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Books on Cities: Lewis Mumford, The City in History

“Don’t set out to raze all shrines — you’ll frighten men,” declares Ellsworth Toohey, villain of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. “Enshrine mediocrity — and the shrines are razed.” I found rather less of interest in that book than I expected to when I picked it up back in college, but those particular lines have stayed with me. Though I can’t imagine anyone actually uttering them (a persistent condition in Rand’s work) they do truthfully express an attitude held, to my mind, by the Tooheys of the world. Not that one often encounters genuine Tooheys in real life, Rand having programmatically crafted him as the antithesis of her heroic ideal as embodied in protagonist Howard Roark. Roark the architect builds while Toohey the critic talks; Roark the uncompromising individualist executes only his own visions while Toohey the hedging collectivist insists on capitulation to the will of the people.

From all his sniveling public encomia to altruism and equality, of course, Toohey weaves the thinnest veil over his raw lust for power. At one point he even expresses an intent to dominate the world, which may strike readers today as a quixotic goal to attain from the pulpit of an architecture column. But it must have been somewhat more plausible in the early 1940s, when Lewis Mumford could still get a rise out of the architectural profession through his reviews in the New Yorker. To say Mumford made an impact, on not just his readers but (at least in New York) the built environment itself, wouldn’t be an exaggeration. The idea of what she classed as a “pinkish” public intellectual exerting any measure of real-world influence no doubt inspired Rand to take Mumford as a model for Toohey, along with the likes of Clifton Fadiman and Harold Laski.

Mumford and Fadiman were once colleagues at the New Yorker, the latter having run its book-review section during roughly the former’s first decade as its “Sky Line” columnist. After leaving the magazine, Fadiman became better known as a media wit, while also editing Mortimer Adler’s Great Books of the Western World series, writing the Lifetime Reading Plan guides, and later attempting grand diagnoses of Americans’ dispiriting literacy and writing abilities. Not that these were necessarily better on the other side of the pond: Laski, then just out of a stint as Labour Party chairman, is immortalized in George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” as writing with the “mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence” that constitutes “the most marked characteristic of modern English prose.” But what offended Rand, something less than an elegant stylist herself, surely had more to do with Laski’s strenuous advocacy for communism.

Read the whole thing at Substack.