Five Who Shook the World
July 23, 2017                    


Young Radicals: In the War for American Ideals by Jeremy McCarter. Random House, [362] pages, [$30].


In pre-World War I America, writers and artists in Greenwich Village created, Jeremy McCarter writes, "a lively, funny, kaleidoscopic bohemia" - a sharp contrast with the "cool technocratic triumphalism" on offer in his own, late-20th-century college days. McCarter, co-author of Hamilton: The Revolution, on which the hit Broadway musical is based, was captivated by the bohemians' youthful ardor and unregimented idealism. In Young Radicals he has written a collective memoir of five of the era's most notable figures: Randolph Bourne, Walter Lippmann, Max Eastman, John Reed, and Alice Paul.

How does one write a collective memoir, especially of events from a century ago? Adventurously - in free indirect discourse much of the time, and leaping nimbly among parallel narrative tracks. The lives and causes of McCarter's protagonists overlapped a good deal, but they also diverged in the course of those hectic years. With ingenuity and affection, he weaves their stories together, describes the conflicts among them, and renders a sympathetic but unsparing account of their shortcomings and defeats. Young Radicals does not pretend to scholarly authority or rigor. One might call it - without prejudice - pop history: it is rewarding as well as entertaining.

Walter Lippmann and John Reed were classmates at Harvard, where Reed was a cheerleader for the football team and Lippmann co-founded the Socialist Club. Temperamentally they were opposites: Reed "big and loud and rough around the edges," a hedonist and dabbler; Lippmann sleek and cosmopolitan but earnest and intellectually precocious. In a mock-epic poem about his fellow Village denizens, Reed spoofed Lippmann as "Our all-unchallenged Chief," a brilliant prig "who builds a world but leaves out all the fun." Soon enough Reed would be as politically earnest as Lippmann, but their sensibilities, even more deeply than their principles, would prove irreconcilable.

Reed plunged into contemporary labor struggles, helping organize the celebrated Paterson Strike Pageant; reported on the Mexican Revolution, riding into battle on one occasion with Pancho Villa; trudged through the killing fields of World War I as a war correspondent, tortured by kidney pains; and turned up in Russia in 1917, interviewing Trotsky and getting appointed to the Executive Committee of the Communist International. Lippmann cast a cold eye on all this, jeering: "I can't think of a form of disaster which John Reed hasn't tried and enjoyed."

Lippmann moved in the opposite direction, increasingly close to power. As an editor of The New Republic, he found official Washington eager to talk to (and, he mistakenly assumed, listen to) liberal intellectuals about America's proper attitude toward the European war. The magazine's editorials obligingly made the case for the Wilson administration's policies: at first neutrality, then preparedness, then belligerency. Lippmann was recruited to Wilson's 1916 reelection campaign, then onto the government's postwar planning staff, and finally sent, with the Army, into occupied Europe. His war was almost as exciting as Reed's, but it ended in bitter disillusion, when Wilson accepted a horribly flawed peace settlement.

Lippmann thereafter retreated into a career of Olympian detachment and superiority as America's most respected and respectable pundit. The one person who might have dragged him off this pedestal and forced him to learn the lessons of his misguided enthusiasm for the war was Randolph Bourne. A hunchback with misshapen features, Bourne was a lonely and marginal figure who made his name writing ardent essays in the Atlantic and New Republic on education, immigration, and culture. Those magazines had no use, however, for his ideas about the war. In a literary monthly, Seven Arts, Bourne wrote a series of brilliant and biting antiwar essays, diagnosing the liberals' and pragmatists' capitulation to war fever as a "dread of intellectual suspense." John Dewey replied angrily but, as he later admitted, ineffectually.

It was one of the most important controversies in American intellectual history. Bourne was vindicated in every respect but unfortunately did not live to press his advantage - he died, only 32, in December 1918. If he had lived and become as influential as he seemed likely to, fewer liberal intellectuals might have supported America's disastrous military interventions in Indochina, Central America, and the Middle East.

The Wilson administration's heavy-handed repression of wartime dissent brought together two of McCarter's protagonists: Reed and Max Eastman, sometime poet and editor of The Masses, where both of them published antiwar essays. The government put them on trial for obstructing the war effort. Eastman delivered a rousing speech to the jury, which won the day. He later moved to the right, becoming one of the more interesting critics of the American and international left.

Alice Paul is probably the least well-known of McCarter's five. A Quaker and Swarthmore graduate, Paul first encountered the women's suffrage movement in England, where she was jailed and repeatedly force-fed (later a favorite tactic of her American jailers as well). In Washington Paul organized protest marches and started The Suffragist magazine. Soon she was deemed too militant by the National American Woman Suffrage Association and expelled. Her single-mindedness and courage were remarkable, though she was not quite brave enough, McCarter acknowledges, to welcome black women into her campaign on equal terms.

She was, however, fearless in confronting politicians. The climax of her story is a meeting at the White House, in which Paul and three companions "warn the president that many, many thousands of voting women feel as they do. By refusing to support a federal suffrage amendment, he might force them to vote against him, which could mean the end of his presidency."

"If they did that," Wilson says, "they would not be as intelligent as I believe they are."

"Two weeks later, Alice Paul puts the Woman's Party into the field."

Wilson narrowly won re-election and eventually agreed to support a federal amendment.


McCarter's prose is sometimes a tad breathless. ("Walter Lippmann pushes through the crowds of frantic Belgians, the shouting men, the sobbing women, desperate for news. He scours the bulletin boards. They tell him nothing he doesn't already know.") Some of his apothegms are a bit strained, like the book's closing exhortation: "Ruins stop being ruins when you build with them." (Aren't you usually better off clearing them away?) But for the most part, the prose maintains its balance even at high velocities. And although scholars may lift an eyebrow over his assumption of psychological intimacy with his subjects, he appears to have earned it, quoting liberally from the young radicals' letters, journals, and memoirs.

In its rhetorical intoxication, its dramatic representations of character, and its effort to reproduce in its verbal rhythms the flow, sometimes torrential, of historical events, Young Radicals recalls Thomas Carlyle's The French Revolution. Readers shouldn't get too excited about this comparison. Carlyle did all those things supremely well and for the first time. His book was a masterpiece, a thunderclap, a revelation. As a piece of historical writing, Young Radicals bears roughly the same relation to The French Revolution as a pleasing sketch by a fledgling artist bears to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Still, one should honor McCarter's ambition, as he has honored those of Bourne, Lippmann, Eastman, Reed, and Paul.