| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Randolph Bourne was one of the most intellectual
voices of his generation, a social critic of considerable acuity and an analyst
of American national life and culture without peer in the first two decades of
the twentieth century. He was born in Bloomfield, New Jersey, a small town of
the sort he was to describe with X-ray accuracy in “The Social Order in an
American Town” (1913). Though his spine and face were deformed at birth, Bourne
went on to find a place for himself among the leading literary and intellectual
figures of the day. Like Thorstein Veblen and other left-leaning critics of
American society, Bourne constantly circled around the disjunction of our
ideals and our practices. He often cultivated an ironic view of life, but never
succumbed to the corrosive pessimism endemic to social criticism. At Columbia
College in the early 1910s, he met Charles Beard and John Dewey and began to publish
essay in journals like the Atlantic Monthly and the Dial. It was with the New
Republic, founded in 1914, and its editors and writers such as Herbert Croly
and Walter Lippman, and later with the cultural magazine, The Seven Arts, that
he came closest to finding a network of supportive friends. But in fact he
often lived in a sort of emotional isolation, admired by many but frequently
troubled by his inability to find a permanent position for himself without
compromising his ideals. He died in 1918, a victim of the influenza epidemic
that spread throughout the country after the close of the war.
the most important chapter in Bourne’s intellectual odyssey came when he broke
with his mentor, John Dewey, over America’s entrance into the First World War.
Bourne’s polemical skills stood out in sharp relief during this episode, as
essays like “Twilight of Idols” (1917) exposed the weak logic of those who had
to change their principles in order to justify joining the national call to
arms. During this time he also wrote his most important work, an unfinished
theoretical piece called “The State” (1919); this bold set of formulations
served later to increase speculation about his ultimate intellectual and
political influence had he lived to write more along such lines.
America” (1916) must be read in the context of Bourne’s rejection of the war
fever that was beginning to overtake various ethnic groups in America in 1915,
when the cry of “preparedness” was often a code for heightening the will to
fight on an international scale. But the essay is also an extremely prescient
work, the most challenging rethinking of the “melting pot” metaphor produced by
any twentieth-century writer. Indeed it is fair to say that even today the
thinking on multiculturalism and its political and social forms has rarely gone
beyond Bourne’s formulations, even though he acknowledged his own “vagueness.”
used the image of the cultural center to organize his article, but he urged his
readers not to accept the central “melting pot” metaphor to produce a culture
that would be “washed out into a tasteless, colorless fluid of uniformity.”
Intellectuals at this time were just beginning to see the social ramifications
of assimilation, and not all who analyzed the situation were favorably disposed
to the cultural values of those increasingly referred to as “hyphenated”
Americans. Far from thrilled by what he called the “flotsam and jetsam of
American life,” with its “leering cheapness and falseness of taste and
spiritual outlook,” Bourne saw further into the problem than most when he
claimed that “if freedom means a democratic cooperation in determining the
ideals and purposes and industrial and social institutions of a country, then
the immigrant has not been free.”
envisioned a nation of immigrants who could “retain that distinctiveness of
their native cultures” and hence be “more valuable and interesting to each
other for being different.” This visionary state he called by various terms,
such as a “Beloved Community,” marked by a cosmopolitanism that embraced
various cultural points of view. He saw, like Du Bois, the necessary double
consciousness of modern life, though, unlike Du Bois, he considered this a
possibility rather than a burden. Like Alain Locke, he recognized how cultural
struggle and enrichment could provide a way beyond the narrow bitterness of
political divisiveness and economic exploitation. Education, especially one
provided by the modern college and university that contained the “seeds of [an]
international intellectual world of the future” would prepare immigrants for
the “Beloved Community.” As with many visionaries, Bourne’s formulations remain
both a rebuke and a challenge.
Queens College, City University of New York
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From The BIG EYE
Background with a link to The War and the Intellectuals.
Randolph S. Bourne
Includes a photograph, a short Bourne biography, a complete bibliography, and links to "The War and the Intellectuals," "John Dewey's Philosophy," "War is the Health of the State," "Transnational America," and "The Handicapped -by One of Them.".
Randolph Bourne by Ben Reiner
A short article on Bourne from the Greenwich Village Gazette.
Randolph Bourne in The Dial
Biographical sketch and information about Bourne's work published in the Dial.
Bruce Clayton, Forgotten Prophet: The Life of Randolph Bourne, 1984
Christopher Lasch, The New Racialism in America, 1889-1963: The Intellectual As a Social Type, 1967
Lillian Schlissel, ed., The World of Randolph Bourne, 1963
Michael Walzer, The Company of Critics: Social Criticism and Political Commitment in the Twentieth Century, 1988