He had taught for many years at Amherst College before moving to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he ended his career as the William R. Kenan Jr. Emeritus Professor of American Cultural History.
A pioneering student and then professor of American Studies, Dr. Marx devoted a 2003 Boston Review essay to defining and tracing the history of the field.
“American Studies was about America,” he writes.
“Our literary forerunners were a strange group of gifted men – and a few women – who made America their subject,” Dr. Marx continued. “Most of them were untrained, unaffiliated, unspecialized writers whose common trait was a fascination with the idea of America. Like the founding scholars of American Studies, they were interested in this atypical society and culture. in its entirety.”
As a teacher of students and as a colleague, Dr. Marx “had an extraordinary ability to ask very insightful and penetrating questions,” said Merritt Roe Smith, Leverett and William Cutten Professor of History of Technology at the MIT, for the institute’s tribute. . “Leo’s quality of mind has been on display time and time again in public places.”
Smith added that “The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America” was “considered a classic in the history of technology” when it was published. It was, he said, a “pioneering work that helped, more than any other book, to define the field of American Studies in the 1960s.”
In a life that began just after the peak of the 1918 flu pandemic and extended to the COVID-19 pandemic more than a century later, Dr. Marx lived part of the story on which he relied on his writings and his teaching.
Born on the kitchen table of his family’s New York home on Nov. 15, 1919, Leo Marx was the son of Leo Sr., who ran estate sales, and Theresa Rubinstein Marx, a pianist who raised the young Leo and his sister, who was ten years older.
Thanks to a job at a newspaper, his sister gained access to free tickets to baseball games and Leo became a dedicated fan, first at Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Yankees games, then switching allegiances. to the Boston Red Sox.
Early in his college career, he taught at the University of Minnesota when Willie Mays was playing for a Minneapolis minor league team.
“Leo said, ‘I’m taking you to see this guy. He’s really something,'” Dr Marx’s son Steve from Cambridge recalled.
Dr. Marx attended Harvard College, where he and his friend Robert Stange led a student organization that opposed intervention in World War II before the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Graduating in 1941 with a bachelor’s degree in American history and literature, Dr. Marx enlisted in the navy.
He commanded a subfighter in the Pacific and married Jane Pike in 1943 while stationed on the West Coast. A social worker and defender of civil rights and women’s rights, she died in 2006.
They had met when she was at Radcliffe College and he at Harvard. While in the Navy, he sent her a first-class, one-way ticket to California in hopes that they would marry when he visited.
“Jane changed the ticket to a round trip, just in case,” he recalled for his Globe obituary.
In 1950, he obtained a doctorate in the history of American civilization program at Harvard, a precursor to what would become American studies.
On his way to graduation, Dr. Marx wrote in the Boston Review, he “studied with most of the men – and they have been all men – who had helped shape the new curriculum,” including FO Matthiessen, Perry Miller and Henry Nash Smith.
Dr. Marx then began his career as a teacher, although he had little use for either title.
“He had no pretensions,” said his daughter, Lucy of Jamaica Plain. “He hated being called Professor Marx or Dr. Marx. Everyone called him Leo.
From completing his doctoral studies in the late 1950s, he taught at the University of Minnesota. He then spent nearly two decades at Amherst College, including during the anti-Vietnam War protests of the late 1960s.
“Students were insistent on addressing certain issues and made themselves felt in class,” he said during a video interview about his Amherst years.
“Once or twice I’ve had students come up to the podium and push me aside,” Dr. Marx said. “And I always thought it was kind of wonderful that they had that rebellious spirit when they didn’t think we were doing justice to the issues of the day. It was a wonderful teaching time and it was never repeated. , where the students were so engaged in the affairs of the moment.
While at Amherst, he completed “The Machine in the Garden”, revising it after a colleague, Benjamin DeMott, told him, “It’s a good book on other books. If you make it a book about America, you will have a great book.
In the late 1970s he joined the faculty of MIT, initially as part of larger plans to establish a College of Science, Technology, and Society. Financial constraints prompted a smaller but influential program known by the acronym STS.
He was “the intellectual heart and soul of the STS program — largely because he believed in it so much,” said Sherry Turkle, MIT’s Abby Rockefeller Mauze Professor of Social Studies of Science and Technology, for the interview. honor of the institute.
And while his other writings were equally influential in his field, nothing would match “The Machine in the Garden.”
“He had a remarkably enduring readership and impact,” said his son Andrew from Cambridge. “It really foreshadowed a lot of the big questions that people have wrestled with since then.”
A memorial gathering will be announced for Dr. Marx, who in addition to his three children leaves behind five grandchildren and a great-grandson.
Not content to teach and write only on historical and current issues, Dr. Marx traveled with Andrew to Alabama in 1965 during the Civil Rights era to participate in one of the marches from Selma to Montgomery.
They were on a street corner in Montgomery during the visit when Dr. Marx spotted a group of law enforcement officers, carrying clubs and shields, heading towards student protesters. “Fascists,” he shouted.
“Hearing this fierce political rage at that time from him at that time was really eye-opening,” Andrew said.
Bryan Marquard can be reached at [email protected]