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Lewis Mumford, Freeway Flier: Midcentury Planning as Regional Humanism

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Abstract:

After the US Congress approved twenty-six billion dollars for the federal highway program in 1956, the historian of technology, architecture, and urban design Lewis Mumford responded with strong words. “For the current way of life,” he wrote in “The Highway and the City” (1958), “is founded not just on motorcar transportation but on the religion of the motorcar, and the sacrifices that people are prepared to make for this religion stand outside the realm of rational criticism. Perhaps the only thing that could bring Americans to their senses would be a clear demonstration of the fact that their highway program will, eventually, wipe out the very area of freedom that the private motorcar promised to retain for them.” Mumford’s worries about suburban sprawl, and particularly about the consequences for neighborhoods, urban and otherwise, that were threatened by what he saw as “this ill-conceived and preposterously unbalanced program” of highway construction brought a renewed vigor to ideas regarding the “region” and “regional planning” that he had been advocating in various forms since the 1920s.

My paper will utilize Mumford’s work as an entry point to explore a more specifically materialist relationship between ideas of region and the humanities than much of literary studies’ thought on regionalism has generated over the course of the last century. Briefly examining a tradition of architectural history and urban planning grounded in regional forms and theories in the Midwest and Southern California, including the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, R. M. Schindler, Irving Gill, and Richard Neutra, along with Mumford’s expansion of the Scottish planner Patrick Geddes’s concepts of region and conurbation, I will draw comparisons to significant movements in American literary regionalism during the during the same period (roughly 1920-1945), not least of which is that of the Nashville Agrarians who collaborated on the essay collection I’ll Take My Stand (1930). My paper will also speak to recent scholarship loosely cohering around the theme of infrastructure, much of which has sought to approach the theoretical problems of “regionalist” criticism from new perspectives that are more responsive to technology, transnationalism, global human rights movements, environmentalism, war, and recent urban population explosions, as well as Mumford’s older humanist urbanism. I will argue that the roles of regional planner and regional literary theorist need not be mutually exclusive, but that Mumford’s intense fear of the effects of the federal highway program was grounded less in midcentury social engineering than in an earlier vision seeking to put the social sciences in the service of the humanities; paradoxically, this vision also relied on a comparable infusion of humanistic inquiry into relevant social science fields.
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Name: American Studies Association Annual Meeting
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http://www.theasa.net


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URL: http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p509148_index.html
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MLA Citation:

Jackson, Robert. "Lewis Mumford, Freeway Flier: Midcentury Planning as Regional Humanism" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Hilton Baltimore, Baltimore, MD, <Not Available>. 2014-11-25 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p509148_index.html>

APA Citation:

Jackson, R. "Lewis Mumford, Freeway Flier: Midcentury Planning as Regional Humanism" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Hilton Baltimore, Baltimore, MD <Not Available>. 2014-11-25 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p509148_index.html

Publication Type: Internal Paper
Abstract: After the US Congress approved twenty-six billion dollars for the federal highway program in 1956, the historian of technology, architecture, and urban design Lewis Mumford responded with strong words. “For the current way of life,” he wrote in “The Highway and the City” (1958), “is founded not just on motorcar transportation but on the religion of the motorcar, and the sacrifices that people are prepared to make for this religion stand outside the realm of rational criticism. Perhaps the only thing that could bring Americans to their senses would be a clear demonstration of the fact that their highway program will, eventually, wipe out the very area of freedom that the private motorcar promised to retain for them.” Mumford’s worries about suburban sprawl, and particularly about the consequences for neighborhoods, urban and otherwise, that were threatened by what he saw as “this ill-conceived and preposterously unbalanced program” of highway construction brought a renewed vigor to ideas regarding the “region” and “regional planning” that he had been advocating in various forms since the 1920s.

My paper will utilize Mumford’s work as an entry point to explore a more specifically materialist relationship between ideas of region and the humanities than much of literary studies’ thought on regionalism has generated over the course of the last century. Briefly examining a tradition of architectural history and urban planning grounded in regional forms and theories in the Midwest and Southern California, including the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, R. M. Schindler, Irving Gill, and Richard Neutra, along with Mumford’s expansion of the Scottish planner Patrick Geddes’s concepts of region and conurbation, I will draw comparisons to significant movements in American literary regionalism during the during the same period (roughly 1920-1945), not least of which is that of the Nashville Agrarians who collaborated on the essay collection I’ll Take My Stand (1930). My paper will also speak to recent scholarship loosely cohering around the theme of infrastructure, much of which has sought to approach the theoretical problems of “regionalist” criticism from new perspectives that are more responsive to technology, transnationalism, global human rights movements, environmentalism, war, and recent urban population explosions, as well as Mumford’s older humanist urbanism. I will argue that the roles of regional planner and regional literary theorist need not be mutually exclusive, but that Mumford’s intense fear of the effects of the federal highway program was grounded less in midcentury social engineering than in an earlier vision seeking to put the social sciences in the service of the humanities; paradoxically, this vision also relied on a comparable infusion of humanistic inquiry into relevant social science fields.


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