Reading History for "Lessons" Misses the Point

tags: historiography, literature, intellectual history, Herman Melville, teaching history, Lewis Mumford

Daniel Immerwahr is a professor of history at Northwestern University and the author of How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States.

In 1919, a young lecturer at Columbia, Raymond Weaver, took on an unpromising task: assessing the merits of a forgotten 19th century writer. The writer’s novels, mostly set aboard ships, had been briefly popular, though not enough to sustain a long literary career, and they’d fallen out of print. Still, Weaver found surprising depth in the dusty tomes he was reading. You know, he thought, this Herman Melville fellow isn’t half-bad.

Not half bad at all. Melville’s writings were dark, bizarre, and rambling, but to a generation that had just suffered World War I, they pulsed with life. After Weaver raised the call, a Melville rush ensued. Virginia Woolf published a tribute. D. H. Lawrence declared Moby-Dick “one of the strangest and most wonderful books in the world.” And the critic Lewis Mumford, recognizing in Melville a kindred soul, wrote a biography.

If that last name—Lewis Mumford—means little to you, that’s understandable. Like Melville, Mumford was once a noted author, big enough to make the cover of Time. But also like Melville, he fell into obscurity, and most of his best books are out of print.

It’s a pity, as those books are agonizingly prescient. Modernity, Mumford complained at length, was too dependent on fossil fuels. New information technologies were rewiring our brains, leading to “broken time and broken attention.” And within liberal democracies lay fascist tendencies, he warned, waiting to burst out. These were idiosyncratic views when Mumford published them in the 1930s and 1940s. Now, not so much.

There’s something electrifying about encountering a long-dead author who somehow diagnoses your own predicament perfectly. It’s a feeling that the historian Aaron Sachs explores in his excellent new work, Up From the Depths: Herman Melville, Lewis Mumford, and Rediscovery in Dark Times. The book is a braided account of Melville and Mumford, aimed at exploring the strange resonance between their times and ours. It asks, with unusual directness: What’s the point of the past?

The conventional view is that we study history to avoid repeating mistakes. And while history surely provides a repository of instructive experience, that’s not all it offers. The past also gives us perspective. We frequently face the fish-can’t-see-water problem, in that many of the forces that shape our lives—gender roles, economic norms—are so pervasive that they’re hard to perceive. It helps to get another vantage, from a time when things were different.

That’s what Sachs finds in Melville and Mumford: clarifying perspective. Both sought to understand the “trauma of modernity,” Sachs writes, but they did so earlier, before it had fully taken root. Melville was so perceptive about white-collar psychology, as he was in “Bartleby the Scrivener,” because it wasn’t second nature to him but a new and troubling development. Mumford could appreciate the stultifying effects of mass entertainment because he remembered a time before movie theaters.

Read entire article at Slate