Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Country and the City: The U.S. Case

In my first post on Raymond Williams's The Country and the City, I wrote that "at least for U.S. literature, there have been attempts to write literary histories of depictions of the city and there have been attempts to write literary histories of depictions of the country, but there is no single study which actively attempts to fuse those together and read them as not only the same history but the result of a single process or regime (capitalism), which is what Williams does."

A commenter at The Valve pointed out that Leo Marx's The Machine in the Garden is "the book that comes closest, I think, to the kind of AmLit history you want to do." That probably is true, but it doesn't actually come that close for a number of reasons which I find demonstrate pretty well some of the basic reasons why there still hasn't been a study of American literary history which does what Williams did and why it would still be quite difficult to write such a one. I didn't initially plan on spending so much time on The Machine and the Garden in trying to puzzle out why I feel this is so, but that comment led me back to a closer look at the book, and I've found the comparison rewarding. Marx's book is rightly renowned, even if, like most myth and symbol criticism from the 1950s and 1960s, it has worn a little shabbily. Most of my comments on it will be in a critical vein, but my point in doing so is not to question its worth on its own terms but to suggest the continued necessity of some other terms in which to think about the literary histories of the country and of the city in the U.S.

The first, most elementary, point about The Machine in the Gardenis that even Marx acknowledged that his book isn't a literary history:
My purpose is to describe and evaluate the use of the pastoral ideal in the interpretation of American experience. I shall be tracing it adaptation to the conditions of life in the New World, its emergence as a distinctive American theory of society, and its subsequent transformation under the impact of industrialism. This is not meant to be a comprehensive survey. If I were telling the story in all its significant detail, chronologically, I should have to begin at the moment the idea of America entered the mind of Europe and come down to the present—to the death of Robert Frost in 1963. But I have chosen to concentrate upon selected examples, "some versions," as William Empon might put it, of American pastoralism. Nor have I confined myself to the richest of literary materials. At points I shall consider examples which have little or no intrinsic literary value. In fact, this is not, strictly speaking, a book about literature; it is about the region of culture where literature, general ideas, and certain products of the collective imagination—we may call them "cultural symbols"—meet.
It is to Marx's credit that he recognizes that a study focusing on the classic handful of U.S. writers—Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, and Twain—is not a comprehensive history of American literature. And the use of "examples which have little or no intrinsic literary value," while still quite bold for its moment (and much the best part of the book, in my opinion), is somewhat undercut by the fact that what Marx assumes is important about these writers—Thomas Jefferson, Tench Coxe, St. John de Crèvecoeur, and Robert Beverley—is that they have turned up these powerful cultural symbols for later artists to use. The point of contact between them and Hawthorne, et al. is primarily and preeminently on the symbolic plane, as Marx defines the "cultural symbol:" "A 'cultural symbol' is an image that conveys a special meaning (thought and feeling) to a large number of those who share the culture" (ibid.).

"Share" may be the most important—and least well-defined—word in that sentence. So much analytical and ideological work is accomplished by it, and so very much is obscured with it. The nature of this "sharing" is ambiguous, if not indeterminate in its directionality: does it mean receiving culture or transmitting it? Both? Something else more nebulous, like "participation?" Regardless, the long specter of ideology is raised—just what understanding of ideology does Marx have? How is this sharing process orchestrated, and who or what, if anything, controls it? I'll cut to the chase for you and tell you that Marx doesn't offer a clear answer or even really acknowledge the question. (Another important instance of this "sharing" business is on page 143: "Americans, so far as they shared an idea of what they were doing as a people, actually saw themselves creating a society in the image of a garden." And Marx characterizes Henry Nash Smith's thesis in Virgin Land by using the word: "In Virgin Land… he ascribed much of American thought and behavior to a shared vision of the nation's future, heritage of biblical myth, as the new Garden of the World.")

If Marx comes close to an explicit theory of ideology, it is on page 193:
[I]ts [the machine's] meaning is carried not so much by express ideas as by the evocative quality of the language, by attitude and tone. All of the writers of our first significant literary generation—that of Emerson and Hawthorne—knew this tone. It was the dominant tone of public rhetoric. They grew up with it; it was in their heads; and in one way or another they all responded to it. It forms a kind of undertone for the serious writing of the period, sometimes rising to the surface spontaneously, the writer momentarily sharing [!] the prevailing ebullience, sometimes brought there by design for satiric or ironic purposes. In its purest form we hear the tone in Emerson's more exuberant flights; but it also turns up in Thoreau's witty parodies, in Melville's (Ahab's) bombast, in Hawthorne's satires on the age, and in Whitman's strutting gab and brag. To say this is not enough, however; one must hear the words, for their meaning is inseparable from the texture—the diction, cadence, imagery, or, in a word, from the "language."
This is practically Jungian, an image of ideology as a giant aquifer of ideas which can be extracted in purer or siltier forms depending on how deep you go. Now, this image has its recommendations and I don't mean to call it inadequate, but it also leads quite easily to a sort of adjectivization of power: Marx can speak of "certain controlling facts of life in nineteenth-century America" (343) without asking who has the control or how it is being used. (In fact, it seems "controlling" is used in just this way eleven times in the book, "compelling" another six, as if these words have no direction, no compellers and compelled.) "Controlling ideas" are simply an ether in which one finds oneself, "turn[ing] up" here and there and everywhere in purer or dingier (or in Marx's other key terms, complex or simple) terms, depending, but always "shared."  This is what the consensus school of history looks like on the level of diction.

Marx's intense interest in "shared" culture and "shared" visions is also ironic in one sense; the critical tension within Marx's work—and maybe within myth and symbol criticism generally—is that between the primacy of "sharing" and a phrase that Marx borrows from Melville—"mistaking a temporary feeling for a lasting possibility." How ephemeral is the hold of these cultural symbols which we Americans "share," and to what extent is that ephemerality a check on their power? That is, is the nature of our participation in this shared culture or vision an immersion or a dip, and if it is a dip, or a series of dips, how do we weigh the amount of time we're all wet against the time that we are dry? Marx loves that Melville critiques "the spurious pastoralism of the age… While Hawthorne [in "Ethan Brand"] hints guardedly at the false character of the essentially moribund, Augustan pastoralism of the dominant culture, Melville's witty attack embraces the flummery of the romantic avant-garde as well—including, to a degree, himself [in Typee]." Melville does this by telling Hawthorne that (and I'll quote his note, or rather his postscript, in full because it's beautiful, and sums up how I feel about myth and symbol criticism very well)
This "all" feeling, though, there is some truth in. You must often have felt it, lying on the grass on a warm summer's day. Your legs seem to send out shoots into the earth. Your hair feels like leaves upon your head. This is the all feeling. But what plays the mischief with the truth is that men will insist upon the universal application of a temporary feeling or opinion.
To what extent is Marx's work an insistence upon the universal application of a temporary feeling or opinion? Marx (probably self-consciously) walks the thinnest of edges in resting his entire book upon just such a temporary feeling or opinion—the stray moment in Hawthorne's journal which provides the master symbol for Marx's thesis—a train's shriek breaking the silence of a wooded glen. Marx takes this fugitive (and, as I read it, fairly casual) thought as paradigmatic of the entire experience of industrialism at least in the nineteenth century, the pattern upon which to cut all similar encounters with technology in a still-quite rural nation. Marx badly wants Hawthorne's moment to be something which Williams might call a whole structure of feeling, but he risks the possibility that it is, in the end, actually a moment, one which many of us—from the U.S. or elsewhere, 19th, 20th or 21st century—may have shared, but which may have had little—and certainly not universal—application or influence.

Williams, whose marxian concept of ideology is, you have to admit, more defined even if you disagree with it, does not run into this problem of ephemerality because for him, symbols are tools, not drops of some ideological aquifer beneath our feet. As such, the key question for Williams is when the tools are being used and to what ends, questions which to a large extent take ephemerality into account. Recurrence of the same symbols—a major concern of both Williams and Marx—is explained not by a "shared" culture which poets keep dipping into, but by persistent contradictions within a single system and consistent strategies used to try to resolve those in favor of the interests of the same class or class fraction. Marx's emphasis on a "shared" culture ultimately cannot identify these contradictions or these strategies except as tensions inherent in the 'way things are,' directionless, miasmic, inert in their repetitions. It is notable and characteristic, I think, that (so far as I can recall) not once does Marx inquire about the direction of the many trains which dart through the pages of his authors' notes and stories. Is Hawthorne's "train in the Concord woods" coming into Concord or leaving it? Moving toward Boston or away from it? The city, or the country? No matter—the dynamics of power between country and city are ultimately not what interests Marx—not that they have to—but rather the fact that the train is there, is seen or heard, and that its presence can be shared as a defining, foundational moment for the experience of industrialization.

Myth and symbol criticism is so good and so focused on getting at the roots—or what look like roots—the primordial images, the deepest ideas that American culture (supposedly) "shares," that it ignores almost all the dirt around those roots. What I want to ask for is instead a study that focuses on all that dirt, that is interested in which direction the "train in the Concord woods" is running. The closest thing I can think of to doing that is not a study of literature: it is William Cronon's Nature's Metropolis.

But that leaves alone the question of why there isn't a study of American literature interested in those things, and instead why we have The Machine in the Garden and why it might still be difficult to think in Williams's terms instead of Marx's. This post is already running long, and I hope there is enough to chew on for now, so I'll push those questions into a third post, but for now I'll offer one longish quote from near the end of Machine:
Precisely because it is relatively unformed, wild, and new, James [in The American Scene] is saying, the scenery of America is peculiarly hospitable to pastoral illusions. It invites us to cross the commonsense boundary between art and reality, to impose literary ideas upon the world. (351-352)
The word "hospitable" here is quite as interesting as "shared" is above, and "peculiarly" does all the exceptionalist work an Americanist can ever hope for. The first settlers upon the land evidently could not help themselves from pastoralizing it, so "hospitable" and "inviting" was it to their illusions. This is more than just personification of the land; it is turning a made thing—the pastoral illusions, the desire to impost literary ideas upon the world—into a found thing. The fact is that this has been such a frequent ideological move for Americanists—not only but, as they might say, "peculiarly." Much of this is adopted from the rhetoric of and about the frontier, and while Frederick Jackson Turner receives only a single page reference in Marx's index, The Machine in the Garden is, it goes without saying, impossible without him.

The "peculiar" situation of settler colonialism is the seedbed for the made-into-found conversion because such a conversion can be convincingly made; a frontier booster or an American studies professor alike can take representations of non-urban areas to be found things—found whole, entire, at a glance—not made things, or only secondarily made things—the virginity (or pastorality) of the land is not a concept we created but a property of its very existence. Williams's case, however, is different. The enclosures which are so important to Williams's history and the land tenancy structures in general are so obviously only made things (only things which men made up) and never found things (never basic properties of the land's existence or essence) that this problem barely exists in English literature.


For what it's worth, Marx did publish a review of Williams's City and the Country (in The Sewanee Review 82.2 {Spring 1974} 351-362): he called it a "searching, wise, and important book," but he also felt that Williams "seems to miss the essence of the [pastoral] mode." That in fact misses the essence of Williams, who was not writing a book about the pastoral mode (which explains why Empson is absent from the index, something which Marx wonders at) but about how the countryside is depicted, a focus which Marx apparently can only turn into a question of genre or form because he assumes it is through formal or generic analysis that the tensions and contradictions inherent in the practice of writing about the countryside will be resolved or will settle into a pleasing ambiguity. When Williams does talk specifically about modes or forms, it is largely to introduce the term "counterpastoral," in order to group the poetry and prose which attempts to pierce the general habits of depicting the countryside, habits which may well be prevalent in the pastoral, but which also suffuse whole structures of feeling which well exceed that particular mode or form.

However, Marx accurately summarizes the most important part of Williams's book with the following paragraph:
In Williams's view our whole way of thinking about country and city, our tendency to identify the country with "nature" and the city with "society," is only one of the many false divisions nurtured by our alienating system of production, which constantly reproduces its contradictions within our minds. As Williams says so well, it "teaches, impresses, offers to make normal and even rigid, modes of detached, separated, external perception and action: modes of using and consuming rather than accepting and enjoying people and things." If there is a cardinal metaphor expressive of the divisions in our world, it may well be the contrast between city and country. (362)

1 comment:

Shelley said...

Sort of along these lines, I really liked A New Literary History of America by Marcus and Sollors. Really fun cover, too, and you may judge the book by it....