Lewis Mumford; An autobiography

The vacant lots have filled, the cemeteries are crowded over, and the placid countryside of Whitman's Mannahattam has gone the way of the open-air trolley cars that transported the young Lewis Mumford to Brooklyn.

An urban life without night sticks or fear and farms still lingering above 125th Street belong to the past. But the self-described ''lone wolf,'' ''child of the city,'' and ''ungowned philosopher'' who grew up in their midst has endured.

Lewis Mumford is the conscience of the architectural community; the living link to design experiment of more venturesome, more humane times; the moralist, historian, and critic par excellence.

Now, with ''Sketches From Life'' (Dial Press, $19.95), he is a superb scribe of himself and his surroundings.

The first volume of Mumford's autobiography is more and less than the man, as are all works of Mumford. Just the same, the eloquence, enthusiasms, and insights of this peripatetic scholar who calls himself a ''displaced person'' remain firm at 86.

The decades of creativity launched by ''The Story of Utopias,'' and honored by the continued printing of the majority of his more than two dozen works of architectural and social history, continue.

We have known Mumford's professional sense of place; its personal origins, here revealed, are marked by the same integrity and freshness that inspired his observations of now famous architects Henry Hobson Richardson and Frederick Law Olmsted.

Rare among those who live the life of the mind, Mumford has the gift of sight. His autobiography is lodged, not only in the intellect, nor founded only on the human relations which he so deftly limns, but encased in his surroundings.

Mumford's most intimate moments are fixed in situ, as it were. He describes his emergence from adolescence through a vision on the Brooklyn Bridge, remembers his marriage proposal by its setting, even feels that the ''infantine prisons'' of the old schoolhouse inspired the move to progressive education. His own learning process is cast as entering the ''door of the House of Knowledge.''

Looking for ''some concrete symbol of the literary life of the twenties,'' he inevitably finds it centered on a single street -- 13th Street -- its style set by ''the fluted wooden Doric columns of the white-porticoed church and Greek Revival style. The street, he writes, ''still had character.''

Character. An archaic word, yet essential -- quintessential -- Mumford.

It is for the ''fine edge and outline we call character'' that Mumford praises such colleagues as Benton MacKaye, founder of the Appalachian Trail, or lauds cities of substance.

And, of course, it is his own ''edge and outline,'' his own distinctive profile -- character -- that propelled Mumford to write an autobiography at all.

The personal reserve of the man and the abstractness of his work do not prepare you for the passion in his narrative nor the profundity of his observations.

Whether shown by the benign impress of his headwaiter/grandfather's walks through the city or his mixed recollections of Irish Sultana crackers and the ''putrid smell of bedbug poisons'' in the home of his Irish nurse, the roots of his sense of the city are human.

By revealing the details of his intellectual and emotional development and by disclosing his own discovery in middle age that he was an illegitimate child, ''Sketches From Life'' brings a new Mumford. If he comes to us, in his words, with an ''amused, supercilious, quizzical'' public face, we can understand the origin of the mask become reality.

Yet the mask painted by the author in both verbal and charcoal sketches here is not so much stripped bare as fleshed out: Personal encounters combine artfully with a narrative on his education, his writing for The Dial and The New Republic, his lectures-become-architectural books.

Fame, as Ben Hecht wrote in ''A Child of the Century,'' is a dubious spokesman. ''Famous people are usually too sensitive of their fame to write anything of themselves that may jeopardize it, such as that they are bored, frightened, bewildered, or hollow as the drums that acclaimed them.''

Mumford, a chief of the turn of the century in his mix of rural and urban life, his sense of the built environment as a whole system beyond his own ego, does not fall into Hecht's pitfall of writing a book full of tidings about his pedestal, how modestly he occupies it, or how many other people he knew on pedestals.

When Mumford writes of biologist and town planner Patrick Geddes, architect William Blake Bigelow, or, fascinatingly, about Frank Lloyd Wright, it is the same as of quarry workers in Bethel, Vt.: They form a part of his self-education , a way of finding the source for his metier and meaning in life.

In some ways, Mumford dismissed that metier. For elegance of architectural language he has no peer in this time or place. No one else can write so well about the Brooklyn Bridge's ''cables stretched like a bowstring to shoot a steel arrow into our own age'' or ''towering urbanoid anthills.''

Yet Mumford has aimed beyond graceful and pointed urban design analysis to scan the millenniums, to be social critic and moralist. And the reader in search of the rich lode behind his writing on cities, streets, buildings, and their activators must accept nuggets here.

The brilliance of Mumford's treatise on the machine, on technics, on the city; his inveighing on ''technological monkeyshines'' passed off as architecture; his skill in literary analysis; the achievement of ''Sticks and Stone, The City in History''; or three decades of architectural criticism in The New Yorker -- all these show the best in the man, and he discloses too little of them.

Notes on the Regional Planning Association which he helped found, the innovative housing at Sunnyside Garden where he and his family lived for 11 years, and his work for the Journal of the American Institute of Architects are tantalizingly slim, compared with the rambling account of his stay in England.

In his autobiography as in his life, Mumford's far-reaching intellectual aspirations and pessimistic moral outlook bring him both success and failure -- failure because it is our Joshuas, not our Jeremiahs, who bring society's walls tumbling down; success because his reach for ethical suasion gave him access to the centuries.

As recently as this spring, it allowed him to utter a clarion call for nuclear disarmament at the Harvard Conference on the International Style of Architecture.Happily for us, all this is eloquently, elegantly -- ambivalently -- apparent in ''Sketches From Life.''

''I and mine do not convince by argument,'' Mumford twice quotes Whitman as saying. ''We convince by our presence.'' That duality is here, too. Both Mumford's argument and a sense of his regal presence are translated and transformed in his work.

Again, it is no small gift as this architectural humanist rounds his ninth decade.

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