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The Pilot And The Passenger

March 2023
1min read

Essays on Literature, Technology, and Culture in the United States

By Leo Marx; Oxford University Press; 357 pages.

Since the first European settlers gazed across the untrammeled American landscape, writers have sought words adequate to describe it. Leo Marx, William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of American Cultural History at MlT, ably negotiates the thickets of American letters in an attempt to more fully understand the American landscape’s influence on the lives of its inhabitants. This collection of nineteen essays written over a forty-year period examines an array of literary figures, from Melville and Emerson to Irving Howe and Susan Sontag.

In the title essay Marx probes the development of Mark Twain’s vernacular style in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn . There were two ways to look at the Mississippi River: from the vantage point of the passenger, who regarded the river in serene contemplation of its great natural beauty, and from that of the pilot, attuned to the dynamics of the river, conscious of its current, wary of snags. With Huckleberry Finn , Marx asserts, Twain broke free from the European literary conventions, with their painterly appreciation of light, colors, and forms, and adopted the language of the river people in order to convey otherwise inexpressible truths: “… we would watch the lonesomeness of the river, and kind of lazy along, and by and by lazy off to sleep. Wake up by and by … and maybe see a steamboat coughing along upstream, so far off towards the other side you couldn’t tell nothing about her only whether she was a sternwheel or side-wheel; then for about an hour there wouldn’t be nothing to hear nor nothing to see—just solid lonesomeness. …” “The Machine in the Garden” (later expanded into Marx’s important 1964 book) focuses on the cultural response to technology and industrialization. The verdant wilderness that enchanted (but also intimidated) the early pioneers was tamed by the nascent technology of the industrial revolution. The machine in literature was an ambivalent icon: it represented the indomitable will of civilized man, but it also shattered the pastoral idyll of the American landscape. Marx finds Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story “Ethan Brand” suffused with the “imagery of technology”— fire, metal, and steam—which makes it one of the initial entries in the literature of American disillusionment.

In the penultimate essay, “The American Revolution and the American Landscape,” Marx asserts that the land itself, the “unhistoried landscape,” provided some of the impetus for the American Revolution, inviting the Founding Fathers to cast off old institutions and to begin again.

Leo Marx is not a popularizer; his writing is steeped in academic tradition. He dismantles the arguments of his critical predecessors up to and including T. S. Eliot with a kind of stern pleasure. Much of scholarship is a dialogue with the past; Marx’s ruminations on technology, American pastoralism, and our “uncompleted revolution” demonstrate the importance of this dialogue as we prepare to meet the future.

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