by Leo Marx
At about the time that Leo Marx published his classic work The Machine in the Garden, I moved from a garden, Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, to a machine, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Unlike bucolic Lexington, resplendent in its Shenandoah verdure, MIT and Cambridge were utterly paved over. They were human-built, and they were highly organized. I found the move exhilarating, for like Adrian Leverkühn, Thomas Mann’s protagonist in Doctor Faustus, I dreamed of leaving a quiet countryside for a vibrant urban scene. Marx’s The Machine in the Garden captured my transitional experience, even if my preferred trajectory turned out to be different from Marx’s.
It was not a similar relocation from a garden to a machine that provoked Leo Marx to write The Machine in the Garden, but rather an erroneous statement by the great yet variously imperfect literary critic Edmund Wilson. In a 1947 review of Maxwell Geismer’s The Last of the Provincials in the New Yorker, Wilson wrote that the American writers of the 1880s and 1890s were the first to respond to industrialism. Then a Harvard graduate student immersed in early to mid-19th-century literature, Leo Marx knew better. He found that literature laden with contemplation of the artifacts of industrialization: canals, steam engines, steamboats, locomotives, telegraphs and factories. His 1950 doctoral dissertation, “Hawthorne and Emerson: Studies in the Impact of the Machine Technology Upon the American Writer”, made the point in detail. While Marx was teaching at the University of Minnesota and Amherst College (another garden, come to think of it), the dissertation metamorphosed slowly into The Machine in the Garden, first published in 1964.
While The Machine in the Garden is highly original, it is not without intellectual forebears. Harvard professor Perry Miller, who godfathered Marx’s brainchild, believed that literature, if sensitively reflected upon by a nimble mind, could reveal major attitudinal patterns in history. In his work, which culminated in The Life of the Mind in America: From the Revolution to the Civil War (1965), Miller mined early 19th-century American vernacular literature. He combed meticulously through the records of editorial writers, public occasion speakers, popular clergymen and authors of books and articles for educated general readers. He concluded from these sources that Americans positively lusted for the gratifications of the machine; they hurled themselves “into the technological torrent . . . shouted with glee in the midst of the cataract, and cried to each other as they went headlong down the chute that here was their destiny.”
Miller’s basic approach clearly influenced Marx, but Marx decided to focus upon another layer of American letters from which he drew different conclusions about American attitudes toward technology. While Miller mined the vernacular, Marx examined the classics, persuaded, as Ezra Pound’s aphorism had it, that “artists are the antennae of the race.” So Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Herman Melville were grist for Marx’s mill. Hawthorne and company did not throw themselves into the technological torrent. Industrialization unnerved them, forcing indelicacies upon sacred tradition. It intruded upon their pastoral longings and imaginations. So they withdrew instead into nature to save their souls from being crushed by the mechanical juggernaut.
Whence comes this conclusion? Beginning with Hawthorne, Marx found in his literary sources the repetitive pattern of a telling incident involving a noisy, fiery machine interrupting a pastoral interlude. Locomotive whistles broke into the serene forest contemplations of both Hawthorne and Thoreau in the 1840s. In Moby Dick (1851), Ishmael’s contemplation of a tranquil ocean gives way to an intruding image of machine-like monsters lurking beneath the surface. A steamboat looming monstrously out of the dark smashes the idyllic Mississippi raft adventure of Huck Finn. Marx ingeniously finds the images of machines repeatedly interrupting pastoral interludes in the writings of, among others, Willa Cather, Sherwood Anderson, T. S. Eliot, John Dos Passos and Eugene O’Neill. He finds this leitmotif so prevalent that it becomes “a cliché of American writing.”
This cliché in turn led Marx to a lofty and highly suggestive generalization, one that explains why so many readers have found in The Machine in the Garden a key that unlocks-or, better, unveils-an essential characteristic of American history and identity. Marx saw in the vivid, imaginative American classics of the mid-19th century not only a master key to attitudes about social change, but also a way to move from lines of tacit meaning in specific images outward to the explicit meaning of historical events. He also discovered, he believed, what he later called a bipolar metaphor of contradiction. Because of the intrusion of industrialization into the New World’s near-pristine environment, Marx argued, Americans have been ambivalent and confused about the land they have settled. Is it a garden, or is it a wilderness? Should it be cultivated by deft human agency, or should it be exploited muscularly with machines? Now that I have spent many years living in Philadelphia, it is as if Marx would ask me to choose whether to celebrate William Penn’s green town or the workshop of the late 19th-century world.
Lithograph by Currier & Ives, c. 1886. © Gianni Dagli Orti/CORBIS
Marx thus posits and describes a schizophrenic American history organized, at heart, around the waxing and waning of the pastoral ideal in the national imagination. So Marx’s third chapter, “The Garden”, is followed by a fourth chapter entitled “The Machine.” In the former, Marx notes that settlers fortunate enough to come to Virginia described the New World as a garden. Robert Beverley’s History and Present State of Virginia (1705) and Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia (1785) so testify. (Marx does not find machines in Virginia, even though Richmond’s antebellum Tredegar Iron Works surely interrupted some pastoral interludes.) In the latter chapter, Marx describes how those settling farther north in, for instance, Massachusetts, described the land as a howling wilderness. Unsurprisingly, the wilderness folk did not hesitate to use whatever machines they could import or devise themselves, and often gave up trying to farm fields of New England rocks as soon as they could.
Marx did not develop the point, but it is as if elements of David Hackett Fischer’s theory of American hearth cultures, described in his 1989 book Albion’s Seed, were prefigured by a quarter century in The Machine in the Garden. Did the fact that New Englanders and Tidewater settlers, for example, tended to maintain such different conceptions of the relationship between the natural world and man-made endeavor help define the cleavage that led to growing regional tension?
Even without such speculations, Marx’s imaginative characterization of America as a schizophrenic nation, torn between irreconcilable images of garden and wilderness, helps us understand why The Machine in the Garden has never gone out of print. Here we have a useable and a memorable history, not a low-level narrative merely telling of one damn thing after another. Indeed, Marx’s generalization about the nature of American history is comparable in reach to an earlier grand metaphor that captured the imagination of several generations of American scholars and students: Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis. In a sense, Marx’s The Machine in the Garden was destined to be seen in its time as a candidate to supplement, even replace, Turner.
In his 1893 presentation, Turner asked readers to see themselves standing at the Cumberland Gap early in the 19th century, watching the westward flow of successive waves of native Americans, fur traders, hunters, cattle raisers and pioneer farmers. And in 1893, with most Americans having come of age before the Civil War, few had trouble conjuring that view. Turner believed that the frontier experience deepened political democracy, accelerated the cross-pollination of immigrant ethnic groups into a single nation, and fostered a proud individualism. The frontier not only honed these characteristics, but also American informality, coarseness, strength, acuteness, inquisitiveness and a materialistic, practical inventiveness. And to Turner’s thesis the typical American patriot said, “Amen.”
By the time Leo Marx was working to turn his dissertation into a book, however, these traits Turner had described and lauded had acquired a second edge-at least among much of America’s intellectual elite. It was a time of inchoate but growing postwar doubt about the virtues of power and material wealth. The Machine in the Garden appeared just three years after Rachel Carson’s epochal Silent Spring, and to his credit, Marx later recognized that his masterwork “probably reveals as much about the era in which it was written as the one it was written about.”
Indeed. After writing The Machine in the Garden, Marx portrayed it as an environmentally concerned tract, and the new social and political context onto which the book alighted certainly helps explain its enthusiastic reception. Years later Marx wrote that the destructiveness of the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima persuaded him that technology and industrialization were bringing stark environmental degradation. His concern, he insisted, was manifest from the start in his chapter “Two Kingdoms of Force”-the kingdom of nature and the kingdom of the machine.
Between these two kingdoms Marx left no doubt about which he favored, drawing upon The Education of Henry Adams (1918) to do so. As the story goes, visiting the 1900 Paris World’s Fair, Adams found himself figuratively praying to a 40-foot-high dynamo in the machinery hall. To him it embodied the attractive force of the machine world. If one prays to the Virgin, why not to the Dynamo; both dispense marvelous power. Praying to the Virgin, the faithful built magnificent cathedrals; serving the Dynamo, the faithful build skyscrapers.
Using Adams’ trope of the Virgin and the Dynamo, Marx set the two kingdoms of force dramatically in opposition: the Virgin represents the soft green landscape, the source of the pastoral interludes; the Dynamo represents all machines. Marx uses the opposition between the Virgin and the Dynamo to describe an all-embracing conflict: a clash between past and present, unity and diversity, love and power. In his Manichean vision he marshals all conceivable values. On one side he lines up heaven, beauty, religion and reproduction; on the other hell, utility, science and production.
Marx read a great deal more into Adams back in the early 1960s than I have ever found in him. Adams himself chose to expand upon the notion that Americans, unlike the French, have never fully appreciated the feminine and sexual force of the Virgin. She was the creator of the noblest art and exercised more attraction over the human mind than all the steam engines and dynamos, but her energy was unknown to the American psyche.
This is an altogether different way of interpreting the Virgin and the Dynamo from the one Marx chose. And that is almost certainly because, having been borne aloft by the gathering, pre-Earth Day environmental Zeitgeist, Marx, always and admittedly a political man of the Left, was interested less in art and more in social policy. That is also why, ultimately, his characterization of American attitudes and history differs from Turner’s.
If there are flaws in The Machine in the Garden, they are owed not to problems of method, but of predisposition. Later criticisms notwithstanding, Marx was right to think he could read Hawthorne, Thoreau, Emerson, Melville and others symptomatically to get at the anxieties and attitudes of Americans as the 19th century went hurtling by. He probably did not suspect that we in our time would also be able to read Leo Marx symptomatically as the latter half of the 20th century sped dizzyingly by.
For all his genius and skill, Marx paid little heed to machines, technology or their creators in The Machine in the Garden. Indeed, the “machine” and “technology” appear more assertively in the book’s title and subtitle than in his text. I have stressed instead the role of machines and their creators in shaping history because I believe a creative spirit that deploys machines to make a human-built world has definitively shaped the American nation. This enduring activity has bestowed particular characteristics upon the American people, not least among them a drive to displace an unpredictable nature with an ordered world, mistakenly believed to be controllable. Only in America could so many people apparently believe that better planning could have kept New Orleans dry during Hurricane Katrina.
This creative American spirit is starkly revealed, not just or mainly in literary classics, as Marx contends, or even in the vernacular literature examined by Perry Miller. It is expressed in the activities of inventors, engineers, industrial scientists, managers and entrepreneurs possessed of system builders’ instincts. Americans are technological enthusiasts; they do gleefully hurl themselves “into the technological torrent” as they reduce technology’s complexity, ignore its contradictions, and see it as little more than gadgets and a handmaiden to commercial capitalism and the military. So Marx’s reverence for the pastoral image and those who illuminated it was not entirely misdirected.
Marx sees no way to reconcile the Virgin and the Dynamo. I, however, have not given up hope for the end of our schizophrenia, which is today manifest so vividly in the polarized politics of environmentalism, from climate change debates to bitter arguments over how best to manage our energy and resource-rich wilderness preserves. I take comfort for my hope in one of Marx’s own cherished authors: Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Emerson believed that the American nation could embed virtuous values in machines. Just as nature manifests the logos, or the word of God, nature transformed by humans can express the perpetual creativity of the human mind and heart. Emerson wanted the heart, not only the mind, to shape the physical world. A creative mind and a good heart, he believed, could leave their mark on ship, mill and railroad, which could then serve God’s purposes. Emerson explained that mercenary impulses produced the selfish and cruel aspects of mills, railways and machinery. Infused with love and created through the powers of science and technology, the “second creation” would bear witness to the creative divine spark in its goodness and glory.
Emerson had a vision of engineers (machine) and environmentalists (nature) working together to make a harmonious eco-technological landscape, a uniquely American pastoral. It is a vision that struck Turner as unnecessary and Marx as impossible, but I am still with Emerson. I hope one day America will prove him right.