The Loves of Lewis Mumford
Thanks to Chinese law professor Jerome A. Cohen, I met Gerald and Nina Holton in 2014. The Holtons had known the Mumfords in Cambridge, MA in the 1970s. Through Gerald Holton, I learned about a collection of letters between Mumford and his last lover, Jocelyn Brodie, which are now at the Schlesinger Library thanks to the efforts of a family friend, Ann Braude, a professor at the Harvard Divinity School. My conversations with Ann led to planning a proposal to present at the 2021 Organization of American Historians Conference.
The Loves of Lewis Mumford
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.
Ann Braude, director of the Women’s Studies in Religion Program at Harvard Divinity School.
Karen Christensen, author and CEO of Berkshire Publishing Group, writes about women connected to powerful or influential men, among them Sophia Mumford
Nancy Cott, Jonathan Trumbull Professor of American History at Harvard University. specializes in gender topics in the US in the 19th and 20th centuries
Aaron Sachs, professor of history at Cornell University, specializing in nature and culture and working on a book about Herman Melville and Lewis Mumford