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A Cosmic and Practical Man

Findings and Keepings: Analects for an Autobiography

by Lewis Mumford
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 394 pp., $15.00

When a man has been before the public, as Lewis Mumford has been, for fifty years, producing twenty-five books and countless articles, the character of his mind and the direction of his interests are bound to be well known. Mr. Mumford is a lay preacher with a doctrine of vitalism deriving ultimately from Comte and Bergson. Though he has written more on city planning than on anything else, that field for him has been chiefly an approach to the larger work of reforming society; and the reform of society he defines not simply as a change of institutions, but as a revaluation of values, a moral revival or reversal. For many decades critics have been complaining that this positive program of his is ill defined and ill compounded, consisting of miscellaneous overlapping platitudes; again and again they have pointed out that he has never really approached the practical problem of putting his ideals into effect on the requisite scale. And yet very few of his critics have failed to recognize in Mr. Mumford a generous and sensitive commentator on our institutions. Like many lay preachers, he’s long on faith and short on doctrine; but there are goods and bads attached to both sides.

One character Mr. Mumford has never borne is that of revolutionary. He has, to be sure, generally been a socialist, but with a definitely Fabian flavor. He is deeply hostile to science, machínes, and the restraints laid upon our vital instincts by a machine-directed society—which is also, by definition, a society of specialists. He himself has always been a generalist, with a healthy, defiant hostility to the solemnities of the academy; he’s more an imaginative synthesizer than a rigorous analyst. In reaching back toward Bergson in his concern for vital economy he touches on the aesthetic socialism of Wilde and Shaw, Ruskin and William Morris.

Following his teacher Patrick Geddes, who was a remarkably similar man, he has been an ardent exponent of the garden town and the values of craftsmanship; his ideal image is of a medium-sized town of congenial folk, who walk from their modest homes to their work or to the store along green paths and quiet lanes. He wants men to exercise moral control over their appetites and their inventions alike. Though it is clearly civilized and in many ways appealing, this ideal was unreal and nostalgic in 1515 when Thomas More began writing Utopia: in a world committed to mass populations and by ineluctable consequence to mass production—a world of starvation, racism, and squalor so desperate that by contrast even war can sometimes look like a condition of feverish good health—it’s hard to say much more for Mumford’s village idyll than that it’s quaint.

The present volume, however, does not try to argue this thesis or, except for a very general tendency, any other. Findings and Keepings is the by-product of an autobiographical venture which has apparently reached the end of its first volume and is destined for more. The “analects” are a medley of personal letters, random notes, extracts, occasional pieces previously published and unpublished, a dialogue, a play, a semifictional autobiographical sketch, assorted reviews, answers to questions, and isolated aphorisms. The time covered is about twenty years or roughly the first third of Mumford’s intellectual life.

Of set purpose, the book constitutes a mixed bag, an assortment of writings from the past, uncontaminated by afterthoughts or censorships, from which one can construct the development of a mind and the filling out of a temperament. It is also a mixed bag in other ways. The aphorisms don’t always escape that tone of self-importance which is the primal curse of the genre; perhaps to avoid conflicting with the autobiography which is to come, the letters amount to no more than brief snippets, so that characters and situations flash past in the proverbial Augenblick. The largest unit in the book is clearly the most deplorable, a play about the building of Brooklyn Bridge which from beginning to end can only be described as an embarrassment.

But Mumford’s sketches of his adolescence and young manhood are charming. The more direct and spontaneous the experience, the more freely young Mumford seems to respond to it. Adolescent tragicomedies with girls, landscapes urban and rural, moments of intense and searching talk with friends, brief but awful misgivings and hesitations over a career, all these elements of growing up in New York as it used to be are recorded sensitively and movingly. When he finally found his work, Mumford plunged into it with a wholehearted enthusiasm that after all these years still attracts sympathy. The most ardent and excited pages in the book, which includes several sets of love letters, are those in which he describes the process of writing Technics and Civilization.

Though he lived among the movers and shakers of the modern world, Mumford seems to have passed through his young manhood largely untouched by bohemianism, by roughneck radical movements, or by the avant-grade artistic trends of his day. His close friends tended to be older men of relatively conservative tastes, like Waldo Frank and Van Wyck Brooks, rather than hellions and heretics like E. E. Cummings or Hart Crane. He writes a warm appreciation of Van Gogh, but tends to think (and this as late as 1936) that Picasso’s career peaked with the blue period and that thereafter “his infinite variety of technical resources served only to set off the emptiness of his later development.” In much the same way, it seems, the mature James Joyce “cut himself off from the magnetic chain of humanity.” Eliot does not seem to have had any influence that Mumford thinks worth recording; there’s nothing about Faulkner or Fitzgerald, Pound or Stravinsky, about Cubism or the Bauhaus.

Of course with the benefit of hindsight it’s easy to suggest that Mumford might have come closer to the stylistic and intellectual developments of early modernism—to the cutting edge of those concepts which we are still, at the end of the century, trying to absorb and use. But if modernism meant anything, it meant transcending the greasy commonplaces of flesh and blood, and the façades that mimic them; it meant what Ortega y Gasset in a brilliant overstatement would call “the dehumanization of art”; it meant abstraction, discords, hard fractured surfaces, and a minimum of compromise or ingratiation. Mumford, devoted to comprehensive humane values after an essentially old-fashioned pattern, was less than sympathetic to the new set of things. Instead of seeing the hard, dry style of modernism as just another phase in an endless alternating series (Worringer had laid out the grounds for such a view as early as 1908), Mumford mistrusted when he did not reject it.

Moving to higher ground, he became, like Geddes, a spokesman for Man against a Mechanism that was all the more threatening because it had preempted a good part of what used to be the humane arts. This road, the high road of Mumford’s thought, led toward a calling much like that of the old Victorian sage or prophet; and he has written many pages where one seems to hear behind his voice the reverberant assurance of Emerson, Ruskin, or Carlyle. On quite a different plane, his practical good sense led toward discussion and criticism of what one could call, not invidiously, the compromised arts, architecture and city planning. They are compromised simply by their social and practical character, their inescapable commitment to serve the lives of people.

The two planes of thought lead Mumford in two quite divergent directions. As a religious hater of megalopolis, a devout believer in garden towns and congenial neighborhoods, cosmic Mumford has no more use for New York City than for a malignant tumor. But practical Mumford has all sorts of ingenious and sensible suggestions for making the tumor function more efficiently and look more attractive. The present volume, regrettably, contains more of the first Mumford than of the second. There’s hardly anything substantial on architecture or community planning; there’s a good deal of metaphysical gas about the state of society and the dilemma of our civilization.

It’s easy to dismiss the overview as mere palaver; it’s easy also to dismiss the expedients as mere cosmetics, concealing a fundamental disease. And there doesn’t seem to be any stable middle ground; thought slithers helplessly from one extreme to the other. The town of Santa Fe from which I write used to be such a small garden town as Mr. Mumford idealizes; and the fact that it was ideal once is a major reason why it is so no longer. Because it was attractive, people moved here, myself included, and as the town became bigger, its patterns changed. By comparison with Newark, New Jersey, Gary, Indiana, or Bakersfield, California, Santa Fe still represents about the easiest problem in urban planning of any city I can imagine. It contains fewer than fifty thousand people, it has no heavy and very little light industry; as the state capital, it has a steady employment base; it depends heavily on tourism, and so has a vested interest in preserving anything beautiful, interesting, or attractive; it has more cultural activities and probably a higher level of environmental consciousness than any other city of its size in the country.

Yet in a tough, manipulative sense, how can it take action against the forces that threaten it? J. C. Penney is moving to one shopping center, and K-Mart is building a giant structure as the core of another; both moves will drain the lifeblood of trade out of the center of town, the old Plaza. And when there is no serious, year-round trading being done there, what will be left but tourist traps?

The problem isn’t insoluble; beyond any doubt it will yield to the application of money in large quantities. That always means tax money, and no one can feel easy about taxing poor people in barrios to maintain the aesthetic standards of rich bourgeois in restricted residential districts. But though money may preserve some parts of the central city, it cannot erase the shopping centers and ugly midway-type streets on the periphery of town—districts which flourish rankly by trailing their roots in a constant flood of smelly automobiles. In an ideal city, we would all live within easy walking distance of the shops, stores, offices, or there would be public transport. But then we would be limited in buying to what we could physically carry, and would have to visit the stores every single day instead of, as now, once a week.

And so I have a convenient car; and, compromised by the system, I tacitly encourage urban sprawl (which aesthetically I deplore), and would be about as effective as King Canute if I tried to stop it. The ugly suburbs proliferate, and likely the system of which they are a part, if it spreads unchecked, will render much of the globe uninhabitable. So Mr. Mumford tells us, with passionate assurance, in a “Postlude” to the present volume. But it’s much easier to make an apocalyptic prophecy of this sort than it is to tell the shopowners (even of this little city) that they must stay in the center, and the people that they must live within walking distance, and the new shopping centers that they must go out of business. The plain truth is that the old center, which was adequate for a city of ten thousand, is no longer adequate for fifty thousand. We may preserve the shell of the old, may even keep a thin stream of life trickling through it, but the new life that wants to flow in new channels there’s no suppressing.

Cosmetics then, faute de mieux; and in books like The Urban Prospect (1968), Mr. Mumford put forward a rich bouquet of detailed suggestions for more civilized patterns of living. Especially before their concepts get frozen in concrete and asphalt, builders and planners can’t possibly have too many such suggestions before them. It’s remarkable how quickly ideas of this order prove or disprove themselves, are accepted or rejected as vessels for the quicksilver material of life. If anything, Mr. Mumford, who’s been known to say kind words in behalf of a performance as drab and dispiriting as Sunnyside Gardens in Queens, hasn’t always set as high a standard as he might in the matter of acceptably designed enclaves. But he has had innumerable humane and practical ideas, and perhaps the best thing about them was always that they focused on the real daily activities of real human beings, the ways in which they associate and—just as importantly—draw apart from one another.

Housing designed to give a decent balance of privacy and communication, with light and air and space for the simple comforts, won’t avert the apocalypse any more than it will bring about the heavenly city. If anything, it’s likely to produce social torpor; the man with a cozy niche in society is traditionally hard to rouse against abuses, even if they’re only a few blocks away. But so it goes. Prophets of doom carry a lot of conviction these days; yet even among those who take them most to heart one finds a wholly human impulse to be miserable, till the final gong sounds, in good surroundings. History and tragedy, meanwhile, will continue to be made outside the warm living rooms of this bourgeois discourse.

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