I was thinking about this question this morning: if historians and critics can deploy Kant and Hegel in service of an argument, why are people loathe to consider novels and other literary works in the same light? A novel is not a primary source, the professor or Ph.D student will tell you. Okay, but ......
Consider this brief book review I wrote for a Historiography of Technology class taught by Emily Thompson:
Eloquent, energetic, and impassioned, Leo Marx’s The Machine in the Garden (1964) continues to resonate with contemporary audiences. The book’s enduring appeal has made it a staple in various disciplines, and yet the very methods underlying Marx’s arguments remain controversial for current generations of students and academicians.
The central idea behind The Machine in the Garden is that the introduction of technology in the 18th and 19th centuries transformed American society. This may seem a truism, but it is how Marx seeks to prove this idea that becomes novel. The author uses 18th and 19th (and to a certain extent, 20th) century American literature as evidence of the technological effects on American thinking. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short stories, as well as Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), and even F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) become source material. In his afterword to the 35th anniversary edition of the book, Marx himself even alludes to the problem with this approach: “Though poetry and fiction are not very helpful in establishing the historical record as such, they are singularly useful, I learned, in getting at the more elusive, intangible effects of change – its impact on the moral and aesthetic, emotional and sensory, aspects of experience.”
If literature provides the intellectual backdrop of Marx’s argument, then the literal object of inquiry is the landscape. In other words, the technological reshaping of the American landscape is evident in the very literature Marx chooses to analyze. This line of thinking permeates The Machine in the Garden’s structure. The first chapter begins with Hawthorne’s impressions of a steam locomotive interrupting his enjoyment of Concord, Massachusetts’ natural environs. The antecedents and repercussions of this literal intrusion of technology into the American landscape are significant, Marx argues. An excursion into the history of the American idea of pastoral follows, whereby sources as disparate as Virgil’s Eclogues and Shakespeare’s The Tempest are used to great effect setting the stage for the most important chapters in the book. Whereas “The Garden” is a chapter that somewhat debunks the idea that thinkers such as Thomas Jefferson valued only the idea of an untrammeled, unspoiled yeoman-tilled landscape, “The Machine” confirms that American society was indeed mentally preparing itself for the introduction of technology into what Marx calls the “pastoral ideal.” Using the written materials of thinkers like the French –American writer J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur and American entrepreneur Tench Coxe, Marx documents the creation of a “middle landscape”, a figurative, contemplative space where such thinkers could assess the significance of the “machine’s” entry into the “garden.” This is a point bought to bear in the last chapter, called “Two Kingdoms of Force.” In this chapter, Marx relies on Hawthorne’s “Ethan Brand”, Moby Dick, and Huckleberry Finn to demonstrate how “a distinctive national culture” and “unique conception of life” emerges due to “the combined influence of two forces: technology and geography – the transportation revolution and the unspoiled terrain of the new world.” Marx concludes the book by stating that all these literary works confirm that the new American landscape of the 19th century is “the industrial landscape pastoralized.”
Although Marx calls attention to problems in using literature as primary historical sources, it is important to note reasons why such an approach is of value to historians. Marx’s interest in using famous works of literature to elucidate history is echoed in the work of subsequent literary theorists and cultural historians. Works like Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory (1975), Wartime (1989), and even Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s The Railway Journey (1987) use a similar approach to Marx’s in detailing histories of military technology and railway travel. Seasoned historians of science and technology may well opt to choose other works to investigate these topics. Yet The Machine in the Garden works particular well in one respect – it can be best understood as a document detailing representations of technology in 19th century America. One wonders if Marx’s own aspirations are greater than this. In a 1956 article for The New England Quarterly, also entitled “The Machine in the Garden”, Marx gives a thumbnail sketch of some of the ideas for his 1964 book. Unlike the book, Marx opens the essay with quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “…the artist must employ the symbols in use in his day and nation to convey his enlarged sense to his fellow-men.” This clarion call extends to scholars as well. In a 1998 article, a critic assesses Marx’s own predilection for literary sources, therefore claiming “This awakening to literature, to its voice and narrative devices, has something, too, of the pastoral. For it seems, especially in academe, we have become too sophisticated, we know too much and use what we know too keenly.” The beauty of Marx’s book is in its ability to augment our understanding of a complicated subject of inquiry.