Friday, February 11, 2011

Mon Amie

Randolph Bourne (1886–1918)
From Americans in Paris: A Literary Anthology

“It is impossible to speak of Randolph Bourne,” eulogized Floyd Dell in The New Republic soon after Bourne’s death at the age of thirty-two during the influenza epidemic of 1918, “without paying some tribute to the magnificent will which until the end triumphed over his physical frailty.” Bourne was, to use his own word, handicapped and he wrote about his experiences in a landmark essay, “The Handicapped—By One of Them," published in Atlantic Monthly in 1911. At birth, his face was badly disfigured by a doctor’s forceps; at the age of four, he contracted spinal tuberculosis, which left him a hunchback; as an adult, he was five feet tall.

A young rebel of sorts, he infamously wore a black cape around the streets of New York, and Theodore Dreiser referred to him as “that frightening dwarf.” Yet by all accounts he was a genius, and he commanded the respect of the ablest minds of his age, from his teacher (and eventual political enemy) John Dewey to the novelist John Dos Passos, who included an homage in the 1919 section of his famous U.S.A. trilogy:
      Randolph Bourne
      came as an inhabitant of this earth
      without the pleasure of choosing his dwelling or his career.
      He was a hunchback, grandson of a congregational minister, born in 1886 in Bloomfield, New Jersey; there he attended grammarschool and highschool. . . .

      This little sparrowlike man,
      tiny twisted bit of flesh in a black cape,
      always in pain and ailing,
      put a pebble in his sling
      and hit Goliath square in the forehead with it.

      War, he wrote, is the health of the state.

      Half musician, half educational theorist (weak health and being poor and twisted in body and on bad terms with his people hadn't spoiled the world for Randolph Bourne; he was a happy man, loved die Meistersinger and playing Bach with his long hands that stretched so easily over the keys and pretty girls and good food and evenings of talk. When he was dying of pneumonia a friend brought him an eggnog; Look at the yellow, it’s beautiful, he kept saying as his life ebbed into delirium and fever. He was a happy man.) . . .
After he graduated from Columbia University—and before he became a furious opponent of America’s entry into the First World War—Bourne traveled through Europe. While in France, he met a nineteen-year-old French woman (he was twenty-seven) after posting a note at the Sorbonne—the Edwardian-era equivalent of a personal ad. During their friendship, the pair walked through Parisian parks and museums and talked about family and religion and her “brimming idealism.” Upon the outbreak of war in 1914, Bourne had cause to wonder where she might be, which inspired him to write and publish the following little valentine recalling this mysterious girl, his “intellectual flirtation” in Paris.

Notes: In the first paragraph: the fictional characters Jean-Christophe and Olivier can be found in Jean-Christophe (1903–12), a ten-volume cycle of novels by Romain Rolland. Elsewhere: devoir means duty; malhonnête, dishonest. Other French terms are either translated by Bourne in the text or should be clear from the context.

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She was French from the crown of her head to the soles of her feet, but she was of that France which few Americans, I think, know or imagine. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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