Guru in search of a disciple

Lewis Mumford and Patrick Geddes
November 17, 1995

The American Lewis Mumford came across the writings of the Scot Patrick Geddes (including his City Development) in 1914, at the age of 18, and he described Geddes's Cities in Evolution, published the following year, as the book that "capped my educational climax" and mapped his future career. In 1917 he first wrote to his hero, who was by then in his sixties. The correspondence between these two urbanist pioneers covers the 17 years until the older man's death in 1932.

The letters are complemented by an excellent introduction from the editor, Frank G. Novak, and three appendices by Mumford on his relationship with Geddes. These are a note on their second meeting, in Edinburgh in 1925; an article, "The Disciple's Rebellion", published in Encounter more than 30 years after Geddes's death; and "The Geddes Gambit", an even later critical assessment, hitherto deliberately unpublished. Neither man neatly fitted the conventional academic - or any other - model. Both described themselves as sociologists but the sense was nothing like that in use today. Their version of the subject took a comprehensive, holistic view of man in society, embracing human ecology, philosophy and above all the study of cities and regions.

Geddes had started as a biologist and had studied under Thomas Huxley. He began his career teaching biology, zoology and botany, but in his early thirties his extra-mural activities spread to include his first urban improvement projects in Edinburgh. He believed that the intellectual should not only be a generalist rather than a specialist but also a man of action, forever testing out new ideas in practice. In India he combined planning consultancy with a chair of sociology at Bombay University. At other times he proposed what was to become the Cite Universitaire in Paris, designed the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, established new planning courses in a range of countries and created new centres and new publications in Britain, including the original Sociological Review.

Although Mumford worked with a number of American groups promoting regional planning, new towns and neighbourhood units and did some university teaching from time to time, his main work was as a professional author. He was also a journalist; as the New Yorker's respected architectural critic, he wrote its Sky Line column for over 30 years.

It has to be said that the letters contain a good deal of dross, including the details of Geddes's proposed itineraries and Mumford's illnesses and early anxieties about how to earn his living. But there is of course much discussion of the interests they shared, of the history and future development of cities, the deficiencies of American sociology and of American and British higher education. A central preoccupation, however, and the main theme of interest to the reader is the development - and, in important respects, the nondevelopment - of their relationship with each other.

The story that emerges is a sad one, of disappointments on both sides over their failure to collaborate in any serious way. Geddes, seeking a colleague who would pull his life's work together as he himself had failed to do, first proposed this in 1919. Mumford responded excitedly, saying that the letter had "bowled him over" and giving a "prompt and enthusiastic Yes!". Despite these initial hopes, he came to see that cooperation was impossible. He probably recognised this at his first meeting, in 1923, when Geddes visited the United States. His doubts were confirmed at their second and last meeting, when Mumford visited Edinburgh two years later. His note on that begins "Geddes drives me to tears; almost he does". Although Geddes continued, with increasing desperation, to press the younger man to work with him and, although Mumford never explicitly ruled out collaboration in his letters, it is clear that by the mid-1920s, when he was about 30, he judged it impossible.

One obstacle was Geddes's own conduct. He was, says Novak, "notorious for his volatile impatience, his frenetic and erratic work habits, and his capricious, even insensitive, treatment of colleagues". Some of this, but not all, may have been due to the fact that by the time they met Geddes was relatively old, set in his ways and still grieving over his son's death in the 1914-18 war. (By an awful irony, Mumford's only son was killed in World War II. Although he too was shattered by the experience, he determined to overcome his grief and, above all, to avoid the mistake that Geddes had made with him in seeking a pupil to take the dead son's place.)

There was also the question of Mumford's role. For his part, he visualised an apprenticeship which would develop into a give-and-take collaboration. Geddes appeared to want "a rigid and unquestioning disciple", apparently casting Mumford as little more than a clerk, whose main task would be to organise the Geddes papers and contribute journalistic touches, for he had recognised almost from the beginning that Mumford was the more skilful writer. This notion became more and more unacceptable to Mumford as he progressed in his own career, with three well-received books published between 1922 and 1929. "What am I to do", enquires the exasperated Mumford in a note to himself, "with a pathetic man who asks for a collaborator and wants a supersecretary?" At least as important as all this are the doubts that grew in Mumford's mind about some aspects of Geddes's work. One problem was the way in which the latter's system of thought had become increasingly rigid, closed to constructive criticism of the kind that Mumford thought he could offer. There was a particular difficulty with the graphic system that Geddes developed and that became so crucial in his daily life. Mumford had a low opinion of what Geddes proudly called his "thinking machines" and labelled them a "gambit" because in his view Geddes used them to avoid using words to get to grips with issues that could only be explored in words.

All this is pretty damning and an obvious question is why, although he raised the points in letters to Geddes, Mumford did not publicly make the criticisms until many years later. One reason, certainly while Geddes was still alive, was his respect and affection for the man. "And yet I love him; I respect him; I admire him", he wrote in his note about the Edinburgh visit, and he continued to write enthusiastically about Geddes's contribution in his later books, particularly in his great Renewal of Life trilogy - Technics and Civilisation (1934), The Culture of Cities (1938) and The Conduct of Life (1944).

Despite his criticisms, Mumford undoubtedly embraced the bulk of Geddes's work and through generous exposition in his own books enhanced the reputation of the man he called his "master", bringing his ideas to a much wider readership than before. But, as Novak points out, if Geddes's reputation owes much to Mumford, so too does Mumford's to Geddes. Could another reason for Mumford's reticence until he was himself in his seventies be that in attacking his master he would, as Novak puts it, "have risked diminishing his own reputation as well as that of the master whom he revered deeply". It is a plausible case but I would incline to the more generous interpretation - that Mumford judged Geddes's foibles to be ultimately less important than his contribution to thought and action.

Peter Willmott is a senior fellow, Policy Studies Institute, London.

Lewis Mumford and Patrick Geddes: The Correspondence

Editor - Frank G. Novak
ISBN - 0 415 11906 5
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £49.50
Pages - 383

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