Thursday, June 2, 2011

Randolph Bourne

A brilliant American journalist whose career was damaged when he objected to America's involvement in World War I. (Via The Western Confucian.)
Randolph Silliman Bourne first emerged into the light of day on May 30, 1886, in Bloomfield, New Jersey, a small town fewer than 20 miles from Manhattan. His family was comfortably middle class, and he was the grandson of a respected Congregational minister. But he seems to have been born unlucky all the same. First, his head and face were deformed at birth in a bungled forceps delivery. Then, at the age of four, after a battle with spinal tuberculosis, he became a hunchback. Then, when he was seven, his parents lost everything in the Panic of 1893, and he and his mother were abandoned by his father and left to live in genteel poverty on the charity of his mother’s prosperous (if somewhat tightfisted) brother. Meanwhile, his growth had been permanently stunted by the spinal tuberculosis of a few years before, so that by the time he graduated from high school at the age of 17, in 1903, he had attained his full adult height of five feet.

Bourne was an exemplary student. His academic record in high school earned him a place in the class of 1907 at Princeton, but by the time he was supposed to appear on campus to register for classes in the fall of 1903, it was evident that he couldn’t afford to attend. He could barely afford books. He was flat broke. And his mother needed his financial help if she was going to go on living the decent, middle-class lifestyle to which she had become accustomed. So Bourne postponed college and went to work. He knew his way around a piano, so for the next six years he worked as a piano teacher, a piano tuner, and a piano player (accompanying singers in a recording studio in Carnegie Hall). He also cut piano rolls. On the side he freelanced for book publishers as a proofreader. Now and then, when musical work was harder to find, he did secretarial work.
By 1909, when he was 23 years old, Bourne had saved enough to cut back on his working hours and try to catch up on the college experience he’d been putting off. He enrolled at Columbia, where he fell under the sway of historian and political scientist Charles Beard and philosopher John Dewey, and began publishing essays in the Dial, the Atlantic Monthly, and other magazines. His first book, Youth and Life, a collection of his magazine essays, was published the year he graduated from Columbia, 1913. And that fall, the now 27-year-old Bourne set out for Europe. In his senior year he had been awarded the Gilder Fellowship for travel abroad, which the historian Louis Filler has called “Columbia’s most distinguished honor” during that period. Bourne spent a year traveling around Europe and pursuing such independent study as interested him.
Then, in August 1914, he returned to America, took up residence in Greenwich Village, and resumed writing for the Dial and the Atlantic Monthly, along with an upstart weekly called The New Republic. Actually, it might be more accurate to say that Bourne fled Europe in August 1914 than to say that he merely “returned to America” at that time. For it was in late July and early August of 1914 that Europe—virtually all of Europe—embarked upon the conflict we know today as World War I. Bourne opposed this conflict, and he was especially worried that his own country, the United States, would choose to enter it before long.
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