RANDOLPH BOURNE Biography - Writers


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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.