Lewis Mumford papers
Held at: University of Pennsylvania: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts [Contact Us]3420 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104-6206
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Lewis Mumford (b. 1895) is one of the foremost American intellectuals of the twentieth century. He has described himself as a "generalist," and in his distinguished career as a writer he has covered a vast territory with both depth and insight. Believing that knowledge had become too fragmentary in the modern age, he sought to build bridges across academic disciplines and to synthesize information from various specialties. Mumford's audience was the educated layman, and in his numerous writings, which included over two dozen books and nearly one thousand articles and book reviews, he challenged his public to think in new ways. As a critic of American literature, art, and architecture, Mumford informed his readership about new developments in Europe, while at the same time he uncovered buried riches from the nation's past. The city in all of its historical, sociological, and technological aspects occupied a special place in his vision of man's past and future potential. While he is primarily remembered for his writings in these areas, the extraordinary catholicity of Mumford's intellectual interests also included the history of religious and philosophical thought, the pre- and post-World War II political scene, and the state of American education.
Mumford was born in 1895 in Flushing, New York. He was raised by his mother Elvina on the Upper West Side of New York, and with the absence of his father, his stepgrandfather Charles Graessel played a major role in the boy's early development. Mumford and Graessel took long walks around the city together, and these excursions proved to be a major stimulus of his interest in the built environment. A model elementary school student, Mumford went on to attend New York's prestigious Stuyvesant High School, where he was graduated in the spring of 1912. He began his undergraduate studies in the evening session of the City College of New York the following autumn, but upon transferring to the day session, he became increasingly frustrated with the rigid requirements. Mumford felt that his intellectual curiosity was being stifled, and he quickly dropped out of the program. Although he would subsequently take courses at Columbia University, New York University, the New School for Social Research, and again at the City College evening session, Mumford never acquired an undergraduate degree. Mumford was disturbed by his perception that academia had become too specialized, and during his later teaching career, he sought to break down these barriers. He has taught at Dartmouth College (1929-1935), Stanford University (1942-1944), and the University of Pennsylvania (1951-1956 and 1959-1961), among other schools. Although he has been besieged with offers of honorary degrees, Mumford has accepted only two: an L.L.D. from the University of Edinburgh in 1965 and a Dr. Arch. from the University of Rome in 1967.
While studying biology at City College, Mumford first came across the writings of the Scottish biologist, sociologist, and town planner Sir Patrick Geddes (1854-1932). The two met only twice, but they corresponded for over a dozen years until the elder man's death. Mumford found an intellectual role model in Geddes, who managed to integrate his multitudinous interests into an academic and consulting career that carried him from the United Kingdom to France, Palestine, Cyprus, India, and the United States. Geddes prescribed an interdisciplinary method of study that was loosely based upon his evolutionary studies in biology. According to this method, which he called "regional survey," it is only by studying a region's history, topography, economy, and sociology that a viable plan for its future could be determined. Mumford immediately set out exploring his local environment in and around the New York region, which awakened his latent interest in architecture and city planning. In addition, he began to submit articles to various periodicals in which he expounded the Scotsman's methodology and point of view. Mumford's intellectual debt to Geddes is most apparent in his first book, The Story of Utopias (New York, 1922). This broad survey of utopian thought that ranged from Plato to H.G. Wells concluded with a call for the renewal of communities on a regional basis. He would expand upon many of these themes in the four-volume "Renewal of Life" series, which he began writing in the 1930s.
Mumford's persistence in trying to enter the extremely competitive New York publishing community eventually paid off in the form of his first literary post, that of associate editor at the fortnightly Dial. Unfortunately for the young journalist, the position was terminated upon the magazine's reorganization seven months later. He was not unemployed for long, however, since through Geddes, Mumford had been put in touch with Victor Branford, president of the London-based Sociological Society. Hearing of the aspiring writer's predicament, Branford invited Mumford to England to become acting editor of the Society's organ, The Sociological Review. Although Mumford stayed in the position for only a few months, it lent credence to his already fast-growing list of publishing accomplishments. At the same time, it brought him into contact with the leading sociological thinkers and town planners of the post-war generation, including S.D. Adshead and Raymond Unwin. Mumford returned to the United States in the fall of 1920, and the following year he married one of his former Dial colleagues, Sophia Wittenberg. Their first-born child, a son, was named Geddes in honor of Mumford's mentor. The Mumfords' daughter, Alison, was born in 1935.
During the 1920s, Mumford wrote for numerous journals; he contributed articles and reviewed books on a vast array of topics, including the literary and visual arts, sociology, politics, and philosophy. For a few of the same journals Mumford assumed the post of critic-at-large, reviewing plays, art exhibitions, and architecture with equal facility. Mumford's byline was associated most frequently with The Freeman, The New Republic, The American Mercury, and the Journal of the American Institute of Architects, but after 1931 he became most closely identified as a journalist with The New Yorker. His witty and often irreverent writing style found immediate favor with the magazine's editor Harold Ross, and he was soon assigned to regular departments. From 1931 to 1963, Mumford was The New Yorker's architectural critic, writing under the heading "The Sky Line." The column reached a sophisticated, general audience in addition to architects and planners, and Mumford consistently used it as a forum to promote humanistic values over the purely technological in modern design. From 1932 to 1937 he held the additional post of art critic for The New Yorker, for which he wrote reviews of museum exhibitions and gallery shows on an almost weekly basis. In addition, two of Mumford's earliest and most successful attempts at autobiography first appeared in the magazine under the titles of "A New York Childhood" and "A New York Adolescence."
Mumford's literary career was quickly established through an early string of publishing successes following The Story of Utopias. His next four books were thematically related to the rediscovery of the American past, an historical inquiry which he shared with his literary colleagues Van Wyck Brooks and Waldo Frank. Brooks had initiated this process of rediscovery, which he called the "usable past," and he exerted a particularly strong influence on Mumford at this stage of his writing career. Sticks and Stones (New York, 1924) was a history of American architecture presented from a cultural rather than a purely stylistic standpoint. Mumford used much the same historiographic approach in his complementary study of American literature titled The Golden Day (New York, 1926). He particularly praised the writers of the mid-nineteenth centuryMelville, Hawthorne, Emerson, Whitman, and Thoreaufor their ability to break free from the confines of their European heritage and to create something wholly original and American. Out of this study developed his fourth book and first biography, Herman Melville (New York, 1929). Mumford's fascination with Melville's troubled and enigmatic personality coincided with a particularly bleak period of his own personal life, and the experience of writing the book was as cathartic to him as it was self-illuminating.
Mumford pushed the literary analysis he had begun in The Golden Day into the latter half of the nineteenth century and synthesized it with parallel studies of art, architecture, landscape architecture, and engineering in his book The Brown Decades (New York, 1931). He expanded the literary "pantheon" he had created in The Golden Day to include leading figures from the other arts, such as John and Washington Roebling, Frederick Law Olmsted, H.H. Richardson, and Albert Pinkham Ryder. In identifying these nineteenth-century figures, Mumford thought that he had discovered the true origins of American culture, and he hoped that his revelation would spur his contemporaries on to greater creative heights in the twentieth century.
"The Renewal of Life" series was Mumford's attempt to chronicle the history of western civilization and to chart a course for its future survival. The writing of the series occupied Mumford for almost twenty years, beginning with the first volume, Technics and Civilization (New York, 1934). This survey of the history of technology was the most comprehensive analysis of the subject in English to date. In the book Mumford concluded that only man's complete mastery over the machine and a reorientation of the capitalist system that fueled it could arrest the destructive proclivities of modern technology. The Culture of Cities (New York, 1938), volume two of the series, applied the same analysis to urban history, from the medieval synthesis to the contemporary state of disintegration on the eve of World War II. Although Mumford's ideas on cities had been initially influenced by Geddes, he had been a member of the Regional Planning Association of America (RPAA) since the 1920s and promoted the progressive views of this group of architects in print. In the book's conclusion, he reiterated his call for regional cities first expressed in The Story of Utopias, but by this time it had been answered in part by such RPAA-influenced communities as Sunnyside, Queens and Radburn, New Jersey. The book catapulted Mumford into prominence as an international authority on city planning.
Crossing over from the physical world to the world of ideas, Mumford examined the parallel histories of religion, philosophy, and politics in volume three of "The Renewal of Life" series, The Condition of Man (New York, 1944). The intervening catastrophe of World War II increased the urgency of Mumford's appeal for a more organic way of life, in which man was in harmony with his neighbors and his environment. Mumford actively lobbied for America's involvement in the war and wrote two political tracts in this vein: Men Must Act (New York, 1939) and Faith for Living (New York, 1940). His son, however, was killed during the conflict, and this event depleted much of Mumford's optimism for the future of civilization. A memoir of his son Geddes's life, Green Memories (New York, 1947), is as much an autobiographical work as it is a universal story of a troubled adolescent's coming-of-age. Mumford concluded the "Renewal of Life Series" with The Conduct of Life (New York, 1951), a title chosen for its deliberate references to two of his favorite philosophers: Ralph Waldo Emerson and Benedetto Croce. While essentially a summary of the previous volumes, the book was Mumford's expansive, if somewhat rigid, prescription for the ills of modern society. His "renewal" involved a transformation at the individual level, and its ultimate goal was the attainment of a physically, mentally, and spiritually "balanced" personality.
The 1950s were a time of reflection and renewal for Mumford himself. With the development and deployment of the atomic bomb at the end of World War II, Mumford saw his worst fears about technology realized. One of the earliest proponents of a nuclear freeze, he came out strongly against atomic weapons in numerous articles and in his book, In the Name of Sanity (New York, 1954). The decline of the environment, both built and natural, was another cause for Mumford's concern. His "Sky Line" columns for The New Yorker during this period addressed the increasing congestion, pollution, and disintegration of the world's cities in general and New York City in particular. While he saw reason for optimism in the series of British "New Towns" built after the war, he was increasingly pessimistic about the ability of modern architecture and planning to provide workable solutions. He maintained his interest in architectural history and education as well: he edited Roots of Contemporary American Architecture (New York, 1952), a collection of writings that established native origins for the modern movement. The book has become a standard textbook in architectural schools. During this period Mumford taught in the city planning department at the University of Pennsylvania, where he infused the curriculum with his humanistic view of architecture and history. At the same time, he began to rethink his earlier views on urban history.
The City in History (New York, 1961) was Mumford's magnum opus, for which he was given the National Book Award (1962). While essentially an updating of The Culture of Cities, the book expanded his analysis of urban history to the very dawn of civilization. Mumford made extensive use of archaeological data in this study to argue that it was the female-oriented container rather than the male-oriented tool that was responsible for civilization's advancement. As in the earlier book, Mumford saw the medieval period as a time of great synthesis and harmony that had gradually been lost. Although he believed in the enduring structure of the city, the intervening decades had created vastly more complex problems for modern man to solve, including pollution, overpopulation, and the threat of nuclear annihilation. The two-volume Myth of the Machine (Technics and Human Development, New York, 1967, and The Pentagon of Power, New York, 1970) dealt with many of the same issues from a technological viewpoint, but it was far more ominous in its conclusions. Mumford argued that the ancient, human-powered megamachine had its modern counterpart in the technologically oriented economy of the post-war United States. Furthermore, he viewed scientists and politicians as co-conspirators in this quest for power, and unless stopped in their mission, they would render life meaningless. Once again, Mumford called for inner transformation, although by this time, he was almost certain that no one was listening.
Mumford's final works were largely autobiographical in nature, as he came to terms with his own place in history. Interpretations and Forecasts (New York, 1973), Findings and Keepings (New York, 1975), Architecture as a Home for Man (New York 1975), and My Works and Days (New York, 1979) excerpted Mumford's varied literary output of over a half-century. For more than twenty years he labored over the manuscript of his autobiography, which proved to be the most difficult, if not the most ambitious, of his many books. Sketches from Life (New York, 1982) covers only the first half of Mumford's life, but it provides a multi-faceted insight into the worlds of American letters, architecture, and politics, in addition to his tumultuous personal relationships. Retired from active writing, Mumford currently lives with his wife Sophia in Leedsville, New York, near Amenia.
- Mumford, Lewis, 1895-
- Mumford, Sophia Wittenberg, 1899-1997.
The Lewis Mumford papers primarily document Mumford's professional life as writer, critic, and teacher over a period of approximately seventy years, while at the same time, they offer a rare and intimate glimpse of this extremely private man. Mumford's prolific literary output and extensive correspondence predominate in the 197 boxes that comprise the Papers. As such, the collection offers not only a unique but also a remarkably comprehensive approach to scholarship on Lewis Mumford, his fields of interest, and his times.
Lewis and Sophia Mumford began to deposit their papers at the University of Pennsylvania in 1966, when Robert E. Spiller, a Penn faculty member, was editing The Van Wyck Brooks-Lewis Mumford Letters. The University of Pennsylvania would have seemed an appropriate repository for the collection for other reasons: Mumford had spent many of the academic semesters between 1951 and 1961 as a visiting professor at Penn, and the University's Van Pelt Library had also acquired the papers of of Brooks and Waldo Frank, two of Mumford's intellectual peers.
In general, the Mumfords saved all letters that were written to them and all drafts and notes related to Lewis's writings. Throughout his adult life Lewis would even keep copies on a highly selective basis of letters that he wrote to others. Some exceptions and limitations do apply, however, regarding the extensive scope of the manuscript collection. The Mumfords did weed "seemingly unimportant" material during the twenty-two year period of transfer to the University. Lewis felt that modern scholarship depended too much upon interpretation of the flotsam and jetsam of a writer's life; there was also the practical consideration of the sheer bulk of the collection. In a conversation in June 1989, Sophia said that she has gradually come around to the view that seemingly insignificant items might have value for future research which we cannot anticipate now. Consequently, the papers sent to the University of Pennsylvania more recently reflect her changed attitude. Nonetheless, the Lewis Mumford Papers, in all their great quantity, do not contain relatively less significant research materials such as cancelled checks and receipts for household expenses: they represent an archive of philosophical and social investigation and commentary, not a record of the minutia of a family's daily life.
Some gaps in the collection, nevertheless, remain. In general, it is not possible to know whether certain materials were destroyed by the Mumfords in recent years, or if they were lost or destroyed in the past. Among the missing materials are drafts and notes for Men Must Act, Faith for Living, and Green Memories. Many of the gaps, however, are partially compensated for in other parts of the collection. For example, there are no working materials for the Lewis Mumford on the City film series in the Lewis Mumford Papers, but the extensive correspondence from the producers, the National Film Board of Canada, provides important information and background on the project. Given the size and complexity of the collection, the thorough researcher should examine the container list and the indexes to correspondents carefully.
Care was taken in processing the collection not to do violence to the Mumfords' own arrangement of the papers, while at the same time making the collection as accessible as possible. In sorting, priority was always given to Mumford's most recent use of materials. Because of the length and diversity of his writing career, he at times found it necessary to remove certain items, such as notes, partial typescripts, or articles, from their original files for use in later projects. For instance, the notes for a 1924-1925 New School lecture series are filed with materials for Sticks and Stones, for which they were later used.
Re-use of research materials is particularly evident in items from The Culture of Cities, which were used later for work on The City in History. Many pieces of early writing were utilized in compiling Interpretations and Forecasts (1973); Findings and Keepings (1975); My Works and Days (1979); Sketches from Life (1982); and several uncompleted volumes of autobiography or miscellany begun in the 1970s. For some of these late works, no typescripts exist, only files of early writings. Fortunately, the Mumfords usually made notations, often in red ink, on items removed from their original files. Sometimes they refiled what had been moved: the notations identify such items. In some cases, Mumford mixed working materials for more than one project together in such a way that attempting to separate them would destroy some of their research value. Such cases are filed in the most logical possible fashion and are noted in the container list. Many materials are inscribed with dates, and while these are usually accurate, some inadvertant errors may have been made by the Mumfords.
The present arrangement of the papers depends heavily upon Mumford's own identification of the materials, generally in the form of notes on the items themselves or on the folders which originally housed them. At times, unfortunately, the notes are cryptic or incomplete. The segments of the collection that arrived at the Rare Book and Manuscript Library in the 1960s were processed in a way which did not always adequately document the sources of identifications. In the present container list quotation marks always indicate Mumford's own identifying words.
In the first two (and largest) series: Correspondence: Letters to Lewis Mumford and Correspondence: Letters from Lewis Mumford, the files are arranged alphabetically by correspondent and then chronologically within the folders. Otherwise, the guiding principle for arranging the papers has been to establish a chronological order within the respective series. Materials relating to Mumford's books and pamphlets, for example, are arranged chronologically from project to project. Within any given work, however, proofs are filed first, followed by typescripts, then notes, research materials, and finally reviews. There are a few exceptions to chronological order, consisting mainly of small, logical groups of items which would have to be broken up to be interfiled chronologically within their series.
In processing the Lewis Mumford Papers and in preparing this register, it has been assumed that researchers will make use of Elmer S. Newman's 1971 Lewis Mumford: A Bibliography 1914-1970 and its update prepared by Jane Morley for the University of Pennsylvania Press. The additions to Newman's 1971 publication include Mumford's work after 1970; translations and reprints of articles; and a group of early articles in The Dial and The Freeman, which were apparently overlooked when Mumford made his personal files available to Newman. Morley's bibliography will provide an index by title of Mumford's books, pamphlets, and articles; the year of publication will be the guide to finding that piece within this container list. In other words, although book and pamphlet titles are clearly identified in the container list, there is no listing by title of all articles written by Mumford in the Papers: the articles were simply placed in folders and arranged and identified by year of publication or by year of composition, if unpublished.
Those who use the Mumford Papers should keep in mind the important role played by Sophia Wittenberg Mumford in her husband's career. She has been his only real assistant throughout their life together (they were married in 1921). She brought to this work her intellectual capabilities and her professional experience as an editor for The Dial. Sophia prepared typescripts from Lewis's drafts, proofread, and sometimes conducted correspondence on his behalf. Items in the collection may contain Sophia's notations, usually initialed "SWM." She also actively shared many of her husband's civic and political interests. The collection contains letters to and from Sophia, concerning both Lewis's work and some of her own activities. Her letters are interfiled with those of Lewis, as they had been in the Mumfords' own files. There are also several folders of material from Sophia's work with the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies (1940-1941).
Mumford was a prolific and regular correspondent, for whom letters were the primary means of communicating with his friends and colleagues throughout his career. His personal letters and, to a certain extent, even his business correspondence contain many of his most candid and profound observations on current events, contemporary arts and literature, and his own works-in-progress. Mumford's correspondents, in turn, offered him a great deal of constructive criticism and moral support in his writing endeavors. They include well-known writers and publishers such as Van Wyck Brooks, Waldo Frank, and Harold Ross; modern artists and architects such as Naum Gabo, Clarence Stein, and Frank Lloyd Wright; and contemporary philosophers and intellectuals such as Sir Patrick Geddes, Erich Fromm, and Reinhold Niebuhr.
In working on various autobiographical projects, Mumford obtained some of his own letters back from a number of correspondents. He also received copies of his letters to Van Wyck Brooks and David Liebovitz when the correspondence was being prepared for publication in book form, as well as copies of his letters from Sir Patrick Geddes when he was writing his autobiography. The Rare Book and Manuscript Library has obtained some photocopies of other Mumford letters from various repositories and has received groups of original and photocopied letters as gifts from individuals. In the mid-1980s, under increasing financial strain, the Mumfords sold letters from their "Persons of Note" file through James Lowe Autographs, Ltd., of London. The Rare Book and Manuscript Library was able to photocopy these letters before they were sold. All photocopies of letters which were sold, or which were made from originals held elsewhere, are so marked. There are a very few photocopies of unknown origin in the correspondence series. When letters were found with other manuscript materials, they were replaced with photocopies and the originals filed with correspondence.
The Correspondence Series are rather strict files of letters and other items which were definitely correspondence. Other kinds of materials publishers' Royalty Statements, for exampleare filed elsewhere in the collection. A very high percentage of the correspondence is connected with Mumford's career. Although many of the letters are from friends, most relate in some way to Mumford's work and thought. There is very little family material, except for the Lewis/Sophia correspondence.
The better part of Lewis Mumford's art work, in terms of quality and quantity, is on extended loan to Monmouth College in West Long Branch, New Jersey. The Rare Book and Manuscript Library holds some eighty small works, which arrived as part of the Mumford Papers. Monmouth College has also arranged to purchase Mumford's personal library, although at this time the books have not actually been transferred to New Jersey.
Gift of Lewis and Sophia Mumford, 1966-1988.
- University of Pennsylvania: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts
- Finding Aid Author
- Ellen Slack
- Finding Aid Date
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