Columbians Ahead of Their Time
 Randolph Bourne
Randolph Bourne "War is the health of the State."

Randolph Bourne (1886–1918)
Social critic
CC 1912, MA 1913

The essayist and social critic Randolph Bourne is remembered today as a spokesperson for the generation of young intellectuals who came of age in the 1910s, as a far-sighted commentator on modern American culture and politics, and as a critic of Progressives who supported U.S. policy during World War I. A passionate antiwar polemicist, Bourne charged that the emergency conditions of mobilization for war served only undemocratic purposes; the most important civic role intellectuals could play under such circumstances, he wrote, was to maintain a critical stance as democrats and "malcontents," challenging their culture's complacency and official creeds. Disfigured at birth by a forceps delivery, Bourne experienced a subsequent bout with spinal tuberculosis that left him dwarfed and a hunchback. His essay "The Handicapped-By One of Them," published in the Atlantic 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.

Bourne's years at Columbia powerfully shaped his positions on American culture, society, and politics; "Trans-national America," in particular, referred to his own contacts with second-generation immigrant students as an undergraduate. While at the University, Bourne was enthused by the ideas of such professors as philosopher John Dewey, anthropologist Franz Boas, and historians Charles Beard and James Harvey Robinson. Dewey was an especially powerful influence, inspiring Bourne to champion progressive education before their later falling-out over the war. Bourne emerged as a leader in the prewar "Little Renaissance" in arts and culture while still an undergraduate. His contributions to Columbia Monthly and the Atlantic touched on themes at the heart of that renaissance: modernist art and letters; radical politics; the relationship between personal and public life; and the rebellion of educated young people against Victorian gender roles and the "genteel tradition" in American culture.

Thanks to Casey Blake, professor of history, who provided the text from which this is adapted. To view the complete text, click here.

Read more about Bourne in the Columbia Encyclopedia.


Professor Casey Nelson Blake discusses Bourne in this e-seminar.


A profile of Bourne and a summary of his influential essay.


A J-school conference on his life and work.

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