A Blessed Companion Is a Book
by Boni and Liveright. 1926. Large 12mo. x+273 pp. $2.50.. New York:
LEWIS MUMFORD’S three books reveal a striking growth in their author. The Story of Utopias was what the name implies: a collection of the dreams of a perfected society which men have made from time to time. Sticks and Stones sketched the record of American civilization as it has been reflected in our architecture. Now, in The Golden Day, he has attempted the difficult task of tracing the history of culture in the United States as mirrored in imaginative and philosophical writing.
The ‘Golden Day’ for him is the period before the Civil War, the age of Emerson and Thoreau and the best work of Walt Whitman. Mr. Mumford is to some extent a believer in environment as determining culture. The Golden Day, he thinks, was largely the result of circumstance: industrialism had not yet closed down upon American life; it was ‘the period of an Elizabethan daring on the sea, of a well-balanced adjustment of farm and factory in the East, of a thriving regional culture operating through the lecturelyceum and the provincial college.’ Yet he seems to abandon his thesis, at least in part, when he finally invites his contemporaries to ‘reformulate a more vital tissue of ideas and symbols to supplant those which have led us into the stereotyped interests and actions which we endeavor in vain to identify with a full human existence,’ and assumes that this can be done by taking thought.
He begins his historical analysis with the Protestant Reformation, which, he thinks, with its concomitant series of mechanical inventions, turned the current of men’s minds and brought to an end the full, free culture of mediæval times. The first settlers of America brought with them only the relics of an expiring system; its disintegration was followed by the unsuccessful attempt of the pioneer to synthesize out of the sterile environment in which he lived a background and a meaning for his life. Then came the Golden Day; since when industrialism’s crushing yoke has lain upon us. We have made business the end of human activity; pragmatism was soon debased into a justification of whatever is, which lost sight of the ends of life in a consideration of the means. Surrounded by the proliferation of mechanical devices, artists and philosophers have alike surrendered to ‘positive knowledge and practical action’ and we have ‘moved within an ever-narrower circle of experience, living mean and illiberal lives.’
It was inevitable that Mr. Mumford, seeking to cover so much ground briefly, should have somewhat oversimplified the theme which I have here butchered in order to fit it into a few sentences. At the same time, he manages, despite the limitation of brevity, to pack his book with an extraordinary amount of suggestive comment. His philosophic outlook is, no doubt, colored by his temperament; there is a danger in idealizing mediæval culture, or Emerson’s period, like the danger into which Rousseau fell when he idealized the natural man. Yet I do not see how any thoughtful student of America can fail to agree with most of Mr. Mumford’s analysis of the inadequacies of the industrial age. Despite his brave invitation, quoted above, I feel that he is perhaps too gloomy about the future; things are moving so rapidly in our machine civilization that there is no saying what may lie around the corner. In any case, this book, written in a style of notable lucidity and beauty, remains both indispensable to, and a source of great pleasure for, everyone who cares to know whether there is an American mind and, if so, what is happening to it.