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Biography

Lewis Mumford (1895-1990) was one of the foremost American intellectuals of the twentieth century. He has described himself as a "generalist," and in his distinguished career as a writer he has covered a vast territory with both depth and insight. Believing that knowledge had become too fragmentary in the modern age, he sought to build bridges across academic disciplines and to synthesize information from various specialties. Mumford's audience was the educated layman, and in his numerous writings, which included over two dozen books and nearly one thousand articles and book reviews, he challenged his public to think in new ways. As a critic of American literature, art, and architecture, Mumford informed his readership about new developments in Europe, while at the same time he uncovered buried riches from the nation's past. The city in all of its historical, sociological, and technological aspects occupied a special place in his vision of man's past and future potential. While he is primarily remembered for his writings in these areas, the extraordinary catholicity of Mumford's intellectual interests also included the history of religious and philosophical thought, the pre- and post-World War II political scene, and the state of American education.

Mumford was born in 1895 in Flushing, New York. He was raised by his mother Elvina on the Upper West Side of New York, and with the absence of his father, his stepgrandfather Charles Graessel played a major role in the boy's early development. Mumford and Graessel took long walks around the city together, and these excursions proved to be a major stimulus of his interest in the built environment. A model elementary school student, Mumford went on to attend New York's prestigious Stuyvesant High School, where he was graduated in the spring of 1912. He began his undergraduate studies in the evening session of the City College of New York the following autumn, but upon transferring to the day session, he became increasingly frustrated with the rigid requirements. Mumford felt that his intellectual curiosity was being stifled, and he quickly dropped out of the program. Although he would subsequently take courses at Columbia University, New York University, the New School for Social Research, and again at the City College evening session, Mumford never acquired an undergraduate degree. Mumford was disturbed by his perception that academia had become too specialized, and during his later teaching career, he sought to break down these barriers. He has taught at Dartmouth College (1929-1935), Stanford University (1942-1944), and the University of Pennsylvania (1951-1956 and 1959-1961), among other schools. Although he has been besieged with offers of honorary degrees, Mumford has accepted only two: an L.L.D. from the University of Edinburgh in 1965 and a Dr. Arch. from the University of Rome in 1967.

While studying biology at City College, Mumford first came across the writings of the Scottish biologist, sociologist, and town planner Sir Patrick Geddes (1854-1932). The two met only twice, but they corresponded for over a dozen years until the elder man's death. Mumford found an intellectual role model in Geddes, who managed to integrate his multitudinous interests into an academic and consulting career that carried him from the United Kingdom to France, Palestine, Cyprus, India, and the United States. Geddes prescribed an interdisciplinary method of study that was loosely based upon his evolutionary studies in biology. According to this method, which he called "regional survey, " it is only by studying a region's history, topography, economy, and sociology that a viable plan for its future could be determined. Mumford immediately set out exploring his local environment in and around the New York region, which awakened his latent interest in architecture and city planning. In addition, he began to submit articles to various periodicals in which he expounded the Scotsman's methodology and point of view. Mumford's intellectual debt to Geddes is most apparent in his first book, The Story of Utopias (New York, 1922). This broad survey of utopian thought that ranged from Plato to H.G. Wells concluded with a call for the renewal of communities on a regional basis. He would expand upon many of these themes in the four-volume "Renewal of Life" series, which he began writing in the 1930s.

Mumford's persistence in trying to enter the extremely competitive New York publishing community eventually paid off in the form of his first literary post, that of associate editor at the fortnightly Dial . Unfortunately for the young journalist, the position was terminated upon the magazine's reorganization seven months later. He was not unemployed for long, however, since through Geddes, Mumford had been put in touch with Victor Branford, president of the London-based Sociological Society. Hearing of the aspiring writer's predicament, Branford invited Mumford to England to become acting editor of the Society's organ, The Sociological Review . Although Mumford stayed in the position for only a few months, it lent credence to his already fast-growing list of publishing accomplishments. At the same time, it brought him into contact with the leading sociological thinkers and town planners of the post-war generation, including S.D. Adshead and Raymond Unwin. Mumford returned to the United States in the fall of 1920, and the following year he married one of his former Dial colleagues, Sophia Wittenberg. Their first-born child, a son, was named Geddes in honor of Mumford's mentor. The Mumfords' daughter, Alison, was born in 1935.

During the 1920s, Mumford wrote for numerous journals; he contributed articles and reviewed books on a vast array of topics, including the literary and visual arts, sociology, politics, and philosophy. For a few of the same journals Mumford assumed the post of critic-at-large, reviewing plays, art exhibitions, and architecture with equal facility. Mumford's byline was associated most frequently with The Freeman, The New Republic, The American Mercury, and the Journal of the American Institute of Architects, but after 1931 he became most closely identified as a journalist with The New Yorker . His witty and often irreverent writing style found immediate favor with the magazine's editor Harold Ross, and he was soon assigned to regular departments. From 1931 to 1963, Mumford was The New Yorker's architectural critic, writing under the heading "The Sky Line." The column reached a sophisticated, general audience in addition to architects and planners, and Mumford consistently used it as a forum to promote humanistic values over the purely technological in modern design. From 1932 to 1937 he held the additional post of art critic for The New Yorker, for which he wrote reviews of museum exhibitions and gallery shows on an almost weekly basis. In addition, two of Mumford's earliest and most successful attempts at autobiography first appeared in the magazine under the titles of "A New York Childhood" and "A New York Adolescence."

Mumford's literary career was quickly established through an early string of publishing successes following The Story of Utopias . His next four books were thematically related to the rediscovery of the American past, an historical inquiry which he shared with his literary colleagues Van Wyck Brooks and Waldo Frank. Brooks had initiated this process of rediscovery, which he called the "usable past, " and he exerted a particularly strong influence on Mumford at this stage of his writing career. Sticks and Stones (New York, 1924) was a history of American architecture presented from a cultural rather than a purely stylistic standpoint. Mumford used much the same historiographic approach in his complementary study of American literature titled The Golden Day (New York, 1926). He particularly praised the writers of the mid-nineteenth centuryMelville, Hawthorne, Emerson, Whitman, and Thoreaufor their ability to break free from the confines of their European heritage and to create something wholly original and American. Out of this study developed his fourth book and first biography, Herman Melville (New York, 1929). Mumford's fascination with Melville's troubled and enigmatic personality coincided with a particularly bleak period of his own personal life, and the experience of writing the book was as cathartic to him as it was self-illuminating.

Mumford pushed the literary analysis he had begun in The Golden Day into the latter half of the nineteenth century and synthesized it with parallel studies of art, architecture, landscape architecture, and engineering in his book The Brown Decades (New York, 1931). He expanded the literary "pantheon" he had created in The Golden Day to include leading figures from the other arts, such as John and Washington Roebling, Frederick Law Olmsted, H.H. Richardson, and Albert Pinkham Ryder. In identifying these nineteenth-century figures, Mumford thought that he had discovered the true origins of American culture, and he hoped that his revelation would spur his contemporaries on to greater creative heights in the twentieth century.

"The Renewal of Life" series was Mumford's attempt to chronicle the history of western civilization and to chart a course for its future survival. The writing of the series occupied Mumford for almost twenty years, beginning with the first volume, Technics and Civilization (New York, 1934). This survey of the history of technology was the most comprehensive analysis of the subject in English to date. In the book Mumford concluded that only man's complete mastery over the machine and a reorientation of the capitalist system that fueled it could arrest the destructive proclivities of modern technology. The Culture of Cities (New York, 1938), volume two of the series, applied the same analysis to urban history, from the medieval synthesis to the contemporary state of disintegration on the eve of World War II. Although Mumford's ideas on cities had been initially influenced by Geddes, he had been a member of the Regional Planning Association of America (RPAA) since the 1920s and promoted the progressive views of this group of architects in print. In the book's conclusion, he reiterated his call for regional cities first expressed in The Story of Utopias, but by this time it had been answered in part by such RPAA-influenced communities as Sunnyside, Queens and Radburn, New Jersey. The book catapulted Mumford into prominence as an international authority on city planning.

Crossing over from the physical world to the world of ideas, Mumford examined the parallel histories of religion, philosophy, and politics in volume three of "The Renewal of Life" series, The Condition of Man (New York, 1944). The intervening catastrophe of World War II increased the urgency of Mumford's appeal for a more organic way of life, in which man was in harmony with his neighbors and his environment. Mumford actively lobbied for America's involvement in the war and wrote two political tracts in this vein: Men Must Act (New York, 1939) and Faith for Living (New York, 1940). His son, however, was killed during the conflict, and this event depleted much of Mumford's optimism for the future of civilization. A memoir of his son Geddes's life, Green Memories (New York, 1947), is as much an autobiographical work as it is a universal story of a troubled adolescent's coming-of-age. Mumford concluded the "Renewal of Life Series" with The Conduct of Life (New York, 1951), a title chosen for its deliberate references to two of his favorite philosophers: Ralph Waldo Emerson and Benedetto Croce. While essentially a summary of the previous volumes, the book was Mumford's expansive, if somewhat rigid, prescription for the ills of modern society. His "renewal" involved a transformation at the individual level, and its ultimate goal was the attainment of a physically, mentally, and spiritually "balanced" personality.

The 1950s were a time of reflection and renewal for Mumford himself. With the development and deployment of the atomic bomb at the end of World War II, Mumford saw his worst fears about technology realized. One of the earliest proponents of a nuclear freeze, he came out strongly against atomic weapons in numerous articles and in his book, In the Name of Sanity (New York, 1954). The decline of the environment, both built and natural, was another cause for Mumford's concern. His "Sky Line" columns for The New Yorker during this period addressed the increasing congestion, pollution, and disintegration of the world's cities in general and New York City in particular. While he saw reason for optimism in the series of British "New Towns" built after the war, he was increasingly pessimistic about the ability of modern architecture and planning to provide workable solutions. He maintained his interest in architectural history and education as well: he edited Roots of Contemporary American Architecture (New York, 1952), a collection of writings that established native origins for the modern movement. The book has become a standard textbook in architectural schools. During this period Mumford taught in the city planning department at the University of Pennsylvania, where he infused the curriculum with his humanistic view of architecture and history. At the same time, he began to rethink his earlier views on urban history.

The City in History (New York, 1961) was Mumford's magnum opus, for which he was given the National Book Award (1962). While essentially an updating of The Culture of Cities, the book expanded his analysis of urban history to the very dawn of civilization. Mumford made extensive use of archaeological data in this study to argue that it was the female-oriented container rather than the male-oriented tool that was responsible for civilization's advancement. As in the earlier book, Mumford saw the medieval period as a time of great synthesis and harmony that had gradually been lost. Although he believed in the enduring structure of the city, the intervening decades had created vastly more complex problems for modern man to solve, including pollution, overpopulation, and the threat of nuclear annihilation. The two-volume Myth of the Machine (Technics and Human Development, New York, 1967, and The Pentagon of Power, New York, 1970) dealt with many of the same issues from a technological viewpoint, but it was far more ominous in its conclusions. Mumford argued that the ancient, human-powered megamachine had its modern counterpart in the technologically oriented economy of the post-war United States. Furthermore, he viewed scientists and politicians as co-conspirators in this quest for power, and unless stopped in their mission, they would render life meaningless. Once again, Mumford called for inner transformation, although by this time, he was almost certain that no one was listening.

Mumford's final works were largely autobiographical in nature, as he came to terms with his own place in history. Interpretations and Forecasts (New York, 1973), Findings and Keepings (New York, 1975), Architecture as a Home for Man (New York 1975), and My Works and Days (New York, 1979) excerpted Mumford's varied literary output of over a half-century. For more than twenty years he labored over the manuscript of his autobiography, which proved to be the most difficult, if not the most ambitious, of his many books. Sketches from Life (New York, 1982) covers only the first half of Mumford's life, but it provides a multi-faceted insight into the worlds of American letters, architecture, and politics, in addition to his tumultuous personal relationships. Mumford died at his home in Leedsville, New York, near Amenia, on 26 January 1990. His wife Sophia died there in April 1997.


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