Henry Nash Smith, teacher and writer, was born in Dallas on September 29, 1906. His father was an accountant from Kentucky, and his mother was from Alabama. An uncle encouraged him to read, and he developed a preference for Kipling, Stevenson, and Twain. In 1922 Smith entered Southern Methodist University. While there, he studied with John Hathaway McGinnis, who influenced his interest in the literature of the Southwest. McGinnis was editor of the Southwest Review and of the book page of the Dallas Morning News. Smith went to Harvard in 1926 and received an M.A. there in the following year. He returned to SMU as a teacher in 1927 and served as chief editor of the Southwest Review from 1927 until 1937. In 1932 Smith was fired from the English Department at SMU because of a preface he wrote to a short story, Miss Zilphia Gant (by William Faulkner), which was published in book form in Dallas by the Book Club of Texas. The book, because of its alleged obscenity, upset the chairman of the SMU English Department. The firing caused such an uproar that the president of the university arranged that Smith, though he no longer would be allowed to teach in the English Department, would teach European classics in translation in the newly organized Comparative Literature Department.
Smith married Elinor Lucas in 1936, and they had three children. In 1937 Smith went to Harvard for the second time when the first of the American Studies programs was begun. He received his Ph.D. in 1940, and he taught the following year at SMU. In 1941 he went to the University of Texas at Austin as professor of English and of American History. He was a close friend of J. Frank Dobie. He was happy with his colleagues and his students there, but the turmoil over academic freedom in the years during and after World War II caused him to leave. On August 13, 1945, Smith had been invited by the student committee on academic freedom to present his paper entitled "The Controversy at the University of Texas, 1939–1945," which documented the numerous incidents at the university which would cause him to leave. In 1947 he became Professor of English at the University of Minnesota and worked in the American Studies program there. While at Minnesota Smith joined the fight for academic freedom that was being waged at the University of Washington. His essay in 1949 "Legislatures, Communists and State Universities" argued against dismissal of faculty members due to membership in the communist party. He left Minnesota for the University of California at Berkeley in 1953, and he remained there until 1974 when he retired. He was chairman of the English Department at California from 1957 until 1961. He was national president of the Modern Language Association in 1969. It was the publication of Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth in 1950 that led to Smith's national recognition as a scholar. Based upon years of study of attitudes to the West in the East, including such popular literature as dime novels, Smith wrote the first important book in the field of American Studies. Bernard DeVoto said of it that it was "a major achievement in both history and criticism, a book from which now on can never be left out of account." For this book, Smith received the Bancroft Prize in 1950 and the John R. Dunning Prize from the American Historical Association in 1951. His other books are Mark Twain of the Enterprise, 1957; Mark Twain: the Development of a Writer, 1962; coed., Mark Twain-Howells Letters, 2 vols., 1962; Mark Twain's Fable of Progress, 1964; ed., Popular Culture and Industrialism 1865–1890, 1967; and Democracy and the Novel, 1978. Mark Twain: The Development of a Writer is probably the most important of these. It is a study, among other things, of the artistic use of the vernacular in Twain's writing. Smith was killed on June 6, 1986, in an automobile accident in Nevada.