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The Machine is the Garden: Leo Marx Turns 100

The Machine is the Garden: Leo Marx Turns 100

In the 100th year of Leo Marx’s long life, it is impossible to imagine that back in 1964, when he wrote his seminal work in literary criticism, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America, the deep immersion into the technological sphere that human beings would ultimately choose, as opposed to the pastoral gaze.

Marx’s extraordinary book hinges on the tension between man and the rapidly changing world, the emergence of technology and industrialism, and the subsequent impact on pastoral America. Marx painstaking tracks the trope of technological interruption or, in his words, “the trope of the interrupted idyll,” found within the literary works of Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne, Twain, and many others. He pinpoints a complicated tipping point—and perhaps an inevitable historical crossroads where technology and progress race ahead of the agrarian pastoral ideal in America.

Born in 1919, he was a student at Harvard in 1937, a time of economic and social uncertainty, and still turbulent due to WWII when he graduated in 1941 and joined the Navy. Marx was, then, a self-proclaimed leftist, along with many of his colleagues. He writes, “At that time, before Marxism had been tainted by association with Stalinism, many of us identified left-wing radicalism….”

His four years of wartime experience reinforced his left-leaning views. After being assigned to patrol the off-duty entrance to Pearl Harbor, he had the opportunity to witness the naval military might of America. Shortly before he resigned from the Navy, Hiroshima was bombed, and the aftermath changed his and everyone else’s world forever. “Quite apart from its tragic human consequences, no other event in my lifetime so effectively dramatized the nexus between science-based technological progress and the cumulative, long-term degradation of the environment.” Marx’s career trajectory swerved, and in 1950, he graduated with a Ph.D. in the history of American civilization.

Marx proposes the different ways early American settlers experienced this new land. Some perceived it as a luxurious open space. In contrast, others perceived the unknown, mysterious forests and their inhabitants with deep apprehension—even fear—and were motivated to tame and conquer the unknown. What better way is there than to build it up with man-made objects and force the land to yield to human desires? Marx writes, “Most important is the sense of the machine as a sudden, shocking intruder upon a fantasy of idyllic satisfaction. It invariably is associated with crude, masculine aggressiveness in contrast with the tender, feminine, and submissive attitudes traditionally attached to the landscape.”

When Thoreau walked around Walden Pond 150 years ago and heard the locomotive’s whistle, he felt robbed of his serenity—his peaceful retreat. As Thoreau expressed in Walden: “The whistle of the locomotive penetrates my woods summer and winter, sounding like the scream of a hawk sailing over some farmer’s yard, informing me that many restless city merchants are arriving within the circle of the town, or adventurous country traders from the other side.” This imposing shock of noise, sight, sound, and smell, repeated in various scenarios as demarks a recurring theme in American non-fiction and fiction from this era. The industrial sounds provide a vision of a growing Industrial America eager to make its mark on the world while writers such as Thoreau lament the inevitable at the same time. Marx points out, “The echo, a recurrent device in pastoral, is another metaphor of reciprocity. It evokes that sense of relatedness between man and not-man which lends a metaphysical aspect to the mode; it is a hint of the quasi-religious experience to be developed in the romantic pastoralism of Wordsworth, Emerson, and Thoreau.”


As Marx explains, this vision of an ideal is not new; rather, it is a literary device as old as time—a rural-versus-urban tale. The gloried vision of the pastoral ideal almost always had some form of human intervention. As represented in literature and art, the ‘ideal’ almost always have humans—one or even a few shepherds. The land is always in the midst of being worked on in some manner—Virgil’s eclogues are one of many examples to which Marx refers.

The Machine in the Garden began as a dissertation. Marx’s propelling belief was “that industrialization—the capitalist-driven process by which a predominantly rural and agricultural society became predominantly urban and industrial—was the most important ‘event’ in American history.” Modern society, in Marx’s writing of his legendary book, and more so now, is a culmination of those moments that Leo Marx and the works he studied were contemplating—that crux between technology and culture that Marx dedicated his life to studying.

We are currently at another defining moment of cultural change forced by technology. Rather than repeating the same format and inserting a new technology–humans have instead almost wholly turned from looking out to the machine imposing on our environment to looking into the ‘machine’ daily.

The ‘gardens’ we look out onto are our computer or hand-held device for many of us. Our new literature will undoubtedly reveal a world within the worlds we have created within our internet connection. Our attention is less and less our own, to spend it as Thoreau did. The serene moment is a distant memory; the machine has become the idyll.

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