A Brief Biography of
Lewis Mumford (1895-1990)
by Eugene Halton
"Certainly it is not in extensive cosmonautic explorations of outer space, but by more intensive cultivation of the historic inner spaces of the human mind, that we shall recover the human heritage. In a sense, all my major books, starting with Technics and Civilization, the first volume in The Renewal of Life series, have been attempts to understand the repeated miscarriages of mind that have limited the highest achievements of every historic civilization. My maturest interpretation of the archaeological and historic evidence will be found in three successive books: The City in History, 1960, Technics and Human Development, 1967, and The Pentagon of Power, 1970."
In Mumford, Lewis. 1972. "Two Views of Technology and Man." Technology, Power, and Social Change, Charles Thrall and Jerold Starr, eds. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, pp. 1-16.
Internationally renowned for his writings on cities, architecture, technology, literature, and modern life, Lewis Mumford was called "the last of the great humanists" by Malcolm Cowley. His contributions to literary criticism, architectural criticism, American studies, the history of cities, civilization, and technology, as well as to regional planning, environmentalism, and public life in America, mark him as one of the most original voices of the twentieth-century.
Born in Flushing on October 19, 1895, Mumford lived much of his life in New York, settling in Dutchess County in 1936 with his wife Sophia, in Amenia, where he died over a half-century later, on January 26, 1990. His first book, The Story of Utopias, was published in 1922, and his last book, his autobiography, Sketches from Life, was published sixty years later in 1982.
Mumford preferred to call himself a writer, not a scholar, architectural critic, historian or philosopher. His writing ranged freely and brought him into contact with a wide variety of people, including writers, artists, city planners, architects, philosophers, historians, and archaeologists. Throughout his life, Mumford sketched and painted his surroundings, visualizing his impressions of people and places in image, as his ever-present notepad visualized them in words.
Given the range of Mumford's scholarly work, it is all the more interesting that he did not have a college degree, having had to leave City College of New York after a diagnosis of tuberculosis. But if whaling was Herman Melville's Harvard and Yale, Mannahatta, as Mumford put it, was my university, my true alma mater. From childhood on, Mumford walked, sketched, and observed New York City, and its effects can be felt throughout his writings.
He was architectural critic for The New Yorker magazine for over thirty years, and his 1961 book, The City in History, received the National Book Award. In 1923 Mumford was a cofounder with Clarence Stein, Benton MacKaye, Henry Wright and others, of the Regional Planning Association of America, which advocated limited-scale development and the region as significant for city planning.
By 1938 he was an ardent advocate for early American entry into what was emerging as World War Two, a war which claimed the life of his son Geddes in 1944, and was an early critic of nuclear weapons in 1946 and of U.S. involvement in Vietnam in 1965. In 1964 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Lewis Mumford's work underwent a continuous series of transformations as he broadened and deepened his scope. From his American studies books in the 1920s, such as The Golden Day (1926) and Herman Melville (1929), which contributed to the rediscovery of the literary transcendentalists of the 1850s and The Brown Decades (1931) which placed the architectural achievements of Henry Hobson Richardson, Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright before the public, through the four-volume "Renewal of Life" series published between 1934 and 1951, which outlined the place of technics, cities, and world-views in the development of Western Civilization, to his late studies of the emergence of civilizations and the place of communication practices in human development, he boldly denied the utilitarian view while evolving his own vision of organic humanism.
Mumford's works share a common concern with the ways that modern life as a whole, although providing possibilities for broader expression and development, simultaneously subverts those possibilities and actually ends up tending toward a diminution of purpose. He shows in lucid detail how the modern ethos released a Pandora's box of mechanical marvels which eventually threatened to absorb all human purposes into The Myth of the Machine, the title he used for his two-volume late work.
See, for example, Lewis Mumford's critique of the World Trade Center from 1970, when it was just being built.
Despite what he saw as a likelihood of catastrophic dehumanization on the horizon, he argued for the hope that the organic depths of human nature, of the fibrous structure of history, might provide the basis for a transformation of megatechnic civilization.
Mumford argued passionately for a restoration of organic human purpose in the larger scheme of things, a task requiring a human personality capable of "primacy over its biological needs and technological pressures, and able to draw freely on the compost from many previous cultures."
As he wrote in his 1946 book, Values for Survival:
"If we are to create balanced human beings, capable of entering into world-wide co-operation with all other men of good will--and that is the supreme task of our generation, and the foundation of all its other potential achievements--we must give as much weight to the arousal of the emotions and to the expression of moral and esthetic values as we now give to science, to invention, to practical organization. One without the other is impotent. And values do not come ready-made: they are achieved by a resolute attempt to square the facts of one's own experience with the historic patterns formed in the past by those who devoted their whole lives to achieving and expressing values. If we are to express the love in our own hearts, we must also understand what love meant to Socrates and Saint Francis, to Dante and Shakespeare, to Emily Dickinson and Christina Rossetti, to the explorer Shackleton and to the intrepid physicians who deliberately exposed themselves to yellow fever. These historic manifestations of love are not recorded in the day's newspaper or the current radio program: they are hidden to people who possess only fashionable minds. Virtue is not a chemical product, as Taine once described it: it is a historic product, like language and literature; and this means that if we cease to care about it, cease to cultivate it, cease to transmit its funded values, a large part of it will become meaningless, like a dead language to which we have lost the key. That, I submit, is what has happened in our own lifetime."
Mumford's 1982 autobiography was followed by a biography by Donald Miller in 1989, Lewis Mumford: A Life, New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989.
Mumford's papers are stored in Philadelphia at the Van Pelt Library of The University of Pennsylvania, and his library and watercolors and drawings are stored at the library of Monmouth University, West Long Branch, New Jersey.
"Lewis Mumford on the City." Entire series is available on National Filmboard of Canada website:
Lewis Mumford from BBC documentary Towards Tomorrow: A Utopia. 1968 copy [2:21]
The City (1939) w/ commentary by Mumford. Music by Aaron Copeland
See also my discussions of Mumford:
Eugene Halton, Chapter 12, The Last Days of Lewis Mumford, from The Great Brain Suck: And Other American Epiphanies, University of Chicago Press, 2008.
Eugene Halton, From the Axial Age to the Moral Revolution, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.
The book contains numerous discussions of Mumford's writings related to Karl Jaspers' theory of axial age, the period centered roughly around 500-600 BCE, and to John Stuart-Glennie's prior original idea that Stuart-Glennie termed in 1873 "the moral revolution," 75 years before Jaspers. Chapter 5 is titled "Jaspers and Mumford."
Eugene Halton, Chapter 4, Lewis Mumford's Organic Worldview, from Bereft of Reason. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
Books by Lewis Mumford (Listed Chronologically)
The Story of Utopias. New York: Boni and Liveright, 1922.
Sticks and Stones: A Study of American Architecture and Civilization. New York: Boni and Liveright, 1924.
The Golden Day: A Study in American Experience and Culture. New York: Harcourt Brace and Co., 1926.
Herman Melville. New York: The Literary Guild of America, 1929.
The Brown Decades: A Study of the Arts in America,1865-1895. New York: Harcourt Brace and Co., 1931.
Technics and Civilization. New York: Harcourt Brace and Co., 1934.
The Culture of Cities. New York: Harcourt Brace and Co., 1938.
Men Must Act. New York: Harcourt Brace and Co., 1939
Faith for Living. New York: Harcourt Brace and Co., 1940.
The South in Architecture. New York: Harcourt Brace and Co., 1941.
The Condition of Man. New York: Harcourt Brace and Co., 1944.
City Development: Studies in Disintegration and Renewal. New York: Harcourt Brace and Co., 1945
Values for Survival: Essays, Addresses, and Letters on Politics and Education. New York: Harcourt Brace and Co., 1946.
Green Memories: The Story of Geddes. New York: Harcourt Brace and Co., 1947.
The Conduct of Life. New York: Harcourt Brace and Co., 1951.
Art and Technics. New York: Columbia University Press, 1952
In the Name of Sanity. New York: Harcourt Brace and Co., 1954.
From the Ground Up. New York: Harcourt Brace World, 1956.
The Transformations of Man. New York: Harper and Row, 1956.
The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects. New York: Harcourt Brace and World, 1961.
The Highway and the City. New York: Harcourt Brace and World, 1963.
The Urban Prospect. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968.
The Myth of the Machine:
I, Technics and Human Development. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1967; Vol. II, The
Pentagon of Power. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,1970.
Interpretations and Forecasts 1922-1972. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972.
Findings and Keepings: Analects for an Autobiography. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975.
My Works and Days: A Personal Chronicle. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979.
Sketches from Life: The Autobiography of Lewis Mumford. New York: Dial Press, 1982.
The Lewis Mumford Reader. Donald L. Miller, ed. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986.