Critics & Crusaders: A Century of American Protest

By Charles A. Madison | Go to book overview

RANDOLPH BOURNE

THE HISTORY OF A LITERARY RADICAL

WRITING TO A FRIEND in 1913, while still a student at Columbia University, Randolph Bourne outlined his brief but turbulent future with exceptional insight:

I can almost see now that my path in life will be on the outside of things, poking holes in the holy, criticising the established, satirizing the selfrespecting and contented. Never being competent to direct and manage any of the affairs of the world myself, I will be forced to sit off by myself in the wilderness, howling like a coyote that everything is being run wrong.

If this self-estimate was overmodest, it described accurately his unhappy role during the stormy years of World War I. Earlier his eagerness to deepen and purify the cultural stream and his impatience with muddling and meandering forced him to rebel against his smug elders and to proclaim the ideal of the American promise. He was equally energetic in his advocacy of progressive methods of education, new literary values, and economic democracy. In each field his voice rang true and strong -- but not loud enough to shake the walls of Jericho. And when the claws of war fastened on the United States and men scorned the thought of peace, Bourne fought desperately against what seemed to him a disastrous betrayal of American culture. Driven into the wilderness, he remained there to the end of his untimely death a few weeks after the Armistice, feeding on the anguish in his heart and holding fast to his vision of the American promise.

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