books History

American Eden and American Babylon: Leo Marx’s “The Machine in the Garden”

Leo Marx was one of the last great “Myth and Symbol” critics in American culture and literature. The Myth and Symbol School of criticism — which I myself largely belong to in my own professional and public writings — can be summarized as such: Stories (myths) follow a certain pattern of development from beginning to end and are replete with common symbols, archetypes, and motifs, etc. that convey meaning to the reader. Unlocking these symbols is essential to understanding the “myth” of stories. This is also applicable to film, etc.

Marx contends that one of the great myths and symbols of American literature and culture is the symbol of the garden over and against “the machine” (the railroad, the urban metropolis, the factory, etc.) which brings poison and corruption to the virgin land of nature. Thus we have the beginnings of the quintessential dialectic that even informs American politics: the noble and honorable little man, the farmer, or the pioneer standing against the evil capitalist, railroad baron, or land speculator, etc. Anyone who has watched Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves will even notice how the Machine and Garden Myth and Symbol influences that film story: Kevin Costner’s Lt. Dunbar is the “Nature Man” who wants to return to the simplicity and wholesomeness of the natural way of life (represented by the Sioux) while being threatened by the forces of civilizational progress/destruction (the white settlers, hunters, and soldiers). It’s the same trope replayed for us.

Starting with Virgil and Shakespeare and running through classics of American literature all the way up to “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Marx shows how Western culture has a pervasive consciousness of the “pastoral idyll” and how it exploded with energy and fruition in the North American context. Our yearning for a simpler time, the “true America,” and an un-corrupted land not tainted by big business, etc., all reflect this Garden Mentality under siege by the Machine.

However, is the pastoral idyll the real America and the real American dream? Even in the early days major cities were the dominant forces of politics: Boston, New York, etc. Urban men led the Revolution. Urban men fueled Manifest Destiny and the linking of the continent between Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Yet the allure of the pastoral idyll remains strong. We have a natural tendency to sympathize and empathize with the “little guy,” the “farmer,” or the “rural patriot.” We have a natural tendency to be suspicious to men in suits, men from cities, and their big business attitudes.

Marx, however, also thinks that romanticizing the pastoral idyll is a dead end for politics and culture. It refuses to come to grips with the reality that we are no longer a pastoral and rural society; that we have become what we most feared: an urban, industrial, capitalist society. What are we to do? The artist, Marx says, points his finger on a pressing problem and brings it to life for us. Thus we see, even in F. Scott Fitzgerald, the great author highlight materialist excess and emptiness in his work. Yet retreating back to the old America (the rural America) is “reactionary.” It refuses to accept what the forces of progress have wrought. Artists highlight our problems. But politics, Marx argues, is the only legitimate avenue for redress.

Marx combines literature, culture, and politics in a great study of American literature that rivals RWB Lewis’ “The American Adam.” In “The Machine in the Garden,” Marx draws out for us how American culture has been divided between naturalistic romanticism and simplicity vs. industrial progress, urbanism, and chaos. One can look further into film to see how this Natural Simplicity vs. Technological Destruction is apparent. James Cameron is the great Machine and Garden film maker. Take Terminator, for example. The bad guys are the Terminator Machines. Skynet. Corporate Greed. Or take his spectacular film Avatar. Pandora is the Garden. The RDA the Machine. Go back to a lot of sci-fi films and stories and you see this Myth and Symbol all over the place.

Leo Marx’s book is a great introduction to the pastoral idyll in Western literature (beginning, he argues, with Virgil — though I would contend we also find it in the Bible and Homer) and how it really comes to fruition in the American context. It should be read with RWB Lewis’ “The American Adam” which is another “Myth and Symbol” book that adds to the richness of American literature and story-telling. One will be thankful for reading Marx and opening a whole new level and world of interpretation and meaning to so many classic American works and also opening the reader to how this simple Myth and Symbol of the Garden under siege by the Machine continues to be seen in contemporary film. That, however, the reader will have to draw out from having read Marx. But if you do so, it becomes easy to do.

Leo Marx
The Machine in the Garden
New York: Oxford University Press, 2000; 1965; 430pp.

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