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Reading: The Rehabbing of Lewis Mumford

History has been up to its old tricks with our greatest architecture critic. Now begins the effort to rescue his reputation--as he himself has rescued so many others.



Lord Byron and I have a bone to pick with history: "I want a hero: an uncommon want, / When every age and month sends forth a new one, / Till, after cloying the gazettes with cant, / The age discovers he is not the true one." Yes, history's been lounging around, chewing up and spitting out heroes like so many grape skins, and Byron and I think enough is enough. It's untidy, and it's inefficient--you can't keep a good hero down anyway. They have a way of bounding back to their proper stature, as Byron's Don Juan did, no matter how pitilessly history abuses them first.

Byron and I want to rehabilitate our heroes. There are suspicious patterns to history's hero abuse, patterns plain to the eye right now, thanks to the epochal prophet bashing of Hemingway just now winding down. I want to point out the patterns because my hero too is a prophet, an elderly one, and something about a just-dead prophet--witness Hemingway--seems to bring out the worst in history.

Hemingway had barely proved himself mortal before the full fury of fashion turned on him, and in less time than it took to say "he doesn't understand women," the most celebrated American of his generation was dismissed by many as little more than a macho drinking-and-despairing buddy of F. Scott and Zelda's. Yet Hemingway's reputation is rising from the pits, as historians and critics with a longer view discern what some few said all along, that Hemingway created an utterly new thing under the sun, an American mind speaking an American tongue. (Do you think American men understand women?) In the long view, it seems that what Hemingway understood is less important than what he stood for.

When a person like Hemingway dies, his image isn't just marched into the Parthenon and worshiped. Far from it. What he represents has to be worried over, corrected, the embarrassments expunged and specters purged. His literary corpse will be mutilated, for it embodies a thing still alive in us. Commonly, especially for prophets, there's a period of icon bashing and gravestone hooting before the contemporary figure is buried and a historical figure rises up in his stead--less controversial, nicer, easier for all to take. One bright day we won't think we need to be macho anymore, we will think we understand women. Papa's ghost will be gone. Along about then we'll get his biography for Christmas.

This is what history does for a living, steamroll out of present-day pebbles and tar an orderly past. We flatten, that we may love again. In recent years we've flattened Harry Truman, that once-despised haberdasher, and revived him as a statesman. Dwight Eisenhower is being dug up and flattened at a furious rate, no matter that his grandson, David Eisenhower, must flail the first shovel. And next in line is Jack Kennedy. He can't be resuscitated yet, being so near and dear to our passions and neuroses still, but one day he will find a family retainer to write a revision that sticks; and history, even that history, will roll on.

All this came home to me recently in conversation with a newly minted PhD in architectural history. I was making perfunctory chitchat about our greatest American critic of architecture--and much else--my hero Lewis Mumford, and was surprised to see her eyes narrow to icon-bashing, gravestone-hooting slits. Politely she made it plain that intelligent people would sooner seek intelligent criticism in the commentaries of Barney Google and Snuffy Smith. Afraid to start on this one--I don't argue about Kennedy, either--I crawled away.

And I brooded. She'd unintentionally provided some insight into several questions close to my heart, especially the vexed question of how education closes minds as well as opening them. Most important, she alerted me to an intellectual trend I never could have imagined: the flattening of Lewis Mumford.

I called the architecture school at the University of Illinois at Chicago and confirmed the trend. While professor Robert Bruegmann considered Mumford the most important architectural critic of the 20th century, "a true colossus," he added that Mumford had lost most of his audience, up until only a very few years ago. Partly this was Mumford's own doing, for changing in a different direction from his changing America.

Mumford was best known for his passionate stands on modernism, which he advocated as a young man and then attacked for the better part of his life. Modernism was originally a leftist European ideology of design. Imported to America, architectural modernism after World War II flourished monstrously, for it was ungoverned by the European-style ideologies that had given it meaning and proportion there. Those leftist ideologies, completely foreign to America, were just words in magazines over here. Mumford was among the first to despair of the monster's creations and companions, which he described brilliantly--canyons of glass-box skyscrapers and efficient high-rise slums, ringed by distant, hermetic suburbs; unlivable cities carved apart by undrivable expressways.

So Mumford turned from advocacy to attack. His writings on American gigantism, roundly ignored in the 50s, were commonly politicized in the 60s by leftists, who were in turn ignored. Only in the awakening revulsion to the Reagan years, in the mid-80s, has Mumford been rediscovered as a prophet.

But don't think he's another gloom-and-doomer. For most of this century, Mumford's been what he once called Herman Melville, an apostle of "a double vision which sees with both eyes--the scientific eye of actuality and the illuminated eye of imagination and dream." He makes history meaningful and alive to the eye wherever he looks, unveiling fresh meanings and eternal truths in our most enveloping environments--in cities and suburbs, in souls. He attaches our familiar, incomprehensible present to the ages before us, so well that, in the opinion of historian Henry Steele Commager, Mumford had "a deeper and more lasting impact on the thinking of his generation than almost any other figure in public life."

That quote comes from the introduction to the new Lewis Mumford Reader, which collects highlights from Mumford's extraordinarily varied output. The book's transparent intent is to rehabilitate Mumford in the here and now while commending him to eternity. It's a special pleasure for Chicagoans to read. Mumford's history of late-19th-century American architecture, written some 60 years ago and sampled in this collection, was seminal in reintroducing the world to one of its neglected wonders, the Chicago school. In doing so Mumford rehabilitated the "drunken hack" Louis Sullivan, and explained as well the new America that erupted when real estate speculators first lofted themselves into high-rise heaven.

Mumford describes Chicago in the 1870s as "brutal and chaotic, but full of an electric vitality which, if it made the errors grosser, made its triumphs even more colossal. . . . grappling with this brawling ugliness were men equally huge, and the architects of the day were not dwarfed by the businessmen, but stood shoulder to shoulder with them, supplementing their deficiencies and sharing their strength. In this environment, an idea might be an act."

It's hard to see the sublime and the squalid in a single sweep of the eye. Yet idealism, heroism, and vision signify much less if one doesn't see the surrounding sordidness. This is Mumford's genius, that through his stereopticon eyes we see a many-dimensioned world, a world shot through with meanings, which are ignored at our peril and pain.

History is the mother lode of meaning for Mumford, no matter how contemporary his topic. His book on the American mind--also excerpted in the Mumford Reader--begins in 13th-century Europe. He attends the death throes of the medieval mind and the head-over-heels breech birth of its Renaissance successor, only to close in on the works and ways of Europe's American spawn. As they say in local histories, like father, like son:

"In the bareness of the Protestant cathedral of Geneva one has the beginnings of that hard barracks architecture which formed the stone tenements of seventeenth-century Edinburgh, set a pattern for the austere meetinghouses of New England, and finally deteriorated into the miserable shanties that line Main Street. The meagerness of the Protestant ritual began that general starvation of the spirit which finally breaks out, after long repression, in the absurd jamborees of Odd Fellows, Elks, Woodmen, and kindred fraternities."

Though Mumford wrote this more than 60 years ago, it requires minimal updating: Main Street's become the Main Drag, which terminates at the Mall. A contemporary catalog of absurd jamborees might open with that Parnassus of hyped-up hoopla, the Super Bowl. Mumford's insights are so clear that any casual reader can easily and profitably attach his meanings to the images all around us.

Then why couldn't the student of architectural history? She may be cerebellum-deep in a typical tide of History.

Capital-H History is the kind of history that people talk about when they're really talking about something else. It's the kind of history we talk about while we're stealing empires from Spain, for example, or explaining why Tom Paine and Thomas Jefferson would today be bankrolling mercenary terrorists in Central America. Capital-H History, in other words, is one of the shells in the shell game that is history.

Capital-H History is all around us, at every level at which we think, from puniest person to glorious nation. It's about self-deceptions, which closely resemble lies. Each of us, and every generation and nation, gropes through the History that "justifies" the present toward the true history that might explain it. Mumford both illuminates and illustrates the play of History, first in his writings, and now in the way his writings are being remembered. So it's hard not to think about History when Mumford's present place in it comes up for scrutiny: it was Mumford who showed History's ways to so many of us.

In his writings he took the American historical imagination where few had thought to go, making new, permanent heroes out of victims of History like Melville and Sullivan; creating new heroic symbols out of relics like the Brooklyn Bridge and the Monadnock Building; heroically clearing new pastures in which career cows might be milked by academics yet unborn, most particularly the field of architectural history, which he transformed.

So now, when students stop and think about Mumford, they're standing in the middle of questions and issues that Mumford himself created. His vision imposed order on the chaos of rationalization and denial from which history springs, creating as part of that order many important new fields. Within these fields, dogged students hound primary sources, far from the prophet who showed them their sources' spoor. Over their shoulders, old man Mumford looks naive, although his vision is what started them looking.

All history is a tangled skein of smaller stories like Mumford's, of old farts and young bucks. That's History for you, and it does no unique injustice to Lewis Mumford. Virtually every original thinker who's had a lasting effect on his society must survive such deflation of his reputation, precisely because his visions of yesterday have become today's banalities. For 40 years after his death, Emerson was, by general estimate, an eminent nincompoop. Henry Adams was seen as an obscurantist crank. Sinclair Lewis, whose American avatars in Babbitt and Elmer Gantry will forever illuminate us to ourselves, critical consensus currently deems a muddled hack.

No matter. It's not so much that the truth will out--it usually doesn't until it's too late. But as the jabber of day-to-day justifications fades into the echoes of the past, our egos and explanations weigh lighter and lighter upon our understandings, and in deepening distance the truth is ever more apparent to anyone who cares to see. This truth can be packaged up and bundled back to the present, amplified and resonant with modern meaning--Mumford does this more brilliantly than any other American, living or dead--but the reader must be willing to take delivery. As politicians know so much better than visionaries, you can lead a horse to water, you can even drown him in it, but you can't make him drink.

Though History is already flattening him, Mumford hasn't actually died. He's in his 90s now, quite retired, and it's safe to say that he'll live forever. But this is no news to Mumford, "for," as he writes, "the past never leaves us, and the future is already here."

For readers interested in a heady quaff of historical truth, The Lewis Mumford Reader is an intelligent, straight-ahead introduction to and overview of Mumford's work, which spans three-quarters of a century, 30-odd books (most still in print), several continents, and fields as disparate as geography, literary criticism, and urban planning. You'll find a more bracing plunge in Mumford's 1961 classic and triumph, The City in History, which may never be supplanted as the best guidebook ever to any city, any civilization. As you read--and walk--you'll be drinking the ambrosia of heroes and prophets, and glimpsing the world they see amidst civilization's hallucinations: haunted by the past, haunting the future, in the face of all the ideologies of death and denial, forever and triumphantly alive. That's why they're heroes: they inspire us to see their world in ours.

The Lewis Mumford Reader edited by Donald L. Miller, Pantheon Books, 1986, $14.95

The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations and Its Prospects by Lewis Mumford, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1961, $9.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Richard Laurent.

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