American Literary History 17.1 (2005) 141-147
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A Call for a Truce
Let me start autobiographically as well. Leo Marx's The Machine in the Garden had a profound influence on me in graduate school, along with Raymond Williams's The Country and the City; together, they got me to think about the machine and the city more than the country and the garden, and to ask why realistic fiction that depicted urbanization and industrialization in the US seemed somehow un-American in the critical tradition. Since then I have rediscovered Marx's work many times, in his prescient opening with The Tempest, a touchstone for postcolonial readings of America, and in his anticipation of environmental criticism, and I have to confess that I still crib from his readings, especially in teaching Walden and Moby Dick. When I finally met Marx, I was expecting a legendary figure, and I was taken by his youthful exuberance, unpretentiousness, and ongoing engagement with key critical issues in American studies, which this latest essay provocatively represents.
I wonder whether it's time to declare a truce, a cessation of hostilities, among generations of American studies scholars. The need to attack the founding fathers of the field to clear space for new work seems outworn and unproductive (though I admit I've participated in this battle with gusto). Marx eloquently attests to the political origins of the field in multiple, complex, and radical roots that preceded what would later be characterized as a hegemonic Cold War consensus. Drawing on his own autobiography, Marx brings to life his generation's passionate political commitments and struggles, which command as much respect and admiration today as do its magisterial scholarly works. When I first heard a version of his essay, it was thrilling to imagine the political and intellectual turmoil, debates, and excitement of the era he describes so well. Yet I am disappointed to find that in rescuing this creative history from a later generation's oversimplification, Marx caricatures and demeans the work of the scholars who came after what he calls "the great divide," whose scholarship was forged in the equally creative and turbulent political movements of the 1960s and '70s.
It's tempting to jump into the fray to defend my "generation." But this is a battle I hope we can stop fighting. (After all, it's time [End Page 141] for the next generation.) Marx's map of the great divide conflates too many diverse scholars on each side and ignores important continuities, debates, and conversations across time. Rather than offer a countergenealogy, I'm interested in exploring Marx's argument as a narrative of loss, a jeremiad of sorts, and in asking whether the driving characteristics he laments as lost can or ought to be revived or whether they might persist in other forms. These founding elements include the interest in America as a whole, the doubleness of critique and affirmation, and the personal belief in the idea of America.
Marx's is a story of radical rupture, the loss of an original wholeness, the abandonment and betrayal of founding ideals. Americanists from the 1930s through the '50s, he claims, were driven less by a theory or interdisciplinary method than by an oft-unacknowledged and somewhat embarrassing personal belief in their subject. Neither blind patriotism nor nationalism (an anathema associated with fascism at the time), this belief was profoundly double-edged. Many of Marx's colleagues were politically liberal or radically anticapitalist, New Dealers or Popular Front adherents with international affiliations. (Indeed Marx's reading of Herman Melville's "The Try-Works" is one of the most trenchant literary critiques of capitalism I know.) Yet what these intellectuals had in common, according to Marx, was a belief in the Enlightenment egalitarian principles that America embodied, even when they acknowledged that the US capitalist economy, racist society, and imperialist foreign policy betrayed those ideals. Marx places Americanist scholars squarely in the tradition they studied, of abolitionists, political leaders such as Abraham Lincoln, and dissident authors such as Henry David Thoreau and Melville, who affirmed their...