Old Wisdom for Perilous Times

So writes Aaron Sachs in his new book, Up From the Depths. It would be easy to assume that Sachs here refers to the generation of people coming of age during the early twenty-first century. A pandemic, racial and religious bigotry, threats to liberal democracy from both the right and the left, and an uncertain economy make for dark times indeed. However, Sachs refers to Lewis Mumford’s generation—the disillusioned Americans who had come of age a century earlier and who had fought in World War I. We often forget that seemingly “unprecedented” challenges have been experienced before. The dizzying pace of change and the discontinuity that characterize modernity can leave us unmoored, feeling “as though we have been completely cut off from the wisdom of history.”   

Luckily, for Mumford, history—the centennial of Herman Melville’s birth—offered him a lifeboat when he returned from World War I in 1919. Melville’s writings had been overlooked during the last part of the nineteenth century, but a Melville revival was on the horizon and Mumford had the vision to recognize the importance of Melville’s work. Writing a biography of a man who also struggled against the currents of modernity was emotionally and intellectually taxing to Mumford, but Melville’s influence on Mumford’s thought was profound. “It was Melville, more than any other intellectual or artistic ancestor, who helped him to cope with his own overwhelmedness and then develop his own vision.” Now, another century later, Up From the Depths promises that Melville and Mumford will help us to cope with our own sense of overwhelmedness.

At just twenty-one years old Melville made his way to New Bedford, Massachusetts, the affluent center of the whaling industry. Melville was from a once prominent family with proud Revolutionary roots and had lived in western Massachusetts and Albany, New York during his early years. When his family fell on hard times, Melville decided to seek his fortune at sea. In his biography of Melville, Mumford writes, “we do not really pick him up again until he is in the South Seas, sailing towards the line, one of a dissatisfied company on a harsh, uncomfortable ship, under a brutal master.” Melville escaped the harsh conditions on the ship and stayed among the Typee, “whose very name meant eater of men” for four months. 

Although he was treated well by the Typee and was seduced by the more leisurely culture, the need for medical treatment made it necessary for Melville to move on. By the time Melville returned to the United States four years later he had spent time on three whaling ships under three very different captains. Melville “had run the gauntlet of every sort of human experience except the normal and easy and domestic one promised to him by birth and parentage… there [was] nothing in Melville’s training or temperament” that would move him to become a school teacher or lawyer, for example. It was just as clear that “he must become a writer.” Whaling ships and faraway lands inspired Melville’s fiction. By the time that he published Moby-Dick in 1851, Melville had already established his reputation with works such as Typee and White Jacket.  

Sachs begins his treatment of Melville’s best-known and most enduring work by noting that interweaving is “at the heart of Melville’s purpose.” He writes that “The book threads together not just fiction and fact, not just past and present, not just storms and calms, but fate and free will, submission and defiance, culture and nature, doubt and faith, ‘civilization’ and ‘savagery,’ grief and good cheer, chaos and order, land and sea, darkness and light.” Critics have not always appreciated Melville’s complexity. Many were puzzled by the long passages on cetology—diversions from Ahab’s maniacal quest. “Mumford, at least, would always be grateful. Moby Dick, for him, was a fully modernist questioning of modernity. It looked backward and forward; it embraced science but also critiqued science; it told a classic adventure story but interrupted itself to take stock of the writer’s inner world.”  

Although Mumford did not adopt Melville’s metaphor of weaving, he did agree that the human condition is not simple, nor is history linear. Mumford concludes his biography, “Melville’s work, taken as a whole, expresses that tragic sense of life which has always attended the highest triumphs of the race, at the moments of completest master and fulfillment.”

Whale oil was the fuel and lubricant to much of early nineteenth-century American life. But petroleum oil was discovered in Pennsylvania late in the 1850s, making it unnecessary to hunt the great beasts. When Mumford went to sea during World War I, a century after Melville’s birth, he did so on a large steel battleship powered by petroleum. The whaling ship was a relic of a bygone age. Mumford did not see direct action, but, like Melville, he was shaped by his time at sea. Mumford “resented the crushing tedium of his service, despised the military’s dependence on hierarchy and authority.” Eventually,

Mumford reinterpreted his stint in the navy as necessary experience: here were “the raw realities of everyday existence” and also “essential insights into the miscarriages of life,” which he explicitly connected to the kinds of insights he gained by reading Melville. Indeed, he came to suspect that it was precisely his military service that had allowed him ‘to get under Herman Melville’s skin.”

And, like Melville, Mumford “must become a writer.”  

Mumford, however, did not write fiction. Instead, he is remembered for his histories of cities and the environment, as well as his commentary on civilization. Although “Mumford’s is no longer a household name…he was one of the foremost public intellectuals in the United States” by the middle of the twentieth century. Sachs tells his readers, “Your attitude toward ecology, modern architecture, and even social media has been probably been shaped by Mumford’s eerily prescient writings.” Malcolm Cawley called Lewis Mumford “the last of the great humanists.” At the start of a new century, Sachs asserts that “It is time for a Mumford Revival.”  

The most compelling argument for a Mumford revival is the necessary correction to our flawed understanding of history and human agency that Mumford offered. Mumford was among the first public intellectuals to recognize the threat of fascism during the 1930s. By 1939 he wrote Men Must Act, imploring his fellow Americans to confront the threat. Sachs describes the book as “an Ahab-like defense.” By 1940, Mumford had returned to an Ishmael disposition “a somewhat removed observer and interpreter.” Mumford’s subsequent book, Faith for Living, is “a testament for survivors if ever they reach the shore.”  

The great insight to be revived from Faith for Living is Mumford’s caution about liberalism. It distorts our understanding of the past: “Its [liberalism’s] sense of time is keener for the future than for the past, partly because it regards the past as stupid and bad, and the future as hopeful, intelligent, and good.” Far from being stupid or bad, the past offers wisdom. The dark times that we are experiencing nearly a century after Mumford began his writing career have been experienced by previous generations, including Mumford’s and Melville’s. It is by seeking the wisdom of the past that human beings may bring about a renewal: “I but remind the reader of those durable ideals of life which in the past have kept humanity going during its most anguished and shattered moments. Forgetfulness of these ideals has helped to bring the very catastrophe we must now live through; remembrance of them may help us to survive it.”  

The Mumford revival would be enough to recommend Up From the Depths. It is “the art of rediscovery” that distinguishes Sachs’s treatment of Mumford and Melville’s influence on him from other works of history. Rediscovery, Sachs explains, “requires frequent pauses and head-turnings, a willingness to flash back and forth in time, an openness to the uncanny.” Sachs’s book is a stunning example of the art of rediscovery.  

Up from the Depths is “a story of two modern wanderers, convinced of their aloneness but still looking for connection.” Sachs tells their story beginning in 1927, the year that Mumford began work on his biography of Melville. The chapters alternate between Mumford’s biography and Melville’s. Despite the differences between Herman Melville and Lewis Mumford that were the consequence of the decades that separated the two authors, their similarities were profound. Both authors met uneven success and often felt neglected by their contemporaries. Both were married and had children. Both suffered the death of a child. Both experienced estrangement and dissatisfaction in their marriages though their affection for their wives lasted until their final days.

Sachs weaves their personal similarities and their intellectual sympathies together into one story, even as he moves quickly between the lives of the two men, and “the jump cuts between the nineteenth century and the twentieth, are meant especially to capture the continuity that persists in the face of undeniable change, to provide the visceral experience of suddenly hearing history’s uncanny echoes.” Sachs’s “willingness to flash back and forth in time” leaves readers with a subtle, poignant, understanding of the relationship between the past, present, and future. Sachs also offers his readers a tether for those who feel unmoored and alone as a result of modernity. By telling “the story of [these] two modern wanderers” Sachs shows us the possibility of connection despite the years and the changing circumstances that separate them.  

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