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

He found answers in “the region of culture where literature, general ideas and certain products of the collective imagination — we may call them ‘cultural symbols’ — meet.”

The railroad was the most prominent of these symbols; “the startling shriek of the train whistle,” he wrote, became to Henry David Thoreau, for one, a troubling intrusion on bucolic America in the 1840s. Another symbol with “evocative power,” Professor Marx wrote, was the “monstrous steamboat” in Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” that “suddenly bulges out of the night and smashes” the raft that Huck and Jim are placidly riding down the river.

Professor Marx differentiated between “sentimental” and more complex forms of pastoral. Sentimental pastoralism, he wrote, “is widely diffused in our culture, insinuating itself into many kinds of behavior,” including the “flight from the city” to the suburbs, “localism” in national politics and the power of the farm bloc in Congress.

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

The more complex pastoral in literature, by contrast, recognizes and incorporates popular attitudes while maintaining “a more sensitive and precise, a ‘higher,’ mode of perception” of the intertwining of technology and nature in American life.

“The Machine in the Garden,” which began as a thesis at Harvard, took him 15 years to complete.

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

But he criticized what he called Professor Marx’s abstracted, “metropolitan” view of technology’s impact on nature, contrasting it with the work of a more recent generation of scholars who, he said, took better account of the physical environment of forests, fields and bodies of water in their studies.

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