FORGOTTEN PROPHET: The Life of Randolph Bourne by Bruce Clayton

FORGOTTEN PROPHET: The Life of Randolph Bourne

Email this review


Bourne the ""literary radical"" (1886-1918) is hardly forgotten, though his importance as a uniquely American radical tends to get lost from time to time. This competent treatment by Allegheny College historian Clayton doesn't add much to what is already known about Bourne's life. A family doctor's botched delivery left b. is face deeply scarred; an attack of spinal tuberculosis when he was four stunted his growth and gave him a hunched back. But he sought a normal life, wanting to be accepted for his mind and refusing to fall into self-pity. An excellent student, Bourne couldn't afford to attend Princeton, and waited several years for a scholarship to Columbia. There, he attained notoriety through the college literary magazine and hit the big time when, in his second year, he became a regular contributor to the Atlantic, writing on youth and education and general literary topics. Nietzsche, William James, and John Dewey turned him into a radical and a socialist. After a trip to Europe on a Columbia stipend, he joined the New Republic in 1914, and made himself a specialist on education through a study of the famously progressive Gary, Ind., school system. At the outbreak of WW I, Bourne questioned the inflammatory anti-German rhetoric, and became an opponent of American involvement; when the US did enter, he opposed the war. Shut out from the New Republic, he wrote antiwar pieces for the literary journal Seven Arts that contributed to its swift demise. His attack on Dewey for supporting the war led to Dewey's insistence that Bourne play only a minor role in the revival of the magazine The Dial. Believing that his fellow-intellectuals had sold out to the desire to be influential, and thus safe, Bourne was unwavering in his pursuit of progressive pragmatic ideals: a champion of cultural pluralism and feminism, with a vision of America as the first cosmopolitan nation. His career was cut short when he died in December 1918 at age 32, a victim of the flu epidemic. Clayton emphasizes Bourne's relationships with women: brought up by females, he respected their intelligence; but despite his progressive ideas he couldn't shake his early, puritanical moral code. Nonetheless he had many women friends and was about to marry when he died. Earlier biographies, by Louis Filler and John A. Moreau, have most of the ingredients of Clayton's and (in Filler's case particularly) many of the same quotations from letters and friends. Still, Clayton's text is fuller and does gain some slight advantage from being more recent--in the last chapter, he answers such Bourne critics as Christopher Lasch. When it too goes into paperback, it will be the preferred purchase; right now, it's sure to get attention.

Pub Date: Nov. 4th, 1984
ISBN: 0826211798
Publisher: Louisiana Univ. Press