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Book Review : Cultural Historian Takes On Twain

December 24, 1987|JONATHAN KIRSCH

The Pilot and the Passenger: Essays on Literature, Technology and Culture in the United States by Leo Marx (Oxford University Press: $24.95, 357 pages)

A cultural historian is to literature what a theologian is to religion: We don't really need one to partake of the experience, and sometimes we may find his insights to be more troubling than illuminating. (In this analogy, I suppose, the book reviewer is roughly equivalent to a preacher who delivers himself of a weekly sermon on Scripture, full of prayer and condemnation, but always looking ahead to next week's reading.)

Thus, for example, the ardent reader of Melville or Twain or Hemingway or Mailer may appreciate the critical insights of Leo Marx's "The Pilot and the Passenger"--but, then, the reader who is unfamiliar with the conventions of academic criticism may also find it unsettling that Marx writes off the last 10 chapters of "Huckleberry Finn" as "a glaring lapse of moral imagination."

Marx is a professor of cultural history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where--appropriately enough--he ponders the interrelationship between science and society, technology and literature. His 1964 anthology, "The Machine in the Garden" (which is represented here by its title essay), focuses on the friction between the industrial and technological realities of American culture and the pastoral longings of our national myths. He good-naturedly embraces the slightly derogatory label that has been used by his academic rivals to characterize his work--"the Myth and Symbol School"--and explains in an introductory essay that he conceives of "the idea of culture as a cognitive, meaning-generating context . . . which enables members of the culture to . . . participate in the unending argument about meanings, values, and purposes that helps to set a society's course of change."

35 Years of Scholarship

The essays in "The Pilot and the Passenger," spanning about 35 years of critical scholarship, are considerably more lucid, concrete and accessible than the introduction might suggest. But the whole point of Marx's work is to probe deeply into American culture and to point out the secret and sometimes uncomfortable uses and meanings of familiar images and ideas. The title itself is a reference to an emblematic passage in Twain's "Old Times on the Mississippi" in which he contrasts how the great river appears to the riverboat pilot and the riverboat passengers:

"The passengers saw the beauty of the Mississippi Valley landscape . . . as a series of pretty pictures," Marx explains. "But . . . as Twain learned the pilots' way of seeing beneath the water's surface, the river became a new and 'wonderful' book to him. . . . He saw in almost every pleasing detail of line and color a sign of hidden menace: a bluff reef or dangerous current or new snag."

Marx is an exacting critic, and he has an endearing way of writing about venerated (and long-dead) literary icons as if he were chastising and instructing a contemporary first novelist so that he might do better in his next book. For example, in "Mr. Eliot, Mr. Trilling, and Huckleberry Finn," Marx bemoans the fact that Twain has allowed Miss Watson (who is, "in short, the Enemy") to set free Nigger Jim instead of giving us a more realistic (if less comfortable) denouement. "To bring Huckleberry Finn to a satisfactory close, Clemens had to do more than find a neat device for ending a story," Marx writes. And he scolds Eliot and Trilling for going too lightly on Clemens:

"To minimize the seriousness of what must be accounted a major flaw in so great a work is, in a sense, to repeat Clemens's failure of nerve," Marx exhorts. "This is a great disservice to criticism. Today we particularly need a criticism alert to lapses of moral vision."

No Professorial Fussbudget

Marx, as we learn, is no mere professorial fussbudget--he is an activist whose critical writing is fully engaged with the moral and political problems of our age. When he invokes Emerson in "Irving Howe: The Left in the Reagan Era," it is to "remind the intellectual left in this country of the need to come to terms with the individualism of Americans;" and when he recalls the pastoralism of Thoreau in "Susan Sontag's 'New Left' Pastoral," he is applying one of his favorite themes--the function of "the landscape" in history--to a critique of the revolutionary aspirations of self-styled radicals in the '60s political counterculture.

"The Pilot and the Passenger" is a challenging book, both in its ideas and in its expression of those ideas. In that sense, Marx is the kind of theologian who does not defer to the sages or elders of his faith--he condemns "the consoling absolution from the painful complexity of political choice" and calls for "a larger, forward-looking program of social transformation." But in his zeal for the creative power of the literary arts, Marx is a theologian for whom God is very much alive.

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