A Steely Humanist

by Paul Goldberger
LEWIS MUMFORD: A LIFEby Donald L. Miller. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, $24.95.
THERE IS ONE moment of nearly overpowering emotion in Lewis Mumford: A Life, and it comes not in Mumford’s youth or in his old age but in his middle years, after the death of his son, Geddes, who was killed in battle in Italy, in September of 1944. By the time we reach this point, 400 pages into Donald L. Miller’s biography, we have come to know Mumford fairly well: a brilliant critic and historian whose persona was an odd mixture of arrogance and earnestness, Mumford was utterly self-absorbed. His emotional control was so complete that after receiving the telegram announcing his son’s death, he was able to finish dinner and spend an hour putting his nine-year-old daughter to sleep before telling the news to his wife. But then, gradually, the pain within Mumford began to grow, and for most of the winter after Geddes’s death he was so depressed that he could do almost no work at all. The following August, as President Harry Truman announced Japan’s surrender and horns honked to celebrate the impending return of the troops, Mumford walked outside to a sandpit beside the river where he and Geddes had spent much time together. “There, alone, he broke down and wept uncontrollably,” Miller tells us.
I mention this incident at the outset not only because Miller tells the story with eloquence and dignity, and not because I mean to exaggerate its importance within the larger frame of Mumford’s entire life, but because it brings a curious sense of relief to the reader of this biography. Up to this point we have seen Mumford as a man of remarkable discipline and focus, hardly bland—his passions are considerable—but driven in a manner that seems out of character with the nature of his values. As a writer Mumford is one of the great humanists of the twentieth century, among the most consistent and potent critics of technology and, indeed, of the very process of modernization. As a man, however, he seems to have lived his life almost like the very technocrats he despised. Obsessed with his own work, he came off as strangely immune to the pressures exerted by other people’s lives. He went his way, and he expected others to bend to him. Mumford’s message was always one of gentleness; the man himself, however, seems to have been made of steel. At Geddes’s death we see the steel begin to bend, and our cool admiration turns to affection.
Perhaps it is not quite right to speak of Mumford as being made of steel; his life has been too riddled with angst for that to be the case, and Miller shows us clearly how much of a role Mumford’s emotions have played in his makeup, even if he has generally kept them in check in public. It is more a matter, I think, of the astonishing seriousness with which Mumford has always taken himself. “All his life Mumford was obsessively self-scrutinizing and amazingly honest about his own inadequacies, yet he never doubted the importance of his own thoughts or the power of his mind,” Miller writes. This is not a man given to much selfirony; Miller tells us that Mumford not only walked the streets composing imaginary obituaries for himself but also recorded this fact in a series of private notes he called “Personalia.”
OUR CENTURY HAS no other figure like Lewis Mumford: essayist, historian of culture and technology, literary critic, and surely the greatest architecture critic of our age. His mind was consistently wideranging and unwaveringly committed to the notion that scholarship exists to provide us with a moral compass. Yet to speak of Mumford as a conscience of our time is to patronize him somewhat, for galling as his moralizing often could be, it was always in the service of a larger and deeper inquiry. Mumford is one part historian, one part critic, and one prodigious part preacher, goading us on toward the utopia that he has always understood would never be attained but that he could not restrain himself from striving for.
Mumford’s work “has in large part been an exploration of the question of how the world of his youth became the world we now live in,” Milter wrote in his introduction to The Lewis Mumford Reader, an anthology of Mumford’s essays published in 1986, and that observation is an exceptionally graceful one, for it both encompasses the great breadth of Mumford’s subject matter and deftly underscores the extent to which Mumford, in the end, was always writing about himself. Mumford did not write conventional scholarship; his essays and books contain no footnotes, and many of them could better be called exceptionally erudite sermons and memoirs.
Surely this is the case with Mumford’s long series of writings on modern societies’ reliance on technology. He was among the first, and remained one of the most vehemently outspoken, critics of nuclear power. Also somewhat sermonlike is much of the great mass of writing by Mumford on New York, the city of his birth, in 1895, and the city with which he had what might best be described as a love-hate relationship until the 1960s, when New York’s relentless growth, which he had chronicled with piercing insight, became too much for him to tolerate even as a subject of critical inquiry. Mumford’s bias was always toward the garden city, the rational, planned city of moderate density, and he took a violent dislike to the immensity of postwar Manhattan. His garden-city ideal is now quite firmly out of fashion, but that should not blind us to the remarkable prescience of an enormous amount of his writing; in 1955, for example, he observed in his “Sky Line” column in The New Yorker that the city was becoming so overbuilt that architecture would soon no longer matter. If the city “ceases to be a milieu in which people can exist in reasonable contentment instead of as prisoners perpetually plotting to escape a concentration camp,” he wrote,
it will be unprofitable to discuss its architectural achievements—buildings that occasionally cause people to hold their breath for a stabbing moment or that restore them to equilibrium by offering them a prospect of space and form joyfully mastered.
That was written when things were not really so bad at all. But if he was showing us his Jeremiah-like side thirty-four years ago, hindsight surely bears Mumford out. Architecture has ceased to matter now; he put his finger on precisely the problem we face today in midtown Manhattan and in dozens of other cities around the world. Mumford was among the first to be skeptical about the value of bigger and bigger buildings and denser and denser cities, and though his observations came from the standpoint of one who had always been uncomfortable with dense, congested cities and who had never seen the merit in the hectic, random quality of cities which is so valued by urbanists today, there can be no question that Mumford saw a major part of New York City’s problem before almost anyone else did. And in all of his architecture criticism, from the sharpest denunciations of Robert Moses to his celebratory pieces about low-rise suburban housing developments or Frank Lloyd Wright, the constant theme was Mumford’s unflinching insistence on balancing aesthetic and social concerns.
Mumford’s bitterness toward New York grew out of more, I think, than the city’s physical changes—more even than his gradual inability to be comfortable in an environment controlled, as New York’s is, by the values of the marketplace, and his preferring to position himself as the sage of America, pronouncing on matters urban from his tranquil farmhouse in Amenia, a hundred miles to the north. (He continues to live there, now ninety-three and ill, tended by his wife of sixty-seven years, Sophia.)
Mumford’s relationship with New York was intensely personal. The city had been like a parent to Mumford in his youth. He was the illegitimate child of a working woman, and the city fulfilled much of a father’s role for him: it stimulated him, comforted him, and taught him. He came ultimately to learn, as children so often do about their parents, that the city was not what he had believed it to be, and its values not so noble as he had thought. He came to look upon New York with disillusionment, and in the end could write of it only with a sense of betrayal.
I am not sure that Miller, who is Mumford’s literary executor, sums up anywhere in Lewis Mumford: A Life Mumford’s importance as concisely as he did in the introduction to that collection of essays published three years ago. I found myself returning to it from time to time throughout the story of Mumford’s long life; the avalanche of detail in this biography more than once threatens to overshadow a clear sense of the essence of Mumford’s career, which Miller described—again in the introduction to the anthology—as “urging an almost religious refashioning of values.” Mumford’s desire, Miller told us, was “to change history, not simply to record it,” and he spoke of Mumford’s life in terms of those architectural values, “balance” and “wholeness.”
But if Miller’s full-length book lacks the focused clarity of his earlier essay, this is the fault of the medium more than the writer. In fact, Lewis Mumford: A Life is superb biography: the problem is that Lewis Mumford’s work is more interesting than his life. For all of Mumford’s self-obsession, one suspects that he would be glad that this is so. In those instances in which Mumford’s work and life overlap completely, such as an epiphany that occurred when he was walking across the Brooklyn Bridge as a young man, which Mumford describes in his autobiography, Sketches From Life, Mumford’s prose, making his life his work, wins hands down.
Here was my city, immense, overpowering, flooded with energy and light. . . . challenging me, beckoning me, demanding something of me that it would take more than a lifetime to give, but raising all my energies by its own vivid promise to a higher pitch. In that sudden revelation of power and beauty all the confusions of adolescence dropped from me, and I trod the narrow, resilient boards of the footway with a new confidence that came, not from my isolated self alone but from the collective energies I had confronted and risen to.
No dispassionate biographer’s prose can compete with this, and Miller’s wisely does not try; the author ends his chapter on this phase of Mumford’s life by simply quoting this passage.
LET ME NOT give the impression that this is merely a workmanlike biography, summarizing and organizing a long and complex life. Donald Miller, who teaches history at Lafayette College, in Pennsylvania, has done much more; he neatly weaves together Mumford’s public career and his private life, making us feel, as every good biographer must, how utterly dependent each is upon the other.
Miller blends immense sympathy for Mumford with just the right amount of critical distance, and he is able to induce in the reader a surprising degree of empathy for a man whose arrogance and narcissism could not have made him a perpetually easy companion. In the early chapters we find the young Mumford intriguing, if rather more full of himself than any budding writer should be (at twentytwo, Mumford decided his life goal was nothing less than to “enlarge the vision” of the nation’s city planners and architects—which, of course, he proceeded to do). In the later chapters we encounter an older Mumford with no less hubris but with a world-weariness that is oddly endearing. Miller is able to convey a sense of Mumford’s continual earnestness about the world, a quality that made Mumford frequently despairing but almost never cynical, and by the final chapters his very despair seems heroic.