Randolph Silliman Bourne

Randolph Silliman Bourne (1886-1918) was an American pacifist, cultural critic, and leader of the "youth movement" of the 1910s. His repudiation of official World War I attitudes inspired later pacifist dissenters.

Randolph Bourne was born on May 30, 1886, in Bloomfield, N.J. His father abandoned the family when circumstances became straitened. Randolph's hunched back and twisted features set him apart from other children, as did his academic brilliance. He was puritanic in his will to help support his mother, and following high school graduation he worked for a maker of automatic music rolls and then as a piano accompanist. His "discovery" of socialism stirred him, but at age 23, for lack of alternatives, he entered Columbia University in New York City.

At Columbia, Bourne's social and intellectual talents expanded. He shone academically and made many and varied friendships. Though then a follower of John Dewey, he was also a romantic who dreamed of a dedicated youth changing the world. Bourne distinguished himself by selling his essays to the Atlantic Monthly and, in 1913, publishing them in Youth and Life; the latter became a banner to idealists.

Columbia awarded Bourne the prestigious Gilder fellowship, which provided for an intensive tour of Europe. He met many intellectuals and observed strikes and student movements. In August 1914, following the outbreak of war, he fled Europe to make his career at home.

Bourne took up residence in Greenwich Village, New York City, which was seething with artists and revolutionary thinkers who became his friends, including John Reed and Van Wyck Brooks. He also joined the New Republic, just initiated by Herbert Croly. As "contributing editor, " Bourne occupied an uncertain position, but his fluency and varied interests seemed to assure his future.

He plunged into an intensive life of writing and companionship. His physical deformity affected his social relations, but he surmounted it in large measure. He investigated progressive systems of education and collected his articles in The Gary Schools (1916) and Education and Living (1917). He also prepared for the American Association for International Conciliation a symposium, Towards an Enduring Peace (1916). Meanwhile, he issued a constant stream of essays and book reviews for the New Republic, the Seven Arts, and the Dial, demanding a literature concerned with beauty, the poor, and internationalism. He was not highly original, deriving basic ideas from Dewey, William James, H.M. Kallen, and others, but he added a personal element which, for his admirers, had the flavor of genius.

America's entrance into World War I challenged pacifist and socialist circles. Bourne's intellectual intransigence singled him out from most of his associates. He repudiated John Dewey, who had accepted the war and American war aims on pragmatic grounds. Bourne's stand all but closed the New Republic to him, as well as other publications which suffered from censorship. Several of Bourne's best-known essays, such as his analysis of the state, were unpublished in his lifetime. These revealed his new alienation from the American mainstream and foreshadowed a later criticism of American life. Bourne was stricken with bronchial pneumonia on Dec. 17, 1918, and died 5 days later. His friends published his Untimely Papers (1919) and The History of a Literary Radical (1920). Best remembered is John Dos Passos' portrait of Bourne in his novel 1919 "A tiny twisted unscared ghost in a black cloak/ hopping along the grimy old brick and brownstone streets still left in downtown New York,/ crying out in a shrill soundless giggle:/ War is the health of the State."

Further Reading on Randolph Silliman Bourne

Lillian Schlissel edited an anthology of Bourne's works, The World of Randolph Bourne (1965). His writings are replete with autobiographical details. Numerous essays by friends and admirers emphasize his idealism and personality. See, for example, Van Wyck Brooks, Emerson and Others (1927). Louis Filler, Randolph Bourne (1943), analyzes Bourne's career. Many additional details appear in John A. Moreau, Randolph Bourne: Legend and Reality (1966).

Additional Biography Sources

Clayton, Bruce, Forgotten prophet: the life of Randolph Bourne, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1984.