A Cosmic and Practical Man

Findings and Keepings: Analects for an Autobiography

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

Lewis Mumford
Lewis Mumford; drawing by David Levine

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…

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