Henry Nash Smith Myth And Symbol School Analysis

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Henry Nash Smith and the ‘Myth and Symbol School’
After Turner’s ‘introduction’ , the West became one of the foundational elements for the earliest scholars of American Studies. Proposing similar questions as Turner, the so-called ‘Myth and Symbol School’ worked on the assumption that American culture could be studied as a “common language” (Chapman) comprised of myths and symbols that represented the American imagination. The myths and symbols were defined by Smith as “larger or small units of the same kind of thing, namely an intellectual confusion that fuses concept an emotion into an image” (Virgin Land xi) and it was through these a culture could express its values, ideas, and identity. Scholars of the MS School thus argued that myths
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By opening Virgin Land with de Crévecouer’s question, “What is an American?,” (3) Smith demonstrated that the primary ambition was to answer that very question. Smith uses the frontier myth as his starting point because the most persistent “generalizations concerning American life and character has been shaped by the pull of a continent drawing population westward.” (Virgin Land 3) Where Turner had argued that the frontier had shaped the American identity, Smith shifted the attention “away from what ‘actually happened’ in time past to what people though was happening.” (Marks, 71) Focusing instead on the mythic and symbolic aspects of the West, Smith demonstrated that the image of the West was considered to be a reflection of American nationality, identity, and culture. The American identity was, according to Smith, not the result of the actual experience of living on the frontier as Turner had argued but the result of the utopian ideas used to describe the West and the myths that followed in its…show more content…
The MS School’s approach and methodology were also critiqued which Smith addressed in a 1986 essay where he describes his approach as having been a “naïvely inductive examination of nineteenth-century American attitudes towards the West.” (Symbol and Idea 27) Smith acknowledged that by primarily focusing on literature and avoiding dealing with “conflicts that are ideological in the political sense,” (Symbol and Idea 21) the MS School’s approach had itself evoked a mythic and romanticized image of the West. This point has also been one of the objections from critics of the MS School: that there is a “lack of clarity about the relations between facts and the myths that spun around them.” (Fabian, The West 130) This is also noted by Bruce Kuklick who states that “symbols and myths at best reflect empirical fact, and so are never themselves factual.” (436) The MS School were also critiqued for their narrow sense of what constitutes an ‘American’ as well as having ignored the “fact that the myth of virgin land actually served the economic interests of railroad promoter and land speculators, narrowly, and industrial capitalist, more generally.” (Fabian, The West
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