56: Leo Marx’ Machine in the Garden

Leo Marx’ The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America is an American Studies classic.  Written in 1964, the book uses a myth-and-symbol strategy to examine the “pastoral ideal” as a “powerful metaphor of contradiction” between nature and technology/history.  Marx is also very keen to determine what, if anything, makes American culture exceptional.  After analyzing many, many canonical writers – Twain, Melville, Hawthorne, and Jefferson, but also Shakespeare (The Tempest), D.H. Lawrence, and others – he concludes that American culture is neither totally pastoral and nostalgic nor purely technological and Progress-driven, but a dialectical combination of the two, on a symbolic level.  Thus art, in the broad sense of human ingenuity, shapes the landscape.  And American culture, according to myth-and-symbol, can be accessed through art.

Marx also argues that symbolic landscapes are always part myth, part reality, and that Americans have a tendency to mix the two, which means that an interdisciplinary American Studies approach that merges history and literature is the perfect way to study American culture and American exceptionalism.  While he does stick to the canon, uses “we” uncritically in reference to American culture, and really does seem to think that literature can speak for all of America, his argument that the American landscape is both technologically and culturally constructed, and that it is at once pastoral and industrial, rings true in landscape studies today.  Further, he, like many other post-war Americans, is very much concerned with the apparent technological domination of the landscape, and he issues a veiled solution to this problem that plays on the double meaning of symbol as both artistic and political representation: “the machine’s sudden entrance into the garden presents a problem that ultimately belongs not to art but to politics.” Well then.  If anyone tries to argue that Leo Marx was pro-American exceptionalism, I might suggest they read his book more closely.

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