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Leo Marx's The Machine in the Garden
Nearly two decades ago, a fast-food chain made advertising history with a feisty old woman gesturing at a rival company's hamburger and demanding, "Where's the beef?" Upon rereading Leo Marx's classic The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America, which has remained continuously in print since 1964, a similar question startlingly arises: Where's the machine? As it turns out, "the machine" and the workings of "technology" appear more assertively in the book's title than anywhere in the text. Marx has little to say about specific machines or technologies. But he gives pride of place to the machine and technology in his title and subtitle, thereby seeming to relegate to secondary status "the garden" and "the pastoral ideal," concepts whose explication has actually consumed much of his half-century scholarly career. If The Machine in the Garden is indeed distinguished by the near absence of any discussion of actual technologies, then it makes sense to ask why many of us think of the book as a significant event in the formation of the history of technology as an academic discipline. A reexamination of Marx's work, now available in a thirty-fifth-anniversary edition with a new afterword, may contribute to an understanding of the early phases of the discipline.
Marx, born in 1919 and still an active scholar, has never described himself as a historian of technology. He began his career during the late 1930s as an undergraduate student of American literature in Harvard University's interdisciplinary History and Literature program. From Perry Miller, whose intellectual history of the Puritan tradition emphasized the primacy of human intention over environmental determinism, and from F. O. Matthiessen, whose readings of such canonical writers as Hawthorne, Thoreau, [End Page 147] and Melville celebrated a democratic renaissance in the early United States, the young student gained a sense that literature truly mattered, that it made a central difference to the national culture and polity. After serving in the navy during the Second World War, Marx returned to Harvard to work on a doctorate in the university's History of American Civilization program, one of the earliest of the academic American studies programs that had begun to emerge, first in response to the progressive cultural front of the 1930s and later, somewhat conflictedly, as a means of promoting a national culture during the cold war.
Marx's interdisciplinary training placed him in the maverick literary camp of the historical contextualists, who stood against the entrenched proponents of New Criticism. While the latter emphasized close textual analysis of individual literary works in isolation, the contextualists conceived of even "high" literature as inseparable from the culture that produced it. This intellectual debate, which in political terms often ranged former New Deal progressives against conservative traditionalists, paralleled to some extent the later split between contextualists and internalists in the history of technology. Marx, as a political progressive who sought a usable past through the study of literature, developed an activist scholarship intent on engaging current social and cultural problems. A reviewer observed in 1965 that his was "a troubled, sensitive . . . consciousness living [simultaneously] in past and present." With The Machine in the Garden, "a minority report on the national psyche," he had successfully "reinterpreted America for the atomic age." 1
The initial stimulus for the book came to Marx in 1947, when he encountered a remark by the literary critic Edmund Wilson to the effect that American writers of the 1880s and 1890s were the first to respond to industrialism. This observation puzzled Marx. As a graduate student he was already immersed in classic mid-nineteenth-century literature, which seemed to him, as he later recalled, "filled with striking sensory images of the artifacts of industrial capitalism: canals, steam engines, steamboats, locomotives, the telegraph, looms, and factories," even if it was "not in any explicit sense 'about' industrialization." 2 He resolved to investigate further, and this eventually became the...