Author: Russell Jacoby

A Toast to Randolph Bourne

The pandemic has taken from us a bold and gifted writer, just 32 years old—only not this pandemic but the one that swept the world in 1918. The story of Randolph Bourne confirms that history perpetually forgets what it perpetually remembers. Every decade rediscovers Bourne and every decade loses him again. Once Bourne loomed large as a brash American essayist who championed a new generation of iconoclastic intellectuals. Lewis Mumford, the urban critic, recalled the thrill of reading Bourne on the eve of World War I. I still remember, he wrote, “when I paced back and forth pondering Bourne’s prophetic words” about the war. Ten years later, he queried a student about him. “I belong to the class of 1926,” she replied, “and the truth is, I never heard of Randolph Bourne.” So it would continue. In the 1960s, my teacher Christopher Lasch heralded Bourne—to little effect. In the 1980s, a book on Bourne entitled Forgotten Prophet appeared—and was forgotten. Why summon Bourne again today? For several reasons. He spoke in a voice as clear …