American Prophet

Randolph Bourne
Randolph Bourne; drawing by David Levine


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…

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