Randolph Bourne (1886-1918)
Contributing Editor: Charles Molesworth
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Students should be asked to discuss how America might have looked to a social critic before World War I. While some of Bourne's ideas may seem "timely" to today's students, this is due in part to the rather prophetic aspects of this essay. Bourne was of course conscious of the immigration that was reshaping American society (especially in its large cities), and he was very aware of the social and political changes being brought about by modernization (such as the routinization of work, the development of the "culture industry" and mass media, urbanization, and so on). But his idealism about America was unaffected by the large-scale tragedies associated with the world wars, the rise of fascism, the atom bomb and so forth. Also, Bourne would not have been familiar with the later developments in academic forms of social science. Thus, the "theoretical" nature of Bourne's formulations may strike some as implausible. Some of the main classroom issues might be put this way: How thoroughgoing can a criticism of American society be, and does a social critic have to be "practical" in his or her suggestions? To what extent must a social critic rely on surveys or statistical studies to justify his or her conclusions?
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
The call for a social identity that surpasses or transcends nationalistic feeling would be (paradoxically) both implausible and yet "logical" at the end of the nineteenth century, when nationalism was perhaps the main political sentiment shaping world events. Bourne's essay challenges and responds to, even at a distance, the same moods and arguments that animated romantic nationalism of the sort that had recently shaped Italy and Germany, among others, into nation-states. The American nexus for this nationalism involved many issues, but perhaps chiefly the fervent arguments about immigrants and whether or not they could be successfully assimilated into a modern nation. Could such assimilation proceed through cultural and social means, assuming a single, "uniform," biological basis for national identity was not available to all the various immigrant groups? The issue of nativism, which claimed that only people who descended from specific racial or ethnic groups could form harmonious social and political identities, was a form of racism. In response to nativism, which he thoroughly rejected, Bourne developed his cultural criticism, so that, among other things, the very idea of identity could be redefined. This means that his focus on culture as a defining sociopolitical force was very distinctive. The German tradition of kulturkampf (or cultural struggle) had not been taken up in America on a large scale, but Bourne and many of his contemporaries were aware of it, having studied on the continent after their college years. Other writers at this time who shared some of Bourne's concerns were Van Wyck Brooks, Waldo Frank, and Lewis Mumford.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Bourne used the essay as his main form of artistic expression. In this form, which had grown very popular through the spread of magazines, such as The New Republic, that were devoted to developing large readerships and influencing popular opinion and political policy, Bourne tried to advance his ideas in ways that were both oppositional and hortatory. This meant that he had to combine a certain amount of social observation (with the keen eye of a journalist), a matrix of reasoned argument (while avoiding any "dry" sense of logic), and a call to ethical values (without incurring the charge of sheer moralizing). All the while he kept in mind the general reader, an educated layperson who was assumed to have an abiding and interested stake in political issues. This meant that his vocabulary could not be a technical one, yet he had to make his argument convey more than the sense of an editorial in a daily newspaper.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Other essays in the anthology can be compared to Bourne's and studied for their stylistic approach and the contents of their arguments. For example, the selections from W.E.B. Du Bois are especially instructive in this context. T. S. Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent" contains a sense of personal identity and group allegiance that can also be contrasted with Bourne's. And the place of culture and cultural politics in the New Negro Renaissance is germane to these issues: see, for example, Hughes's "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" and George Schulyer's "The Negro-Art Hokum." Perhaps the closest parallel is with Alain Locke's "The New Negro," where the issue of social transformation through cultural renewal is paramount.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
How are national identities usually understood, and how are they formed? Is there more than one way to "make a nation"? Does Bourne discuss these ways?
What other writers in the American tradition are explicitly occupied with the "national character"? Selections in The Heath Anthology from Franklin, Jefferson, and Whitman ("Democratic Vistas") could be assembled on this topic.
What are the specifically modern ways that Bourne defines national and personal identity?