Who Was Randolph Bourne?
John Dos Passos on Randolph Bourne (from U.S.A. 1946)
came as an inhabitant of this earth
without the pleasure of choosing his dwelling or his career.
He was a hunchback, grandson of a congregational minister, born in 1886 in Bloomfield, New Jersey; there he attended grammer school and high school. At the age of seventeen he went to work as a secretary to a Morristown businessman. He worked his way through Columbia working in a pianola record factory in Newark, working as proofreader, painotuner, accompanist in a vocal studio in Carnegie Hall.
At Columbia he studied with John Dewey, got a traveling fellowship that took him to England
Paris Rome Berlin Copenhagen, wrote a book on the Gary schools. In Europe he heard
music, a great deal of Wagner and Scriabine
and bought himself a black cape.
This little sparrowlike man,
tiny twisted bit of flesh in a black cape,
always in pain and ailing,
put a pebble in his sling
and hit Goliath square in the forehead with it.
War, he wrote, is the health of the state.
Half musician, half educational theorist (weak health and being poor and twisted in body and
on bad terms with his people hadn't spoiled the world for Randolph Bourne; he was a happy
man, loved die Meistersinger and playing Bach with his long hands that stretched so easily
over the keys and pretty girls and good food and evenings of talk. When he was dying of
pneumonia a friend brought him an eggnog; Look at the yellow, its beautiful, he kept saying
as his life ebbed into delirium and fever. He was a happy man.) Bourne seized with feverish
intensity on the ideas then going around at Columbia he picked rosy glasses out of the turgid
jumble of John Dewey's teaching through which he saw clear and sharp.
the shining capitol of reformed democracy,
Wilson's New Freedom;
but he was too good a mathematician; he had to work the equations out;
with the result
that in the crazy spring of 1917 he began to get unpopular where his bread was
buttered at the New Republic;
for New Freedom read Conscription, for Democracy, Win the War, for
Reform, Safeguard the Morgan Loans
for Progress Civilization Education Service,
Buy a Liberty Bond,
Strafe the Hun,
Jail the Objectors.
He resigned from the New Republic; only The Seven Arts had the nerve to publish his
articles against the war. The backers of the Seven Arts took their money elsewhere; friends
didn't like to be seen with Bourne, his father wrote him begging him not to disgrace the family
name. The rainbowtinted future of reformed democracy went pop like a pricked soapbubble.
The liberals scurried to Washington;
some of his friends pled with him to climb up on Schoolmaster Wilson's sharabang; the war
was great fought from the swivel chairs of Mr. Creel's bureau in Washington.
He was cartooned, shadowed by the espionage service and the counter-espionage service;
taking a walk with two girl friends at Wood's Hole he was arrested, a trunk full of manuscript
and letters stolen from him in Connecticut. (Force to the utmost, thundered Schoolmaster Wilson).
He didn't live to see the big circus of the Peace of Versailles or the purplish normalcy of the
Ohio Gang. Six weeks after the armistice he died planning an essay on the foundations of
future radicalism in America.
If any man has a ghost
Bourne has a ghost,
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.
- John Dos Passos