I use the myth and symbol method to posit that American popular culture
embodies distinctively American themes (i.e. myths and symbols) about the cowboy.
The myth and symbol method is the best means of pursuing the sort of data analysis
needed for my work. With the “closing” of the frontier as a geographical entity,8 many
scholars felt that the frontier was turned into a set of symbols – a “mythic space” 9 – that
outweighed its importance as a real place for most Americans. Two classic examples of
scholars who use the myth and symbol methodology in analyzing the cowboy are Henry
Nash Smith and Richard Slotkin.
10 and 11
Smith’s Virgin Land: The American West as Myth and Symbol (1950) was seen as
the definitive treatment of the subject prior to the 1960s. As the title suggests, Virgin
Land focused on the image of the frontier and its impact upon American self-identity.
Smith argued that American culture was impacted profoundly by the nineteenth-century
West, which embodied group memories of an earlier, a simpler and a happier state of
society that survived as a force in American thought and politics (Smith rev. ed. 1978,
124). According to Smith, much of the symbolism provided a number of myths and
symbols12 that positively impacted American worldview, providing “a garden of Eden;
8 The 1890 census officially declared the frontier closed when the mushrooming population had settled previously open areas (Etulain 1999, 6).
9 Richard Slotkin defined “mythic space” as “a pseudo-historical (or pseudo-real) setting that is powerfully associated with stories and concerns rooted in the culture’s myth/ideological tradition” (Slotkin rev. ed. 1998, 234).
10 Those seeking an overview of the method may also want to consult Robert Sklar’s “The Problem of American Studies ‘Philosophy’: A Bibliography of New Directions.” American Quarterly. v. 27. 1975. 245-262.
11 It is important to note that Smith and Slotkin’s predecessor, Frederick Jackson Turner, remains perhaps the most influential scholar of writing about the frontier today. It was Turner’s 1893 address on “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” that gave rise to a whole new school of frontier historians including Smith and Slotkin (Etulain 1999, 3-14).
12 Smith and his followers, however, have written little about their methodological premises. As Alan Trachtenberg has stated of Virgin Land: “Its informing theory nowhere gets a theoretical exposition: the book prefers to exemplify rather than theorize” (From “Myth, History and