Oh, By The Way (1): Leo Marx Was (Is) No Dummy
I just joined the public beta of the Ello, which seems to be a wannabe hipster alternative to Facebook. Seeing as I never got Facebook, and despite my utter lack of hipster-tude (now and forever, amen), I thought I’d see if it made any sense to me. It doesn’t, at least not yet, but I thought I’d try it out as a kind of public commonplace book. So here goes: the first of what might be just one — or who knows how many — brief notes on things that I encounter on my way to doing (or avoiding) the work I ought to be accomplishing.
Giving that a try (again, and let me hammer this point, with no promises of consistency) here’s something. I’ve just started in on a book that’s been on the periphery of my “hot could you not have read this” list for a long time, Leo Marx’s classic, The Machine in the Garden. (Oxford University Press, 1964, 2000)
Very early — first half dozen of pages or so in, he starts to draw the distinction between the mass-culture version of the pastoral ideal and the one expressed in foundational works of American literature.
Marx was writing (as he notes in an afterward) out of an biography that included a Harvard education in the last class to graduate before the US entry into World War II, and service in the US Navy that ended a few months after the bombs landed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (Marx’s trajectory from ’37-’45 exactly matches that of my father, by the way; Marx and dad were friends, which is an odd the-world-is-much-smaller-than-it-appears grace note to all this. There’s a story there, or actually more than one, that Marx told me the one time we’ve met. Perhaps for another post..)
Ideas about the tricky relationship between the facts of the unbelievably rapid technological transformation of American life from independence, and the dream (fantasy?) or vision of life within unspoiled nature take on particular force in the wake of the bomb and the lived memory of industrialized war. It’s no wonder, it seems to me, that Marx as a literary and cultural scholar would wish to “describe and evaluate the uses of the pastoral ideal in the interpretation of American experience.”
What did stop me in my tracks, though, as I read my way through his first chapter — “Sleepy Hollow, 1844” — is the degree that his account of the cynical, for-popular-consumption use of the pastoral ideal maps directly onto our political landscape, right here and now, more than half a century after Marx published the book. Just check out this passage:
“The first, or sentimental kind [of pastoralism] is difficult to define or even locate because it is an expression less of thought than of feeling. It is widely diffused n our culture, insinuating itself into many kinds of behavior…An inchoate longing for a more “natural” environment enters into the contemptuous attitude that many Americans adopt toward urban life (with the result that we neglect our cities and desert them for the suburbs). Wherever people turn away from the hard social and technological realities this obscure sentiment is likely to be at work. We see it in our politics, in the “localism” invoked to oppose an adequate national system of education, in the power of the farm bloc in Congress, in the special economic favor shown to “farming” through government subsidies, and in the state electoral systems that allow the rural population to retain a share of political power grossly out of proportion to its size….” (p. 5)
There’s a hint of datedness to that passage. But if Marx’s concern about the ’50s growth of the suburbs doesn’t quite track with the issues central to the urban-exurban divide today, still, look at how well he captures the basic shape of American politics today. We’re five weeks out from an election in a country that in many ways is utterly transformed since he wrote that passage. And in just as many, we’re still stuck in the same damn cycle of stupid. The point being, of course, that old power, like an old habit, hangs on with the grim viciousness of a nicotine jones. Which, in our current predicament, is depressing as hell.
Image: J. M. W. Turner, The Fighting Téméraire tugged to her last Berth to be broken, 1839.