analysis and westward expansion literature. Albeit incomplete—especially in some respects such as the analysis of actual correlations between politics and mythmaking / collective imagination—and to be read with some critical spirit at hand, Virgin Land represents a rather interesting text that served as influence for subsequent scholars dealing with the realm of the construction of US national myths and symbols.
Aside from being a relevant reference for scholars delving into the foundations of the US national image and popular imaginary, the book is packed with information and yet far from dull; Smith’s fluid writing makes for an enjoyable read, drawing on several literary examples and witty critical analysis.
Smith, Henry Nash. 1950. Virgin Land. The American West as Symbol and Myth. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.