Up from the depths Herman Melville, Lewis Mumford, and rediscovery in dark times

Aaron Sachs

Book - 2022

Up from the Depths tells the interconnected stories of two of the most important writers in American history-the novelist and poet Herman Melville (1819-1891) and one of his earliest biographers, the literary critic and historian Lewis Mumford (1895-1990). Deftly cutting back and forth between the writers, Aaron Sachs reveals the surprising resonances between their lives, work, and troubled times-and their uncanny relevance in our own age of crisis. The author of Moby-Dick was largely forgotten... for several decades after his death, but Mumford helped spearhead Melville's revival in the aftermath of World War I and the 1918-1919 flu pandemic, when American culture needed a forebear with a suitably dark vision. As Mumford's career took off and he wrote books responding to the machine age, urban decay, world war, and environmental degradation, it was looking back to Melville's confrontation with crises such as industrialization, slavery, and the Civil War that helped Mumford to see his own era clearly. Mumford remained obsessed with Melville, ultimately helping to canonize him as America's greatest tragedian. But largely forgotten today is one of Mumford's key insights--that Melville's darkness was balanced by an inspiring determination to endure. Amid today's foreboding over global warming, racism, technology, pandemics, and other crises, Melville and Mumford remind us that we've been in this struggle for a long time. To rediscover these writers today is to rediscover how history can offer hope in dark times.

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Subjects
Genres
Biographies
Published
Princeton : Princeton University Press [2022]
Language
English
Physical Description
xx, 450 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
Bibliography
Includes bibliographical references (pages 371-431) and index.
ISBN
9780691215419
0691215413
9780691236940
0691236941
Main Author
Aaron Sachs (author)
Review by PW Annex Reviews

Herman Melville biographer Lewis Mumford (1895–1990) lived a life inextricable from his subject according to this fascinating account. Sachs (The Humboldt Current), a Cornell history professor, argues that the "juxtaposed resonances" between the Melville and Mumford's lives are just as crucial to understanding them as their own "chronological arc." For instance, he notes how Melville's novel Redburn, with its vision of Liverpool, England, that balanced "misery and exhilaration," influenced Lewis's thinking about pre–New Deal planned "garden cities" and his writing on urban architecture. In another case, after having argued that Melville was sexually repressed, Mumford began having extramarital affairs to "avoid what he saw as Melville's tragedy" and at one point told a lover,"Yillah is your right name," a reference to the "damsel" from Melville's Mardi. In shining a light on Mumford's efforts during the "Melville Revival" of the mid-1900s, Sachs makes a strong case for the rediscovery of Mumford's own writing: "Both Melville and Mumford, in their obsession with seeing the past in the present, remind us of the communal obligation to endure." The result is a well-executed literary history. (June) Copyright 2022 Publishers Weekly Annex.

Review by Publisher Summary 1

"A double portrait of two of America's most influential writers that reveals the surprising connections between them--and their uncanny relevance to our age of crisis"--

Review by Publisher Summary 2

A double portrait of two of America’s most influential writers that reveals the surprising connections between them—and their uncanny relevance to our age of crisisUp from the Depths tells the interconnected stories of two of the most important writers in American history—the novelist and poet Herman Melville (1819–1891) and one of his earliest biographers, the literary critic and historian Lewis Mumford (1895–1990). Deftly cutting back and forth between the writers, Aaron Sachs reveals the surprising resonances between their lives, work, and troubled times—and their uncanny relevance in our own age of crisis.The author of Moby-Dick was largely forgotten for several decades after his death, but Mumford helped spearhead Melville’s revival in the aftermath of World War I and the 1918–1919 flu pandemic, when American culture needed a forebear with a suitably dark vision. As Mumford’s career took off and he wrote books responding to the machine age, urban decay, world war, and environmental degradation, it was looking back to Melville’s confrontation with crises such as industrialization, slavery, and the Civil War that helped Mumford to see his own era clearly. Mumford remained obsessed with Melville, ultimately helping to canonize him as America’s greatest tragedian. But largely forgotten today is one of Mumford’s key insights—that Melville’s darkness was balanced by an inspiring determination to endure.Amid today’s foreboding over global warming, racism, technology, pandemics, and other crises, Melville and Mumford remind us that we’ve been in this struggle for a long time. To rediscover these writers today is to rediscover how history can offer hope in dark times.