Up from the Depths by Aaron Sachs

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

This is a most unusual book. It investigates the lives of two influential American writers, Herman Melville and Lewis Mumford, within a specific context. In effect, it purports to become a double portrait of two of America’s most influential writers that reveals the surprising connections between them—and their uncanny relevance to our own age of crisis.

That is, we are to assume that connections of whatever manner existed between two writers who had never met – Melville lived from 1819 – 1891 and Mumford from 1895 – 1990. The argument is that Melville was traumatised by the American Civil War in the same way as Mumford suffered from the world war of his time. The thesis then expands to include the argument that what these writers faced is reflected in the age of crisis that we are experiencing.

The assumptions made here are vast. Yet Aaron Sachs, professor of History and American Studies at Cornell University, through deft cutting and splicing of the work of his protagonists, claims to identify the remarkable resonances between their lives, work and troubled times. Our world exhibits discontinuity and disorientation. Neighbourhoods change as people move in as others move out. Ours is a dynamic world subject to forces that alter it in ways that have never been planned and that no one projected.

But was it not always thus?

I’m not even sure that I have understood Sachs’s argument anyway. The topic appears to be one of interest to a relatively small group of scholars. I would wonder why Melville and Mumford were chosen from the hundreds of scholars that could easily be found for matching purposes. There is nothing unique about them, although Sachs puts up several arguments based on that slippery subject, modernity, to propose a special case exists.

It is always a dodgy business when a reader takes issue with an expert. It’s a no-win situation. I feel that readers need to think about the old trick of proposing a thesis, finding some case studies that support the notion, and then claiming the thesis proved. I’m not arguing that such is the case in the present instance but that is an impression I came away with after attempting to understand this book.

Sachs’s definitions of modernity are difficult to define because he doesn’t do so. He gives examples. He writes of “an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world – and, at the same time, that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are” (xiii). Sachs instances Melville’s 1856 depictions of his domestic life “[that] seem consistent with what we know about his intensifying financial strain and his deteriorating health. He was tired of fighting just to keep up his morale” (187).

Sachs argues that we may think of modern times as generally traumatic. He goes on to state that Melville understood modern trauma. He claims that a period in which Melville was ignored heralded a time of Melville Revival (a more honest reckoning with the past) which helped Americans deal “with the wars and economic panics and technological upheavals and vicious social divisions of their present” (xiv). He does not provide argument to support these statements.

Sachs describes Mumford’s environment as equally grim. Today, he states many people are experiencing a new dark age, “full of foreboding over disease outbreaks, climate change, economic inequality…” (xiv). He calls for a Mumford Revival. Sachs telegraphs that the second half of the book lays out a vision for how individuals might conduct their lives in a counter capitalist society (196). History provides perspective; perspective can help us work towards renewal (xv). To Mumford, Moby Dick succeeded not because of its evocation of great tragedy but because it captured the tension between “the two dissevered halves of the modern world and the modern self” (xvii).

Glowing, if disjointed prose but…does it offer anything more?

And now I’m arguing with the expert again, and I reckoned I would not do that.

This book is probably of significant value to those scholars with the time and inclination to work out how many angels will fit on the point of a pin but, for the man in the street, it offers very little.

Up from the Depths


By Aaron Sachs

Princeton UP

ISBN: 978-0-691-21541-9

$US32.00; 472 pp

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