The Machine in the Garden
Marx identifies a major theme in literature of the nineteenth century—the dialectical tension between the pastoral ideal in America and the rapid and sweeping transformations wrought by machine technology. This tension is expressed "everywhere" in literature by the recurring image of the machine in the garden—that is, the sudden and shocking intrusion of technology into a pastoral scene. "Within the lifetime of a single generation," Marx writes, "a rustic and in large part wild landscape was transformed into the site of the world's most productive industrial machine. It would be difficult to imagine more profound contradictions of value or meaning than those made manifest by this circumstance. Its influence upon our literature is suggested by the recurrent image of the machine's sudden entrance onto the landscape" (343).
But Marx isn't interested so much in historical changes to the physical landscape. Instead, he looks at the interior landscape--"the landscape of the psyche"--and it is literature that he believes offers us the most direct access to the psyche. While popular culture traded on "puerile" and sentimental pastoralism—that is, the simple and unreflective urge to find a "middle ground" between the over-civilization of the city and the "violent uncertainties of nature" (28)--serious literature took a hard look at the contradictions in American culture—and particularly the conflict between the old bucolic image of America and its new image as an industrial power (26). It is the "role" of literature, argues Marx, to show us the "contradiction" of our commitment to both rural happiness and "productivity, wealth, and power" (226).
One example of this image occurs in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In Mark Twain's 1885 masterpiece, the garden is the raft, and the machine is the steamboat that smashes it apart—and along with it, the (impossible) dream of a free and independent existence for Huck and Jim. As the raft drifts ever southward, deeper and deeper into slave territory, it is increasingly clear that this existence is unsustainable. The raft, like Thoreau's cabin, represents an escape from society, freedom from restriction, and a sense of plenty all associated with the pastoral idea. It "embraces all of the extravagant possibilities of sufficiency, spontaneity, and joy that had been projected upon the American landscape since the age of discovery" (330). The steamboat represents the intrusion of social realities into this dream—and not just the reality of slavery. It is a representation of how machine technology conflicts the pastoral ideal, and in the case of Huck and Jim, onto the southward-floating raft (330).
Marx concludes that literary artists—and Twain, Melville, and Hawthorne in particular—raised important issues and exposed important contradictions in American culture, showing how "the aspirations once represented by the symbol of an ideal landscape have not, and probably cannot, be embodied" and that "our inherited symbols of order and beauty have been divested of meaning." However, Marx does not believe that these artists offer any solutions to the problems they raise. They have "clarified our situation" but have not created the "new symbols of possibility" we need (365). Literature can expose problems, but it is politics that we should look to for solutions.
- Marx, Leo (2000). The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. Oxford University Press.