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The City in History ()

National Book Award: Non-Fiction

I'm puzzled by this one.  The history is pretty ordinary, the analysis pretty obvious (cities originated in order to facilitate religion, security and trade) and the conclusions, that the city is a necessary element in future human progress and must be strengthened and preserved, are simply wrong.  If Mumford was once important, he has clearly been rendered a peripheral figure by the passage of time and his vision has been proven obtuse by the march of human events.

Mumford was essentially an urbanomystic neo-Luddite.  At the same time that he opposed what he saw as the deleterious affect of mechanization on the human soul, he lauded cities as enormous receptacles for accumulated human intelligence.  But his antitechnology bias blinded him to the role that technology would play in making the city obsolete.  Computers serve as much more efficient storage centers for knowledge than all the libraries in any city ever could and the Internet has made the entire World into an interlocking community.

He also viewed cities as somehow uniquely suited to serve as the stage for human development.  I'm not sure I even follow his reasoning here, but he seemed to think that humankind benefited from the mere proximity to one another that urbanization forced and the possibility for institutional structures that this allowed.  This is pure Socialist Utopian blither.  The latter quarter of this century has seen Man in full retreat from these restrictive authoritarian institutions and from the urban hells in which they arise.  Mumford's view that benign social structures would arise organically as a unique function of urbanization, has shown itself to be disastrously wrong.  Cities have instead proven to serve as concentrations of human pathologies (crime, drugs, pollution, family disintegration, etc.).

It is perhaps best to simply ignore this whole line of argument since, not surprisingly, this intellectual saint of Urbanism moved to rural Dutchess County in 1936 and spent the rest of his life there.  As we well know, humans, given a choice,  will seldom choose the city over the country and modern technology is increasingly granting us all this freedom of choice.

This is a very muddleheaded book.  It can only have made this list because the Left still has some affinity for New York City.  It's a New Yorker reader's pick.  Skip it.


Grade: (D)


Book-related and General Links:
    -Monmouth University--Lewis Mumford web Site
   -Tonia Shoumatoff  The Last Days of Lewis Mumford
    -Critical Resources In Teaching with Technology: Technics and Civilization
    -THE SAGE OF THE SKYLINE review of Mumford bio (NY Times)
    -The Making of Lewis Mumford's Technics and Civilization (Andrew Jamison, EASST REVIEW)
    -A Cosmic and Practical Man Review of Findings and Keepings: Analects for an Autobiography
 by Lewis Mumford (NY Review of Books)
    -Review of Interpretations and Forecasts: 1922-1972 by Lewis Mumford (Roger Sale, NY Review of Books)
    -Thomas Eakins, Painter and Moralist  (LEWIS MUMFORD, NY Review of Books)
    -The Scholar as Activist J.E. Spingarn by Marshall Van Deusen (LEWIS MUMFORD, NY Review of Books)
    -Is Science Evil? Review of The Myth of the Machine: The Pentagon of Power (E.J. HOBSBAWM
    -An Urban Anarchist Review of The Economy of Cities by Jane Jacobs (RICHARD SENNETT
    -William Morris: A Universal Man (LEWIS MUMFORD, NY Review of Books)
    -Emerson Behind Barbed Wire (LEWIS MUMFORD, NY Review of Books)
    -The Premonitions of Leonardo da Vinci (LEWIS MUMFORD, NY Review of Books)
    -Mumford Versus Moses: Paradigms of Growth in Portland, Oregon Martha J. Bianco, Ph.D.
    -REVIEW: of Lewis Mumford. The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects (Constance McLaughlin Green, American Historical Review)

    -THE WRITTEN CITY Literacy and Urban Development essay by John McCrory
    -REVIEW of Cities in Civilization by Peter Hall Fast, huge and out of control (Metropolis Magazine)


I wonder if you have brought too many of your own pathologies to your read of Mumford. Specifically, it seems you have not even tried to understand him on his own terms, and unless we bring this to a read of any book --- well, we fail to do it justice. At the very least, the universal high regard in which this book is held should give you pause.

Neverminding that, to understand Mumford as forwarding the notion that city is related primarily to technology is simply wrong. City is ethical entity into which a consideration of technology is tossed.

I'll dispense with a detailed dispute of your review as I think you sum it best when you say "I'm not sure I even follow his reasoning here." To me, it seems this could summarize your entire read of Mumford. As Mortimer Adler teaches, the only apt conclusion in light of nonunderstanding is to suspend judgment. In consideration of your non-understanding of Mumford, perhaps you should have suspended judgment.

- VB

- Nov-20-2004, 15:08


I think the emotive language of this review is unhelpful. Of course, there is evidence that urban development of thr later 20th century has many problems. That doesn't mean that we would all be happier living in the country. It means that we have not managed urban development well enough. Mumford contributes a vision which, whatever its limitations, has more value than most.

- mikkyb

- Aug-01-2003, 12:25


no offense, but you're wrong. mumford's point was that technology is vital to the advancement of human culture, but the uses to which it has been put have caused a serious decay in the urban structure. if you read the last fifty pages of the book, he recommends a reevaluation of the design of the city and suburb to renew the original functions of a city, not a luddite abandonment of technology.

- jj

- Jan-07-2003, 13:20