Open Daily 9:30–6:00, Monday Until 8:00

1895-1990

Lewis Mumford

By Alfred Kazin

On May 19, 1965, a newly elected member of this august and even awesome body, I was sitting on the stage not far behind Lewis Mumford, the president that year, when to considerable consternation and amazement on my part not unmixed with delight, he broke out against Lyndon Johnson’s buildup of the war in Vietnam:

I cannot artificially manufacture an atmosphere of joy for this meeting, when under the surface of our ritual a rising tide of public shame and private anger speaks louder than any words, as we contemplate the moral outrage to which our government…has committed our country.

There was applause, there were boos, it was all most irregular. Mumford incongruously said he was speaking not as president but as a “private citizen.” I remember the painter Thomas Hart Benton furiously wanting Mumford to stop, then storming out of the hall. I learned from Donald L. Miller’s biography that Mumford went home to Amenia with a fever.

That was my Lewis Mumford. In high school, encountering his first book, The Story of Utopias (1922), I somehow knew that although utopias were out-of-date and becoming a twentieth-century travesty, I felt positively elated by Mumford’s largeness of vision, his passion for a more humane destiny, his obvious links, still, to that belief in the “promise of American life” that had excited Van Wyck Brooks, Waldo Frank, Randolph Bourne, and had been crushed for many younger writers by what John Dos Passos to the end of his life called “Mr. Wilson’s War.”

In 1931, with The Brown Decades, Mumford changed my life by documenting what by instinct had long been my favorite period in American cultural history, from the Civil War to the mettlesome nineties. The book brought home to me the painters Thomas Eakins, Albert Pinkham Ryder, Winslow Homer, George Fuller; the poet Emily Dickinson; the architects Louis Sullivan, Henry Hobson Richardson, John Wellborn Root. Best of all, it  presented me with the building of Brooklyn Bridge, from boyhood an icon in my life, and the story of the great architect-engineer, John Augustus Roebling, who conceived the bridge, and his son Washington Roebling, who achieved it. As in a play by Ibsen, the father was killed by the ferry boat his bridge would supplant, and the son directed the building of the bridge though he was near-paralyzed by the bends, the caisson disease he had caught working below the East River on the foundation for the Brooklyn tower.

What thrilled me in The Brown Decades was not just Mumford’s range as student of literature, painting, architecture, engineering, technics in general, but his feeling for New York, the native city that became his essential model for so many pleasures and problems in the whole twentieth-century civilization that as increasingly troubled prophet and sage he took as his province.

It was not, I confess, the sage to whom I was drawn but the working critic of a city driven wild by its own excess, the critic of New York as a civilization who had grown out of the boy born in Flushing when it was still a Long Island village and who had grown up on the Upper West Side. Mumford was the New Yorker tried and true despite everything that another native son, Henry James, called “the terrible town.” And Mumford brought New York home to me in a way that made an ever-living drama out of the sticks and stones—the title of his book on American architecture—that I had so long passed through without actually seeing. Walking Brooklyn Bridge almost every day just after the war, when I lived on Pineapple Street in Brooklyn Heights so as to be nearer the bridge, I remembered with joy and gratitude Mumford saying:

The stone plays against the steel: the granite mass in compression; the spidery steel in tension. In this structure, the architecture of the past, massive and protective, meets the architecture of the future, light, aerial, open to sunlight, an architecture of voids rather than of solids. The Brooklyn Bridge was both a fulfillment and a prophecy. In the use of steel in tension it disclosed a great range of new possibilities…This was not the first work of engineering to be a work of art; but it was the first product of the age of coal and iron to achieve this completeness of expression…The lesson of the Brooklyn Bridge has not altogether been lost…Dams, waterworks, locks, bridges, power plants, factories—we begin to recognize these as important parts of the human environment.

Thanks to Lewis Mumford, I came to see New York all over again; constantly prowling and exploring New York in search of my future as a writer without knowing this, I identified with Mumford in his passion for the city’s opportunities. There was an obstinate idealism, merely anger as it finally became, but which in his earlier days was like the incomparable sky of New York, like no other sky as it rose above the spears and pinnacles of Wall Street when you walked down the little old street near the Battery where his beloved Melville had been born. How one rejoiced in being a New Yorker—unmindful of everything that was slowly turning Mumford bitter and that before too long would threaten one’s very existence.

I knew him briefly, inconsecutively, and never very satisfactorily. I understood the reasons for his public manner but could only sigh when in his beloved Sunnyside he handed around a cigarette box inquiring “Virginia or Turkish?” The Mumford in his work not in life was what I identified with, guessing from the first where the range of his mind would take him—to rebuild the city as a community. He described himself, because of his illegitimate birth and fatherless state, as a child of the city, and that was something that for my own reasons I understood very well. He attended Stuvyesant High School, one of the three elite New York high schools that have cradled so many Nobel Prize winners; and City College, and this in the evenings, but where the incomparable circulating library was positive Heaven. Mumford said that he threw himself upon the city for his upbringing and education. He was an indefatigable walker, seeker, sketcher of city scenes who could claim that he had lived everywhere in New York where a writer of limited means could live. He knew the old West Side of backyards surrounded by high wooden fences, where paved paths were too uneven to encourage tricycles, where there was still a “Gas House District” from Sixty-fifth Street up, and Broadway was full of vacant lots, “with visible chickens and market gardens, genuine beer gardens like Unter den Linden, and even more rural areas. Since for the first quarter of my life I lived between Central Park and Riverside Drive, wide lawns and tree-lined promenades are inseparable in my mind from the design of every great city; for what London, Paris, and Rome boasted, New York then possessed…”

Alas, the garden city of his steadfast vision, the perfectly planned city he upheld against Jane Jacobs’ harum-scarum New York that is just Greenwich Village—this, like so much in Mumford’s hopes for New York fell under the tread of ever-driving greed, corruption, impoverishment, drugs, and indifference. His increasing horror of mega-city and what he called the Pentagon of Power did not have the charm of the Mumford who was at his best in details—Technics and Civilization, The Brown Decades, his masterly columns on architecture in The New Yorker. His understandable rage was ethical, literary, prophetic, without enough commitment to politics as setting the conditions by which we live. He was a visionary to the end, wistfully comparing himself to the prophet Jonah, who in his rectitude exasperated even God. Jonah wanted Nineveh punished for not heeding him, and the Lord said to Jonah, perfectly describing New York as it is today: “Should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left…”

 

Read at the Institute Dinner Meeting on April 3, 1990.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters