Machine in the Garden

Marx, Leo. The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. 35 ed. Oxford University Press, 2000. 430 pp.

Reviewed by Nadia van der Watt.

In his book The Machine in the Garden, Leo Marx analyzes literature from several authors considered the greatest of American authors in order to illustrate the use of the pastoral ideal in American society. However, he also uses examples from throughout history to demonstrate the ways in which the pastoral ideal has been incorporated into the lives of individuals. Marx shows that a desire for a simpler rural existence away from the hustle and bustle of urban life was a key driving force for Europeans settling the American continent. He also explains that what most people sought was not a “primitive” existence in the harsh wilderness, but rather an existence between the two extremes of primitive and urban life.

machine in the garden

The Machine in the Garden gives the reader a broader understanding of American literature. It is written in the same style as an analytical research essay and filled with examples from classic American literature. Although the title might lead one to think that Marx would spend a considerable portion of his book concentrating on “the machine” or technology portion of the title, the book is instead focused primarily on “the garden” or pastoral part. Marx illustrates that the theme of the pastoral ideal recurs more commonly in literature of the past centuries than one might expect.

Some readers may find Marx’s writing a little hard to follow at first. Marx uses slightly elevated language which is at times difficult to get through. However, it only takes a short while before the reader will become accustomed to Marx’s use of sentence structure and word choice. After reading the first few pages of the book, readers will find that they fall into a comfortable rhythm as they follow along with Marx’s vast use of literary examples from a broad spectrum of texts.

Marx’s text is of interest not only for lovers of literature but also for those who experience the familiar struggle between a desire to live a simpler, less complicated life and a need to live in an urban setting in order to provide for themselves. Although Marx does not give a clear solution to this dilemma, he provides an understanding of a societal consciousness that existed since even before the conception, and realization, of the American continent. Marx argues that it may ultimately be this, almost inborn, desire for technological advancement, counterpointed by a yearning for a simpler life, which played such a intrinsic part in creating what is now known as the American way of life. His text is highly insightful and exceptionally well-written.