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Leo Marx, pioneering professor and writer in American studies, dies at 102

Dr. Marx, birdwatching in Sweden, Maine, in 2011.Andrew Marx

In his book “The Machine in the Garden,” which helped propel and inform academia’s then-burgeoning American studies field, Leo Marx began by noting that “the pastoral ideal has been used to define the meaning of America ever since the age of discovery.”

The reason this ideal “has not yet lost its hold” on the nation’s collective imagination “is clear enough,” he added in his 1964 book, which evolved from his Harvard doctoral dissertation. “The ruling motive of the good shepherd … was to withdraw from the great world and begin a new life in a fresh, green landscape.”

A professor so thoroughly engaged with his students that he took delight when, on occasion, one nudged him aside to offer an alternative view, Dr. Marx was 102 when he died March 8 in his Jamaica Plain home.

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He had taught for many years at Amherst College before switching to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he finished his career as the William R. Kenan Jr. professor emeritus of American cultural history.

A pioneering student and then teacher of American studies, Dr. Marx devoted a 2003 Boston Review essay to defining and tracing the field’s history.

“American studies was about America,” he wrote.

“Our literary precursors were an odd lot of gifted men — and a few women — who happened to make 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 academic founders of American studies, they were interested in this unusual society and culture as a whole.”

As a teacher of students and as a colleague, Dr. Marx “had the extraordinary ability to ask very perceptive, penetrating questions,” Merritt Roe Smith, the Leverett and William Cutten professor of the history of technology at MIT, said for the institute’s tribute. “Leo’s quality of mind was exhibited time and again in public settings.”

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Smith added that “The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America” was “considered a history of technology classic” upon its publication. It was, he said, a “pioneering work that helped, more than any other book, to define the field of American studies during the 1960s.”

In a life that began just after the height of the 1918 flu pandemic and stretched into the COVID-19 pandemic more than a century later, Dr. Marx lived through a portion of the history he drew upon in his writings and teaching.

Born on the kitchen table of his family’s New York City residence on Nov. 15, 1919, Leo Marx was the son of Leo Sr., who ran real estate sales, and Theresa Rubinstein Marx, a pianist who raised young Leo and his sister, who was a decade older.

Through a newspaper job, his sister had access to free tickets to baseball games, and Leo became a devoted fan, first at Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Yankees games, and later switching his allegiance to the Boston Red Sox.

At the outset of his academic 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,’ " recalled Dr. Marx’s son Steve of Cambridge.

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Dr. Marx attended Harvard College, where he and his friend Robert Stange ran a student organization that had opposed intervention in World War II before the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Graduating in 1941 with a bachelor’s in American history and literature, Dr. Marx enlisted in the Navy.

He commanded a sub chaser in the Pacific and married Jane Pike in 1943 while stationed on the West Coast. A social worker, and an advocate for civil rights and women’s rights, she died in 2006.

They had met when she was at Radcliffe College and he was at Harvard. While he was in the Navy, he mailed her a first class, one-way ticket to California in the hope that they’d marry during her visit.

“Jane changed the ticket for a round-trip one, just in case,” he recalled for her Globe obit.

In 1950, he received a doctorate in Harvard’s history of American civilization program, a precursor to what became American studies.

En route to the degree, Dr. Marx wrote in the Boston Review, he “studied with most of the men — and they were all men — who had helped to shape the new program,” among them F.O. Matthiessen, Perry Miller, and Henry Nash Smith.

Dr. Marx then began his career as a professor, though 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 the completion of his doctoral studies through the late 1950s, he taught at the University of Minnesota. Then he spent nearly two decades at Amherst College, including during the anti-Vietnam War protests of the late 1960s.

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“The students were insistent on addressing certain issues and made themselves felt in the classroom,” he said for a video interview about his Amherst years.

“Once or twice, I had students who actually came up on the podium and pushed me aside,” Dr. Marx said. “And I always thought that was rather wonderful that they had that rebellious spirit when they didn’t think we were doing justice to the issues of the day. That was a wonderful period of teaching and it never was repeated, where the students were so engaged in the affairs of the moment.”

While at Amherst, he finished “The Machine in the Garden,” revising it after a colleague, Benjamin DeMott, told him: “This is a good book about other books. If you make it into a book about America, you will have a great book.”

In the late 1970s, he joined MIT’s faculty, initially as part of larger plans to create a College of Science, Technology, and Society. Financial constraints prompted a smaller, yet influential program known by the acronym STS.

He was “the intellectual heart and soul of the STS program — in large part because he believed in it so much,” Sherry Turkle, MIT’s Abby Rockefeller Mauze professor of the social studies of science and technology, said for the institute’s tribute.

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And while his other writings also were influential in his field, nothing would match “The Machine in the Garden.”

“It has had just a remarkably persistent readership and impact,” said his son Andrew of Cambridge. “It really did prefigure a lot of big questions that people have been grappling with since then.”

A memorial gathering will be announced for Dr. Marx, who in addition to his three children leaves five grandchildren and a great-grandson.

Not content to only teach and write about issues of history and the day, 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 Montgomery street corner during the visit when Dr. Marx spotted a group of law enforcement authorities, carrying billy clubs and shields, heading toward student demonstrators. “Fascists,” he yelled.

“To hear this fierce political rage at that moment from him at that moment was really revelatory,” Andrew said.


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.