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Lewis Mumford's 1930s New Yorker "Sky Line"
columns. By Ben Yagoda
SIDEWALK CRITIC: Lewis Mumford's Writings on New York
Edited by Robert Wojtowicz, C'83
New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1998. 279 pp., $27.50.
Mumford and The New Yorker found each other at precisely the right
time. That time was the spring of 1931. Mumford, 36 years old, was the
author of five books of literary criticism and social, cultural, and architectural
history and an active freelance writer for various magazines and scholarly
journals. But he was not yet the eminent Major Thinker of his later years.
(It was in this incarnation that Mumford was associated with Penn: Beginning
in 1950, he was a lecturer and then a researcher-in-residence at the University,
and his papers are housed in Van Pelt Library.) He had no regular platform
for his writing and no regular paycheck -- a problem when you consider
that he had a wife, a child and a mortgage to sustain.
Early in 1931, The New Yorker celebrated its
sixth birthday, but in its brief life it had already been almost completely
transformed. An itinerant newspaperman named Harold Ross had started it
as a kind of American version of Punch, a comic weekly dedicated
to the proposition that absolutely nothing should be taken seriously.
But almost in spite of itself, the magazine very quickly became much more
substantial. This was due in part to the Depression, which sobered up
the whole country, and in part to the fortuitous arrival through The
New Yorker's doors of such immensely talented young writers as E.B.
White, James Thurber, John O'Hara, and Kay Boyle, most of whom were capable
of being funny but none of whom was a mere comedian.
At the start, the magazine's arts reviewers were as
frothy and forgettable as everyone else. But they began gaining weight,
too -- ironically, through the humorists Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley,
whose work as book and theater critic, respectively, was not only amusing
but solid and credible. George Chappell had been architecture critic since
1926, but he was not on Parker or Benchley's level, and, in addition,
had been out of Ross's good graces ever since his first column had sparked
a lawsuit. The editor had read and admired Mumford's work in The New
Republic and other journals, and saw him as a possible means to upgrade
the magazine's architectural coverage.
In May 1931, he wrote soliciting a piece on the Rockefeller
Center complex, then in the process of construction. Mumford replied:
"Your note found me surrounded by three thousand words I had written
this morning on Radio City: and I have just thrown them into the waste
basket. After persistent groping one discovers that there is no architectural
story on Radio City. All its possibilities went flat from the moment they
decided to make it, not a public project, but a good piece of private
business: which means as near like the rest of the city as possible. Perhaps
they are a little short-sighted, even on those terms: but The New Yorker
isn't the place to enter into the fallacious economics of the tall building
Ross's reply to Mumford -- by return mail -- would have
to hold a prominent place in any brief arguing that he was an editor of
genius. "I am very sorry," he wrote. "I wonder if you couldn't
retrieve those 3,000 words from the waste-basket and let me see them.
I am not convinced there is not a story in it. I should like to read what
you have to say about Radio City even if it is in the form of rough notes
or random thoughts."
Mumford did send in a piece on Rockefeller Center, and
soon after that he became The New Yorker's architecture critic.
His "Sky Line" columns, which continued until the early 1960s,
were the first -- and probably still the most significant -- instance
of one writer providing sophisticated, informed and pointed architectural
commentary for a major publication on a regular basis. In Sidewalk
Critic, Mumford's "Sky Line" pieces from his most prolific
decade, the 1930s, have been collected for the first time.
Robert Wojtowicz (who is an associate professor of art
history at Old Dominion University and the literary executor of the Mumford
estate) has come up with a good title for the collection. Reading Mumford,
one has the sense of him pounding the pavement of New York, always thinking
about the effect of architecture on the human beings who have to look
at and live or work in the buildings. About Rockefeller Center (which
he ripped apart in that first 1931 essay, but came to appreciate by the
end of the decade), he writes, "Many of the camera views of the buildings
are striking, but then a camera doesn't mind being tilted at a forty-five-degree
angle for as much as five minutes, while the human neck does object."
What Mumford didn't like about Rockefeller Center was
the predominance of skyscrapers. ("The tall skyscraper," he
wrote, "is the businessman's toy, his plaything; his gewgaw; in an
expansive mood, he calls it alternately a temple or a cathedral, and he
looks upon the romantic altitudinous disorder of a modern city with the
same blissful feeling that the Victorian industrialist had for his factory
chimneys, belching forth soot and foul gases.") What he liked about
it was the attempt to plan a part of the city, instead of leaving
everything to commerce and chance.
Mumford's strong belief in "organic," highly
planned urban environments, visible on nearly all this book's pages, is
ironic in view of what has happened since they were written. The intellectual
fashion passed him by, as the predominant view, voiced most visibly by
Jane Jacobs, came to be that the value of cities is their chaotic disorder.
And architecturally, the skyscrapers, shoddy construction, undistinguished
design and lack of central planning that have predominated in recent decades
make the minor transgressions Mumford found so much fault with in the
thirties seem minor almost to the vanishing point.
Irony turns poignant in the passages where Mumford expresses
his faith in a benevolent architectural future, when open spaces will
abound, everyone will have sufficient natural light, and no building will
be designed or constructed without an acceptable rationale. Here is most
of the last paragraph in the book: "Rockefeller Center is still to
be seen as our descendants may see it in another generation. Once we lay
out parks and ribbons of open space around such units they will form a
new kind of urban organism. Don't think that the future opening up of
the city is just a pipe dream. The parking lots of today will be the gay
playgrounds and squares of tomorrow. Rockefeller Center will look pretty
old-fashioned by 1970, but then the Pyramids look old-fashioned now. Seen
from a quarter of a mile away, the Center group will knock one romantically
Sad to say, the parking lots of yesterday are the dull
and very tall towers of today, and because of them, from a quarter of
a mile away you can't even see Rockefeller Center.
Ben Yagoda G'91 is an associate professor of English at the University
of Delaware. His critical and cultural history of The New Yorker
will be published next year.
A selection of recent books by alumni and faculty, or otherwise of
interest to the University community. Descriptions are compiled from information
supplied by the authors and publishers.
HIGHER EDUCATION IN THE POST-COMMUNIST WORLD: Case Studies of Eight
Edited by Paula L.W. Sabloff, Faculty.
New York: Garland Publishing, 1999.
299 pp., $60.00.
One challenge of the politico-economic reorientation
of former communist nations has been the restructuring of their public
higher-education systems into systems that will prepare students for leadership
in a market-economy democratic government and provide research necessary
for policy-making. This volume of case studies, edited by Sabloff, adjunct
assistant professor of anthropology and a senior research scientist at
the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology,
offers detailed views of universities whose nations underwent the changes
from communism to democracy, and from centrally planned to free-market
THE CLOCKWORK MUSE: A Practical Guide to Writing Theses, Dissertations,
By Eviatar Zerubavel Gr'76.
Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999. 144 pp., $22.00 (cloth);
The idea of dashing off a manuscript in a fit of manic
inspiration may be romantic, but it is not particularly practical. Zerubavel,
a prolific author as well as professor of sociology and director of the
graduate program at Rutgers University, describes instead how to set up
a writing schedule and regular work habits that will take most of the
anxiety and procrastination out of long-term writing, and even, he predicts,
make it enjoyable. His book rethinks the writing process in terms of time
and organization, showing how to set priorities, balance ideals against
constraints and find the best time to write.
HIGH PERFORMANCE NONPROFIT ORGANIZATIONS: Managing Upstream for Greater
By Christine W. Letts, William P. Ryan, and Allen Grossman W'65.
New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1998.
224 pp., $29.95.
Having invented scores of successful model programs
to address virtually every type of social problem or goal, nonprofit leaders
are discovering that large-scale sustained impact remains elusive. Drawing
on management techniques used by successful managers in both the business
and nonprofit realms, this book outlines approaches that nonprofits can
use to begin building high-performance organizations capable of creating
lasting impacts. The authors argue that processes such as human-resources
management, benchmarking and product development -- far from corrupting
a nonprofit -- will actually help an organization convert its values and
integrity into results for clients and communities. Grossman is a senior
lecturer of business administration at Harvard Business School; he teaches
nonprofit management and is active in the school's Initiative on Social
Enterprise. Ryan is a consultant to foundations and nonprofit organizations,
and Letts is a lecturer in public policy and executive director of the
Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations at Harvard.
CARNIVAL AND CULTURE: Sex, Symbol, and Status in Spain
By David D.Gilmore G'67 Gr'75.
New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999. 320 pp., $30.00.
Each year in the weeks preceding the deprivations of
Lent, the Andalusian region of southern Spain engages in a carnival of
riotous celebration, featuring subversive songs, burlesques, transvestite
parades and public persecution of communal offenders along with elegies
and panegyrics. Gilmore, professor of anthropology at the State University
of New York at Stony Brook, explores the meanings of Andalusian carnival
-- in particular the coplas, or songs -- in search of a new understanding
of the ways in which the people interpret and negotiate their world. Not
only does carnival provide many insights into ritual behavior and folk
art in Spain, but, Gilmore shows, the festival offers similar insights
into rituals of revelry and disinhibition elsewhere, whether mumming,
Mardi Gras, Fasching or Walpurgisnacht. Gilmore is the author of Manhood
in the Making: Cultural Concepts of Masculinity and Aggression
and Community: Paradoxes of Andalusian Culture.
Edited by Glenn McGee, Faculty.
Tenn.: Vanderbilt University Press, 1999. 344 pp., $49.95 (cloth); $19.95
Modern science and medicine have ushered in a century
of amazing discovery and tough choices. In this book, written for scholars
in medicine and philosophy, as well as students and clinicians, McGee
and other writers address some of the newest questions in medicine, including
human cloning, genetic testing and human enhancement. These essays also
struggle in a new way with perennial issues in biomedicine, including
care for the poor and aging. McGee is an assistant professor of bioethics
and associate director for education at the Center for Bioethics of the
University of Pennsylvania Health System. He has written numerous articles
on bioethics, and has appeared on national news programs such as CNN.
McGee is also the author of The Perfect Baby: A Pragmatic Approach
to Genetics, and the editor of The Human Cloning Debate (Berkeley
Hills Books, 1998).
By Steven Sobel C'77.
Santa Monica, Calif.: Santa Monica Press, 1999. 288 pp., $13.00.
In this coming-of- age novel, set in late-sixties and
early-seventies Los Angeles, Sobel transports readers through the era's
raw edginess, amplified by drugs, sex, violence and poetry. A sensitive
and carefree youth, Ben spends endless hours exploring the dank sewers
of his city, cavorting on the bikini-infested beaches of Santa Monica
and checking out the hippie culture of Topanga Canyon -- typical fare
for an L.A. kid, until the unexpected happens. Sobel, in his debut novel,
encourages the readers to become voyeurs to a decade of paradoxes, when
rampant freedom was pitted against a vulgar war, and kids were coming
of age as old rules were being discarded.
COUPLE AND FAMILY THERAPY OF ADDICTION
By Jerome D. Levin CGS'61.
Northvale, N.J.: Jason Aronson, 1998.
340 pp., $60.00.
This book bills itself as the comprehensive clinical
resource for addiction counselors and therapists who want to learn more
about the psychological, intrapsychic, biological and pharmacological
aspects of addiction. Levin takes readers down the parallel paths of addiction
treatment and therapy until the two paths meet on the bridge of actual
clinical practice. He is a faculty member of the humanities department
at the New School for Social Research, as well as director of its alcoholism
and substance abuse counselor training program and adjunct associate professor
of social science at New York University.
By Michael E. Jones WG'74.
New York: Prentice-Hall, 1998. 192 pp., $34.25.
Using real examples, this book addresses numerous legal,
business and ethical issues confronting the world of amateur and professional
sports. Among the topics examined are drug testing and due process in
Olympic sports, the impact of federal laws requiring equity for women
in college and high-school sports, selling out to advertisers, and the
economic cost of cities bidding for pro-sports teams. A two-sport All-American,
the author placed fourth at the International Triathlon Union world triathlon
championships at Perth, Australia, and has won two world ocean swimming
age-group championships. He also served as an advisor to professional
athletes and the national governing bodies of different Olympic sports.
He is a part-time district court judge in Salem, N.H., and teaches sports
and entertainment law at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.
ORIGINAL SIGNS: Gesture, Sign, and the Sources of Language
By David F. Armstrong C'71 Gr'80.
Washington: Gallaudet University Press, 1999. 190 pp., $39.95.
In the ongoing debate about human evolution, scholars
frequently argue either the perspective that humans stand as the end product
of a teleological process, or that they derive from a series of random
events acted upon by natural selection. In Original Signs, Armstrong,
an administrator and faculty member at Gallaudet University, the national
university for the deaf, embraces the concepts of Darwinian evolution
and extends them to questions of the origin and evolution of the human
capacity for language. He argues that progress in the search for language
origins has been hindered by the hegemony of a formalism in linguistics
that has maintained a rigid distinction between language and gesture and
that has suppressed the observations of an earlier generation of anthropological
linguists. Drawing on evidence from the linguistics of signed languages,
the gestural behavior of non-human primates and the modern brain sciences,
this book argues forcefully for the origin of human language in visible
and vocal gestures that are still integral to human behavior.
By David Shobin, C'65.
New York: St. Martin's, 1998. 352 pp., $6.99.
Imagine you're critically injured in a horrible
accident. Rushed to the emergency room, you're fighting for your life.
But once you're there, no one tries to help you. Instead, you're locked
in a dark room with rows of comatose patients, just lying there -- not
dying, but not living either. Imagine you're a promising young doctor
at New York's most prestigious hospital. You're there to save lives, but
you soon find out that the hospital is run on greed and malice, rather
than compassion. Horrific human experiments are taking place. People are
being robbed of vital fluids. And for some reason, no one seems concerned
with healing the sick. That's the premise of the latest medical thriller
written by Shobin, a Long Island physician and the author of four other
MANAGING TO MAKE IT: Urban Families and Adolescent Success
By Frank F. Furstenberg Jr,. Faculty, Thomas D. Cook, Jacquelynne Eccles,
Glen H. Elder Jr., and Arnold J. Sameroff.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. 305 pp., $32.50.
Why are some families able to steer their children out
of poverty, despite low incomes and high-risk neighborhoods? Based on
interviews with close to 500 inner-city teens and their families in Philadelphia,
this study takes the reader beyond negative stereotypes and instead focuses
on the positive outcomes, dispelling many common myths about the effects
of poverty on parenting. Furstenberg is the Zellerbach Family Professor
of Sociology at Penn.
NATVAR BHAVSAR: Painting and the Reality of Color
By Irving Sandler G'49.
Australia: Craftsman House, 1998.
132 pp., $50.00.
This illustrated monograph provides insights into the
life and work of Natvar Bhavsar GFA'65, a noted abstract painter who was
born in India and developed his career in New York. Inspired by a variant
of abstract expressionism labeled color-field painting, Bhavsar
soon achieved an original style by adopting the practice of scattering
pure pigment onto canvases coated with acrylic. The book contains a selected
bibliography, chronology of the artist's life and exhibition history and
full documentation of the art reproduced. Sandler is professor of art
history at the State University of New York at Purchase, the author of
numerous books on American art and a former president of the American
section of the International Association of Art Critics.
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| May/June Contents | Gazette
1999 The Pennsylvania Gazette
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