Lewis Mumford Research Paper

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Lewis Mumford was one of the seminal cultural critics to emerge from the United States during the twentieth century. Although known chiefly for his work in architecture and urbanism, he made significant contributions to art and literary criticism, biography and autobiography, the history of technology, sociology, and political science. Largely self-taught, Mumford defined himself as a ‘generalist,’ one who crossed disciplines and epochs in pursuit of an ‘organic’ equilibrium in human affairs. This search for ‘eutopia’ or the good place—to use the archaic spelling and meaning that he preferred—preoccupied him over the course of a writing career that spanned an astonishing six decades.

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1. Life And Work

1.1 Background And Intellectual Development

Born on October 19, 1895 in Flushing, Long Island (now part of New York City), Mumford was reared in a middle-class, albeit fatherless, household on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. His youth was unremarkable, save for a series of extended walks around New York City he undertook in the company of his stepgrandfather. He was graduated from Stuyvesant High School in 1912, but ill health forced him to withdraw from the City College of New York before completing his baccalaureate degree. Rather than languish, Mumford undertook a regimen of self-study and self-improvement under the direct influence of Sir Patrick Geddes, the Scottish biologist, sociologist, and town-planner whose ideas Mumford first encountered while enrolled in a college biology course. Mumford began corresponding with Geddes in 1918, and the latter acted as an intellectual mentor and surrogate father to the young man.

Geddes, a remarkable polymath who disregarded disciplinary boundaries, advanced a Spencerian view of evolutionary change in society based upon the integrated study of a given region, including its physical surroundings, the population that lived there, and the work they performed. Over the next several years, Mumford heeded Geddes’s call for ‘regional survey,’ the collection of detailed topographical and architectural data, beginning with the New York metropolitan area and, as his health improved, continuing up and down the eastern seaboard of the US. This activity, so reminiscent of Mumford’s childhood walks, helped to focus his interest in the study of architecture and city planning, while still embracing Geddes’s emphasis on the social, economic, and cultural aspects of regional development.

At about the same time, Mumford discovered Ebenezer Howard’s garden city, which, in its compact form and its balance between urban and rural modes of living, dovetailed almost seamlessly with Geddes’s regionalism. Among the numerous other writers who influenced Mumford’s development at this early stage were the popular novelist H. G. Wells, the playwright George Bernard Shaw, the Arts and Crafts polemicists John Ruskin and William Morris, and the American Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. By 1919 Mumford had established himself as a promising journalist and editor in New York and, briefly, in London. In 1922, he published his first book, The Story of Utopias, a survey of utopian literature in which many of the overarching themes of his career were adumbrated: the investment of artistic form with social meaning; the harnessing of technology for the common good; and the restructuring of the built environment on a human scale in balance with the surrounding region. That same year he married Sophia Wittenberg (1899–1997), who was to be his life-long intellectual confidante and amanuensis.

Mumford’s subsequent career can be divided roughly into three chronological stages: an early stage during which he concentrated on American cultural history and criticism (c. 1923–31); a mature stage when his focus broadened to include all of Western civilization (c. 1932—70); and a late stage when he reexamined his life and work in a series of autobiographical collections of writings, leading to an incomplete autobiography (c. 1971–82).

1.2 Early Career

The 1920s found Mumford in the company of architects and planners as well as writers. In 1923, he joined the Regional Planning Association of America, a group dedicated to the improvement of housing, the development of garden cities, and the promotion of regionalism. The Association achieved modest successes in their planned communities at Sunnyside Gardens in the New York City borough of Queens and at Radburn in suburban New Jersey. The Appalachian Trail, a 2,000-mile wilderness trail along the mountain spine of the eastern US is the Association’s most lasting achievement. Although he was not a designer, Mumford acted effectively as the Association’s secretary and publicist.

Mumford continued to earn his living as journalist, writing chiefly criticism on a vast range of subjects for such periodicals as the Freeman, the Journal of the American Institute of Architects, the American Mercury, Commonweal, and the New Republic. Under the influence of his close friend and fellow writer, Van Wyck Brooks, Mumford published a series of short, but insightful books on American culture in an effort to recover what Brooks termed the ‘usable past.’ Sticks and Stones (1924) outlines what was at the time an unorthodox social history of American architecture. The Golden Day (1926) examines five writers from the mid-nineteenth century—Emerson, Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman—whom Mumford believed had created a specifically American literature in touch with the regional landscape and who might be emulated by his contemporaries. Mumford’s first foray into biography, Herman Melville (1929), was a direct outgrowth of The Golden Day and one of the first studies to wrestle with Melville’s troubled psyche. The Brown Decades (1931) culminated this early period, and it was Mumford’s attempt to redress some critical oversights in both Sticks and Stones and The Golden Day, particularly the cursory treatment of architects H. H. Richardson, Louis Sullivan, and Frank Lloyd Wright. Although surpassed by later, more scholarly works, these four books made a significant contribution to the fledgling discipline of American Studies. Moreover, with the unifying color metaphor of its title and the elegance of its prose, The Brown Decades endures as a major work of American letters.

1.3 Mature Career

The mature stage of Mumford’s career extended from the early 1930s to the early 1970s, with only a brief interruption around World War II. During the Depression, Mumford continued to make his living as a journalist, but he confined his output to a few selected journals and magazines. In 1931, he began an extraordinary 30-year tenure as the architecture critic for the New Yorker. His column, ‘The Sky Line,’ was an important platform from which he mediated between the often conflicting currents of European and American modernism. Many of his architecture columns have been collected and published in From the Ground Up (1956), the Highway and the City (1963), and Sidewalk Critic (1998). Virtually unknown today is his short but influential tenure as the magazine’s art critic (1932–7). From cubism to surrealism, Mumford embraced most currents of modern art as they took tentative root in the museums and galleries of New York City and elsewhere, although he turned a blind eye to nonrepresentational experimentation. That artists might lead a cultural renewal in post-World War II society forms the major theme of Art and Technics (1952), a published collection of lectures delivered at Columbia University.

Mumford, however, wanted to be known primarily as a writer of important books. Fresh from his modest success with the American ‘usable past’ project, he embarked on an ambitious three-part—later expanded to a four-part—study of Western civilization that became known as The Renewal of Life. Inspired by Geddes, the series surveys medieval and post-medieval European history and culture from distinct perspectives utilizing an implicitly Christian paradigm. In Mumford’s view, the Middle Ages represented an organic unity that was disrupted by the industrial revolution and its dehumanizing effects. Modern technology, coupled with rational planning and cultural renewal, he believed, could restore that lost unity in the present.

The first volume, Technics and Civilization (1934) examines technological developments from the turret windmills of sixteenth-century Holland to the hydroelectric dams of the Tennessee Valley Authority. Only through careful control, Mumford warns, can technology continue to improve the quality of modern life. The Culture of Cities (1938), the second and most widely acclaimed volume of The Renewal of Life, traces concurrent urban developments, concluding with an eutopian vision of a balanced regional landscape. Following the book’s publication, Mumford was regarded internationally as an authority on urbanism, his status reified by the placement of his photograph on the cover of Time (April 18, 1938). This success of this book in turn led Mumford to publish City Development (1945), a collection of his planning reports and essays.

The last two volumes of The Renewal of Life, The Condition of Man (1944) and The Conduct of Life (1951), were met by less critical and popular success as they were in some ways eclipsed by the events of the world war that they bracketed. With tempered optimism, Mumford in these volumes surveys the impact of politics, science, philosophy, and religion on the human personality and argues that the renewal of the individual is the necessary prelude to the renewal of society as a whole. Spread over a period of 17 years, The Renewal of Life as a series had a less-lasting impact than such contemporary multivolume studies of Western civilization as Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West and Arnold J. Toynbee’s A Study of History, even though its first two volumes remain landmark studies in their respective areas. World War II transformed Mumford on a personal and professional level, while raising his political profile significantly. Early to recognize the threat of both Fascism and Nazism, he was one of the first left-leaning American intellectuals to advocate US intervention in the war, a point which he argued forcefully and eloquently in Men Must Act (1939). Faith for Living (1940) offered a hopeful vision of a world freed from the totalitarian menace. Tragedy struck Mumford and his wife Sophia in 1944 when their only son—named, significantly, Geddes—was killed in action on the Italian front. Mumford channeled his grief into the writing of Green Memories (1947), a moving biography of his son that opens a fascinating window into the complexities of parenting in the middle of the twentieth century. Alarmed by the US detonation of the atomic bomb and its potential for global destruction, Mumford, the interventionist, became—once the threat of totalitarianism had passed—Mumford the pacifist. He became an ardent foe of the arms build-up of the Cold War, as advances in technology once again threatened to overwhelm human reason. In the Name of Sanity (1954) contains many of his essays on this topic. This same pacifism lay at the core of his vocal and written opposition to the Vietnam War during the 1960s.

Dissatisfied with the reception of The Renewal of Life, Mumford spent the next two decades revising basic assumptions and searching further into the past for clues into modern behaviors. The Transformations of Man (1956) was his attempt to condense the core message of The Renewal of Life into a single volume. His conclusion that ‘One World man’—one who recognizes and synthesizes the rich traditions of all cultures around the globe—was about to emerge in the latter part of the twentieth century has proven to be both prescient and elusive. This reevaluation of past themes continued with The City in History (1961), Mumford’s best-known book and the winner of the National Book Award for nonfiction in 1962. What he intended as a mere revision of The Culture of Cities, gradually evolved into an expansive, mostly new survey of Western urbanism, beginning with the Paleolithic cave and concluding with the sprawling twentieth-century metropolis. Missing was his earlier, eutopian vision of a new regional order; instead he forecast the inevitable decline of cities unless technology, especially the automobile, was brought under control by designers and planners. The book solidified Mumford’s reputation as America’s senior authority on urbanism, although his presumptions regarding the efficacy of rational planning on city design were soon challenged by younger writers such as Jane Jacobs. The success of The City in History spurred Mumford to publish The Urban Prospect (1968), yet another collection of his essays on urbanism. Building on the momentum of The City in History, and at a stage in life when many of his contemporaries would have been content to garner praise and awards, Mumford reposited his views on the history of technology in what may be his most ambitious work, the two-volume Myth of the Machine. In volume one, Technics and Human Development (1967), he put forward what he believed was his most original insight: that the ancient rulers of the eastern Mediterranean world exerted insidious control over human labor through the employment of massive work units or ‘megamachines.’ Although he argued in volume two, The Pentagon of Power (1970), that modern technology made such human megamachines obsolete, the modern megamachines all-embracing power, left unchecked by human reason, would eventually lead to global destruction. Critical and popular reaction to The Myth of the Machine was mixed, but Mumford’s critique of the political and scientific establishment, which he identified as masterminding the modern megamachine, won him wide admiration among a younger, more reform-minded generation.

1.4 Late Career

Mumford spent the last two decades of his life engaged in various activities related to the creation of his considerable public legacy. He donated his personal papers to the Van Pelt Library of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and his graphite, ink, and watercolor sketches—many of them dating to the regional surveys of his youth—to Monmouth College, now Monmouth University, in West Long Branch, New Jersey. Several collections of his earlier writings were published: Interpretations and Forecasts: (1922– 1972) (1973); Architecture as a Home for Man (1975); and The Lewis Mumford Reader (1986). Two autobiographical collections—Findings and Keepings (1975) and My Works and Days (1979)—preceded the publication of his autobiography, Sketches from Life (1982), which covered only the first half of his life. In addition, Mumford’s correspondence with several key friends and colleagues has been edited and published, providing a fuller understanding of his formidable but engaging personality. He died quietly at his country home in Leedsville near Amenia, New York on January 26, 1990.

2. Critical Assessment

Most of Mumford’s books remain in print, and his name appears with increasing frequency in both popular and scholarly contexts. Nevertheless, the critical evaluation of his life and work is just beginning. Mumford’s wide-ranging legacy as a generalist has been difficult for any one scholar to address; some have selected one aspect of his work, while others have joined together in delivering group assessments. Examples of the latter include the special issue of the American journal Salmagundi (Summer 1980) and Hughes and Hughes’s Lewis Mumford: Public Intellectual (1990), a collection of essays that focus on Mumford’s lifelong involvement with technology. As its title suggests, Miller’s Lewis Mumford: A Life (1989) provides a comprehensive and often insightful overview of Mumford’s life. Novak focuses more narrowly on one aspect of Mumford’s writing in The Autobiographical Writings of Lewis Mumford (1988). In Beloved Community, Blake (1990) examines Mumford’s relationship to the ‘young Americans,’ a group of New York intellectuals searching for cultural renewal in the aftermath of World War I. Mumford’s contributions to architecture and urbanism are the subject of Wojtowicz’s Lewis Mumford and American Modernism (1996), while Tschachler discusses Mumford in a German context in Lewis Mumford’s Reception in German Translation and Criticism (1994). Numerous dissertations, moreover, have addressed one or more aspects of Mumford’s work. As yet, however, little has been written about Mumford outside of the US even in Great Britain, where many of his books were published in separate editions.


  1. Blake C N 1990 Beloved Community: The Cultural Criticism of Randolph Bourne, Van Wyck Brooks, Waldo Frank, and Lewis Mumford. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill and London
  2. Hughes T P, Hughes A C (eds.) 1990 Lewis Mumford: Public Intellectual. Oxford University Press, New York
  3. Miller D L 1989 Lewis Mumford: A Life. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, New York
  4. Mumford L 1922 The Story of Utopias. Boni and Liveright, New York
  5. Mumford L 1931 The Brown Decades: A Study of the Arts in America, 1865–1895. Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York
  6. Mumford L 1934 Technics and Civilization. Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York
  7. Mumford L 1938 The Culture of Cities. Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York
  8. Mumford L 1944 The Condition of Man. Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York
  9. Mumford L 1951 The Conduct of Life. Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York
  10. Mumford L 1956 The Transformations of Man, 1st edn. Harper, New York
  11. Mumford L 1961 The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects, 1st edn. Harcourt, Brace & World, New York
  12. Mumford L 1967 The Myth of the Machine: I. Technics and Human Development. Harcourt, Brace & World, New York
  13. Mumford L 1970 The Myth of the Machine: II. The Pentagon of Power. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York
  14. Mumford L 1973 Interpretations and Forecasts: 1922–1972: Studies in Literature, History, Biography, Technics, and Contemporary Society, 1st. edn. Harvest H B J (ed.) Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York
  15. Mumford L 1982 Sketches from Life: The Autobiography of Lewis Mumford: The Early Years. Dial Press, New York
  16. Mumford L 1986 The Lewis Mumford Reader. Miller D L (ed.) Pantheon, New York
  17. Novak F G 1988 The Autobiographical Writings of Lewis Mumford: A Study in Literary Audacity. University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu
  18. Tsachler H 1994 Lewis Mumford’s Reception in German Translation and Criticism. University Press of America, Lanham, MD, New York and London
  19. Wojtowicz R 1996 Lewis Mumford and American Modernism: Eutopian Theories for Architecture and Urban Planning. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK


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