Monday, May 3, 2010

Lewis Mumford

In speaking a couple of weeks ago with 1HP, she related her terrific buys from the Seattle Public Library sale. Besides a haul of cookbooks (books the mom likes to hear about), she related her extensive buys in history, politics, and philosophy. One of the books that she mentioned was Lewis Mumford's Technics and Civilization (1934). When she mentioned Mumford's name, I realized that my earlier list of important books contained a serious omission—Lewis Mumford. The baker's dozen is now . . . fourteen (I can't think of a fancier term).

As I intended to write some about each author, I'll start with Mumford. Mumford (1895-1979) was an American humanist. I can't easily classify Mumford because of the breath of his work: literary critic, historian of civilization, historian of technology, urbanist, and philosopher (in the broadest sense of the term). Mumford surveyed human history and summarized what he learned about how our material conditions and ideas have changed. Mumford, more than any other 20th century thinker that I can call to mind, provides a sense the possibilities of the human project.

Bibliographies from a couple of political theory classes first brought Mumford to my attention. His later work, especially The Myth of the Machine: The Pentagon of Power (1970), details a critique of contemporary life. However, Mumford would quickly note that his aim was not that of a Luddite, but machines, cities, laws— the whole human enterprise—should serve persons. Earlier Mumford addressed the American Renaissance of Emerson and Melville (he helped resurrect Melville from obscurity), the growth and development of cities, and the need for America to lead the fight—yes, fight when it came to that—for a better world. (Mumford lost his son Gettys in combat during WWII).

Works I'd recommend:

The Myth of the Machine: The Pentagon of Power for Mumford the prophet.

The City in History
(1961) for Mumford as a guide to civilization. (I read it during our family trip to Europe many years ago, and it provided a guide to some of the interesting sites we enjoyed.)