Commentary Magazine

Mumford in Retrospect

Lewis Mumford is probably best known as a critic of architecture and city planning, but he has regretted being identified with these subjects alone on the grounds that “if I have any field of specialization at all, it is the all-inclusive one of the social philosopher.” Beginning with his first book, The Story of Utopias, in 1922, Mum-ford has written as one who takes it upon himself periodically to deliver an assessment—generally adverse—on the condition of the planet. A recently issued selection from his works, Interpretations and Forecasts, 1922-19721 affords an opportunity to survey his career and assess its strengths and weaknesses.

During the 1920's Mumford largely concerned himself with the subject of American culture. He moved from editing and writing for the Dial in 1919 to the magazines of the time most concerned with social and cultural issues: the New Republic, Mencken's American Mercury, Harper's, and the Freeman, which under Van Wyck Brooks's literary editorship set itself against the Dial's international aestheticism.

In 1930, Mumford began work on a series of books which came to be known collectively as “The Renewal of Life.” Loose surveys of the history of culture, they provided vehicles for his simultaneous denunciation and encouragement of Western civilization. His aim appears to have been to answer Oswald Spengler. Accepting Spengler's notion of decline, Mumford argued nonetheless, “matching metaphor for metaphor, . . . that in deepest winter, the buds of spring have already emerged and await only the first warm sun. Life must go on. . . .” There is some confusion about exactly which titles constitute “The Renewal of Life.” Originally Mumford planned a single book, Technics and Civilization (1934). Then he conceived two more volumes, The Culture of Cities (1938) and The Condition of Man (1944), and finally a tetralogy which ended with The Conduct of Life (1951), a title borrowed from Emerson. But in 1970, without indicating which volume it was supposed to replace, he called his new The Pentagon of Power the last of the four.

The “Renewal of Life” series launched Mumford as a spokesman. He proceeded to comment on the rise of fascism, to urge America's entry into World War II, and then to warn of the moral dangers which accompanied this necessary decision. He did not abandon architecture, as his awards testify. Beginning in 1932, in his New Yorker magazine “Skyline” column, he discussed regional planning, preservation of the landscape, and the design of new buildings. After the war he participated in symposia on the dangers of the atom, the post-war consumer society, and other problems of the day. With these activities came honors and attacks. Mumford accepted numerous professorships and visiting professorships, served on the New York City Board of Education, and was president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Among other honors, he received the National Book Award in 1962 for The City in History. The notable attacks came from Meyer Schapiro in 1938 and James T. Farrell in 1940 and 1945. Both criticized Mumford's imprecise style and vague hopefulness.

Throughout his career, Mumford's expanding concern with world conditions has remained a product of the intellectual climate which emerged in the United States before and after World War I. In contrast to the expatriates who spent the 20's advertising their abandonment of social conscience, those intellectuals who remained at home accepted what they conceived to be their social responsibilities. Mumford's muckraking and debunking predecessors in the years between 1910 and 1920 had left his generation the task of supplying an alternative conception of the American past and a more respectable optimism about the present and future. George Santayana and Van Wyck Brooks had exposed the thinness of “genteel,” “highbrow” American culture, Thorstein Veblen the pretensions of the upper classes and the universities; H. L. Mencken demolished both stodginess and philistinism. The spirit that was to replace all these derived from a new, more serious view of the American tradition which was to result in Van Wyck Brooks's reinterpretation of the careers of Mark Twain and Henry James, the rediscovery of Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, and Henry Adams, and Lewis Mumford's own The Golden Day: A Study in American Experience and Culture (1926).

The “Golden Day” of the title was the period from 1830 to 1860 in America during which, Mumford believed, a few choice spirits expressed the pure ideals of the culture just prior to its decline. “Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Melville, yes, and Hawthorne [i.e., Hawthorne to a lesser extent] had answered the challenge of American experience.” These writers had thrown off the dead hand of the past and rejected the crassness of their own time. In their age, the equivalent of the vulgar business culture of the 1920's had been the “detestable” pioneer spirit. From Mumford's perspective the classic American writers had been rebels much like the leaders of his own intellectual moment. Emerson had rejected the past and replaced it with “a creative barbarism.” Even Hawthorne expressed this spirit; despite his own interest in architectural history, Mumford endorsed the prescription of Hawthorne's character in The House of Seven Gables who suggests that houses be torn down and rebuilt in each generation.

Ostensibly a literary study, The Golden Day displayed Mumford's predilection for exhortation at the expense of analysis. After brief sketches, or, more properly, celebrations of the writers he had selected to discuss, Mumford turned to an attack on the shallow, “fragmentary culture” which they had been unable to change. This pointed to the present, a catalogue of the regressive and hopeful tendencies which took up a third of the book. At the end came an exhortation to hope, moral health, and regenerative uplift which was to be repeated in most of Mumford's two-dozen-odd volumes.

In both his literary and architectural writing of the 20's Mumford traced the failures of American culture to the inhumane influence of the machine. In Sticks and Stones (1924) his animus was directed at the destructive tendency of modern capitalism which in the form of Civil War militarism had destroyed the Golden Day. By 1931, however, in The Brown Decades, a chronicle of American culture from 1865 to 1900, Mumford found in post-Civil War America a kind of Golden Day paralleling the cultural movement which had arisen in his own time of post-World War I boom and bust. The new intellectual climate of the 30's had changed his outlook, and like other aesthetes of the 1920's, Mumford was returning, if not from physical exile like Fitzgerald and Dos Passos, then from a spiritual denigration of contemporary American culture. The products of that culture now appeared most grand when least individualized, and the iron constructions of the post-Civil War period which he had ignored in Sticks and Stones had come to embody the “collective achievement” of the skyscraper, which before he had detested. The other arts appeared to be succumbing as well to the “social impulse,” notably in what he held to be the most vigorous and hopeful development of the day: mural painting.


With Technics and Civilization, the first volume of “The Renewal of Life,” the theme of the machine moved to the center of Mumford's work. To summarize this book is to set forth very nearly all that may be learned from Mumford, though later works continued to develop new opinions. In a survey of technological developments since the 14th century, Technics and Civilization purports to describe “the conquest of Western Civilization by the machine.” Employing the broad phases of social development typical of Comte and Spengler, though derived more immediately from Mumford's declared master, the regional planner Patrick Geddes, the work posits three stages of technology: primitive, intermediary, and modern. In the primitive, “eotechnic” Middle Ages the machine benefited man by releasing him from backbreaking labor, while the feudal organization of society prevented the later excesses of rapacious capitalism and preserved the life-giving tradition of handicrafts. During the 18th century, in the “paleotechnic” phase, capitalism ran wild. It destroyed medieval humanism by bringing a “vulgarization” and “quantification of life.” Shrewd, calculating “Economic Man” appeared, along with a “landless, traditionless proletariat.” Then, late in the 19th century, a “neotechnic” phase began, which brought the promises of “a life-centered economy,” a “fresh integration,” a new “synthesis,” and an “Organic Ideology.”

The terms recall The Golden Day, which also described the breakdown of what Mumford regarded as a medieval synthesis—early 19th-century American culture—by the machine, and which ended with an equally vague exordium to forge a new culture. Indeed, the pattern is typical of most of Mumford's books (and many of his essays), from his first, The Story of Utopias—which tells how the admirable Utopias written up until the 17th century in response to “the breakdown of the town economy of the Middle Ages” were succeeded by “industrial Utopias no longer concerned with values but with means” and then by signs of renewal pointing to a new future—to his latest, Interpretations and Forecasts, the section titles of which describe the same arc: from “New World Horizons,” to “Miscarriages of ‘Civilization,’ ” to a closing chapter on “The Flowering of Plants and Men.”

In a review of The Culture of Cities (1938), the second volume of “The Renewal of Life,” Meyer Schapiro, though he did not draw attention to this pattern, dissected with unremitting thoroughness the logical absurdities which arise from such thinking. In this particular book the “Golden Age” was the medieval town, the period of barbarism that of “baroque man” between the 15th and 19th centuries, and the time of renewal the present, which according to Mumford was witnessing the emergence of “organic man.” One after another Schapiro exposed Mumford's solecisms: he “psychologize[d] causes and . . . moralize[d] effects,” employed an “uncontrolled intuitiveness and merely verbal correlations,” adopted Spenglerian “analogical thinking,” and a “mysterious animism” in the place of analysis. These tendencies had emerged in Technics and Civilization, and would run throughout Mumford's “Renewal of Life” series, providing enough illustrations for a handbook of rhetorical errors.


In the late 1930's Mumford made an attempt, only partially successful, to resolve a contradiction between his militant opposition to fascism and his implicit aesthetic partiality to a Nazi-like cult of order and heroic sacrifice. In Technics and Civilization Mumford had called for the artist's sacrifice of his individualism for the collectivity, and in The Story of Utopias he had defended Plato's warrior class, now so suggestive of Hitler's squadrons of putative Nietzschean supermen. As late as 1932, James T. Farrell pointed out, after a trip to Germany Mumford had reported finding a healthy, anti-technological “cult of the sun” which suggested that “at the bottom, in Germany, there is sanity and strength.”

Rather than confront these cases directly, however, Mumford undertook to revise just enough to meet the new situation. Accordingly, he effected a kind of Greening of the Crystal Palace. This giant steel and glass hall built for the 1850 British Centennial exposition and imitated three years later in New York “had scarcely anything to contribute to architecture,” Mumford had written in 1924. Fourteen years later in The Culture of Cities he made it the embodiment of organic values, pointing out that its design had been inspired by the greenhouse. What Mumford really meant was that the tired old capitalist civilization had values worth preserving. Shocked by the rise of Nazism, Mumford did what he could to escape from his own affinities to its aesthetic. Triumphantly, Meyer Schapiro showed that Mumford was not really opposing capitalism when he called for his revolution of the spirit. If capitalism “includes both power states and service states,” wrote Schapiro, “it becomes right to support one's service state against the enemy's power state.” One year later it did become right, for this was 1938. As it developed, with his virtues of goodness, “rampant healthiness,” celebration of life, and the rest, Mumford did answer the demands of the great challenge of his time.

And Mumford did face the moral if not the intellectual issues. In 1939 he advocated readiness to fight in Men Must Act, and he further defended democracy in Faith for Living (1940). In 1940, also, he resigned from the New Republic after years of frustration over its unwillingness to support a war against Germany. Though he consistently represented the military in his works as having undermined the medieval synthesis, he supported full mobilization in a letter to the New York Herald Tribune in 1944. In 1947 he resigned from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and from the Institute of Arts and Letters in protest against an award to Charles Beard, who had been an isolationist during the war.

During the 1950's Mumford campaigned against the development of atomic energy. He called for a “post-nuclear ideology” which would consist of a cult of healthy love opposed to the dehumanizing forces of this, the latest stage of the machine. He urged scientists to go on strike, praising a microbiologist who had “forsworn her career as a scientist” when she decided that her research into “altering the genes in lower organisms” was “potentially inimical to the human race.” The Pentagon of Power (1970), a denunciation of Western civilization, completed Mumford's postwar transformation of his god of the machine into a devil.


Throughout his two dozen or so books, Mumford has devoted himself not so much to performing an analysis of culture as to expressing an attitude toward it, and this attitude has led him to a fundamental error about technology; a force to which he assigns a far greater moral weight than the facts warrant. In Technics and Civilization he insisted on regarding the products and consequences of machinery as expressions of man's spirit. At the same time, however, his language expressed a historical determinism guided by an unidentified, mysterious purposiveness. “The machine came into our civilization,” lie wrote, “not to save man from the servitude to ignoble forms of work, but to make more widely possible the servitude to ignoble standards of consumption that had grown up among the military aristocracies” [italics added]. Or, in another typical expression of mysterious historical causality, “the paleotechnic regime was preparing for a series of more lethal wars” [italics added]. Paradoxically, as it develops, in Mumford's animistic conception of reality the machine possesses “cultural values.”

On the one hand, the values for which the machine is supposedly responsible were simply Mumford's expression of the aspirations of the 30's. “What remains as the permanent contribution of the machine . . . is the technique of cooperative thought and action,” he wrote in Technics and Civilization, where by the same logic he was led also to praise the “magnificent” Russian methods of technology. At the same time, he took over from Spengler not only the dramatization of the machine itself, the idea of “Faustian technics,” and the conception of a declining civilization, but also anti-rationalist thought. His myth of a golden time under an “organic,” uncapitalist, medieval church he shared with the imaginative reactionaries of his day: Henry Adams, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, to name some of the Americans. And his solutions—salvation by the artist heroically sacrificing himself to the commonalty, a cleanly society devoted to work for the general good—proved more adaptable to totalitarian than democratic states. The mystical spirit in which he had approached technology, society, and the future found its ironic echo in Nazi Germany.

As with his unwanted affinity to totalitarian methods, Mumford's pursuit of the good life in his many essays on architecture and city planning eventually took on a conservative coloring. He championed good design and a slowing of the technological tempo: aims which served the interests of the privileged. That these have also been the causes most recently to have captured the attention and allegiance of large numbers of activists on the Left, who universally regard Mumford with veneration, is perhaps not Mumford's fault—he eschewed the cultural barbarism of the 60's—but it does suggest a shared affinity with reactionary mysticism.


Mumford, though he has depended on a few ideas (which is not to say that he has lacked a growing erudition) and a single tone of warning, is a man who has mostly adapted to the changing times, and particularly to the shifts and eddies of “concerned” liberal thought over the past fifty years. He began in 20's-style iconoclasm and hopefulness, and with new concepts like “organism” in place of older “abstractions [such] as . . . the struggle for existence.” The heroic artist embodied this outlook, preserving it in good periods and bad by consulting his own conscience exclusively. In the 30's the liberal mind shifted to an ethic of cooperation leading toward a united front against fascism. “Socialize creation,” Mumford now wrote. His artist figure's heroism became a matter of sacrificing originality to social utility. In the 40's the call was for mobilization, after which, with victory in the war, “conformity” became the danger. Though Mumford in the 50's did not return to the individualism of the 20's, he did resurrect its ideal of self-expression through healthy release of the libido. In the 60's the social problem appeared to emanate from government; always a regionalist, Mumford returned to de-centralism as a rallying point. By the 70's the pendulum of popular liberal thought had once again swung away from the individual, as the paramount issue became “the delicate ecological balance on which all life depends.”

In the final analysis, Mumford's evolving rhetoric, instead of signaling the imminent apocalypse or the forging of a new spirit, has led in the direction of an acceptance of the world as it is. His diatribes against the machine have had the effect for the reader of domesticating this mysterious force, making it familiar and well-known. Emerson had met a similar fate. His original championing of the individual did not so much point to the overthrow of all tradition and authority as provide an ideal ethic for the period of untrammeled development that was the Gilded Age. In 1968 Mumford revised his elevation in The Golden Day of Emerson's “creative barbarism.” Instead of a 20's-style iconoclast, Emerson now appeared as a preserver of tradition, Mumford having failed to notice that, like himself, his subject had changed in the course of his career. What remained the same with each was his approach to ideas. Professor John Holloway has characterized figures like Carlyle, Newman, Disraeli, Arnold, and Emerson as “Sages.” “Through Carlyle's prose,” he writes in The Victorian Sage, “the nerve of proof—in the readily understood and familiar sense of straightforward argument—simply cannot be traced.” Instead, “exposition . . . becomes proof.”

Mumford's books of exhortation perpetuate a tradition which leads back through Emerson to the Puritan sermons of the 17th century—prophecies of doom which invariably ended on a note of reaffirmation of the American destiny. The Golden Age has been lost, the Puritan preacher warned, but it also beckons on the horizon. “Since The Condition of Man appeared in 1944,” Mumford writes in a new preface this year, “the condition of man has worsened.” In true prophetic fashion his book asks: “Has the destruction yet gone far enough to promote a genuine renewal?” In the face of such expression it is perhaps inappropriate to ask just which destruction and which renewal are meant.


1 Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 544 pp., 112.95.

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.