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The Brown Decades and After

ISSUE:  Summer 1932

The Brown Decades, By Lewis Mumford. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $3.00. Stanford White. By Charles C. Baldwin. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company. $3.50.

In “The Brown Decades” Lewis Mumford has undertaken once more to make a critical survey of a period of American culture, this time the generation reaching from the Civil War to the close of the century. As in “Sticks and Stones” and “The Golden Day,” he has focused his attention on particular expressions of the period being considered, the arts in the case at hand. The book closes with an annotated bibliography of value, bringing to renewed attention such forgotten critics of distinction as J. J. Jarves and Montgomery Schuyler, and out of date is only one noticeable particular, where it is said that the life of the Roeblings has still to be written. “The Roeblings,” by Hamilton Schuyler, is now available.

The early pages of the volume and the last are the ones which will occasion most disagreement on the part of the reader. In the former instance the author tries hard to make the title of his book seem appropriate, while the reader keeps asking: Is the age of Grant and the Centennial and Beecher and Henry Adams one of autumnal sereness? Can the term “brown” be applied without confusion to such varied phenomena as smoke-covered industrial centers, postwar psychology, and materials used for house fronts and interior furnishings? The ambiguity inherent in such forced symbolism is illustrated by the statement: “In the best work of the period the sober autumnal colors took on a new loveliness: a warm russet brown, touched off by a lichen green and the red of red oak leaves, marked Richardson’s treatment of the shingled house: at the very end of his career he produced cottages that, for the first time in America, brought the landscape and the architecture into the mood of the time.” Yet to Thomas Beer the end of that age was characterized with equal propriety by the colour, mauve. Again, at the close of the book, after the creative work of Roebling, of Olmstead, of Sullivan, of Ryder and Eakins has been suggestively considered, the reader is roused by the attempt to classify all the painters after the Brown Decades as stemming from either the mystical Ryder or from the realistic Eakins. Except in such a broad sense as to be lacking in significance, such pigeonholing is fraught with critical danger. Is Marin a spiritual descendant of Ryder, really?

Mumford is at his best when he is analyzing the phases of American culture which mark transitions and establish continuity. For example, he introduces his consideration of the Brown Decades by noting the influence of the writers, the inventors, the educators, and the social prophets who flourished in the 70’s, and finds Thoreau, Henry George, Bellamy, and Eliot significant leaders. Likewise, he brings into new and sharper focus striking parallels between the transition period just mentioned and that from the Brown Decades to our own time. The tone of the special pleader is not always avoided, but the chances are that the majority of his readers will bring with them a compensating body of knowledge from other sources. Moreover, Mumford is as apt as ever with clever phrases: “the Pan-like devotions of John Marin,” or “by making nature urbane, he naturalized the city”; and he blocks in the main outlines of his major topic with effective strokes. It is always worth while to read the opinions of an intelligent observer who finds a present growing out of a past. His partisans, however, are likely to ask if the brilliance of the biographer of Melville is not passing dangerously close to facility.

It was a timely and one would have supposed a fascinating task to write the biography of Stanford White. Without the necessity of settling the problem of archeology as against modernism in architecture, the biographer might have been expected to set the colorful personality of his subject in its environment, and without too heavy a touch to have discussed a significant phase of our architectural history. In “Stanford White,” Mr. Baldwin is highly successful in satisfying such expectations for the first hundred pages. His subject’s ancestry, marked by persons of individuality and influence, and his early years as apprentice in Richardson’s office, followed by a European tour, are traced with something of the gusto of White’s own presence. (He always appeared as if the wind were blowing behind him, reports Miss Janet Scudder.) Generous quotations from his letters to his parents in those golden days are judiciously annotated, and the reader settles back for an enjoyable evening. Even when the author traces the spirit of America by means of newspaper headlines in the year White entered the firm of McKim, Mead, and White, the reader remains unapprehensive. But as the book reaches the midpoint, disintegration sets in. For one thing the author rarely gives his own opinion of White’s architectural designs, preferring to quote from contemporary sources, increasingly the less serious society publications. Then White’s multitudinous activities of a non-professional nature are allowed, without apparent intention, to give the impression of one who never passed adolescence, so constant is the effort to write smartly. Chronological treatment gives way to topical; and a disjointed garrulity results. The climax comes in the amazing appendices, in one of which White’s share of the work of his firm is segregated, although it is pointed out that such a selection is impossible, and in the other of which the personality of White’s associates are described, with little or no effort at cogency or appropriateness in the selection of material.

The illustrations in aquatone from photographs and drawings provide a useful set of White’s designs in architecture and in the minor arts; and the careful reader may even learn that in some of his last designs, the L R. T. power house and the Knickerbocker Trust Building on Fifth Avenue, White was veering towards the simplification of functionalism. But it would take a reader of real critical ability to go further and learn from the present volume wherein White’s amazing feeling for materials or his appreciation of historic styles was of significance—especially in the face of the approval given such a quotation as this, from Richard Harding Davis: “He was the greatest designer, and probably the greatest architect, this country has ever produced.” In short, “Stanford White, Sketches and Designs,” edited by his son, Lawrence Grant White, remains, despite the current volume, the best source for the study of the architect’s work.


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