The Pilot and the Passenger: Essays on Literature, Technology, and Culture in the United States
“Americanists” enjoy a special title, comparable (so far as a quick run through the analogies serves) only to “Sinologists.” Their title, of course, doesn’t imply that they are experts on South or Central America, doesn’t even mean that they recognize much of interest to them in Canada. They are students of the culture of the United States, sometimes with a perceptible bias toward the northeast quadrant of the United States. Their major interest is literature, seen, however, in relation to the social, intellectual, and political values of the nation, and one can pretty well count on their taking four particular books as the cornerstones of their work. Behind Thoreau’s Walden and Melville’s Moby-Dick looms, for most Americanists, the polymorphous presence of Emerson; and among works of modern literature, they are likely to be most devoted to The Great Gatsby. Though they enjoy a wide franchise in discussing things American, “classic American literature” not infrequently comes down to a few themes and familiar examples. Forgoing the international perspective can sometimes be a handicap.
Leo Marx is an Americanist of liberal, even radical, persuasion. His book The Pilot and the Passenger is a selection of essays published over the past thirty-five years, a selection not much more miscellaneous than one could expect under the circumstances. The title derives from one of the earlier essays, and refers to the different vocabularies used by the passengers and the pilot on a Mississippi steamboat to respond to a view of the river. The passengers concentrate on aesthetic qualities of the scene—the foliage, the colors of the sun on the water, etc.; the pilot analyzes the river for its navigational dangers—sandbars, snags, treacherous currents. This exemplifies the difference between a pastoral, appreciative, genteel mode of speech and an expert, manipulative, vernacular mode. Modulated into many different forms and nuanced with careful qualifications that a reviewer’s brief summary can’t hope to render, this is a major theme of the book.
It is a major theme, however, not the major theme. The Pilot and the Passenger is divided into three units. The first is literary commentary, mostly on texts of Thoreau, Twain, and Melville, with a coda on Robert Frost. The second part, following the lead taken by Marx’s first and best-known book, discusses “the machine in the garden,” that is, the industrial economy that sprang up amid the original natural landscape of America, and the accommodations that can or should be made between the two antagonistic ingredients. Finally, the third section is devoted mainly to accounts of several efforts by left-wing intellectuals to balance the pastoral image of the good life with the reality of a mass culture driven by a huge industrial machine and fueled by measureless quantities of cash and credit.
Of the three units, the last will appeal least to a general reader. The three figures that Marx discusses—F.O. Matthiessen, Susan Sontag, and Irving Howe—while worthy and intelligent people along their own …