(Days Twenty-one through Twenty-five) Mumford Country

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.”

Lewis MumfordHistorian, 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.

CityInHistoryI 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.

Mumford Home, Amenia
Mumford Home, Amenia

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.

(Days Ten through Twelve, An Alternative) The Desert of the Imagination

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Herbert Welsh’s 1920 route, overlaid on the roughly contemporary (1939) National Geographic Society map of the “Reaches of New York City.” Click the map to explore.

A cryptic clue in Saturday’s puzzle in the Financial Times: “2D: Dry ditch (6)” The six-letter solution is “desert,” of course. A classic “double definition?” Almost but not quite, because, in this case, the rains have both left–or ditched–the desert, and left it without water–dry.  The two definitions: arid and abandoned, are the same, really.

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The Reaches of New York City (1939) Click to buy a reproduction.

This is the way Herbert Welsh went. I call it the Desert of the Imagination, because I can’t think of anything to say about this particular suburban wasteland, and I will be parting from Welsh and Dorothy Whipple, to meet them again on the Hudson River,

I admit that I learned, as I scribbled on this fascinating National Geographic map of “The Reaches of New York City” (1939), that I might yet see the Baptist Meeting House 1792, the William Bull and Sarah Wells House, the Clinton Home, or Washington’s Headquarters. These are the sites highlighted on this masterpiece of Modernist cartography: which appears to have been drawn with a compass, tracing a couple of hundred mile radius around the city. Within a couple of leagues, the New York World’s Fair was taking place in Flushing Meadows that same year–that dream of the Modernist project. When Welsh was walking from the Delaware to the Hudson River in the Twenties, Benton MacKaye and Lewis Mumford (whom we will meet later, along the Housatonic) were founding the Regional Planning Association of America (1923-1933), to promote their Modernist vision of a great city that was dependent on, and responsible for, the country surrounding it.

Their short-lived organization might have displayed this map in its office, to illustrate its purposes. The Appalachian Trial is one of the few monuments of the RPAA.

And “thinking regionally,” I see that almost every step of my walk, or Herbert Welsh’s, can be traced on this map. It’s not just the walk:  It seems I have lived my whole life in “The Reaches of New York City” (1939). Poor as we were, my mother insisted that we read the New York Times every day–even if it arrived a day late in New Boston, New Hampshire in the 60s. When my older brother needed a suit, we went to Manhattan, to Brooks Brothers, to buy it. (My clothing came from the Fat Boy’s Shop, despite the fact that I was named, if misspelled, after a rival New York clothier–Paul Stewart Statt.)

I’ll be taking the low road, the Appalachian Trail, a few miles south of here. It seems less deserted, if not less traveled by, thanks to the work of the Regional Planning Association of America. Along the high road, which is now more or less I-84, Welsh described these three days as “30 miles of desert land–financially speaking–that lay between me [in Port Jervis] and General Washington’s headquarters on the Hudson, Newburg.” No bank would cash his check. Today a “financial desert” more commonly describes some inner city, or immigrant suburb,where poor people, who have no bank accounts, are forced to pay outrageous fees to cash a check; as a “food desert” is a place where the poor can’t buy fresh fruits and vegetables, even if they have the funds.

USGS Port Jervis Quadrangle (1906), USGS Goshen Quadrangle (1908) , USGS Schunemunk Quadrangle (1902)

This is only a metaphorical desert, but these early 20th-century maps illustrate the the emptiness of the land.  Explore the old maps of Port Jervis, Goshen and Schunemunk; they mark only a few houses, and have a dun and dusty look.

Welsh’s route seems a wasteland in other ways. Places to stop were few and shabby: like Hackett’s Hotel in Goshen–“a poor apology for a hotel, surely,–untidy, out at elbows, and when we saw the condition of the bedrooms assigned to us, depressing in the extreme.”

2Q==Welsh tried to enjoy a church supper in Slate Hill, but “a window, wide open just back of me, let in an abundance of cool air upon me when I was overheated. I think cold or rheumatism, or ‘malicious animal magnetism’ must have attacked a muscle or tendon in my left leg.” Then one of his “Trot-Moc” moccasins disappeared. Dorothy Whipple nursed him back to health, but the shoe was lost forever.