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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.

  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).

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