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A Conversation with Leo Marx, Lucy Marx, and Rosalind Williams

Leo had recently read the page proofs of my book. I wanted to get his response to it. Lucy had also read the proofs and kindly agreed to serve as moderator.

(Cross-posted from rosalindwilliams.com.)

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Leo Marx’s seminal book The Machine in the Garden was published in 1964. (A 50th anniversary celebration will be held at MIT on November 8, co-sponsored by the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at MIT and the Oxford University Press.) This book was the reason I looked up Leo in 1972, when he was teaching at Amherst College, where my husband had a postdoc. Leo and I reconnected in 1980, after he had joined the faculty of the STS Program, when I applied for a postdoc there.

Leo Marx
Leo Marx

For the subsequent three decades (plus), Leo and I have been colleagues and friends. For the last decade, we have regularly lunched together. In the past few years, his daughter Lucy often joins us: she also teaches at MIT, in the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies (recently renamed Comparative Media Studies/Writing). Our favorite lunchtime topics are family, friends and colleagues, sports, art, and politics, as well as current reading and writing.

Lucy Marx
Lucy Marx

This podcast records one of those lunchtime conversations, at Leo’s home in Jamaica Plain in mid-April 2013. Leo had recently read the page proofs of my book, and I wanted to get his response to it. Lucy had also read the proofs and kindly agreed to serve as moderator. She defined the leading questions that launched the conversation and she kept nudging us back to them.

As a result this conversation is similar in tone but considerably more focused than our usual lunchtime rambles. Focused but not formal: you will hear the clanking of dishes in the background.

I am grateful to Leo for agreeing to record our conversation; to Lucy, for organizing and guiding it; to Owen Williams, for suggesting this in the first place and providing technical support; and to C.M. Harrington who did the editing.

Show Notes

The podcast begins with Lucy Marx providing an overview of common themes in Leo’s book The Machine in the Garden (published in 1964 by the Oxford University Press) and my book The Triumph of Human Empire (University of Chicago Press, September 30, 2013). The Machine in the Garden has never been out of print.

00:30 onward
Throughout there are references to Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. These are editions Leo and I have often used in our teaching:

Also mentioned is Thoreau’s Journal, which he kept from 1837 to 1861—a much less accessible work, since it runs about 7000 pages. Most readers would prefer to begin with one of the one-volume selections on the market. This is one that is especially inclusive.

William Morris kept a diary of his treks in Iceland that is brief and enjoyable reading.

The comment to Leo that he also knows the South Pacific refers to his years there serving with the US Navy on a sub chaser during World War II.

Two non-fiction works of Robert Louis Stevenson about the South Seas—which show his efforts to understand this quickly disappearing world—are In the South Seas and A Footnote To History.

His fictional work echoes the same experiences and themes.

Of this collection I especially recommend “The Ebb-Tide,” so similar in many ways to Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” – only in this case the darkness is found on the islands of the South Pacific.

For an example of Jules Verne’s grim views of what is typically called Progress, see his recently published fantasy Paris in the Twentieth Century (which ends with the city in the grips of devastating climate change).

The podcast could well end here. What follows is a sort of coda, a too-brief and –inconclusive discussion of science and literature that could well lead to another lunch conversation altogether.

End: 38:35

Rosalind Williams
Written by
Rosalind Williams

Rosalind Williams is a historian who uses imaginative literature as a source of evidence and insight into the history of technology. She has taught at MIT since 1982 and currently serves as the Dibner Professor for the History of Science and Technology in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society. She has also served as head of the STS Program and Dean for Undergraduate Education and Student Affairs at the Institute, as well as president of the Society for the History of Technology. She has written three books as well as essays and articles about the emergence of a predominantly human-built world and its implications for human life.

Rosalind Williams Written by Rosalind Williams