Radical essayist Randolph Bourne was born in Bloomfield, New Jersey, on May 30, 1886: "A terribly messy birth," he called it. Born with facial scars as the result of a forceps delivery, he experienced a bout with spinal tuberculosis that caused curvature of his spine and short stature. He is probably best known for the epigram "war is the health of the state" and for a series of sharply readable essays he wrote in 1917 that dissected war-time conformity and made him a model of the dissenting intellectual before he died in 1918 at 32. His essay "The Handicapped—By One of Them," published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1911, remains an influential text in disability studies. Likewise, his 1916 "Trans-National America," in which he articulated a "cosmopolitan" ideal that would draw on different ethnic traditions in the service of a democratic culture shared by Americans of varied backgrounds, stands at the center of contemporary debates about the implications of this country's ethnic diversity for U.S. national identity.
With single essays, which started finding a popular audience in the Atlantic Monthly while Bourne was an undergraduate at Columbia College, he defined whole perspectives on new or developing fields of study and attitude. Education, literature, culture, and the future of the political state all became his subjects. He wrote about youth as a force for perpetual renewal, and offered a social and an intellectual analysis of war. He wrote about the transformative power of immigration to bring diversity and change to the makeup of America while casting doubt on the ideal of assimilation, in which different groups were encouraged to shed separate cultures. It was a short life of limitations endured and overcome. Bourne's essays would be published, later in his life, in the New Republic and important literary magazines of the times, including the Masses, the Dial, and the Seven Arts.
Bourne's sharpest and most distinctively incisive essays respond to a series of four pieces that John Dewey wrote arguing that war could act as a kind of instrument to recreate other countries in America's democratic image. This, Bourne wrote, was a misplaced hope, for war sets its own terms and can be savagely destructive to the nations that wage it. He argued that rationalizing support for America's role in the war had betrayed the faith that intellectuals had invested in America's progress. His last essay, "The State," built an attack on the illusions of democracy, a view Bourne formed based on his experience of the general conformity he had dissected in earlier pieces. The piece would, in the following decades, become a touchstone among American radicals.
On December 19, 1918, Randolph Bourne died of the flu. "Living in an age when youth flung itself into causes he had hardly begun to draw on his most original gifts," wrote Bourne's friend, Alyse Gregory. Yet, in a few short years of remarkable productivity, he grasped subjects of central importance with a language both determined in its intelligence and sensitive in feeling. He found a power to describe conditions and moods of America in periods of confusion over national purpose and conscience. His biography gave way to the history of his memory. It has consistently engaged writers who choose the challenge of talking about connections between culture and politics, in ways that speak to the contemporary changes in an America that seems to repeatedly echo with dilemmas that were alive in his.