Father would like son would like father

December 29, 1995

I read Peter Wilmott's review of Lewis Mumford and Patrick Geddes: The Correspondence (THES, November 17) with great interest. I would like to draw attention to a factor in the Geddes-Mumford relationship which has never received the attention it merits.

The dynamics of the relationship are at first sight obvious. Mumford recalls Geddes saying to him after they had first met in 1923: "'You are the image of my poor dear lad. . . and almost the same age as he was when he was killed in France. You must be another son to me, Lewis, and we will get on with our work together.'" Mumford goes on: "There was both grief and desperation in this appeal: both too violent, too urgent, for me to handle. The abruptness of it, the sudden overflow, almost unmanned me, and my response to it was altogether inadequate, not so much from shallowness of feeling as from honesty".

Mumford always asserted that much of the tension between them was because Geddes had the unreasonable expectation that he, Mumford, should replace Geddes's dead son. But the first time I read Mumford's Discipline's Rebellion (from which the above quote is taken) I remember feeling that there was more to this matter than he was letting on, or even knew himself. In due course I realised that this unacknowledged element was that Mumford grew up without a father. This is what Donald Miller writes in his biography of Mumford: "Lewis Mumford would never see his father, Lewis Mack, nor would he ever lay eyes on the man whose name he carried, John Mumford, an Englishman his mother had married 12 years before his birth when he was only 18 years old. That brief storm-swept marriage had been annulled, and John Mumford had disappeared; in a sense Elvina was twice 'widowed' before she bore her only child at the age of 30." By the same token, Lewis Mumford was twice fatherless, and yet named after both.

Mumford was uncertain of what it meant to be a son in relation to a father and he must have been very confused by Geddes's hopes. But more than that Lewis Mumford really wanted a father. From the insistent and almost embarrassing description of himself as "disciple" and Geddes as "master" it is reasonable to suggest that it is Geddes whom he wanted as his father. One really feels for Mumford in this situation. An impossible demand is made on him, namely that he should replace Geddes's dead son. Yet it is the one demand that he would like to fulfil.

But in spite of, or because of, the stresses the relationship was one of the most creative exchanges of ideas possible, and it is important to emphasise this. The fact that they rarely worked together can be regarded as a side issue, the real issue being the fertile interplay between these two great generalist thinkers.

Murdo Macdonald

Centre for Continuing Education

University of Edinburgh

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