American Prophet


If the name Randolph Silliman Bourne is now even faintly recognizable to the general reader, it is likely to be associated with the elegy to “the tiny twisted unscared ghost” of one of the “biographies” of Dos Passos’s U.S.A. Dos Passos had a penchant for martyrs, and his tribute to the radical pacifist who opposed American entrance into President Wilson’s war memorialized both a man and a legend.

Bourne was born in Bloomfield, New Jersey, in 1886, the same year as his friend Van Wyck Brooks, and died at thirty-one in the influenza epidemic of 1918. A severe birth injury which curved his spine and disfigured his face doubtless determined to a large degree the formation of his character and disposition. “The deformed man,” he was later to write in “The Handicapped” (1911), “has all the battles of a stronger man to fight” and none of the advantages granted to the well-favored. His self-respect is stunted for he is never sure whether his difficulties are owing “to his physical disability” or “to his weak will and character.” Yet there are compensations for bearing “a crooked back and an unsightly face.” Friendships become more precious. Denied certain “physical satisfactions,” he can “occupy the far richer kingdom of mental effort and artistic appreciation.” And having undergone the neglect and anguish of the handicapped, he can identify with the “despised and ignored” and “begin to understand the feelings of the horde of the unpresentable and the unemployable, the incompetent and the ugly, the queer and crotchety people who make up so large a proportion of human folk.”

After his graduation from high school in 1903, he was forced to go to work instead of attending Princeton, where he had been accepted, and earned his living by playing the piano and taking on joyless jobs for six years until his savings and a scholarship enabled him to enter Columbia College. There his intellectual maturity and literary ability quickly brought him the recognition he craved and the indispensable “friends” (the “persons, causes, and books”) that “are chosen for us by some hidden law of sympathy.” He had come to Columbia to prepare himself for a career as a “cultivated ‘man of letters,”’ but finding the English department embalmed in a genteel past, he was converted by such teachers as John Dewey and Charles Beard (as he put it in an autobiographical sketch) “to a fiery zeal for artistic and literary propaganda in the service of radical ideas.” While he was still an undergraduate a series of his articles published in the Atlantic Monthly (1911-1912) marked him, in Van Wyck Brooks’s words, as “the flying wedge of the younger generation.”

These high-flying pieces caught the spirit of the “confident years” (roughly the decade preceding America’s entrance into the First World War) when, Bourne wrote, “the muddle of a world and a wide outlook” combined “to inspire us to the bravest of radicalism.” By “us” he meant his iconoclastic contemporaries now beginning their irreverent examinations of the culture and politics of the period dominated by the pompous conservatism of William Howard Taft and the hollow Bull Moose rhetoric of Teddy Roosevelt. Walter Lippmann spoke for all of them when he announced in 1912: “We have a world bursting with new ideas, new plans, and new hopes. The world was never so young as it is today, so impatient of old and crusty things.”

The struggle against the forces of inertia was being carried on in a number of cultural and social fronts by artist-rebels, reformers, and college professors, but it was Bourne’s distinction to spell out the special prerogatives and obligations of the so-called “younger generation,” to present it as “the incarnation of reason pitted against the rigidity of tradition.” Youth welcomed experiment; the elderly, devoid of the “scientific attitude,” feared it. Old men fell back on the shibboleth of “experience” while youth saw it merely as “a slow accretion of inhibitions.” For most people, Bourne thought, “experience” stopped at twenty-five:

As their youthful ideals come into contact with the harshness of life, the brightest succumb and go to the wall. And the hardy ones that survive contain all that is vital in the future experience of the man—so that the ideas of older men seem often the curious parodies or even burlesques of what must have been the clearer and more potent ideas of their youth. Older people seem often to be resting on their oars, drifting on the spiritual current that youth has set going in life, or “coasting” on the momentum that the strong push of youth has given them.

Hence it behooved “Youth” whose “vision is always the truest” to be not less radical, but more radical—to keep a generation ahead of the times so that its ideas would not be obsolescent when it assumed control of the world. Bourne envisaged a leadership which constantly checked its thinking with the facts of life and retained the “fine precipitate” of youthful spirit—sane, strong, aggressive, flexible, receptive. “To keep one’s reactions warm and true is to have found the secret of perpetual youth, and perpetual youth is salvation.”

Uncertain of his own role in the clash of generations, Bourne studied sociology for a year after his graduation before his academic life came to an end. He had hoped for a teaching job at Columbia but had to settle in 1913 for a traveling fellowship which gave him an impression-packed tour of a Europe ready to burst apart and a sense of what American civilization had not yet but could become.

Upon his return, Bourne joined the ambitious pragmatists on Herbert Croly’s New Republic as the specialist on city planning and education. Croly and Bourne were followers of Dewey, and Bourne’s pieces on the Gary, Indiana, “work-study-play” schools and his other educational articles bore the Deweyan stamp. He also sketched portraits of American types (sometimes tenderly, more often sardonically), and commented on such topics as sociological fiction, reformers, organized labor, industrial relations, and middle-class radicalism. But soon after the first German successes the magazine began to side with the Allied powers. Bourne, hating any sort of jingoism, appalled by the futility of the killing, found himself increasingly jarred by Croly’s editorial line. The inevitable rupture was signaled by Dewey’s articles attacking the “moral innocency” and “inexpertness” of his former disciples, who had once, Bourne said, “taken Dewey’s philosophy almost as our American religion.”

Dewey’s support of American intervention on the side of the Allies was a deep disappointment. His dismissal of the antiwar position as “a somewhat murky belief in the existence of disembodied moral forces,” painful in itself, also exposed to Bourne the hollowness of that “instrumentalist” philosophy which he had championed as late as 1915—the same “practical instrument” with which the Youth-vanguard was to have solved the problems of the age. Dewey chastised the antiwar party for placing emotion over intelligence and ideas over specific purposes, for nurturing “political motives” rather than creating “social agencies and environments.” Bourne countered by charging that Dewey’s “instrumental use of intelligence for the realization of conscious social purpose” might work well enough in peacetime but that war invalidated choice or what Dewey called “creative intelligence.” Hence, he wrote in “The War and the Intellectuals” (first published in The Seven Arts), the New Republic intellectuals could neither realize “conscious social purpose” nor control events. If the proper course was to accept the inevitable and try to direct it, as Dewey maintained, then Bourne had the right to choose what seemed inevitable to him, i.e., conscientious objection.

As the war hysteria intensified Bourne found fewer outlets for his unpopular notions. The Seven Arts, a magazine addressed to “the many unknown who are hidden and pinned down in sordid corners of America,” published Bourne’s antiwar articles, until it ceased publication altogether in 1917, and he continued to appear in The Dial and elsewhere until his death. But when the United States entered the war, Bourne went into seclusion, although there is no evidence that federal agents hounded him and stole his papers or that during his last days he was poor and embittered, as the legend had it.

Since his death in 1918 Bourne has been “rediscovered” a number of times and cited on occasion to corroborate political and cultural programs of action he very likely would have repudiated or qualified. A number of books and articles and several collections of his writings appeared in the Sixties1 which corrected misconceptions and offered a balanced appraisal of his thought. Now Olaf Hansen, a young German scholar and lecturer on American social and literary culture at Frankfurt University, has compiled a new anthology. With a preface by Christopher Lasch and a forty-five-page introduction by Hansen, it is the fullest and most representative collection of Bourne’s work in print. The selections are arranged under four categories that pretty well subsume Bourne’s life and work: “Youth and Life: In Search of a Radical Metaphor”; “Education and Politics”; “Politics, State and Society”; “Portraits, Criticisms and the Art of Reviewing.” Each section is introduced by an extended headnote. Hansen omits some pieces appearing in previous collections but includes twelve hitherto unpublished ones.

Hansen’s interest in the literary consciousness of Bourne’s generation and American radical thought makes his approach to Bourne somewhat different from that of most of Bourne’s other commentators.2 Marxism, he notes, had only a “negative attraction” for the American radical intelligentsia. Something of Marx’s “moral indignation” seeped into their “humanistic social philosophy,” but finding his ideas inapplicable to American conditions, they advanced alternatives of their own that were comparable if not equal to his in scope and coherence. Bourne’s work, Hansen believes, can be read as one kind of radical alternative to Marx. His cross-section of Bourne’s published and unpublished writing holds up for examination not only a mind but an intellectual tradition as well.

The new anthology also suggests why Bourne, like Emerson, was able to attract adherents from opposing intellectual camps and how a generation’s culture hero can turn out to be one of its most searching critics. He spoke for the international working-class movement and the abolition of class war through socialism, yet was hypersensitive to all authoritarianism, whether Marxist or bourgeois authoritarianism. “Intellectual radicalism,” he wrote in 1916,

should not mean repeating stale dogmas of Marxism. It should not mean “the study of socialism.” It had better mean a restless controversial criticism of current ideas, and a hammering out of some clear-sighted philosophy that shall be this pillar of fire. The young radical today is not asked to be a martyr, but he is asked to be a thinker, an intellectual leader. So far as the official radicals deprecate such an enterprise they make their movement sterile. Yet how often when attempts are made to group radicals on an intellectual basis does not some orthodox elder of the socialist church arise and solemnly denounce such intellectual snobbishness. Let these young men and women, he will say, go down into the labor unions and socialist locals and learn of the workingmen. Let them touch the great heart of the people. Let them put aside their university knowledge and hear that which is revealed unto babes. Only by humbly working up through the actual labor movement will the young radical learn his job. His intellectualism he must disguise. The epithet “intellectual” must make him turn pale and run.

Suspicious of utopian notions and impressed by Walter Lippmann’s Drift and Mastery, with its vision of a scientific government run by a managerial elite, Bourne still yearned for an organic social order, a loving community, and the free development of the self. The pragmatist with his ironical cast of thought allied himself with the more fervid insurgents on The Seven Arts and wrote confidently about a cultural takeover by the radical Youth Party. Even during his darker moments as he watched the young intelligentsia “making themselves efficient instruments of the war-technique,” he clung to the hope that the “skeptical, malicious, desperate, ironical mood” of a few malcontents “may actually be the sign of more vivid and more stirring life fermenting in America today.” Yet he never underestimated the power of constraining social forces or the vulnerability of the young to the silent coercions of institutions.

Bourne constructed no systematic social theory, and despite his wide reading in sociology his interests tended to be literary and aesthetic. Hence, Hansen observes, his “freedom from the restrictions of theoretical order” allowed him to follow his ideas to the point of their negation, to hold in balance dramatic oppositions, and to maintain “the unresolvable paradox of existence.” There were no solutions in Bourne’s philosophy. “Is” and “ought,” the event and the antecedent idea never fused. In his most optative mood, he felt “the dark undercurrent” of forces that worked against individual self-sufficiency and troubled his dream of community.

He set forth the politics of this unrealized society in pronouncements about the condition of the civic arts (architecture and town planning) and literature in the United States. “From the chaos and ugliness of American cities,” Bourne wrote, “flows too palpably our economic and human waste.” Art signified to him an “aesthetic correlative” for “social hunger.” Creative expression only occurred within creative communities, themselves not simply the consequences of social engineering but of a reinterpretation of culture itself. How “legal and economic barriers” might be surmounted and the communal ideal implanted and sustained he did not attempt to explain. Nor could he reconcile his fascination for group art (pageants and masques, choral singing and dancing, the unanimisme of Jules Romains and the like) with his ineradicable distaste for the vulgarities of mass culture.

Many of the essays included in The Radical Will contain attacks on the older generation, especially the genteel critics, editors, and academics who dominated the cultural scene, with their tepid ethics, moral unction, want of passion, and fear of the new and disturbing. Bourne ascribed their failure to propagate “the best ideas of their time” to their practice of a kind of “applied virtue” which had nothing to say about “caste and race and economic equality.” Against their shifty evasions, Bourne pitted, even after his disenchantment, the idealistic and experimental “malcontent” minority.

He is usually treated as the spokesman and prophet for this radical contingent, and so he was; but he was also its wary strategist and supervisor. He took on the responsibility of alerting the young to their self-deceptions and sentimentalities, and he anxiously scanned the shades of the prison house about to close around them. They had less to fear from collisions, he warned, than from invitations to compromise, and a good deal of his writing pinpointed the traps society planted to ensnare them in.

To Bourne, the family epitomized the coercive world. Although not entirely deleterious, for it provided a salutary routine, it inculcated moral opinions of dubious value and suppressed “natural and beautiful tendencies.” Education simply continued the inhibitory process initiated by the family, chilling the ardent and preparing robots for a robot society. Thereafter economic pressures could be counted upon to stifle any lingering eccentricity. Conditioned now to the herd’s instinctive suspicion of the unusual, the novice slowly withdrew “into an ideal world of phrases and concepts and artificial attitudes.” He internalized the dogmas of family and conspired in his own defeat. Bourne completed the sad scenario by elaborating on the sinister inducements to comply and collaborate: opportunities for reputable pleasure-seeking, the “terrible glamor of social patronage,” the uncritical receptiveness of “the liberal audience” that tamed as it rewarded.

Undoubtedly these thoughts derived in part from Bourne’s relation to his own straitlaced family and the frustrations growing out of his “physical misfortunes.” He was a misfit in more ways than one, shut off (he intimates in his letters) from many kinds of human intercourse because of society’s dread of aberration. Coming to terms with these “physical misfortunes” enabled him to see his humiliations “in the light of those of other people” and to formulate in his essay “The Life of Irony” the precepts to which he attributed his own survival.

The Ironist (a composite of Montaigne, Arnold, Veblen) opened his mind to all experience and tested ideas in the light of disinterested observation. The most unself-righteous of democrats, he acknowledged kinship with the damned human race, and although he disposed of outworn ideas with forgivable malice and encouraged idiots to hang themselves on their own words, he was no cynic and was never brutal or overbearing. Since the Ironist always saw the other side and shunned the polarities of good and evil, he could be neither optimist nor pessimist. “In his world,” Bourne wrote, “there is no privileged caste, no aristocracy of sentiments to be reverenced, or segregated systems of interests to be tabooed.”

He opposed to the Ironist, during the war hysteria, the intellectuals who were unable to endure “contradictory situations” or live with incompatible ideas, who retreated to “safer positions” and adjusted to the “old tyrannies.” Feeling inferior to men of action and deceived into imagining that they possessed a greater influence than they had—indeed that they controlled events—the intellectuals renounced thought for action and boasted it was they who willed America into war. Bourne likened them to drunken or incapacitated officers on a reeling ship with the crew pouring on the coal. While they tinkered and dreamed, the real rulers—their hands on the machinery of power—hypnotized “loosely floating ‘public opinion.”’ “Our fallacy,” he wrote in an unpublished manuscript circa 1917,

in trusting to either labor or capital to save civilized Europe from a world-war lay in ignoring the isolated persistence of this third power—the military caste, to whom both were merely means to an end, the one as food for powder, the other as sinews of war. The Défaillance of one was no worse than the other. In our disillusionment and chagrin, we must recognize that the attitudes of the Socialists and of the Great-illusionists were equally sentimental. While they were educating the people, the Emperors were drilling their soldiers. Proletarians, bankers, scientists, poets, business men—all the numberless classes that did not want war—these had the sentiments. The Emperors had the guns.

But for Bourne, the “cowardly middle-classes” had to bear the cost of their “faint-hearted negligence” and to learn bitter truths: “there was no such thing as automatic progress”; the “key-note of social ‘progress’ is not evolution but the overlapping of the generations, with their stains and traces of the past…the struggle of the old to conserve, or the new to adapt.” Bourne had not expected the intellectuals to be “martyrs and heroines,” but he blamed them for failing to be “fiercely and concentratedly” intellectual enough, for not hammering out a “constructive socialist analysis and criticism of industrial relations.”

It is hard to conceive of Bourne or the saving remnant of “malcontents” being able to systematize his visionary brand of pragmatism. How was the socialized order with its promise of maximum individual freedom to be realized, and by whom? No enlightenment would come from the “masses,” for all their energy and vitality. Once he had looked to the gifted minority to eliminate society’s “terrible stupidities” and achieve a synthesis of freedom and order. But when these gentlemen socialists and college teachers and writers succumbed “to an almost incurable neurosis of herd-fear,” Bourne had to qualify, if not entirely abandon, his expectations for Young America.


Had Bourne lived, Van Wyck Brooks surmised, he would have turned increasingly to “the problems of evoking and shaping American literature,” but if Brooks meant by this an abandonment of economic and political concerns, he did not reckon sufficiently with the fundamental radicalism of his tougher-minded friend.

Aesthetic considerations, it is true, invariably entered into Bourne’s assessments of writers as diverse as Henry James, Dreiser, Mencken, and Upton Sinclair; and he demanded of “fictional sociology” not only that “its sociology be sound and true” but also that its “message” be implicit and unobtrusive. All the same, his reviews, critical pieces, random sketches, satires, and literary maxims betray the social thinker and reformer not primarily concerned with the formalistic problems of the arts. A good critic challenged “the uncritical hospitality of current taste.” According to Bourne, Mencken possessed “moral freedom, a passion for ideas…vigor and pungency of phrase,” but spent so much time attacking that he became a moralist and a bore; criticism ought to “discriminate between what is fresh, sincere, and creative and what is merely stagy and blatantly rebellious.” Bourne wanted a “literary art which will combine a classical and puritan tradition with the most modern ideas…minds with a touch of the apostolic about them and a certain edge—a little surly but not embittered.” He called timidity the reigning fault and regarded the “terrorism of ‘good taste”’ as more deadly “to the creation of literary art than is sheer barbarism.”

Dreiser, the subject of two sympathetic and probing analyses, was a case in point. “For Dreiser,” Bourne wrote, “is a true hyphenate, a product of that conglomerate Americanism that springs from other roots than the English tradition.” Innocent of the genteel canons, groping and wistful, he was the “very human critic of very common human life” and the recorder of what was pathetic and vacuous yet energetic and appealing about lower-middle-class America. For the sake of his realistic and unprurient treatment of sex, his powerful handling of American themes, his refusal to tack on happy endings and punish the wicked, Bourne tolerated Dreiser’s slovenly style, “his lack of nuances, his apathy to the finer shades of beauty, his weakness for the mystical and the vague.”

In many ways the most winning and attractive side of Bourne was his openness to cultural differences, his solicitude for the immigrant cut off from his own culture and in danger of being converted by the Melting Pot process into a faceless philistine. His idea of cultural cosmopolitanism was embodied in the expatriate whose “expansion involves no shameful conflict within him, no surrender of his native attitude.” He envisioned a “Trans-National America” which supplied the new immigrant with a national culture while inspiring him to retain the old and current culture (but not the political loyalties) of his ancestral country.

These are only some of the ideas which might have preoccupied him had he survived the 1918 epidemic. It is almost impossible to imagine him a communist. It is less difficult to think of him as a cultural critic and social commentator planning new strategies for a fallible intelligentsia and constantly reminding them that “vision must outshoot technique.”

He died before he could establish himself as a major literary force, and left hardly more than a pile of fragments. Yet in them we can find analyses of what we now call the “identity crisis” and of what it means “to grow up absurd” that are more acute than much social commentary we now read. Bourne’s prophetic and hortatory tone can become tiresome. He was too ready to educate, announce, denounce. He was far too hopeful about the potential influence of the intellectual in politics. He experienced too much too fast and tried to get it all down without sufficient reflection.

Yet as Hansen brings out in his illuminating introduction, and as the selections in The Radical Will demonstrate, this elitist democrat, this socialist who distrusted society, this pessimistic optimist, sensitively registered the cultural and ideological vibrations of his times. He remains perennially interesting and “discoverable”: the maverick clerc out of tune with his own class and the anonymous public (although never disowning them) and in search of what he called “that imagined audience of perfect comprehenders.”

  1. 1

    War and the Intellectuals: Essays by Randolph S Bourne, 1915-1919, edited by Carl Resek (Harper Torchbook edition, 1964); The World of Randolph Bourne, edited by Lillian Schlissel (E.P. Dutton, 1965); Randolph Bourne, Legend and Reality, by John Adam Moreau (Public Affairs Press, 1966); The New Radicalism in America, 1889-1963, by Christopher Lasch (Knopf, 1965), pp. 69-103; Randolph Bourne, by Sherman Paul (University of Minnesota Press, 1966).

  2. 2

    See his recently published Bewufstsein-formen literarische Intelligenz: Randolph Bourne, Herbert Croly, Max Eastman, V.F. Calverton und Michael Gold (Stuttgart: J.B. Metzlersche Verlagsbuchlandlung, 1977).