American Literature Randolph Bourne
Eric Sandeen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 October 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0088


Randolph Bourne was born 30 May 1886 in Bloomfield, New Jersey, and died in New York City on 22 December 1918. Despite his middle-class circumstances, he was forced to work after graduating from high school. He held several jobs, among them making piano rolls, and was thus better acquainted with the exploitation of labor than many of his university friends. Bourne entered Columbia University in 1909, graduating in 1913. Columbia’s Gilder Fellowship supported a year-long sojourn in Europe, at the end of which he witnessed the first days of the First World War. After his return, he wrote for magazines like New Republic, The Dial, Atlantic Monthly, and The Seven Arts. Many of his contemporaries recognized him as the voice of their generation. Scholars recognize him as one of the most important intellectuals of the pre–First World War period. He developed the essay as a form of cultural exploration and exhortation, thereby establishing a genre that would be explored by New York intellectuals in subsequent generations. Bourne understood that 20th-century modernity challenged the individual to lead an experimental life that recognized the provisional, fractured nature of existence. His autobiographical writings and analyses of modern thinkers such as Friedrich Nietzsche rank among the decade’s best contributions to literary culture. Bourne was deeply involved with social issues and civic life. He envisioned an ethnically diverse cultural nationalism that would acknowledge the uniqueness of the United States as a nation of nations. He wrote insightfully about progressive education, employing John Dewey’s principles, and then famously attacked his mentor when he saw instrumentalism acquiesce quietly to America’s entry into the First World War. “War is the health of the State,” he famously wrote. Bourne also holds interest for his physical circumstances. A forceps delivery gave him a misshapen head, and a childhood illness stunted his growth and curved his spine. He was, in the official language of his draft card, a hunchback, scarcely five feet tall. His forceful, prolific mind was encased in a diminished body, giving extra poignancy to his “life of irony” and fueling the myth of Randolph Bourne. His early essays introduce “handicap” as a facet of identity. Bourne was a consummate conversationalist and accomplished pianist. He sought a “Beloved Community,” fueled by the warmth of friendship but extending outward to social relationships. From beginning to end, the artistic and the social were intertwined in Bourne’s life and thought.

General Overviews

His writings are buried in periodicals and anthologies of his works are out of print, yet Randolph Bourne remains a significant cultural figure of his time. In order to fathom the depth of his appeal, one needs to turn to people who knew him, such as Paul Rosenfeld, whose chapter on Bourne in Port of New York (Rosenfeld 1924, cited under First-Person Accounts) might be the most easily available reminiscence. In John Dos Passos’s trilogy U. S. A. (Dos Passos 1946, cited under Bourne into Myth) Bourne plays a brief but dramatic part. Bourne’s biography is reasonably well known: Clayton 1984 (cited under Biographies) remains the best source here. But matching up the circumstances of his life with his prolific writings remains a challenge. The scope of his published work is complemented by the richness and intimacy of his letters.

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