SKETCHES FROM LIFE: The Autobiography of Lewis Mumford: The Early Years by Lewis Mumford
Kirkus Star

SKETCHES FROM LIFE: The Autobiography of Lewis Mumford: The Early Years

Email this review


Here, finally, is the first volume of the two-volume autobiography on which Mumford, now in his eighties, has been working intermittently since 1956: of immediate interest to Mumfordites, who can now see his myriad pursuits converge in Technics and Civilization (1934); prospectively, a Period Piece and a Source. In part, these are the confessions of a severe son, a late-blooming lover, a rebellious disciple. Mumford knew only his adoring improvident mother. Not until he was in his late forties did he learn (or, he says, care to learn) that he was the product of her brief liaison, as a housekeeper, with the nephew of her wealthy Jewish employer, and true love. He expects his professions of unconcern to be disbelieved; and his remark that he always had ""a sense of being apart"" is only one counter-indication. He also developed a vivid critical sense of his maternal relations--the wasted lives vs. the ""well-spent"" lives. (His discovery of New York he owes, as he's told before, to his grandfather's daily walks.) Of Beryl, the enchantress Mumford met when both were 15; of his wife Sophy, their hobbling virginity and later strains; of Catherine Bauer, the colleague with whom he had a stormy affair--Mumford writes in a mode of self-exposure that is half-clinical, half-rhapsodic, and almost wholly uninvolving, But his tug-of-wills with Patrick Geddes, the great progenitor of regional planning, is harrowingly detailed (e.g., C, eddes assigns Mumford to pack his bags, Mumford then refuses to see C, eddes off) and penetratingly analyzed. The pattern would repeat itself with Frank Lloyd Wright. In part, also, the book is a memoir of literary strivings (little magazines, the theater) and intellectual currents--post-WW I social ""Reconstruction,"" the beginning of urban and regional planning, ""the promise of an authentic American culture""--and Mumford's own indecisions: To be a man of letters or a scholar? To specialize--or synthesize? We return to ""the halcyon days of Greenwich Village""--and the heady compilation of the first (1927), vanguard American Caravan. We pioneer with the Mumfords in Sunnyside Gardens--""this enclave in the midst of an industrial desert"" where the social mix stimulates and edifies, and on a snowy night (one of the book's bell-ringing passages) ""we neighbors sallied forth on the streets . . . by turns breathless with delight and shouting with laughter. . . ."" We have Mumford's unsurpassed, and unsparing, appraisal of his friend Van Wyck Brooks: the excitement of VWB's early ""criticism of American idols,"" his post-analysis retreat into affirmation. The book is also partly--and most resoundingly--a testament. Mumford learned from Geddes, and tried to teach, ""what it means to be fully alive."" ""My sole security consisted in my willingness to remain insecure."" In the spirit of his generation, he believed in the possibility of changing the world: one might thus spend half a lifetime, the span of this volume, seeking one's true mission. This hither-and-yon book reflects the intensity and adventuresomeness of that search.

Pub Date: April 23rd, 1982
Publisher: Dial