The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2022

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MAY 2022 Issue
Field Notes

Whither the American Pastoral?

Leo Marx and the post-pandemic transformation of the countryside

The preeminent historian of the American environment, Leo Marx, died on March 9, 2022, with sadly little fanfare. Marx was the famed investigator of the American theory of the pastoral whose writings stand among those of other historical theoreticians like Frederick Jackson Turner and Richard Hofstadter. Marx explored with great perspicuity a certain American mentalité, an approach concentrating less on watershed events like revolutions and war than on how people interpreted and interacted in the world around them. The pastoral idea arose from a deeply-rooted bourgeois sentimentality about the natural environment, seen as a haven from industrialization and the anxiety of modern urban life. Marx’s theory was, and remains, an idea that few scholars contest with any great seriousness.

Marx explores the pastoral idea in his book The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America, in which he teases out the contradictory perspectives of English writers and American settlers on the natural environment of North America as at once haven and horror.1 He finds the earliest traces of this paradox in the prose of William Shakespeare and the writings of the English historian Robert Beverley Jr., whose notes on the first forays of English explorers revealed the fear and wonder aroused by the North American coast. Marx masterfully recounts the emergence of the bourgeois mindset that joined a desire to order nature to the destruction wreaked by English colonists upon the land of the Native inhabitants. In many ways, Anglo-Europeans conceived of America as a salve for distressing changes within the English cities, to say nothing of the Elizabethan erosion of the commons, which transformed an expelled peasantry into a proto-proletariat (the “rabble,” as Hegel called them). Against the socio-economic backdrop of an industrializing England, Beverley saw North America as an “asylum”; this vision was followed nearly a century later by Thomas Jefferson’s notion of an agrarian republic, a notion responding to the early industrial period as potentially wreaking national havoc.

There is a certain commonality between Marx’s idea of the pastoral and Turner’s thesis of the frontier, in which changes in the land also meant a transformation in how Americans saw the environment. As colonists moved westward, division emerged in their conception of nature: on one hand, a nature symbolic of peace and bounty, and on the other, a Conradian darkness, where the Native threat lurked within unpredictable forests and inhospitable mountain passes.

Towards the end of the eighteenth century, and into the nineteenth, nature gradually lost much of its threatening qualities as the American settlers began to dominate more and more of the continent. Nature began to lose its quality as a border, becoming instead a refuge for the middle class, as writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau took residence away from the urban centers of the Northeast. As the railroad tracks expanded across the United States, so too came the arrival of what Marx calls “the machine.” The distant roars of a train were an unwelcome presence to writers like Hawthorne, whose moments of solitary introspection came to a sudden end, along with idyllic sounds of chirping birds and the chorus of crickets.

Marx published The Machine in the Garden in 1964 as a way to trace a certain mentality that is still to be found among Americans today, the pastoral idea. What nature is now left has been entrusted to the care of the Department of the Interior, state and county game lands, and less custodial forces like big ranchers, hunting clubs, and natural resource companies. Nature is to be exploited, preserved, or vacationed on; no longer is there much to explore. More recently, from the 1980s onward, we see the pastoral idea invoked in the political imagination of both the far left and far right, in the anarcho-primitivist communes of the Pacific Northwest and ultranationalist religious cults in Idaho, Texas, and Virginia.

A more latent narrative of nature-as-escape can be seen in the show Yellowstone, in which the incursion of coastal, big business entities into Montana threatens to displace ranching. As Jacki Weaver’s character, a cutthroat businesswoman, muses in one episode, Montana is slated to be the next Colorado, where every mountain village becomes a rustic playground for the global elite.

While Weaver’s character plays oracle of the “New West,” the change has also been apparent in the Northeast, particularly in Upstate New York and northeastern Pennsylvania. Along the Delaware River, villages whose economic lifeblood has a somewhat parochial character, we now find high-end cafés, restaurants, breweries/distilleries, and outrageously priced “general stores.” The vestiges of grain and feed depots and artifact-like railroad stations are refurbished or outright destroyed by New Yorkers fleeing a quarantined city. Gutted brick and mortar factories or pump stations now feature tacos and beer, catering to the wallets of urbanites. Local store owners have folded in the face of competitors with much deeper pockets.

The pastoral idea is no longer one of asylum from the city. Thanks to the growing appeal and availability of remote work among the middle classes, the countryside is now an invitation to carve out elite spaces from small, blue-collar towns conveniently located within natural splendor. As the other, more infamous Marx once put it, they seek to recreate the world in their own image. And so local ownership is swept aside, as is the need to hire townies, the newcomers satisfied to run things themselves and outsource their needs via online platforms.

The cultural mannerisms of this change can also be felt as well. No longer is one greeted by a passerby in a pickup with a wave or nod, but by the whirl of dust from an SUV barreling down a dirt road. Store owners no longer oblige themselves to greet customers as they enter the premises, but huddle in their packs of fellow urbanites. Farmer’s markets, once seen as inexpensive seasonal alternatives to grocery stores, no longer feature provincial produce and handicrafts, but offer branded, sleek products named after the declining upstate towns they’re sold near. Indeed, the icy chill of lonesomeness wrought from city life now permeates the expensive shops in villages like Narrowsburg and Callicoon. The pastoral idea has not died; its tug is still felt by Americans. The question is how long the environment can provide for the idea once its natural basis has been thoroughly cultivated.

  1. Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (New York: Oxford, 1964).


Joe Lombardo

Joe Lombardo is a writer and independent scholar based in Arlington, Virginia.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2022

All Issues