Randolph Silliman Bourne first emerged into the light of day on May 30, 1886, in Bloomfield, New Jersey, a small town less than 20 miles outside Manhattan. He came of comfortable middle-class parents and was the grandson of a respected Congregational minister. But 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 found himself a hunchback. When he was seven, his parents lost everything in the Panic of 1893. Thereafter he was fatherless, as well. He and his mother lived in genteel poverty as the wards of a prosperous (if somewhat tightfisted) uncle. Meanwhile, his growth had been permanently stunted by the same pathogen that had reshaped his spine years before. 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 had compiled an excellent academic record in high school. He was accepted as part of the Princeton class of 1907 and was expected to commence his freshman year at that institution in the fall of 1903. But he was broke. He could barely afford books, and his mother needed help with her living expenses. He went to work and stayed there for six years. He knew his way around a piano, so he took jobs as a piano teacher, piano tuner, and piano player (accompanying singers in a recording studio in Carnegie Hall). He cut piano rolls. He was also highly literate, so, between musical gigs, he took in proofreading and even did secretarial work.
By 1909, at 23 years old, Bourne had saved enough to cut back on his working hours and try to catch up on the college experience he had been putting off. He enrolled at Columbia, fell under the sway of historian and political scientist Charles A. Beard (1874-1948) and philosopher John Dewey (1859-1952), 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. That fall, the 27-year-old recipient of what Louis Filler calls "Columbia's most distinguished honor, the Gilder Fellowship for travel abroad," he set out for Europe. After a year of travel and independent study there, he returned to America, took up residence in Greenwich Village, and resumed writing for the Dial and the Atlantic Monthly, along with a new, upstart weekly, The New Republic.
Actually, Bourne fled Europe in August 1914. 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. He wrote about many subjects over the next four years; he wrote enough about education, for example, that he was able to fill two books – The Gary Schools (1916) and Education and Living (1917) – from his magazine pieces on that subject. But his main subject was the new world war and the urgent need for the United States to stay out of it.
The problem was that what Casey Blake calls "Bourne's insight that total war had made all modern nations increasingly totalitarian" neither won him friends nor influenced much of anyone to look kindly on his contributions to the public prints. Worse yet, according to Ben Reiner, Bourne "vehemently opposed all restrictions on dissent, bringing him into sharp conflict with the rising pro-war hysteria that preceded America's entry into World War One. Bourne viewed Woodrow Wilson's neutrality as a sham," and he was also, as Charles Molesworth notes, openly contemptuous of "the weak logic of those who had to change their principles in order to justify joining the national call to arms."
In the words of Christopher Phelps, Bourne was an "elegant refuter of 'pragmatic' pretensions in those who believed that the state, even in a time of unleashed militarism, could be tamed simply by their own moral presence in the corridors of power." And he "held fast to principle as his erstwhile colleagues at The New Republic accommodated the imperialist carnage of the First World War." His principled stand cost him dearly, "for few 20th-century American dissenters have … suffered the wrath of their targets as greatly as Bourne did. By 1917, The New Republic stopped publishing his political pieces. The Seven Arts, a literary 'little magazine' Bourne helped to found, collapsed when its financial angel refused further support because of Bourne's antiwar articles." (According to Reiner, the problem was that once Bourne's "biting attacks on government repression began to appear in The Seven Arts," this gave "birth to rumors that the publisher, Mrs. A.K. Raskine, was supporting a pro-German magazine. She … withdrew her support, which closed the magazine down.")
"Even at the Dial, Bourne's last hope among literary magazines," Phelps continues, "he was stripped from editorial power in 1918 – the result of an uncharacteristically underhanded intervention by his former mentor John Dewey, one of the objects of Bourne's disillusioned antiwar pen." Phelps quotes a letter Bourne sent to a friend shortly thereafter, in which he laments that "I feel very much secluded from the world, very much out of touch with my times…. The magazines I write for die violent deaths, and all my thoughts are unprintable." Robert Westbrook put the matter as memorably and eloquently as anyone when he said that "Bourne disturbed the peace of John Dewey and other intellectuals supporting Woodrow Wilson's crusade to make the world safe for democracy, and they made him pay for it."
Yet the ruination of his career was far from the only price he had to pay. Westbrook quotes John Dos Passos' claim, from his novel 1919 (1932), that, in addition to his professional setbacks, "friends didn't like to be seen with Bourne," and "his father" – who had walked out of his life a quarter-century before – "wrote him begging him not to disgrace the family name." But according to Casey Blake, Bourne never lost his optimism. When the Armistice came at last in November 1918, he wrote his mother, hoping that "[n]ow that the war is over, people can speak freely and we can dare to think. It's like coming out of a nightmare."
But for Bourne himself, this was not to be. In the words of Reiner, he "was stricken with influenza during the worldwide epidemic that took some 600,000 lives in our nation during the 1918-1919 winter" and succumbed at the age of 32 on Dec. 22. Having died so prematurely, so unexpectedly, he will, Christopher Phelps avers, "remain forever the intransigent, defiant outcast, forever young, forever the halfway revolutionary socialist with anarchist leanings. ('War is the health of the State,' runs that famous refrain from the unpublished, discarded manuscript rescued from his wastebasket at his death.)"