Lewis Mumford was born in 1895 to a lower-middle-class family in Queens, New York, and his career as a social critic and public intellectual spans the greater part of the 20th century. The largely self-educated Mumford wrote over 30 books of criticism, history, fiction, and autobiography—most of which are still in print—and more than a thousand essays and reviews. He contributed regular and often influential essays to the New Republic, the Dial, the Nation, the New Yorker, and many other journals. Despite his avocation as a freelance scholar with few university ties, Mumford’s eclectic work helped inaugurate several academic disciplines and specialized fields, including the social history of technology, architectural and urban planning, and American studies. Drawing on anthropology, cultural and political history, sociology, literature, political economy, and philosophy, Mumford’s work synthesizes older fields of intellectual inquiry into a coherent, “organic” whole. Mumford’s essays shaped policy debates in public arenas as diverse as urban and regional planning, ecology, and nuclear disarmament; for these efforts he was awarded numerous honors, including the National Book Award, the National Medal for Literature, and the Smithsonian Institution’s Hodgkins Gold Medal for groundbreaking, cross-disciplinary scholarship linking the sciences and the humanities.
Like the “Young American” critics Van Wyck Brooks, Waldo Frank, and Randolph Bourne with whom he is often associated, Mumford locates the modern crisis of individual identity at the crossroads of aesthetics and politics. Shaped by diverse traditions and individuals including Patrick Geddes, Henri Bergson, continental Lebensphilosophie, American pragmatism, and “insurgent” “American Scholars” such as Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau, Mumford’s biologically grounded, vitalist sociology sought to reverse T.S.Eliot’s modern “dissociation of sensibility” by joining the intellectually abstract to the physically palpable. Mumford harshly criticized the European Enlightenment that had both excluded the irrational and the sacred from cultural analysis and privileged the untrammeled development of technological rationality at the expense of craftsmanship and creativity.
With his Modernist contemporaries, Mumford exposed the enlightened rationalism of the Victorian age to a relentless moral critique, countering its confidence in objective science with a renewed emphasis on subjectively lived experience. Mumford deplored the onesided development of the individual’s capacities in capitalist modernity and argued passionately for an Emersonian reconstruction of the individual, investing the Rousseauvian essay of self-inventory with the republican virtue of a Roman moralist.
Mumford’s essayistic persona declaims a new American jeremiad, prophesying a renewal of cultural and social life merging the best aspects of premodern tradition—the individual’s imbeddedness in regional communities and shared memory of a collective past—with the potential for material abundance offered by modern industrial society.
Mumford—following John Ruskin—posits architecture and city planning as the cultural practices that most prominently represent society’s aspirations and spiritual essence. The “usable history” of American architectural and literary tradition provides a possible resource for renewal, for rooting social life in the “total situation” of its biological and cultural complexity rather than the merely “artful system of concepts” characteristic of academic criticism. The early ground-breaking essays on American culture—Sticks and Stones (1924), The Golden Day (1926), Herman Melville (1929), and The Brown Decades (1931)—identify in the “Golden Day” of the American literary and architectural renaissance a potentially redemptive link between the technological present and the organic past. “Towards Modern Architecture” (1922), an early and influential essay, lauds the early “Brown Decades” architecture of Henry Hobson Richardson, John Wellborn Root, and Louis Sullivan for clearing away “the truckloads of ornament and bric-a-brac” characteristic of Victorian aesthetics, thus preparing the way for Frank Lloyd Wright’s exemplary Modernist innovations. For Mumford, Wright’s architectural compositions—especially the early buildings which explored “the beauty of earth colors and natural finishes: the manifold possibilities of glass…the principles of horizontal composition”—would serve as aesthetic allegories of the potential for a Romantic reintegration of self and society.
Not unlike the Renaissance humanists who inspired him, Mumford reasons by analogy.
His synoptic “Renewal of Life” series—Technics and Civilization (1934), The Culture of Cities (1938), The Condition of Man (1944), and The Conduct of Life (1951)—surveys the rise of the modern “megamachine”—the impersonal, bureaucratic structures of technological modernity characterized by “exactitude in measurement… abstract mechanical system…[and] compulsive regularity”—and the resulting diminution of the unpredictably vital elements in human life. Similarly, The City in History (1961) narrates the moral and cultural decline of the European city, praising the organic synthesis of medieval town planning and decrying the “enlightened” geometrical abstraction of the modern age: “There could be no sharper contrast between the two orders of thinking, the organic and the mechanical, than here: the first springs out of the total situation; the other simplifies the facts of life for the sake of an artful system of concepts, more dear to the mind than life itself.” By allowing us to glimpse the workings of an exemplary mind unfettered by artful systems, Mumford’s version of the post-Romantic Modernist essay rhetorically suggests an escape from the structures of instrumental reason that trap the individual in a “megamachine” of his own devising. Inductive, intuitive, and sweeping in scope, Mumford’s often treatise-length essays contribute to that signal Modernist tradition we might call the mythology of secular redemption.
A profound sense of personal loss animates Mumford’s critical essays and scholarly essays. In a typical passage, Mumford writes that “the city I once knew so intimately has been wrecked; most of what remains will soon vanish; and therewith scattered fragments of my own life will disappear in the rubble that is carted away.” Gone was the “brownstone” New York of his childhood and with it disappeared the “diagrammatic neatness” of old New York’s tightly-knit “small town” social fabric, aesthetic harmony, and “moral stability.” New York is for Mumford both a proper subject for essayistic reflection and itself a living essay. In “Yesterday’s City of Tomorrow” (1962), striking the plangent moral and epistemological pose familiar to the essay genre since its inception, Mumford notes with sorrow that “the freedom of movement, the change of pace, the choice of alternative destinations, the spontaneous encounters, the range of social choices…in fact, the multifarious life of a city, have been traded away for expressway, parking space, and vertical circulation.”
The lyrical, autobiographical quality that permeates Mumford’s work suggests the debt his social criticism owes to the essay form itself. If the New York of Mumford’s fondly remembered childhood presented itself as a spectacle “to gladden [his] eyes and beckon [his] legs to ramble”—the rhetoric of the urban flâneur familiar to the essay since Addison and Steele—contemporary city design encourages neither aesthetic reflection nor unrehearsed exploration. For Mumford, the uncritical celebration of technology culminating in the skyscraper, the empty architectural abstractions of Le Corbusier’s Modernism, and the reliance on new forms of transportation such as the automobile to the exclusion of foot traffic, devalue individuals and local communities, who become merely idiosyncratic obstacles for the architects and planners of the modern city. To the same degree that old New York inspired enriching aesthetic experiences and lyrical, essayistic responses with its sporadic rhythms and spontaneous encounters, the bureaucratically regimented cities of the future would produce only anomic despair. Further, with the Cold War expansion of the military industrial complex and the rise of a new “Pentagon of power” (the “financial, industrial, scientific, military, and educational experts”), and the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima threatening the possibility of global apocalypse, Mumford cautiously qualified his earlier hopes for a potentially humane deployment of technology as he saw the worst tendencies in the culture of modern “technics” magnified.
Despite the general disillusionment of his later work, however, Mumford continued until the final moments of his life to struggle against the pessimism of his own intellect:
“The renewal of life is the great theme of our age, not the further dominance…of the machine…In short, we must take things into our own hands…And in the end, proudly reversing Blake’s dictum, we shall, I hope, be able to say: Art elevated, imagination affirmed, peace governs the nations.”
Born 19 October 1895 in New York City. Studied at the City College of New York, 1912–17; Columbia University, New York, 1915–16; New School for Social Research, New York, 1919. Served in the U.S. army, 1918–19. Assistant editor, Fortnightly Dial, 1919. Married Sophia Wittenberg, 1921: one son (killed in action during World War II) and one daughter. Taught at the New School for Social Research, 1925, Dartmouth
College, Hanover, New Hampshire, 1929–35, Columbia University, 1931–35, Stanford University, California, 1942–44, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, 1948–52, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 1951–56 and 1959–61, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, 1957–61 and 1973–75, University of California, Berkeley, 1961–62, and Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut, 1962–64. Contributing editor, the New Republic, 1927–40; architectural critic and columnist of “Sky Line,” the New Yorker, 1931–63; also contributed to various other journals.
Awards: many, including
the National Book Award, for The City in History, 1962; Presidential Medal of Freedom, 1964; Emerson-Thoreau Medal, 1965; American Academy of Arts and Letters Gold Medal in Belles Lettres, 1971; Hodgkins Gold Medal, 1971; National Book Committee National Medal for Literature, 1972; Prix Mondial, 1976; honorary degrees from two universities. Died in Amenia, New York, 26 January 1990.
Essays and Related Prose
Sticks and Stones: A Study of American Architecture and Civilization, 1924
The Golden Day: A Study of American Experience and Culture, 1926; as The Golden Day: A Study in American Literature and Culture, 1933
Herman Melville, 1929; revised edition, 1962
The Brown Decades: A Study of the Arts in America, 1865–1895, 1931
Technics and Civilization, 1934
The Culture of Cities, 1938
The South in Architecture, 1941
The Condition of Man, 1944
City Development: Studies in Disintegration and Renewal, 1945
Values for Survival: Essays, Addresses, and Letters in Politics and Education, 1946
The Conduct of Life, 1951
The Arts in Renewal, 1951
Art and Technics (lectures), 1951
The Human Prospect, edited by Harry T.Moore and Karl W. Deutsch, 1955
From the Ground Up: Observations on Contemporary Architecture, Housing, Highway
Building, and Civic Design, 1956
The City in History, 1961
The Highway and the City, 1963
The Urban Prospect, 1968
Interpretations and Forecasts, 1922–1972: Studies in Literature, Biography, Technics, and Contemporary Society, 1973
Architecture as a Home for Man: Essays for “Architectural Record”, edited by Jeanne M.Davern, 1975
Findings and Keepings, 1914–1936, 1975
The Lewis Mumford Reader, edited by Donald L. Miller, 1986
Other writings: works on town planning, cities, and architecture.
Newman, Elmer S., Lewis Mumford: A Bibliography, 1914–1970, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971
Blake, Casey Nelson, Beloved Community: The Cultural Criticism of Randolph Bourne, Van Wyck Brooks, Waldo Frank and Lewis Mumford, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990
Carrithers, Gale H., Jr., Mumford, Tate, Eiseley: Watchers in the Night, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1991
Hughes, Thomas P., American Genesis: A Century of Invention and Technological Enthusiasm, 1870–1970, New York: Viking, 1989
Hughes, Thomas P., and Agatha C.Hughes, Lewis Mumford: Public Intellectual, New York: Oxford University Press, 1990
Miller, Donald L., Lewis Mumford: A Life, New York: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1989
Miller, Donald L., editor, The Lewis Mumford Reader, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995 (original edition, 1986)
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