“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 lines, are scarcely the rooted, dynamic figures who might influence the basic structure of American society. That, as a matter of fact, is the core of Marx’s criticism of them, that they are (or were, Matthiessen being thirty-eight years dead) half-hearted and softheaded in their dissent from the dominant American values. And surely in the year 1988, when the word “liberal” became a bugaboo of election rhetoric—when neither presidential candidate dared to address even the most pressing and obvious issues of economic reform—there’s something almost quaint about discussions of a “revolution” to be promoted by a few marginal theorists talking mostly to each other. Leo Marx speaks of the “infantile disorders” of middle-class radicals, and he is right; but why give over a third of his book to them?
Thinking of technology and nature one might better—if only briefly—contemplate the business of agriculture in America, its enormous successes, above all as contrasted with the sorry record of agricultural failures on other continents, and its equally enormous costs, both environmental and human—the costs of small farmers driven from the land, migrant workers permanently peonized. The cost of farm subsidies for the most flourishing agricultural system in the world is a smaller but still dismaying consideration.* How could Leo Marx say not a word about such matters while concentrating instead on the opinions of three East Coast intellectuals of highly specialized appeal?
About ecology and the effects of industrialism on the American environment, Marx is deeply concerned, especially in the second section of his book. All but one of his essays on this theme are at least ten years old; and in the interval it has come to be recognized, I think, that the problem is not exclusively an American, or even a capitalist one. The Soviet Union has had to make some gestures toward cleaning up its industrial waste, and we are told that even the centuries-old pollution of the Thames River has yielded in some measure to decontamination efforts. Again, it’s a problem that would seem to invite an international perspective. What, for example, is France doing about nuclear waste? That nation relies more heavily than we do on nuclear power, and has less open space in which to store waste products. One wouldn’t expect very much in the way of enlightened policy from the French, but it might be instructive to know what they are doing, good or bad.
Of more direct concern is the question of what Americans can do about a national government that repeatedly and deliberately lies or conceals the truth about a matter as important as nuclear safety. Quite possibly much of the most vocal opposition to nuclear energy is paranoid in origin; but when the government and its agencies play fast and loose with the truth, paranoia is excusable, maybe even necessary.
The common broken-bottle, tin-can, and plastic-bag pollution, the garbage, litter, and trash of the common landscape (rural as well as urban), raises questions less about capitalism or industrialism than about people. The problem is just as bad in undeveloped parts of the globe, and in the third-world areas of our own nation, as in industrial centers. The prehistoric dwellers of the Pu-Ye cliffs and Frijoles canyon, not far from where I write, simply dropped their refuse on the floor of their caves—not out of doors, which would have been too much work, but underfoot. Bones, ashes, excrement, waste matter of all sorts was trodden into the floor, and when the floor came too near the ceiling, they moved to another cave. We now have in our country some 250 million descendants of these slothful creatures. Simply to keep them alive, a machine economy is indispensable; and from that, as well as from the festering, careless creatures themselves, an endless stream of garbage flows. Masses of people, it is to be feared, are an ecological problem, whether equipped with machines or not. I’m not sure that Leo Marx, any more than the rest of us, knows the way out of this terrible trap into which the human race has reproduced itself. Here again the international perspective might encourage a few thoughts on China’s Draconian solution (or is it a solution?) to the population problem.
When one starts thinking of large abstractions like technology and ecology, there’s no limit to speculating, and it’s no surprise that Leo Marx comes up with more questions than answers. On the other hand, when he has specific texts to deal with (they are mostly the figures of classic American literature, Thoreau, Twain, Melville, and Emerson), he is illuminating on both the text and the cultural complex that helped produce it. He has read the literature and is careful about the connections he makes among his ideas. His interests are, on the whole, analytic and theoretical; vernaculars like those of the rural West, the black ghettos, the Cajun country, the federal bureaucracy, and the Valley Girls don’t make an appearance; Leo Marx is no folklorist and doesn’t comment on the work of American artists in slang, from Ade to Damon Runyan. These remarks are descriptive, not evaluative.
As a rule, Marx writes well, though without much sparkle; but occasionally he slips into a tangle of allusions and abstractions that leaves a reader gasping for fresh air:
To ascribe centrality to the figurative conception exemplified by the episode in Huckleberry Finn is to suggest that it prefigures in small the larger contours of the fictive world created by many of our best twentieth-century writers.
This is mandarin English, to which, as Marx well knows, the only proper response is a vernacular one—“Aw, come off it,” for instance. There’s not a great deal of academic gibberish in the book, but any is too much.
The letters and photographs of Ansel Adams—who was not an Americanist, just an American—come from another world. He was born in San Francisco, and fortunately escaped higher education by displaying a precocious double gift, for playing classical piano and taking photographs. The second talent soon overshadowed the first, but he long regretted the loss of music—though anyone who could take photographs like his had no reason to repine. By marrying the daughter of a (or the) concessionaire at Yosemite, he gained not only a devoted wife, but access to the national park where for years he made his headquarters, and where he did some of his most notable photographic work. Everybody knows the clean, meticulous, icy-sharp quality characteristic of his images (a great many of which adorn the present volume) and they make a sharp contrast with his letters. In the end, they complement each other rather than conflict, but very different they certainly are.
A reader should be warned that it takes some time to get into Adams’s letters; the first ones date from his mid-teens, are to and from his parents, and seem pretty mawkish. They have a modest documentary interest as showing where, in the idiom, he was coming from; but the editors could have rendered access to the volume easier by curtailing some of these early epistles. For when he hit his stride, Adams was a splendid, rumbustious writer, overflowing with jokes, puns, expletives, and exuberance. He lived a wildly energetic life. In addition to supporting himself and his family by photography (no mean feat in itself), he backpacked crisscross again and again through his favorite wildernesses; lobbied, argued, and pressured legislatures in behalf of conservation causes; and in his spare minutes dashed off bits of ebullient correspondence to friends and critics. Never were letters less deliberately composed; he wrote when exhausted and distracted, on the spur of the second, in bits and fragments. A copious sample of these letters makes up the present volume.
Alfred Stieglitz was Adams’s mentor and inspiration in photography; though in time he got a little impatient with the crotchets of a man who was, after all, thirty-eight years his senior, Adams never ceased to revere his predecessor. “Revere” is the right word, too; nothing strikes an outsider entering for the first time into the world of Ansel Adams more than the extremes of love and hate into which, in the thirty or forty years around mid-century, the terrain of American photography was divided. For Adams, Stieglitz was a demigod; Edward Weston, Paul Strand, and Beaumont and Nancy Newhall were apostles of the true faith. Edward Steichen, on the other hand, was the Antichrist, and when he took over direction of the photographic division of the Museum of Modern Art, one is given to understand that civilization tottered.
Some of the differences between the true believers and the reprobates stemmed from different preferences in subject matter and different attitudes toward that subject matter. The Steichenites seem to have had a concern with documentary photography that Adams did not share; their greater readiness to use flashbulbs suggests that they were less devoted than he to the sharp and precisely outlined image; they evidently came close to thinking of the photographic plate as a stage toward the production of a book. But that the issues merited anathemas and excommunications seems, from a 1988 perspective, a bit unreal. More understandable these days are Adams’s heroic efforts on behalf of the environment. He was a bluff, hearty extrovert who threw himself into causes with a zest that he had the basic good sense to recognize as occasionally comic. His letters to close friends are warm and wonderful; reading them, one frequently feels (as one doesn’t often in reading printed letters) what a marvelous thing it would have been to have him for a friend.
One of the best things in the volume is a dirty joke (in a letter to Nancy Newhall on page 258) about a man who wanted to join the Alaska Club. It’s a hilarious joke, and no doubt representative of a certain raunchy side of Adams, which doesn’t come out much elsewhere. Wallace Stegner, who contributes a foreword, seems somewhat apologetic for Adams’s roughness—unnecessarily so, in this reader’s opinion. One hopes that the editors Mary Street Alinder and Andrea Gray Stillman, who also selected the letters, were not under pressure to make him respectable. The wild streak in Ansel Adams was what vibrated against the wildness of the high country; the miracle is that he was able to crystallize so much of that wild energy in the austerity of his photographs.
About the landscape of America it’s hard to think anymore without a bitter awareness of what it’s become. To spend a night at a grubby cabin at Grand Canyon or Yosemite, one has to make reservations weeks in advance; what one gets to eat is airline food. The high peaks of the Rockies are littered with beer cans and broken glass; the trails are lined with the scars of dead campfires (the wilderness movement having provided its own brand of pollution and contamination). The streams, the lakes, the oceans themselves are awash with garbage. In a serious discussion of transport problems in Connecticut (and not Fairfield County, either), I heard not long ago someone suggesting that all major traffic arteries be double-decked. The idea was absurd, but I wouldn’t have been able to suggest a better. People complain of gridlock on the squared-off streets of Manhattan, and they’re right; just one day a week (on Sunday, unless there’s a parade) the canyon dwellers can come out and see what their city might be like. But in Boston the combination of a haphazard layout, sharply limited space, antiquated public transport, and recent mushroom growth makes the situation even worse than in New York. Everyone in Boston seems to be either lost or stymied or both; new construction plans will apparently disrupt such traffic patterns as there are for the foreseeable future, and in the end dump more thousands of vehicles and people into downtown Boston.
Leo Marx, in an essay on anti-urbanism, concludes rather obscurely that Americans don’t dislike cities, and move out of them not because of “poverty and race and violence and the decline of services,” but because of “the larger socioeconomic system and its accompanying culture.” I think he means that if one is infatuated with the idea of a green America, one can idealize the cities as well as the rest of the country. This is all very well in The Great Gatsby, where the menace is an ash pit on outer Long Island; it’s something else amid the squalid misery of East Houston Street, or the battlegrounds of the lower Bronx. Even in the so-called good neighborhoods, it’s hard to idealize the darkened streets crawling with muggers, pickpockets, bag ladies, derelicts, and crack pushers. As one who left the big cities years ago and just revisited them lately, I found Professor Marx’s formula about the larger socioeconomic system and its accompanying culture (with all respect) high-sounding malarkey.
The cities are squalid, crowded, polluted, and expensive. They are dangerous and getting every day more dangerous, ugly and getting every day more ugly. In the neighborhood around Gramercy Park, where I stayed on my last visit, a flavor of old New York remains in town-houses with high windows, broad porches, and sometimes actual decorations on the walls, such as friezes, medallions, basreliefs. A few blocks to the south, a builder named Zeckendorf has put up on the block where Klein’s used to stand an immense, slab-sided condominium box, cold as a prison and bleak as a death’s head. It can stand as well as anything for the sort of brutal inhumanity that disgusted me with the city many years ago.
In America at large things are not yet that bad; but it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that they are best where there are fewest Americans and least money. It’s a sour verdict to render on a once glorious dream, and one would hope the Americanists could help us avoid it. But not by plastering over the ugly facts with verbiage, not by shutting their eyes to hateful reality and musing over a gentler part.
February 16, 1989
An account of the machine in the fields—no longer a garden, but the immense horizon-to-horizon forcing beds of the prairies and the California valleys—would also include a careful look at America’s successful competitors in the agricultural business, like Canada, Australia, and Argentina. Are they all doing pretty much as we do, and paying the same price? Or are there ways in which we can learn from them? Somebody may have done this study and reached conclusions either revolutionary, reformist, or standpat; but to say nothing at all about large-scale agriculture is surely an oversight to be remarked, given the theme of Leo Marx’s book. ↩