Up from the Depths by Aaron Sachs review – riveting journey into the worlds of Melville and Mumford

By 1930, Lewis Mumford had given up. The radical philosopher-critic found his faith in historical progress – and human potential itself – crushed between the great war and the Great Depression. Salvation came from an unexpected source: the work of a then-obscure novelist of the previous century, Herman Melville.

Melville had died 40 years before, his life uncommemorated, his writing dismissed by critics and forgotten by the reading public. Mumford, by contrast, was a rising star in America’s intellectual firmament, an expert in fields ranging from ecology to urbanism. Articulate, urbane and promiscuous – intellectually and otherwise – Mumford seems a breed apart from the taciturn Melville. But, as Aaron Sachs reveals in his joint biography, Up from the Depths, the younger man found kinship and inspiration in Melville’s work.

Both writers grappled with the chaos of modernity. Both abandoned the rationalist, utilitarian conceits of their contemporaries, advancing a romantic worldview – in social criticism and fiction, respectively. Both asked their readers to look again at everyday life. And both placed their hope in the capacity of ordinary people to overcome civilisation’s dark side: to conquer cruelty with love.

Mumford, a once-renowned but now forgotten thinker, spent many of his 94 years studying the relationships between human beings and the technologies we create. Never quite a prophet of doom, he harboured grave doubts about the dehumanisation at work in “machine societies”; doubts that only deepened as the 20th century wore on.

He found a “brother spirit” in the ex-mariner Melville, who glimpsed the madness lurking underneath industrialism’s civilised veneer. A youth spent at the cutting edge of colonial capitalism disabused him of Victorian illusions about scientific progress. “There is no folly of the beasts of the earth,” he wrote, “which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men.” It was a message far in advance of his readership. Frustrated by Moby-Dick’s chilly reception, Melville took a full-time job as a customs inspector, fighting through nervous exhaustion and chronic pain to keep writing in the teeth of commercial and critical failure.

They are psychological siblings – haunted by depression, stalked by an unshakable sense of their life-work’s futility

Parallels between Melville and Mumford’s lives shape Up from the Depths, but their differences are no less telling. Mumford drives his wife to distraction – and his daughter to psychological injury – through a series of extramarital affairs. Melville remains monogamous – although Sachs speculates that his wife suffered sleepless nights over the prevalence of lissome young men in her husband’s books. Both lose a son, but while Mumford turns his grief into productivity – his energy for work was as bottomless, and as long-lived, as his enthusiasm for adultery – Melville falls into deep, pained silence.

It’s in trauma – and the two men’s will to endure it – that Sachs locates their most precious gift to us. Mumford and Melville are psychological siblings; haunted by depression, stalked by an unshakable sense of their life-work’s futility. But writing his biography of Melville, Mumford found strength to continue. “I owe a debt to Melville,” he later wrote, “because my wrestling with him, my efforts to plumb his tragic sense of life, were the best preparations I could have had for facing our present world.”

As the utopian dreams of the 30s terminated in global, mechanised war, Melville’s grim outlook gained new salience for Mumford. But the “black side of human experience” led Melville not to despair but to “cosmic defiance”: a resolution to live on in spite of horror, to hope even in the face of catastrophe. It’s a vision that keeps Mumford going during the McCarthyist 1950s. And one that flowers in the radical 1960s – when Mumford’s green communitarianism came into its own.

Ultimately, tragedy can be endured, but not escaped. The two writers grow old and frail; Mumford suffers dementia, Melville, heart disease. Neither man dies unhappy. But both die in relative obscurity.

Sachs manages a set of impressive balancing acts: matching scholarly diligence with fluent, stylish prose; admiration for his subjects with an alertness to their flaws. Up from the Depths packs multiple books into one: an introduction to Mumford’s thought, an innovative study of Melville, and a history of the modern age through the eyes of two uniquely perceptive writers.

Melville’s posthumous revival relied partly on Mumford and his peers. But it also owed much to Melville himself: his obstinate refusal to give up on the world of literature, even when it gave up on him. For Mumford and Melville, disaster was an intrinsic part of the human experience. But so was hope.

  • Up from the Depths: Herman Melville, Lewis Mumford, and Rediscovery in Dark Times is published by Princeton University Press (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply