Influential scholar of American history, Professor Emeritus Leo Marx, passes away

Leo Marx, an internationally renowned scholar of American history and a founding member of MIT’s Program in Science, Technology and Society (STS), died on March 8 at his home in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood. He was 102 years old.

Revered and beloved as a scholar, teacher, colleague and friend, Marx provided decisive leadership in giving the humanities a central academic role at MIT.

Marx, William R. Kennan Jr., Professor Emeritus of American Cultural History, best known as the author of “The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America” ​​(Oxford University Press, 1964). Based on his Harvard University doctoral dissertation, the book identifies a fundamental paradox in American literature and life. The wide-open American landscape seems to be the embodiment of the “middle landscape” imagined by ancient Greek and Roman pastoral poets, where humans live in harmony with the rest of nature. At the same time, the rich and vast New World encourages ambitions for the mastery of nature. In America, pastoral dreams of harmony coexist with mechanistic dreams of control.

A new lens for American history

The title of the book has become a familiar phrase, but it is the subtitles that best reflect the complex subject matter of the book. The “rustic ideal”, which dates back to antiquity, refers to a genre of literature that idealized country life. The idea of ​​”technology” dates back a few centuries and has been identified with practical, money- and power-generating enterprises such as employment, engineering, management, warfare, and production. How can these two words and thoughts be in the same title? What do they have to do with each other and American history?

Marx was one of the first in the American academic world to practice intensive interdisciplinary scholarship. He highlighted the role of literary analysis in understanding technical history because, as he wrote in a course for one of his graduate classes, the imaginative writer “rarely considers technology and its relationship to the rest of society and culture as their own. In fact, the indirect or tacit importance attributed to the role of technologies in literary works makes their study particularly valuable.”

It was a new approach in historical studies of the mid-twentieth century, and it provided a sharp new lens for looking at both American and industrial history. Marx used this lens to study dramatic and revealing images and episodes: the whistle of a steam train breaking through the quiet woods of Thoreau’s “Walden” or a steamboat crashing into a raft on which Jim and Huck sail into the Mississippi. Swim under Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

building a classic

From basic insights – the power of imaginative literature to understanding technological change – it took Marx a long time to publish the book. As an undergraduate at Harvard in the late 1930s, focusing in history and literature, he was engaged with the emerging power of industry by already imaginative American writers. When he graduated in 1941, however, the world was at war. He joined the US Navy and spent most of the next four years in service, and eventually became the captain of a sub-chaser.


He received his PhD in 1950 and went on to work in the Department of English at the University of Minnesota. With his wife, Jane Pike Marx, whom he married during the war, Marx moved to St. Paul. He began to hone his teaching skills at the renowned public university in Minnesota, while also serving as visiting professor at other institutions, including the University of Nottingham in England and Amherst College in Massachusetts.

In 1958, Marx accepted an offer to join the faculty of Amherst College as Professor of English and American Studies. Then almost 40 years old and still revising his dissertation, Marx asked a new colleague what he expected would be the final review. Benjamin DeMott’s response was: “It’s a good book about other books. If you make it a book about America, you’ll have a good book.”

Marx responded with a thorough revision, and “The Machine in the Garden” was finally published six years later. “From day one, ‘The Machine in the Garden’ was considered a history of technology classic,” says MIT’s Merritt Roe Smith, Leverett and William Cutton Professor of the History of Technology. “It was also,” he says, “a pioneering work that helped define the field of American studies during the 1960s more than any other book.” While almost 60 years have passed since the book appeared, it’s scholarly quality, originality and importance have stood the test of time.

origin story

Marx lived at Amherst for 18 years, earning a reputation as a great teacher. In 1975, he accepted an invitation from MIT President Jerome Weisner, Provost Walter Rosenblith, and historian of technology Alting Morrison, to help create a College of Science, Technology, and Society at MIT, aimed at all of MIT. To merge the existing schools into one. Mission which will include an undergraduate program, a research center and fellowships. Marx in 1976 in the American Cultural History William R. Kennan joined the MIT faculty as a junior professor and helped develop innovative courses, but ambitious plans for a new college ran into financial limitations. This experiment, which lasted for five years till 1982, had sown many seeds for the future.

And what remained was a very good program in Science, Technology and Society (STS) within the School of Humanities and Social Sciences (the forerunner of today’s School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences). To achieve greater stability, the STS faculty then worked to launch an undergraduate program, and in 1987 received provisional approval for MIT’s doctoral program in History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology, and Society (HASTS). The exceptional success of the HASTS program proved instrumental in launching STS to its current position as a leader in the field renowned within and outside MIT.

During this period, Marx was “the intellectual heart and soul of the STS program – in large part because he believed so much in it,” says Sherry Turkle, the Abby Rockefeller Mauj Professor of Social Studies of Science and Technology. By the time STS stabilized in 1990, Marks had been at MIT for 14 years and was one of the last MIT faculty to be subject to mandatory retirement. However, retirement only seemed to reinvigorate him; As Kennan Professor Emeritus and Senior Lecturer, Marks continued to publish and teach at MIT nearly every semester through 2010.

Meaning of nature, environment, technology, progress

By the 1990s, Marx’s scholarship was moving toward interdisciplinary environmental studies, where nature and technology converge. With Jill Kerr Conway and Kenneth Keniston, she organized a multi-year lecture and discussion series, which led to a book intended for a general audience: “Earth, Air, Fire, Water: The Humanistic Study of the Environment” (Massachusetts). University Press University), 2000).

At the same time, technology was increasingly identified with digital tools and systems. For several decades Marx had been exploring the meaning and development of technology in a series of articles on topics such as Heidegger’s concept of technology, technological pessimism and the concept of progress. All of these studies were adapted into an article titled “Technology: The Emergence of a Dangerous Concept”, first published in 1997, and then in 2010 in the journal Science. Technology and Culture.

Challenging a concept important in the history of technology as dangerous is both provocative and persuasive: Marx’s article is one of the most cited in long history Technology and Culture. Through additional essays and writings, Marx eventually created an intellectual history of the concepts of nature, environment, technology, and progress, as these terms continue to co-evolve. Even today, the seeds of his ideas germinate in countless reviews, conversations, and classroom discussions.

humming classroom

Marx also leaves a rich legacy as a teacher – influencing not only students but colleagues as well. “Everyone on the program wanted to teach with Leo, and in return, every single one of us, I think, did because it was an in-depth consultation on how to work in the classroom,” Turkle says. How impressed was “Leo’s”. The ability to turn a seminar into a lukewarm collaborative experience.”

David Mindell, Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and the Diebner Professor of Engineering and Construction History at STS are also among Marx’s STS graduate students. He says that Marx’s standards for good writing were clear and high. “No one could have asked for a kind, gentleman to cut the early writings of a young scholar to the bone,” he says, noting that Marx once gave him 11 pages of handwritten commentaries on a draft . “He made me a better writer, a better thinker, and a better historian, and left a similar impression on many others.”

Beyond MIT, Marx changed the world in his class. He did a tremendous amount of public speaking, advising, editing, advising, and debating in all kinds of settings around the world. David Nye, an American historian who spent most of his academic life in Denmark, says, “I doubt that there is a single country in Europe where he did not go to attend a conference or lecture.”

Wherever he went, Marx was prized for his ability to hear. “The quality of Leo’s mind was demonstrated over and over again in public settings,” recalls Smith. “He had an extraordinary ability to ask very perceptive, penetrating questions.” “Leo was a wonderful listener and gave decisive advice,” says Nee.

an ongoing legacy

Today, Marx’s insight lives on. A few weeks before his death, Marx’s daughter was approached by Claudio Stefanczyk, the curator of the National Museum of Modern Art in Zagreb, Croatia, seeking permission to use the title “The Machine in the Garden” for an upcoming art exhibition. . Marx admired the exhibition catalog and was pleased to see his inspiration at work in an unexpected quarter.

For his part, tefančić says that Marx’s book inspired him to “find a broader meaning in art and work in an interdisciplinary way.” In his Catalog essay, he expanded Marx’s insights into another time, place and art form, showing how Marx’s ideas continue to provide a reliable framework for understanding the modern world. The essay concludes: “We would not be able to imagine a society of the future without the symbols of the garden and the machine.”

MIT professors Rosalind Williams (emerita), David Mindell, Merritt Roe Smith and Sherry Turkle; Professor Emeritus David Ni of the University of Southern Denmark and family member Lucy Todd Marks contributed to this remembrance.

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