Bourne in Flames: Forgotten Prophet: The Life of Randolph Bourne. By Bruce Clayton. Louisiana State University Press, $25. History of a Literary Radical and Other Essays. By Randolph Bourne. Edited by Van Wyck Brooks. Biblio, $12.

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The death of Randolph Bourne in 1918, at the age of 32, was as great a loss as American intellectual life has ever sustained. “In no one,” wrote Alfred Kazin about Bourne’s generation, “did ‘the promise of American life’ shine so radiantly.” His career lasted seven years, during which he wrote more than 150 essays and reviews for the leading literary and political journals of his time. His book on the experimental public schools of Gary, Indiana, was an important event in the history of the progressive education movement. His essays on Dreiser largely rescued that novelist from critical neglect. His attack on Puritanism and the genteel tradition helped found cultural radicalism in America. Above all, his lonely, bitter opposition to American participation in World War I was a brief but unforgettable demonstration of the dignity of the intellectual vocation. He was “the intellectual hero of World War I in this country,” said Dwight Macdonald, who was the intellectual hero of World War II in this country.

Bourne was born in suburban New Jersey in 1886. The family doctor bungled the birth, and Bourne’s face was badly deformed. At the age of four he suffered a severe attack of spinal tuberculosis, which left him a hunchback and less than five feet tall throughout his life. His father, a business failure and an alcoholic, was banished by the stern maternal uncle who supported the family. When Randolph graduated high school he was accepted by Princeton, but his uncle refused any further financial support. He tried to find a job in New York City, but his looks told against him. “Not once in two full years of applying,” writes his latest biographer, Bruce Clayton, “did he ever get past the receptionist or initial interview.” He gave up on the city and scrounged work in his hometown; he gave music lessons, punched out piano rolls in a local workshop, did factory work and odd jobs.

Somehow he kept his spirits up, and after six years, at the age of 23, entered Columbia with a full-tuition scholarship. It was like entering Paradise. The teachers were stimulating and accessible; his classmates were friendly; Bourne blossomed into a brilliant student and conversationalist. As a freshman he began contributing to the Columbia literary magazine. As a sophomore he began contributing to the “Atlantic Monthly”. His first essays for the Atlantic, “The Two Generations” and “The Handicapped,” were immensely popular; halfway through college he was a nationally known writer.

His early pieces for the “Atlantic” were a little callow, full of vague and occasionally vapid uplift, which presumably appealed to the attenuated Transcendentalism of that magazine’s readership. “Youth “ began: “How shall I describe Youth, the time of contradictions and anomalies? The fiercest radicalisms, the most dogged conservatisms, irrepressible gayety, bitter melancholy—all these moods are equally part of that great showery springtime of life.” These essays probably owed their popularity to a kind of tame iconoclasm: for all that they twitted the older generation and lamented American provincialism and conformism, their upbeat, healthy-minded tone was also reassuring. The young Bourne preached “the experimental life,” “vitality,” “various ness,” and openness to “American promise.” Liberal, prosperous, prewar middle-class America read these sermons indulgently, rather proud of its youthful chastiser and confident that it could afford a certain quantity of self-improvement.

As graduation approached he hoped for a teaching post at Columbia. But he had lampooned several professors and supported a strike of scrubwomen against the university. The English Department would as soon appoint him a professor, a friend told him, as “the Catholic Church would appoint Voltaire a bishop.” He won a traveling fellowship and spent a year in Europe, meeting writers and radicals, observing architecture and town planning. While he was there, the flower of America’s liberal intelligentsia came together to found “The New Republic”. Bourne was made a contributing editor.

After returning from Europe and joining “The New Republic” in the autumn of 1914, Bourne’s radicalism became more forceful, but also more worldly and sardonic. He had been reading Nietzsche, Dostoyevski, and the Fabian socialists, had watched Europe slide into war hysteria and begun to take stock of the American left—this last a sobering experience in any epoch. His wary editors asked him to concentrate on education and city planning, and his series on progressive education at Gary (soon after ward expanded into a book) was enormously influential. But his reports and reviews pushed on to larger themes, toward a criticism of American life as a whole.

Bourne’s cultural criticism was partly an attempt to apply the pragmatic, instrumentalist philosophy of James and Dewey. To day it may be hard to believe that pragmatism once seemed fresh, liberating, subversive. But it did. Philosophical pragmatism was the last, best blossom of Victorian agnosticism, the modest, tentative Yea that followed the Everlasting No. It amounted to a cosmic wager on the adequacy of secular styles of thought and democratic forms of social life, a wager inspired and underwritten by the success of science. In the experimental, antidogmatic, and— not least important —communal character of scientific practice, pragmatists beheld the image of a possible future. Dewey had shown, Bourne wrote, that “scientific method is simply a sublimely well-ordered copy of our own best and most fruitful habits of thought.” From this apparently innocuous formulation, Bourne drew a radical (though not fully worked out) conclusion: maximizing the national welfare was a technical problem, to be tackled with a resolute disregard of intellectual superstitions, traditional privileges, or special interests. Ingenuity, flexibility, goodwill, good nature—Americans’ “best and most fruitful habits”— would, if imported into public life, gradually overcome America’s class, ethnic, and generational conflicts.

Bourne would outgrow this cheerful meliorism, but it was a generous and plausible illusion. Faith in “the promise of American life’ (the title of one of the most influential books of the era, by the first editor-in-chief of “The New Republic”) was not obviously misplaced in the years before World War 1. Bourne took that promise more seriously than most. “Trans-national America,” his finest “Atlantic” essay, asked “whether perhaps the time has come to assert a higher ideal than the ‘melting pot.’” The assimilationist ideal was misguided, Bourne argued: “there is no distinctively American culture. It is apparently our lot rather to be a federation of cultures.” This was an exceptional historical opportunity: “America is a unique sociological fabric, and it bespeaks poverty of imagination not to be thrilled at the in calculable potentialities of so novel a union of men.” But “poverty of imagination” was precisely the characteristic failing of America’s middle class. And so Bourne warned, in a prescient though fragmentary critique of mass culture, that dynamic capitalism and aggressive “Americanization” would produce not cosmopolitanism but deracination.

To read “Trans-national America” and other essays and reviews from Bourne’s last three years is to ache with regret that his astonishing trajectory was cut so short. “The Price of Radicalism,” a 1000-word book review, is a better manifesto for the New Left than the Port Huron Statement. “What Is Exploitation?,” a 1500-word account of Bourne’s correspondence with an unabashedly reactionary factory-owner, is an exquisite specimen of stylish nondoctrinaire, unpatronizing socialist propaganda (not a thickly populated genre). And he was maturing rapidly. As late as 1917 there were still occasional touches of high-sour vagueness, of undergraduate wistfulness, in his writing. But America’s entry into World War I concentrated his mind wonderfully and provoked the series of furiously eloquent essays for which he is best known today.

“The war—or American promise,” he pleaded; “one must choose.” As censorship and irrationalism increased throughout the country, Bourne insisted, nearly alone, that cultural pluralism could not survive national mobilization. War enhances state power and undermines local, decentralized initiative; it makes passivity, apathy, conformism, cynicism the normal relation between the citizen and state; paradoxically, modern bureaucratized war makes public-spiritedness superfluous. In Bourne’s memorable phrase: “War is the health of the State.” These arguments did not impress his fellow intellectuals, who lined up in support of American intervention. “The New Republic’s” editors and contributors, especially John Dewey, urged “realism” and a more indulgent view of the uses of force. They were confident that “intelligence” (i.e., they, the intelligentsia) could turn the forces let loose by the war to creative social purposes at home and abroad, could turn mechanized lunacy into a “democratic war.” But to do this it was necessary to ally themselves with—actually, to subordinate themselves to—state power. They did so enthusiastically, and thereafter devoted a good deal of polemical energy to jeering at radicals and pacifists, whose scruples, the “realists” claimed, could lead only to isolation and impotence.

All this outraged Bourne, who replied with a combination of penetrating analysis and coruscating sarcasm. In his colleagues’ eagerness to subserve official policy he saw the corruption of pragmatism and, more generally, the proneness of intellectuals to a mystique of “action” and “commitment.” They had supported intervention, he charged, from a “dread of intellectual suspense”—a readiness to minimize their own principled objections to the war for fear of ending up in a posture of futile opposition or of offering an appearance of sentimental idealism. They convinced themselves that power would allow itself to be guided by expertise—their expertise. Bourne exposed this illusion ruthlessly:

“But what then is there really to choose between the realist who accepts evil in order to manipulate it to a great end, but who somehow unaccountably finds events turn sour on him, and the Utopian pacifist who cannot stomach the evil and will have none of it? Both are helpless, both are coerced. The Utopian, however, knows that he is ineffective and that he is coerced, while the realist, evading disillusionment, moves in a twilight zone of half-hearted criticism, and hopings for the best, where he does not become a tacit fatalist. The latter would be the maniier position, but then where would be his realistic philosophy of intelligence and choice?.. . War determines its own end—victory, and government crushes out automatically all forces that deflect, or threaten to deflect, energy from the path of organization to that end. All governments will act in this way; the most democratic as well as the most autocratic. It is only “liberal” naiveté that is shocked at arbitrary coercion and suppression. Willing war means willing all the evils that are organically bound up with it. A good many, people still seem to believe in a peculiar kind of democratic and antiseptic war. The pacifists opposed the war because they knew this was an illusion, and be cause of the myriad hurts they knew war would do to the promise of democracy at home. For once the babes and sucklings seem to have been wiser than the children of light.”

Bourne’s best antiwar writing forms part of a remarkable series of essays by American literary and philosophical radicals: Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience,” Bourne’s “War and the Intellectuals,” “A War Diary,” and “Twilight of Idols”; Dwight Macdonald’s “The Responsibility of Peoples”; and Noam Chomsky’s “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” and “Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship.” There are differences, of course, most notably along a stylistic axis from the epigrammatic bravura of Thoreau to the documentary doggedness of Chomsky. But the similarities are striking: they were all outbursts of passionate moralism, occasioned by an imperialist war (in Macdonald’s case, a morally dubious military strategy); they were aimed at the national chauvinism of the populace, the complacent pragmatism of the educated, and the routine mendacity of the state; and their authors were ignored, or derided as naive and unserious, by the “realists” of their epoch. Perhaps most important, their authors were all amateurs; they asserted a kind of protestant principle of private judgment against the quasitheological mystifications of the government and the policy intelligentsia. Taken together, they constitute something like a prophetic tradition within American radicalism, and the content of their prophecy is: “War is the health of the State.”

As a prophet, Bourne met the usual fate. “The New Republic” politely declined to publish his antiwar essays, though it continued to accept book reviews from him. Bourne’s antiwar writings appeared in “Seven Arts”, a new journal that featured several other young writers—Van Wyck Brooks, Paul Rosenfeld, Louis Untermeyer—and many established ones—Frost, Dreiser, O’Neill, Mencken, Sandburg, Max Eastman, Amy Lowell, Sherwood Anderson. Editorially “Seven Arts” was a brilliant success; but its wealthy sponsor, aghast at Bourne’s radicalism, withdrew her support, so it folded. Bourne began publishing more frequently in “The Dial”, but editorial control passed to a friend of John Dewey, and Bourne was frozen out. By the end of the war he was one of the most famous and least publishable writers in America.

Once again, he kept his spirits up. He began a novel and a philosophical study of the modern state. As the war wound down, he was poised to resume his place as one of the country’s leading literary and social critics. And he found the “golden person” he had always, with an intensity heightened by his deformity, yearned for: the talented, beautiful, aristocratic Esther Cornell. They became engaged a few weeks before Bourne’s fatal influenza attack.

Bruce Clayton’s “Forgotten Prophet” has not much of interest to say about Bourne’s ideas, but it does manage to get inside his emotional life. There is something a little adolescent about the personality that emerges from Bourne’s letters, which Clayton quotes extensively: the ardor, the high- mindedness, the wry self-mockery. Only a little, though; on the whole, Bourne’s character was as admirable as his intelligence. He suffered a good deal from having to go about with one of the best minds of his time in a child’s body. But he succeeded in growing up, and in making himself loved as well as admired.

Clayton concludes by speculating that Bourne would have become a socialist Reinhold Niebuhr: skeptical, unaffiliated, anti-utopian, mindful of human limitations and the tragic dimension. Maybe so; he could not have remained indefinitely in the rarified, supercharged atmosphere of his great antiwar essays. But he would doubtless have soared again, on occasion; and those later flights are much missed. As Sartre wrote after Camus’s death: “Rarely have the qualities of a work and the conditions of the historical moment so clearly required that a writer live.”

Today Bourne occupies an obscure place in the tiny pantheon of the American left. But he captured the imagination of his con temporaries, including John Dos Passos, who wrote in “U.S.A.”:

If any man has a ghost
Bourne has a ghost
a tiny twisted unscared ghost in a
black cloak
hopping along the grimy old brick and
brownstone streets
still left in downtown New York,
crying out in a shrill soundless giggle:
War is the health of the State.


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George Scialabba