To the Editor:
It is not my intention to respond to reviews of my book, The Lyrical Left: Randolph Bourne, Alfred Stieglitz, and the Origins of Cultural Radicalism in America, especially basically generous reviews such as Kenneth S. Lynn’s [Books in Review, October 1986]. Although he finds fault with the “liberal” bees he believes buzz in my bonnet, he does not criticize my interpretation of the past. For that I am grateful. The Lyrical Left is a history of important ideas in American life, not a polemic or a parable.
But Mr. Lynn’s cursory dismissal of Randolph Bourne’s contribution to American letters should not go unchallenged, especially in COMMENTARY, which rests comfortably on one of the pillars Bourne established in American thought. Mr. Lynn writes that “there is a poignant thinness about [Bourne's] achievement.” I disagree, and assume the editors and readers of COMMENTARY would disagree too if they were familiar with Bourne’s work. Leave aside Bourne’s trenchant critique of the limits of pragmatism, his concern, shared by President Eisenhower, that war and preparation for war pose a threat to free societies, and his abiding faith that education and culture help define America’s promise (ideas which may indeed have little currency in the Reagan era), and consider only Bourne’s belief that the United States, as he wrote in 1916, should not become a melting pot, but instead a “cosmopolitan federation” of cultural communities. One of those communities, Bourne believed, belonged to the Jews. In “The Jew and Trans-National America” he proposed that the United States become “a freely mingling society of peoples of very different racial and cultural antecedents, with a common political allegiance and common social ends but with free and distinctive cultural allegiances which may be placed anywhere in the world.” In particular, long before the American Jewish Committee reached a similar conclusion, he praised American Jews’ identification with Zion.
When Bourne outlined his cosmopolitan and pluralist vision of America, his was a very lonely voice. Theodore Roosevelt’s view of 1915 that “there is no room in this country for hyphenated Americans” defined the overwhelming consensus of the day. As President Wilson put it, also in 1915, “America does not consist of groups.” In 1986, Gore Vidal said essentially the same thing, but his voice, outside of the lunatic fringe, is as lonely as Bourne’s once was.
I believe that Bourne’s eloquent essays on pluralism in American life mark a substantial contribution to American thought. Like his essays on pragmatism, war and society, and education, they remain defensible, important, and vital. Randolph Bourne was “rediscovered” in the 60′s and 70′s because what he wrote retains its power and intelligence, not to mention its significance for magazines like COMMENTARY.
Mr. Lynn notes that Carl Resek’s edition of Bourne’s writings, War and the Intellectuals, is out of print. This is true, but other collections of his essays and letters can be bought, read, and savored. I daresay that if I, Mr. Lynn, and the editors of COMMENTARY together contribute half as much as Randolph Bourne did to American thought before he died at age thirty-two, we will have done well.
New York City