Leo Marx, 102, Dies; Studied Clash of Nature and Culture in America

“The region of culture where literature, general ideas, and certain products of the collective imagination — we may call them ‘cultural symbols'” — met to provide him with answers.

Railroads loomed large among these symbols, and Henry David Thoreau, for one, found their “startling shriek of the train whistle” to be a disturbing intruder into the idyllic America of the early 1800s. When the “monstrous steamboat,” in Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn,” suddenly “bubbles out of the night and smashes” Huck and Jim’s raft, Professor Marx described it as a “evocative” symbol.

Professor Marx distinguished between pastoral forms that are merely “sentimental” and those that are more nuanced. According to the author, “Sensual pastoralism” is “widely diffused in our culture, and insinuates itself into many kinds of behaviour,” such as “flight from city” to the suburbs, “localism” in national politics, and “power of the farm bloc” in Congress.

This “obscure sentiment” is likely to be at work “when people turn away from the hard social and technological realities,” he wrote.

Comparatively, a “higher mode of perception” of the way technology and nature are intertwined in American life can be found in literature’s more complex pastorals, which take into account popular attitudes while also recognising and incorporating them.

After starting as a thesis at Harvard, he worked on “The Machine in the Garden” for 15 years.

“The Machine in the Garden” was described as “the best book ever written about the place of nature in American literary thought” by Harvard scholar Lawrence Buell in his 1995 book “The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture.”

In contrast to the work of a more recent generation of scholars who, he asserted, better account for the physical environment of forests, fields, and water bodies in their studies, he criticised Professor Marx’s abstracted, “metropolitan” view of technology’s impact on nature.