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Tuesday, July 06, 2010

The Country and the City: The U.S. Case--The Machine in the Garden

Posted by Andrew Seal on 07/06/10 at 09:31 PM

In my first post on Raymond Williams’s The Country and the City, I wrote that “at least for U.S. literature, there have been attempts to write literary histories of depictions of the city and there have been attempts to write literary histories of depictions of the country, but there is no single study which actively attempts to fuse those together and read them as not only the same history but the result of a single process or regime (capitalism), which is what Williams does.”

A commenter here pointed out that Leo Marx’s The Machine in the Garden is “the book that comes closest, I think, to the kind of AmLit history you want to do.” That probably is true, but it doesn’t actually come that close for a number of reasons which I find demonstrate pretty well some of the basic reasons why there still hasn’t been a study of American literary history which does what Williams did and why it would still be quite difficult to write such a one. I didn’t initially plan on spending so much time on The Machine and the Garden in trying to puzzle out why I feel this is so, but that comment led me back to a closer look at the book, and I’ve found the comparison rewarding. Marx’s book is rightly renowned, even if, like most myth and symbol criticism from the 1950s and 1960s, it has worn a little shabbily. Most of my comments on it will be in a critical vein, but my point in doing so is not to question its worth on its own terms but to suggest the continued necessity of some other terms in which to think about the literary histories of the country and of the city in the U.S.

The first, most elementary, point about The Machine in the Gardenis that even Marx acknowledged that his book isn’t a literary history:

My purpose is to describe and evaluate the use of the pastoral ideal in the interpretation of American experience. I shall be tracing it adaptation to the conditions of life in the New World, its emergence as a distinctive American theory of society, and its subsequent transformation under the impact of industrialism. This is not meant to be a comprehensive survey. If I were telling the story in all its significant detail, chronologically, I should have to begin at the moment the idea of America entered the mind of Europe and come down to the present—to the death of Robert Frost in 1963. But I have chosen to concentrate upon selected examples, “some versions,” as William Empon might put it, of American pastoralism. Nor have I confined myself to the richest of literary materials. At points I shall consider examples which have little or no intrinsic literary value. In fact, this is not, strictly speaking, a book about literature; it is about the region of culture where literature, general ideas, and certain products of the collective imagination—we may call them “cultural symbols"—meet.

It is to Marx’s credit that he recognizes that a study focusing on the classic handful of U.S. writers—Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, and Twain—is not a comprehensive history of American literature. And the use of “examples which have little or no intrinsic literary value,” while still quite bold for its moment (and much the best part of the book, in my opinion), is somewhat undercut by the fact that what Marx assumes is important about these writers—Thomas Jefferson, Tench Coxe, St. John de Crèvecoeur, and Robert Beverley—is that they have turned up these powerful cultural symbols for later artists to use. The point of contact between them and Hawthorne, et al. is primarily and preeminently on the symbolic plane, as Marx defines the “cultural symbol:” “A ‘cultural symbol’ is an image that conveys a special meaning (thought and feeling) to a large number of those who share the culture” (ibid.).

“Share” may be the most important—and least well-defined—word in that sentence. So much analytical and ideological work is accomplished by it, and so very much is obscured with it. The nature of this “sharing” is ambiguous, if not indeterminate in its directionality: does it mean receiving culture or transmitting it? Both? Something else more nebulous, like “participation?” Regardless, the long specter of ideology is raised—just what understanding of ideology does Marx have? How is this sharing process orchestrated, and who or what, if anything, controls it? I’ll cut to the chase for you and tell you that Marx doesn’t offer a clear answer or even really acknowledge the question. (Another important instance of this “sharing” business is on page 143: “Americans, so far as they shared an idea of what they were doing as a people, actually saw themselves creating a society in the image of a garden.” And Marx characterizes Henry Nash Smith’s thesis in Virgin Land by using the word: “In Virgin Land… he ascribed much of American thought and behavior to a shared vision of the nation’s future, heritage of biblical myth, as the new Garden of the World.")

If Marx comes close to an explicit theory of ideology, it is on page 193:

[I]ts [the machine’s] meaning is carried not so much by express ideas as by the evocative quality of the language, by attitude and tone. All of the writers of our first significant literary generation—that of Emerson and Hawthorne—knew this tone. It was the dominant tone of public rhetoric. They grew up with it; it was in their heads; and in one way or another they all responded to it. It forms a kind of undertone for the serious writing of the period, sometimes rising to the surface spontaneously, the writer momentarily sharing [!] the prevailing ebullience, sometimes brought there by design for satiric or ironic purposes. In its purest form we hear the tone in Emerson’s more exuberant flights; but it also turns up in Thoreau’s witty parodies, in Melville’s (Ahab’s) bombast, in Hawthorne’s satires on the age, and in Whitman’s strutting gab and brag. To say this is not enough, however; one must hear the words, for their meaning is inseparable from the texture—the diction, cadence, imagery, or, in a word, from the “language."

This is practically Jungian, an image of ideology as a giant aquifer of ideas which can be extracted in purer or siltier forms depending on how deep you go. Now, this image has its recommendations and I don’t mean to call it inadequate, but it also leads quite easily to a sort of adjectivization of power: Marx can speak of “certain controlling facts of life in nineteenth-century America” (343) without asking who has the control or how it is being used. (In fact, it seems “controlling” is used in just this way eleven times in the book, “compelling” another six, as if these words have no direction, no compellers and compelled.) “Controlling ideas” are simply an ether in which one finds oneself, “turn[ing] up” here and there and everywhere in purer or dingier (or in Marx’s other key terms, complex or simple) terms, depending, but always “shared."  This is what the consensus school of history looks like on the level of diction.

Marx’s intense interest in “shared” culture and “shared” visions is also ironic in one sense; the critical tension within Marx’s work—and maybe within myth and symbol criticism generally—is that between the primacy of “sharing” and a phrase that Marx borrows from Melville—"mistaking a temporary feeling for a lasting possibility.” How ephemeral is the hold of these cultural symbols which we Americans “share,” and to what extent is that ephemerality a check on their power? That is, is the nature of our participation in this shared culture or vision an immersion or a dip, and if it is a dip, or a series of dips, how do we weigh the amount of time we’re all wet against the time that we are dry? Marx loves that Melville critiques “the spurious pastoralism of the age… While Hawthorne [in “Ethan Brand"] hints guardedly at the false character of the essentially moribund, Augustan pastoralism of the dominant culture, Melville’s witty attack embraces the flummery of the romantic avant-garde as well—including, to a degree, himself [in Typee].” Melville does this by telling Hawthorne that (and I’ll quote his note, or rather his postscript, in full because it’s beautiful, and sums up how I feel about myth and symbol criticism very well)

This “all” feeling, though, there is some truth in. You must often have felt it, lying on the grass on a warm summer’s day. Your legs seem to send out shoots into the earth. Your hair feels like leaves upon your head. This is the all feeling. But what plays the mischief with the truth is that men will insist upon the universal application of a temporary feeling or opinion.

To what extent is Marx’s work an insistence upon the universal application of a temporary feeling or opinion? Marx (probably self-consciously) walks the thinnest of edges in resting his entire book upon just such a temporary feeling or opinion—the stray moment in Hawthorne’s journal which provides the master symbol for Marx’s thesis—a train’s shriek breaking the silence of a wooded glen. Marx takes this fugitive (and, as I read it, fairly casual) thought as paradigmatic of the entire experience of industrialism at least in the nineteenth century, the pattern upon which to cut all similar encounters with technology in a still-quite rural nation. Marx badly wants Hawthorne’s moment to be something which Williams might call a whole structure of feeling, but he risks the possibility that it is, in the end, actually a moment, one which many of us—from the U.S. or elsewhere, 19th, 20th or 21st century—may have shared, but which may have had little—and certainly not universal—application or influence.

Williams, whose marxian concept of ideology is, you have to admit, more defined even if you disagree with it, does not run into this problem of ephemerality because for him, symbols are tools, not drops of some ideological aquifer beneath our feet. As such, the key question for Williams is when the tools are being used and to what ends, questions which to a large extent take ephemerality into account. Recurrence of the same symbols—a major concern of both Williams and Marx—is explained not by a “shared” culture which poets keep dipping into, but by persistent contradictions within a single system and consistent strategies used to try to resolve those in favor of the interests of the same class or class fraction. Marx’s emphasis on a “shared” culture ultimately cannot identify these contradictions or these strategies except as tensions inherent in the ‘way things are,’ directionless, miasmic, inert in their repetitions. It is notable and characteristic, I think, that (so far as I can recall) not once does Marx inquire about the direction of the many trains which dart through the pages of his authors’ notes and stories. Is Hawthorne’s “train in the Concord woods” coming into Concord or leaving it? Moving toward Boston or away from it? The city, or the country? No matter—the dynamics of power between country and city are ultimately not what interests Marx—not that they have to—but rather the fact that the train is there, is seen or heard, and that its presence can be shared as a defining, foundational moment for the experience of industrialization.

Myth and symbol criticism is so good and so focused on getting at the roots—or what look like roots—the primordial images, the deepest ideas that American culture (supposedly) “shares,” that it ignores almost all the dirt around those roots. What I want to ask for is instead a study that focuses on all that dirt, that is interested in which direction the “train in the Concord woods” is running. The closest thing I can think of to doing that is not a study of literature: it is William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis.

But that leaves alone the question of why there isn’t a study of American literature interested in those things, and instead why we have The Machine in the Garden and why it might still be difficult to think in Williams’s terms instead of Marx’s. This post is already running long, and I hope there is enough to chew on for now, so I’ll push those questions into a third post, but for now I’ll offer one longish quote from near the end of Machine:

Precisely because it is relatively unformed, wild, and new, James [in The American Scene] is saying, the scenery of America is peculiarly hospitable to pastoral illusions. It invites us to cross the commonsense boundary between art and reality, to impose literary ideas upon the world. (351-352)

The word “hospitable” here is quite as interesting as “shared” is above, and “peculiarly” does all the exceptionalist work an Americanist can ever hope for. The first settlers upon the land evidently could not help themselves from pastoralizing it, so “hospitable” and “inviting” was it to their illusions. This is more than just personification of the land; it is turning a made thing—the pastoral illusions, the desire to impost literary ideas upon the world—into a found thing. The fact is that this has been such a frequent ideological move for Americanists—not only but, as they might say, “peculiarly.” Much of this is adopted from the rhetoric of and about the frontier, and while Frederick Jackson Turner receives only a single page reference in Marx’s index, The Machine in the Garden is, it goes without saying, impossible without him.

The “peculiar” situation of settler colonialism is the seedbed for the made-into-found conversion because such a conversion can be convincingly made; a frontier booster or an American studies professor alike can take representations of non-urban areas to be found things—found whole, entire, at a glance—not made things, or only secondarily made things—the virginity (or pastorality) of the land is not a concept we created but a property of its very existence. Williams’s case, however, is different. The enclosures which are so important to Williams’s history and the land tenancy structures in general are so obviously only made things (only things which men made up) and never found things (never basic properties of the land’s existence or essence) that this problem barely exists in English literature.


For what it’s worth, Marx did publish a review of Williams’s City and the Country (in The Sewanee Review 82.2 {Spring 1974} 351-362): he called it a “searching, wise, and important book,” but he also felt that Williams “seems to miss the essence of the [pastoral] mode.” That in fact misses the essence of Williams, who was not writing a book about the pastoral mode (which explains why Empson is absent from the index, something which Marx wonders at) but about how the countryside is depicted, a focus which Marx apparently can only turn into a question of genre or form because he assumes it is through formal or generic analysis that the tensions and contradictions inherent in the practice of writing about the countryside will be resolved or will settle into a pleasing ambiguity. When Williams does talk specifically about modes or forms, it is largely to introduce the term “counterpastoral,” in order to group the poetry and prose which attempts to pierce the general habits of depicting the countryside, habits which may well be prevalent in the pastoral, but which also suffuse whole structures of feeling which well exceed that particular mode or form.

However, Marx accurately summarizes the most important part of Williams’s book with the following paragraph:

In Williams’s view our whole way of thinking about country and city, our tendency to identify the country with “nature” and the city with “society,” is only one of the many false divisions nurtured by our alienating system of production, which constantly reproduces its contradictions within our minds. As Williams says so well, it “teaches, impresses, offers to make normal and even rigid, modes of detached, separated, external perception and action: modes of using and consuming rather than accepting and enjoying people and things.” If there is a cardinal metaphor expressive of the divisions in our world, it may well be the contrast between city and country. (362)


Nicely done.

By on 07/07/10 at 02:22 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks! and thanks for the encouragement to go in this direction--it has certainly been productive and enjoyable for me putting the two in more explicit conversation.

By Andrew Seal on 07/07/10 at 09:05 AM | Permanent link to this comment

This is really useful.

It seems to me that temporality is a useful way of glossing this difference, though I’m not sure exactly how this would be done. The pastoral or Georgic modes so often imply the “golden era” or an escape-from-the-present-of-industrial society, and as such, are intensely dependent on a certain conception of industrial time. (Or at least this is what they mean under capitalism, which is your focus here). E.P. Thompson and the kind of “Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism” mode of thinking through what the country means. 

On the other hand, my reading of frontier narratives in people like Roosevelt—which I’ll be enabled to transform into a post once the world cup releases me from its grasp—is that the temporality of the frontier is always futuristic. In his 1887 The Winning of the West, for example, Roosevelt rhapsodized that “the spread of the English-speaking peoples over the world’s waste spaces” was “not only the most striking feature in the world’s history, but also the event of all others the most far-reaching in importance.” And he framed this movement within the “perfectly continuous history” of the English race, emphasizing that the “vast movement by which [the North American] continent was conquered and peopled” was actually only “the crowning and greatest achievement of a series of mighty movements” which had started with the voyage of Columbus itself. 

There is nothing pastoral about this; it’s very anti-Jeffersonian in its effort to imagine the frontier as enabling and being enabled by industrial society (rather than, for Jefferson, the outlet safety valve that would prevent a class structure from forming). The moment in Whitman’s Democratic vistas, where he imagines the future US capital moving inward, again, I read as intensely anti-pastoral:

“In a few years the dominion-heart of America will be far inland, toward the West. Our future national capital may not be where the present one is. It is possible, nay likely, that in less than fifty years, it will migrate a thousand or two miles, will be re-founded, and every thing belonging to it made on a different plan, original, far more superb. The main social, political, spine-character of the States will probably run along the Ohio, Missouri and Mississippi rivers, and west and north of them, including Canada. Those regions, with the group of powerful brothers toward the Pacific, (destined to the mastership of that sea and its countless paradises of islands,) will compact and settle the traits of America, with all the old retain’d, but more expanded, grafted on newer, hardier, purely native stock.”

I suspect that “closing of the frontier narratives” like Turner’s often forget an earlier tradition of anti-pastoral Americanism; Turner’s temporality is much more in line with the pastoral mode, since the frontier is re-located back onto the past. But for Whitman and Roosevelt—frankly, with all respect to historians, *much* more influential figures than Turner—the frontier always remains in the future, even if (for Roosevelt) you have to go to Cuba or Kenya to find it. 

Which is why I question the claim that “the scenery of America is peculiarly hospitable to pastoral illusions” as Marx makes it, and your extension of it to write that “The first settlers upon the land evidently could not help themselves from pastoralizing it”; it seems to me that pastoral stories of the frontier come surprising late into the American tradition. Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, lets not forget, places a prison at the very beginning of American history:

“The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognised it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.”

I think, frankly, he was reading a strain of early American writing that people like Marx mostly have not been. Which is why I’ve been urging you towards Ed White’s The Backcountry and the City, which reads early american rhetoric around the rural-urban divide in terms that are almost impossible to render as pastoral narratives, but which I think has been mostly read out of the post-Turner historiography, precisely for its unorthodox temporality (among other things). Which is why he turns to Guha and subaltern studies people to unearth it.

But this comment is turning into a post of its own, only without any organizing principle, so rather than continue in this vein, I’ll close this off and think about actually, and in a more organized fashion, turning it into a post.

By on 07/11/10 at 10:22 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I should probably wait to reply until I’ve read Ed White, but one of the things that Marx is trying to do is to move the idea of pastoral away from an exclusively retrospective, “golden age” ideal and toward a “middle landscape” or “middle state” (defined well here). Marx argues that “the pastoral ideal is an embodiment of what Lovejoy calls ‘semi-primitivism’; it is located in a middle ground somewhere ‘between,’ yet in a transcendant relation to, the opposing forces of civilization and nature” (23). Marx even goes so far as to call the Hawthorne episode the harbinger of “a new, distinctly American, post-romantic, industrial version of the pastoral design” (32). I don’t really think there is as large a gap between what he is describing--particularly in the section on Tench Coxe--and what you’re pointing to. The section on Jefferson would be especially interesting in this regard; Marx works very hard to find Jefferson coming to terms with the inevitability of some industry in America and trying to see it as part of, and not antithetical to, a society based on the values of small-producers and a connection to the soil, etc.

Whether Marx is right still to consider people like Tench Coxe or this “middle state” truly partaking in a properly pastoral ideal is an open question, perhaps, but I think you may be reading Marx’s idea of pastoral as incorrectly primitivist or opposed to improvements on the land. When he says that “the scenery of America is peculiarly hospitable to pastoral illusions,” he means, basically, that it accepts so congenially the imposition of this “middle state” upon it--if I had continued to quote further down the page, what appears to have inspired Henry James’s reflection about the land’s hospitality to pastoral illusions is a small village near Farmington, CT, not an unplowed field or a “waste space.” It’s more the idea of Chicago being “Nature’s Metropolis” than it is the frontier as the place where white men no longer are. I think *that* aspect of Turner’s frontier thesis has been over-emphasized; his account of how the frontier has affected American society is better suited to his home state of Wisconsin (as people like Andrew Cayton have argued) than to the John Ford image of the frontier.

By Andrew Seal on 07/11/10 at 11:54 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Shoot, who would have thought that it was that easy?

By Frankie on 08/02/11 at 02:03 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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