On the recommendation of my good friend David, I have been perusing The Lewis Mumford Reader. It might be accurate to describe Lewis Mumford as a modern polymath and an apologist for the American mind. Born in 1895 his work describing the importance of American philosophers – particularly Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman and Melville – sounds remarkably relevant, even today.
One of the more interesting essays in the collection included his description of how the Renaissance ultimately led to the creation of the American Way. This line of thought started off with Mumford’s observation that the Renaissance didn’t represent a new beginning, but instead marked a start of the disintegration and fragmentation of the old. In his view, the Renaissance was not so much a “rebirth” of Western Civilization as the death knell of the medieval world.
Where the consensus considers Copernicus, Galileo, Leonardo and Newton standard bearers for an inevitable march forward Lewis Mumford offers a more nuanced view. Specifically, that the work of these and other innovators was a pitched battle against entrenched interests, in particular the Roman Catholic Church. Piling on over time, this combined force of new ideas served to finally undermine the power of outdated institutions and allow for something new to be built on a firmer foundation. That something new was most clearly expressed in the new world of the New World.
Moby Dick is undoubtedly one of the finest works of American literature and one I only came to appreciate in the last couple of years. The notion of facing a task so daunting that it can’t truly be described speaks to the idea of looking at a wilderness and seeing our place, however unlikely, in the midst of it. And not as Manifest Destiny but woven in as part of the very fabric of everything that wilderness encompasses.
While poetry has rarely found a place on my reading list, Lewis Mumford caused me to read The Leaves of Grass for the first time (another embarrassing fact). There is, indeed, a way of speaking of the American Way which is sorely missing from today’s mindless bloviating by politicians and pundits. We should be proud, not ashamed of our America.
America, by Walt Whitman
Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,
All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,
Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,
Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love,
A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother,
Chair’d in the adamant of Time.