The Brown Decades Critical Essays

Lewis Mumford

Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

THE BROWN DECADES is a study of the building arts in America between 1865 and 1895. It is based on the assumption that these years were the autumn period of American civilization; that they followed the brief “renaissance” summer which was ended by the Civil War. Mr. Mumford begins by asserting that the prevailing style of life in this period was not conducive to the arts. The old style of life, which was quiet, ordered, and based on a nonindustrial culture, gave way to a new one dominated by business and production. This change endowed the postwar decades with two kinds of problems. The first was the moral problem, and this is a subject that has been gone over thoroughly by the historians. The Gilded Age was an age of excess, and its central figures were those who achieved success by heroic dishonesty. They were inclined to look upon industrial expansion as purely a matter of dollars and cents; accordingly, they endowed this period with a brutal system of labor and an extraordinarily ugly series of centers of production. The second problem faced by Mr. Mumford is closely allied to the first: the new money that went into burgeoning factories and buildings and bridges had the aim principally of practicality, and the urban centers of America were created with the built-in problems which are today so evident.

These problems were of two orders, Mr. Mumford points out. First, the natural landscape, particularly in the East, was sacrificed to the interests of production. Factories and especially railroads dominated the structure of the cities and of the countryside into which they swiftly overflowed. Second, the cities themselves took on the chaotic, vertical character they continue to exhibit. They became overcrowded and unhealthful, and they forever united in America the large city with the large slum.

The heroes of THE BROWN DECADES are our great naturalists, engineers, conservationists, and architects. It was these men, Mr. Mumford declares, who, laboring against the odds of bad taste and mass indifference, in a manner redeemed this thirty-year period. The first of these is Henry David Thoreau, who, although not directly connected with reforms in our cities, was the principal figure to direct our attention back to the beauty and values of nature. A second naturalist praised by Mumford is George Perkins Marsh, the first man in America to deal practically with the idea of human ecology. He pointed out in his MAN AND NATURE, published in 1864, that geography was by no means a study of natural formations and divisions, rather, it had to be understood as a branch of ecology, because geography was continually in the process of change as a result of human action. The moral and aesthetic influence of men such as Thoreau and Marsh, Mr. Mumford asserts, affected and in a manner created our great school of conservationists. He points out that conservationism began actually in our cities, and that Frederick Olmstead, the designer of Central Park in New York City, was just as important as wilderness figures such as Thoreau, John Muir, and John Audubon. Indeed, the creation of Central Park is one of the central episodes of THE BROWN DECADES, since it brought into the open the great conflict between those who wanted land for purposes of rental and taxation and those who conceived of...

(The entire section is 1359 words.)