• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

American Prophet

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.”

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print