After the American Century
Remarks at MIT celebrating the fiftieth anniversary
of the publication of
Leo Marx’s The Machine in the Garden
I first heard about The Machine in the Garden when a freshman at Amherst College in 1964. I saw it reviewed in the local newspaper, and I went out and bought a copy in hard cover, as a Christmas present for my father. He was interested in the history of technology, but I was not, or so I thought. I did not consider reading it myself, until I had a course with Leo Marx the following year.
Amherst prides itself on a low student-faculty ratio and small classes. But Professor Marx’s survey of American literature was so popular that he taught in the largest lecture room on campus. About 150 students took the course every year, which meant that about half of all the Amherst student body chose to take it. He lectured on the Puritans, natural depravity, attempts to define "what is an American" from Crévecoeur onwards, the pastoral dream of America, the madness of Ahab in Moby Dick, Thoreau's theory of civil disobedience, and Whitman's barbaric yawp heard over the rooftops of the world. For those of us taking the course, this literature often seemed to be a meta-commentary on our times. The generals in the Pentagon were our Ahabs, the leaders of the Civil Rights and anti-war movements our Thoreaus, and Bob Dylan was our version of Whitman’s barbaric yawp. Our best hope, it seemed, was to survive the coming apocalypse as the Ishmaels of our generation. This was not the thrust of Professor Marx's course, I hasten to add, which was a most inspiring and coherent set of lectures on nineteenth century literature. I then bought a second copy of The Machine in the Garden, by then in paperback. Reading it, I could hear Leo’s wonderfully engaging voice, which at times has an almost hypnotic quality when he reads from and explicates literature. The survey course made such an impression that his seminars were oversubscribed, and I was one of the lucky 20 who managed to get into one of them.
When each Amherst class graduated, the custom was to select a faculty member as an honorary member of the class. Shortly before graduation the faculty member selected gave a final lecture to the entire class in the College chapel. My class of 1968 selected Leo Marx, and he lectured on technology in American society, with considerable reference to Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Human Development, which had appeared the previous year. I cannot claim to recall his argument in detail, but it linked the themes of The Machine in the Garden with sociology and philosophy, notably Martin Heidigger’s understanding that the essence of technology lies in the mind not the machine. The tensions analyzed in The Machine and the Garden were not new, but had emerged in antiquity, as with Mumford’s example was the building of the pyramids. Classical references were also in Leo’s book, notably his discussion of the emergence of the pastoral genre in ancient Greece and Rome and its re-emergence in early modern Britain.
Let me draw a few conclusions based on these Amherst years. Before its publication, Leo’s book developed to some degree through his teaching. Many close readings of particular authors were presented and no doubt refined in front of his students before the volume itself appeared. Through the process of teaching, it seems, Leo found compelling ways to make his argument. The ideas themselves had first been nurtured at Harvard in the 1940s, where he studied with F O Matthiessen and Perry Miller, and where he was Henry Nash Smith’s TA. But he reworked his dissertation for over a decade. He was not forced to rush into print in order to gain tenure, as is the unhappy practice today. This is a great book partly because it was closely linked to teaching and because its author was able to give it time.
My copy of The Machine in the Garden went with me to the University of Minnesota, where Leo had once taught, and where Alan Trachtenberg [who spoke just before I did] was one of his students. His former colleagues recalled him fondly, particularly Barney Bowron, who taught me much about late nineteenth century American literature. The Machine in the Garden was highly regarded at the Center for American Studies, and I found it useful not only in courses but also in framing my PhD thesis. Only in graduate school did I fully understand that this book was quite interdisciplinary. At Amherst the combination of history, literature, fine art, and the social sciences had seemed quite natural, but at Minnesota the faculty at these departments did not always share a commitment to interdisciplinarity. Notably, the New Criticism was still strong in the English Department, and I found that I had to defend the “myth and symbol” approach and to find arguments for the practice of American Studies itself. To my surprise, I discovered many arguments along these lines in The Machine in the Garden, in paragraphs that had not seemed so important when I was an undergraduate. I more fully understood its importance in shaping the development of the field of American Studies. It offered a model for how to combine sweeping analysis with close readings of texts, including literature, political speeches, government reports, and much more. It was genuinely interdisciplinary, drawing on classics, history, psychology, philosophy, popular culture, and fine art, even as it kept the main focus on literature.
By the middle 1970s when I was out of graduate school, academic fashions were changing rapidly. The field of American Studies was going through a transformation that emphasized social history more than literature and that focused on racial injustice, class tensions, and gender inequality. These matters were not excluded from the American Studies I had known at Amherst, and it has always seemed to me that they were very much part of the tradition of American Studies that Leo represented. Nevertheless, each academic generation seems to establish itself by attacking those who went before. The so-called “myth and symbol school,” which in fact never formally existed or identified itself by that name, came under attack. This is not the place to rehearse the debates of the 1970s and 1980s. Suffice it to say that while it is true that the book might have included such writers as Willa Cather or Ralph Ellison, their addition would not have undermined or compromised the argument, but rather showed its strengths. There is an enormous difference between leaving someting out because it does not fit a line of argument and leaving something out because not all of American literature can be discussed in a single book. In any case, The Machine in the Garden has outlasted its critics, most of whom are little remembered today except by specialists. It remains in pint, and people continue to cite it today. It is so well-known that other books refer to it in their very titles. In 1994 appeared, The Garden in the Machine (Princeton), in 2004 The Machine in Neptune’s Garden (Watson Science), and in 2001 The Garden in the Machine: A Field Guide to Independent Films about Place. The journalist Joel Garreau has written an essay, "The Machine, the Garden, and Paradise" (1991). There is also a gothic/darkwave musical duo who call themselves “The Machine in the Garden”. No doubt there are more examples.
Throughout my academic life both Leo and his book have preceded me. When I went to Spain on a Fulbright, I found that Leo had been there lecturing the year before, and The Machine in the Garden was a celebrated work. When I went for a year to The Netherlands, I found that he was friends with several people there, and that he had apparently lectured at all their universities. He had also spent a Fulbright himself in Britain, and he was well-known in Germany. Furthermore, Leo spent enough of his childhood in France to speak that language. It is difficult to find a European professor of American literature who has not read The Machine in the Garden. I could give many more examples, but one final one. A month ago I sat down at a random table in an airport restaurant waiting for my flight. At the next table a Finnish woman was talking about a lecture she was going to give in Stockholm about ecology and literature. It turned out that one of the first books cited in her paper was The Machine in the Garden.
When I bought that first edition for my father fifty years ago, I could never have imagined how much it would come to mean for me, for American Studies, and for the history of technology. As environmental concerns become more urgent, it is also being rediscovered by a new generation of scholars in other fields. It remains useful in my research and teaching. A colleague at the University of Texas told me that the new graduate students are quite interested in it. One of my classmates from Amherst, Gordon Radley who has a high position at Lucas Films, tells me that The Machine in the Garden has been influential in the formation of some of their motion pictures. If a comprehensive study were done of this book's influence, many more such stories would come to light.
After half a century of prominence, The Machine in the Garden has become an important part of American culture. It is one of those rare books that is, at the same time, a primary source and a secondary source. We read it both as one of the highest achievements of American Studies in its first two decades, and as a compelling meditation on the place of technology in American society.