InstructorsStudentsReviewersAuthorsBooksellers Contact Us
Access Author Profile Pages by:
 Resource Centers
Textbook Site for:
The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Randolph Bourne

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.

Perhaps 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.

“Trans-National 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.”

Bourne 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.”

Bourne 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.

Charles Molesworth
Queens College, City University of New York

In the Heath Anthology
Trans-National America (1916)

Other Works

Cultural Objects
There are no Cultural Objects for this author.
Would you like to add a Cultural Object?

There are no pedagogical assignments or approaches for this author.


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.

Secondary Sources

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