Three Loves of Lewis Mumford

Saturday, April 17, 2021, 12:45 PM - 1:15 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Sexuality; Urban and Suburban; Women's History


Lewis Mumford, one of the most widely-read and far-ranging public intellectuals of the twentieth century, referred in autobiographical writing to his “loves,” plural, the women who engaged him both intellectually and sexually. Mumford found intellectual and sexual attraction mutually reinforcing. His view that sexual and intellectual exchange could not be separated was an aspect of his call to twentieth-century Americans to live as whole human beings, not as the segmented, alienated products of a mechanized world. But it was also a source of conflict with his desire for a stable marriage that would support his legendary literary productivity. What Mumford did and did not reveal about his adulterous love affairs has complicated the reception of his autobiographical accounts and of biographical treatments of him. It has also obscured the characters and careers of the women he loved. Upending the historiography on Mumford, this panel will look at his three best-documented “loves” from the point of view of their own interests, and ask how they advanced their own agendas—intellectual, creative, personal, and sexual—through their interaction with Lewis Mumford. First and foremost among these women was always his wife, life-partner, and sometime editor, Sophia Wittenberg Mumford. But he also placed much importance on and exchanged extensive correspondence with two other women, one in youth and one in old age: Catherine Bauer and Jocelyn Brodie. All three of these were notable historical actors in their own right whose stories nonetheless became mere shadows in the bright light thrown by Lewis Mumford. The panel consists of three papers, one on each of these three women, examining her creative work outside her relationship with Mumford before viewing it in light of that relationship. Karen Christensen’s paper on Sophia Mumford, “A Book of My Own,” is based on extensive interviews she conducted with Sophia Mumford before her death. She explains the self-evaluation that Mumford undertook in her nineties, which included comparing herself with the other women her husband had loved and assessing the choice she had made to let her life be governed by his work and his needs. Ann Braude discovered both sides of the suppressed correspondence of unknown artist Jocelyn Brodie and Lewis Mumford in Brodie’s rural Vermont home following Brodie’s death. The paper situates the ten-year correspondence within the trajectory of Brodie’s literary and artistic oeuvre, as well as exploring both the reasons the correspondence began and the reasons it was suppressed. In "Sex and the Single Woman, circa 1930," Nancy Cott re-examines Mumford's formative erotic and intellectual relationship with housing expert Catherine Bauer, a "New Woman" of the 1920s ten years his junior. This reassessment will place the Bauer-Mumford relationship in the context of Bauer's immediately previous and subsequent sexual/intellectual relationships with men, and compare it to other roughly parallel temporary pairings of her single contemporaries with attractive older partners. Mumford expert Aaron Sachs, currently working on a book about Herman Melville and Lewis Mumford, will respond to the papers and chair the session.

Papers Presented

A Book of My Own

Sophia Wittenberg Mumford (1899—1997) was born in Brooklyn to a poor Russian Jewish family. Working at The Dial magazine, she began to associate with wealthy literary men, but it was an awkward young writer named Lewis Mumford who pursued her most intently and eventually persuaded her to marry him. As Lewis became successful, marriage and motherhood came to dominate Sophie’s life. She never ceased to be a vehement soul, but she capitulated to his force and brilliance, and accepted his need for other, more intellectually stimulating women for over a decade. Decades later, Sophia found the late-life relationship with Jocelyn Brodie far more troubling than Mumford’s earlier love affairs. In her nineties, when a profile by Studs Terkel and articles in the New York Times brought attention and acclaim, she discovered that she needed “to know who I really was.” She was interpreting her life using a long, contradictory, and complicated trajectory of assumptions about how and why women should act and react. Her story is about sustaining a sense of identity, given her commitment to a Great Man and a life in which his work and fame were always the first priority. In 2018, I discovered a play in which Sophia is the central character, written by a woman who interviewed Sophia near the end of her life. Its resounding lines are about how Sophia had wanted to die when her husband did, but now she wanted to live in order to write her own book.

Presented By
Karen Christensen, Berkshire Publishing Group; Independent scholar

A Suppressed Correspondence

Jocelyn Brodie and Lewis Mumford exchanged approximately 700 letters between 1967 and 1977. Brodie, an artist, wife and mother scraping life together in a rural Vermont village, wrote to the famous author to propose a children’s book based on his work. He quickly saw in her a student of his work with whom he could express himself freely and to whom he could turn for encouragement and understanding as he struggled with the final literary efforts of his life. She saw in him and his work an affirmation of her commitment to the transformative role of the artist in human culture, and an alternative to her day-to-day struggle for survival. In the sixth year of letter-writing, a brief affair first enlivened and then doomed the epistolary friendship, due to its impact on the marriage of each correspondent. Even before the correspondence ended, Mumford began returning Brodie’s letters. This meant that the letters did not go to the University of Pennsylvania Special Collections with the rest of his voluminous correspondence, and were unknown to his biographer. Yet it also meant that Brodie controlled the ultimate fate of the letters, which were found in her home after her death. “A Suppressed Correspondence” examines how Brodie saw the correspondence within the larger arc of her personal and artistic goals. It also considers the decisions she made about the fate of the correspondence in the context of the disparate possibilities available to the famous male intellectual and the unknown woman artist.

Presented By
Ann D. Braude, Harvard Divinity School

Sex and the Single Woman, circa 1930

The intense and personally galvanizing affair between Lewis Mumford and Catherine Bauer in 1930—1932 is well known to Mumford scholars—but has been explored strictly for its insights into Mumford’s character. This paper, drawing on Bauer’s archives, will suggest the greater gains from focusing on her rather than him. Bauer, a decade younger than Mumford, was one of the privileged and ambitious white women who in their youth in the 1920s imagined gender barriers had dissolved: anything was possible. Educated at Vassar College and Cornell’s School of Architecture, she then resided in Paris during 1926—27, becoming an adult amidst a bohemian, cosmopolitan, intellectual crowd of friends. Already an often sardonic internationalist champion of modern architecture at age 22 when she moved to Greenwich Village, she met Lewis Mumford two years later through her employment by Mumford’s publisher Harcourt Brace. A year into their entanglement Mumford recalled her then as “so wayward, so irresponsible, so unconcerned with the weal of the world, so completely egoistic and self-absorbed, such a monster of aloofness and such a mistress of playful unthinking esthetic sensuality, . . .the self-sufficient, the all-embracing, the easy-going, the thoughtless and imprudent and completely unguilty Catherine—that was the wench whom I so gaily flirted with at first.” Their urgent love affair proved a landmark in both of their lives. By scrutinzing Bauer’s self-positioning, this paper intends not only to plumb the affair’s implications for each of them but also to shed light on gender relations in their era.

Presented By
Nancy F. Cott, Harvard University

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Aaron Sachs, Cornell University
Aaron Sachs is Professor of History and American Studies at Cornell University, where he has taught since 2004. In 2006, he published The Humboldt Current: Nineteenth-Century Exploration and the Roots of American Environmentalism (Viking), which won Honorable Mention for the Frederick Jackson Turner Award, given to the best first book in the field of U.S. history by the Organization of American Historians (OAH). In 2013, he published Arcadian America: The Death and Life of an Environmental Tradition (Yale U. Press), which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction. Sachs has also published articles in such journals as Environmental History, Rethinking History, American Quarterly, and History and Theory. In his graduate teaching, he works with students not only in History but also in English, Science and Technology Studies, History of Architecture, City and Regional Planning, Anthropology, and Natural Resources. At Cornell, Sachs is the faculty sponsor of a radical underground organization called Historians Are Writers, which brings together graduate students who believe that academic writing can be moving on a deeply human level. He is also the founder and coordinator of the Cornell Roundtable on Environmental Studies Topics (CREST). Sachs is currently at work on book projects focusing environmental justice; environmental humor; and environmental modernity. The last of these is also a character study of Herman Melville and his second biographer, Lewis Mumford.

Presenter: Ann D. Braude, Harvard Divinity School
Ann Braude serves as the director of the Women's Studies in Religion Program and as Senior Lecturer on American Religious History at Harvard Divinity School. Her primary interest is the religious history of American women. Her current work focuses on spirituality in the work of 20th-century artists. Her article “Paths to Abstraction: Spirituality in the Work of Three Women Artists (Harvard Divinity Bulletin: Winter 2019) considers the work of Hilma af Klint, Hilla Rebay, and Vicci Sperry. Her first book, Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women's Rights in Nineteenth-century America, explores the engagement between the women's rights movement and the religious movement focused on contact with spirits of the dead. Braude is also author of Sisters and Saints: Women and American Religion, a history of the religion of American women for a general audience. She has an interest in the issues surrounding the study of Native American religions, and is engaged in an ongoing research project concerning a Cheyenne child taken captive at the Sand Creek Massacre. She has published many articles on women in Judaism, Christian Science, and American religious life. She edited Transforming the Faiths of Our Fathers: The Women Who Changed American Religion, the result of a historic conference that brought 25 pioneers of religious feminism together at HDS. Gendering Religion and Politics: Untangling Modernity, which she co-edited with Hanna Herzog, appeared in 2009.

Presenter: Karen Christensen, Berkshire Publishing Group; Independent scholar
Karen Christensen is the Chief Executive Officer and founder of Berkshire Publishing Group, and a writer specializing in sustainability and community with a focus on China. She worked for Blackwell Science, Faber and Faber, and the T. S. Eliot estate before writing a bestselling environmental handbook.
In 2005, Karen became a publisher herself, with titles such as the Berkshire Encyclopedia of Sustainability and the Berkshire Dictionary of Chinese Biography.
“Dear Mrs. Eliot,” her memoir about working with Valerie Eliot, was a cover story in the Guardian Review (January 29, 2005). In “Leading from the fringes: Women’s paths to political power,” a chapter in Women & Leadership: History, Theories, and Case Studies, edited by George R. Goethals and Crystal A. Hoyt, Jepson School of Leadership Studies, University of Richmond (Berkshire 2017), Karen explored the nontraditional ways that women in history have gained and wielded power. She is working on Too Near the Flame, a book about Valerie Eliot, Sophia Mumford, and her relationship with these two literary widows and keepers of the flame. In 2019, she spoke about Eliot and Mumford at a conference hosted by Wolfson College, Oxford, called Thanks for Typing: The invisible wives, daughters, mothers, and other women behind famous men. She has written several articles on that subject, one of them riffed upon in the Times Literary Supplement, and is co-writing the introduction to a book of the conference papers, to be published by Bloomsbury Academic. She giving a speech in February 2020 at Schwarzman College in Beijing about “Women Leading from the Fringes.”

Presenter: Nancy F. Cott, Harvard University
Nancy F. Cott is the Jonathan Trumbull Research Professor of American History at Harvard University. She taught U.S. history, centering on the history of women, sexuality and gender, for twenty-six years at Yale and sixteen years at Harvard before retiring in 2018. Her concerns with questions about gender, marriage, feminism, law, and citizenship resulted in her books The Bonds of Womanhood: "Woman's Sphere" in New England, 1780-1835 (1977), The Grounding of Modern Feminism (1987), and Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation (2001), among other works. Her current interests also include the history of sexuality, social movements, political culture, the international turn, and journalism, as is apparent in her new book, Fighting Words: How Bold Young American Journalists Brought the World Home between the Wars (Basic Books, March 2020). Fighting Words traces four Americans (two men and two women) who, like Catherine Bauer, went abroad in their youth in the 1920s. Bauer became a housing reformer as a result, while these four became intrepid correspondents, alerting fellow Americans to the spreading menace of European fascism. Confronting the era’s big conflicts— democracy versus authoritarianism, global responsibilities versus isolationism, sexual freedom versus traditional morality—they shaped how Americans saw their country’s international role between the world wars.