IN A VERY REAL sense, Lewis Mumford has been writing his autobiography all his life. Still, a time comes to most old warriors when a summing up seems appropriate, a moment for refighting the old battles, reliving the old triumphs and defeats, and attempting to come to grips with what they were all about, finally. So it is that Mumford has now given us Sketches from Life, a review of his career on this planet from his birth in 1895, when there were still truck farms on his native Manhattan, to his retreat to the rural countryside in 1930.
It is not the most accessible of books. Mumford seems to assume--rightly, I think--that anyone interested enough in his life to purchase his memoirs will also have read deeply in his work and will possess a more than passing familiarity with the origins of his thought. The general reader, especially the younger general reader, may therefore find himself cast somewhat adrift by (to cite the most prominent example) Mumford's failure to explain just who, exactly, is the second central figure in the book after himself, the man who most powerfully influenced his outlook and after whom he named his son.
This was the brilliant Scots biologist, Patrick Geddes, one of the founders of modern sociology, a difficult and opinionated man who proved as keenly disappointing in the flesh as he was stimulating in his printed works. Alas for those who have not read deeply on the subject of city planning, Mumford gives Geddes' background and accomplishments the merest hit and miss and then passes on to their correspondence and personal relationship, leaving the uninitiated to wonder what all the Sturm und Drang was all about.
Storytelling and its craft have never been Mumford's long suit; along with his old-fashioned addiction to exclamation points, which occasionally make his prose read like Queen Victoria's diaries, his tendency to wander off without his audience has been a lifelong vice. Equally off-putting, at least to some, will be Mumford's serene confidence in the importance of his life and works. At its best, it is a trait that spares the reader a good deal of annoying false modesty; Mumford's achievements in a variety of fields are considerable, and there is no point in being coy about them. At its worst, however, this very confidence turns into a kind of willful blindness that dismisses thoughts and tastes not his own --leading him, for example, to dismiss the theories of Jane Jacobs as "half-baked" without 1) informing the reader of the nature of those theories, or 2) pausing to consider why a whole generation of new urban settlers had turned its back on his beloved garden cities and followed Jacobs back into the old neighborhoods. This sort of intellectual arrogance has been the besetting sin of the urban planning profession --a profession Mumford did much to found--and not even at his most brilliant is he free of it.
But enough. Students of American intellectual and cultural life will know exactly what Mumford is talking about, at least most of the time, and it is to these that the book is primarily addressed. Yet even the most uninitiated of readers can hardly fail to be captivated by the story of Mumford's origins and early life in a now-vanished New York, the secret of his illegitimate birth-- how he came to be half-German, half-Jewish, with an English surname and a grandfather who was the retired headwaiter at Delmonico's--and his education, such as it was, in the public schools and free city university. Although he wrote extensively on subjects ranging from art to literature to science, it is as a student of cities that Mumford is most widely known, and it is on the subject of cities, particularly New York, that he is marvellously at his best here, so much so that one wishes for much more of the same--and more too of the splendid quick sketches of the likes of Albert Jay Nock and Frank Lloyd Wright.
What remains to be said? Perhaps it is this: that Sketches is throughout a book of mourning, not merely for Mumford's lost son and departed friends, but for the whole corpus of Western civilization that began to collapse in August 1914. It was this collapse that dominated his life, as it has dominated ours, and it leads him finally to the bitter conclusion that Hitler actually won the next war through the insidious triumph of his barbaric ideology. There is much food for thought in that, provided we are lucky enough to survive long enough, as Lewis Mumford has been, to chew it over.