May. 19th, 2017

osprey_archer: (books)
From the title, one might imagine Jeremy McCarter’s Young Radicals: In the War for American Ideals is about the struggles of today - and indeed McCarter does not shy away from this parallel, drawing it explicitly in both the introduction and the conclusion. He wisely ignores it in the body of the book itself, preferring to focus on his own time period: the years before, during, and just after America’s involvement in World War I.

These are my home stomping grounds (historically speaking) and I had a lovely time reading this book. It was a delightful chance to revisit historical figures who feel like old friends: in particular, I’ve always had a fondness for Randolph Bourne, who seems to have been just about the only major intellectual figure in the US who didn’t get swept away by patriotism after war was declared: “You may remember that you lost your head in 1917,” the editors of The Nation reflect ruefully, “and you are intellectually ashamed; but you take comfort from the assurance that practically everyone else did also. Randolph Bourne did not lose his head.”

(Bourne, incidentally, died just after the war; I thought he starved to death because no one would buy his prophetic articles, and he had been abandoned by all his friends, and wasted away in a garret etc. etc., - which is all very melodramatically satisfying, but not in the least true so I don’t know where I got it. He was publishing in The New Republic right up to the end, and died - not alone and abandoned, but in the arms of his fiancee - of the Spanish flu.)

And I also learned about figures new to me, in particular Alice Pual, the militant suffragist. Often when I learn about a new female figure from history I’m outraged that I didn’t know about her before, but in Paul’s case she honestly comes across as pretty ineffectual - she is forever doing things like trying to organize women (in the states where women already had voting rights) to vote against the anti-suffrage Democrats, and then declaring that her campaign has been victorious even though ten of those twelve states… voted Democrat. THAT’S NOT WHAT VICTORY LOOKS LIKE, PAUL.

So I can see why she’s slipped through the cracks. But she’s still interesting to read about: it takes some chutzpah to burn the President in effigy in front of the White House even in years when the nation isn’t swept up in hysterical war-fever, as it was when Paul attempted it. (The suffragists did not succeed in burning the effigy: outraged bystanders intervened, causing a riot.)

The book weaves together the stories of five figures - Walter Lippmann, John Reed, and Max Eastman, as well as the aforementioned Paul and Bourne. But it also tells, almost as a side note, the tale of the downfall of Woodrow Wilson, who seems to have an unerring genius for compromising when he shouldn’t, and refusing to compromise when he really should: he’s very consistently wrong about it. He’s a tragic figure in the classic sense of the word: a would-be hero utterly undone by his own flaws.

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