Cat's Reviews > The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America

The Machine in the Garden by Leo Marx
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Aug 22, 07

bookshelves: culturalhistory
Recommended for: fans of american studies
Read in September, 2003

Marx's thesis, roughly stated, is that: Americans applied idea's developed about landscape in the old world to the landscape they discovered in the new world. In doing so, the landscape became a "repository of value" (value meaning economic, spiritual, etc.). The main idea about the landscape that travelled with them from Europe was the idea of "pastoralism".

Pastorialism, roughly expressed, represents the yearning by civilised man to occupy the space in between "art" and "nature". Marx does an excellent job of explaining the pre-modern understanding of "art" (which is different then our modern understanding of the word). Marx also distinguishes the a "simple" conception of pastoralism with a "complex" conception. Using the writings of Jefferson, Marx argues that Americans were more comfortable with the idea of a "complex" pastoralism that acknowledged the conflict inherent in the occupation of a "middle landscape" between art and nature.
Marx then attaches the concept of pastoralism to the symbol of the "garden" as representing a mediating space between art and nature (apply "arts" to "nature" and produce a garden).

After a further differentiation between the idea of the garden-as-continent vs. garden-as-garden, Marx moves on to the idea of the "machine".

What Marx means by the "machine" of the title is a relationship between culture and industry that was irrevocably altered by the industrial revolution. He details the attempts by writers to deal with the looming conflict between pastoralism and industrialization. Perhaps the most interesting portion of the book comes when Marx discusses the period when many saw NO conflict between the "machine" and the "garden".

However, the tour de force comes when Marx analyzes this conflict as it appears in the works of Emerson, Thoureau, Hawthorne, Melville and Fitzgerald.

Personally, I thought the analysis of Hawthorne's "Ethan Brand" was first rate.

Marx concludes by congratulating the authors he uses for "clarifying" the situation of Americans and noting that the ultimate resolution of the problem of the machine in the garden is not for writer's but for politicans.

In this way, the book is significantly more political then one might expect. It really belongs to the genre of "American Studies", even though my 1970's edition refers to it as belonging to "Literature".

Marx achieves greatness by tenaciously explpicating the troubled relationship between America and its technology. Although written in 1964, this book retains great relevance.
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