Lewis Mumford, born in 1895, is a hero. He died in 1990 in a little house in Amenia, New York–a home that, for no good reason–is not an historic landmark today. Traipsing through in 1915, Herbert Welsh, in The New Gentleman of the Road, praised Amenia only as “a favorite resting place for automobilists.”
Historian, sociologist, philosopher, and literary critic, Mumford is best remembered for his study of cities and urban architecture, but was, above all else, a writer.
My attraction to the writer Mumford has a history, and that story has a theme, that can best be described as “Mumfordian.”
I’m a country boy. Grew up working on the farm and in the forests, hiking and camping for fun: rural peace and bucolic quiet came to me as second nature. But in the 60s, the metropolis felt as close as the TV set and The New York Times, and I choose to live today in a mess of a big old American city. The tension between City and Country dominated Lewis Mumford’s work–as well as my life.
I discovered Mumford when I was in college–in a used bookstore, not a classroom. The City in History (1961, and still in print) is, in its author’s words, a “book that opens with a city that was, symbolically, a world: it closes with world that has become, in many practical aspects, a city.” Here was a topic that ranged wide enough to suit my imagination. The writer Mumford was, and is, too much a generalist, a polymath, to get much academic credit. He never earned a college degree, although later in life he taught at several universities–he once called himself “a professor of things in general,” a course I would have signed up for with joy.
At Amherst College in the 70s, Mumford was wholly absent from the curriculum. I knew that Amherst was never going to be a scholarly home to me–the scholarship grant that generously financed my education proved, oddly enough, a hindrance to any academic scholarship. I was drawn to this un-credentialed and un-tenured teacher, who also seemed to take seriously such country matters–in all senses– as I had learned at home, in New Hampshire.
If you have no inkling of Lewis Mumford and his many books, I suggest you watch an evocative and nostalgic film that he created in 1939, for the New York World’s Fair. It’s called “The City,” but you will see that it nevertheless spends a lot of time in “The Country.”
Mumford was an early advocate of Regionalism, and the region where he spent most if his life was, in fact, The Reaches of New York City (1939). The City he loved; and The Country, but his distaste for Suburbia was profound:
The end product is an encapsulated life, spent more and more either in a motor car or within the cabin of darkness before a television set: soon, with a little more automation of traffic, mostly in a motor car, travelling even greater distances, under remote control, so that the one-time driver may occupy himself with a television set, having lost even the freedom of steering wheel. Every part of this life, indeed, will come through official channels and be under supervision. Untouched by human hand at one end: untouched by human spirit at the other. Those who accept this existence might as well be encased in a rocket hurtling through space, so narrow are their choices, so limited and deficient their permitted responses. Here indeed we find ‘The Lonely Crowd.’
The greatest 20th-century American urbanist made pastoral Amenia, New York, his home: this is where died in 1990. Twenty-five years on, Amenia is a suburb of New York City, as is most of the range of my great walk. Must we always rhyme, as I did when I was young, the very word “suburb” with “subdued,” “dumb” and dull?” I hope not. I hope my feet, as I walk, map out a better way.
Mumford’s biographer Donald Miller describes Leedsville, New York,
…the upstate hamlet where he had been living for thirty-six years [since 1936] with his family, in a simple wooden farmhouse tow miles or so from Amenia, an old iron-making center not much larger than Emerson’s Concord. Here, in a tiny study off his book-lined living room–a monk’s cell, really–he had done most of his best work; for while he loved the variety and velocity of the city, country living suited him better. In slow-moving Leedvsville he lived a life in line with his temperament, writing in the mornings and walking, sketching and gardening in the afternoons.
No record shows that Mumford ever even considered the 90 mile stroll to or from Manhattan. Even from Poughkeepsie, whence I’ll be coming, Amenia is a long walk. I will visit Mumford’s home on my way. The simple message of Mumfordian Regionalism is also the truth of my walk: no country without the city, no city without country. Walking, you come to know that the city is both very far from, and also very near, the countryside.