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  • The Ruined Garden at Half a Century: Leo Marx’s The Machine in the Garden
  • David M. Robinson (bio)

Few works of modern humanities scholarship have enthralled so many and had such wide influence as Leo Marx’s The Machine in the Garden (1964). Yet it is also a work that met sustained criticism within a decade of its publication, and it continues to stand as a classic but contested work. A skillful interweaving of American intellectual history and literary analysis, Marx’s book stood for a generation or more as the great exemplum of “American Studies,” the ever-shifting interdisciplinary field whose initial aspiration was to reveal the “identity” of the powerful and troubled United States at mid-twentieth century. Marx portrayed American culture as a pastoral dream that awakened into a mechanistic reality, best represented by the deafening locomotive hurtling through Thoreau’s Walden Pond retreat, bringing the would-be poet and bean grower back into commercial modernity. For Marx, this sudden and unsettling interruption of the pastoral, a literary motif that appears in several influential American literary texts, explained the persistent disquiet in the collective American psyche. It is through an examination of the “pastoral ideal” and its “subsequent transformation under the impact of industrialism,” Marx maintained, that we can understand “a distinctively American theory of society.”1

The decades that followed were ones in which the grounds for assessing American culture changed dramatically, and in which “certain products of the collective imagination” or what Marx calls “cultural symbols” were treated with skepticism at best, if not hostility, as Mark himself notes in his “Afterword” to the 2000 edition of the book. Even so, a fresh reading of The Machine in the Garden confirms both the imaginative power of its synthesis of literary and cultural texts and the trenchancy of its argument that American public life and artistic expression are still driven by a sense of unquiet rooted in a concern for the natural world. Marx could not have foreseen the acute nature of the environmental jeopardy in which we now find ourselves, but his book seems remarkably prescient in locating the pastoral—now largely redefined—as the core of both modern fears and hopes. [End Page 571]

From the outset Marx was adamant about dismissing what he called the “sentimental” pastoral: a nostalgic, anti-urban attitude that ignored “hard social and technological realities” and manifested itself in “the piety toward the out-of-doors expressed in the wilderness cult” and in “devotion to camping, hunting, fishing, picnicking, gardening, and so on” (p. 5). He was an urban pastoralist, and later described himself as a “socialist” whose political stance was formed by his belief that “the most important ‘event’ in American history” was actually the ongoing process of “industrialization—the capitalist-driven process by which predominantly rural and agricultural society became predominantly urban and industrial” (p. 369). What Marx described—and this is often overlooked—was a dissenting pastoralism that he found in “the true fountainhead of the pastoral strain in our literature” (p. 19), the Eclogues of Virgil. This pastoralism did not express the peaceful shepherd tending his flock, but the dispossessed landholder protesting the injustice of the Roman Empire.

While a complex of material, imperial, and religious issues drove the colonization of the Americas, the pastoral impulse surfaced early in the literature of and about the New World. In Marx’s account of the modern and particularly American pastoral, one key figure best represents the early struggles in the New World “garden”: Crèvecœur’s Farmer John of the 1782 Letters of an American Farmer. Crèvecœur’s paradoxical book provides the foundation for the sense of rebirth and detachment from old world history that characterizes the American attitude of exceptionalism, yet it also contains a moving indictment of Southern slavery and an impassioned critique of the American Revolution as an attack on the common man. Marx is attentive to the “mythic magnitude” of Farmer John’s voice (p. 111), which depicts the continent as a potential garden established and maintained by human labor. Crèvecœur’s American farmer thus embodied a modern version of Virgil’s shepherd, advocating a classless, radically...


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