Young Radicals in the War for American Ideals

Young Radicals in the War for American Ideals by Jeremy McCarter (2017, Random House, 326 pages plus foot notes and index) (ISBN 978-0-8129-9305-9)

The sense of immediacy and its rush of urgency in its 300-plus pages kept me reading Young Radicals well after the time to get to work or go to bed. It’s exciting—not because it’s a sensationalized account of a generation long passed, but because it is gracefully written yet level-headed story about “hope and what comes after hope, and despair and what comes after despair.”

A contemporary resonance during the recent long political campaign and culture war that led into “the bewildering early days” of the Trump administration echoes Jeremy McCarter’s account of early twentieth-century young writers and intellectuals out to change their world and engage in ‘the war for American ideals.’

As the author flyleaf blurb informs us, Young Radicals is not Mr McCarter’s first book. He co-authored Hamilton: The Revolution with Broadway giant, Lin Manuel Miranda (Hamilton, An American Musical). McCater has also contributed to the New York Times, Newsweek, New York magazine and BuzzFeed. Like the five young radicals he profiles in in this book, McCarter has one pen in politics and the other in the arts (he spent five years on the creative staff of NYC’s Public Theatre).

Jeremy’s young radicals of a century ago were all born in the 1880s and came into political awareness during their teens. They were still in their twenties when they found each other in Greenwich Village bohemia and on the mastheads of radical publications. They marched together as progressive, pacifist revolutionaries until America began taking sides in The Great War.

Woodrow Wilson dealt policy with two hands. One hand held his Fourteen Points to establish peace and world order. The other vindictively orchestrated repression against dissenters at home. The question will ever be debated and never resolved: Does the individual work within the established authority to dissuade or temper its use of power and guide it to benignity? Or does one revolt? McCarter’s five radicals diverged onto differing paths. By war’s end (America’s participation in the four-and-a-half European war was a brief year-and-a-half but decisive), the Young Radicals had progressed, regressed, vacillated or died, representative of theirs and other generations to the end.

Jack Reed was a rocket. When he died, aged 32 in 1920, his legacy was debated as it still is. Like many idealistic and charismatic revolutionaries earlier and later, his adventurous life more than his mission became his story. Was he still enamored of Russian communism or disillusioned by its leaders’ corruption of ideals? Those at his deathbed claimed the latter.

Unlike Reed, his fellow collegian Walter Lippmann (1889-1974) was destined to a long and exalted life as the persuasive sage of his era. Few commentators shared Lippmann’s lofty oracular portal within which he consulted on policy and political appointments for several presidents. There were times during his journalistic career when he seemed more influential than those heads of state. Ideologically, he veered rather than vaulted. His evolution was gradual and methodical, his public posture in print or in person, a manifestation of his inner compass. After the failure of Wilson’s postwar plans for the binding of wounds and putting the world at peace, Lippmann observed “that the global view is too sprawling and complicated for people to manage.” Not alone, Lippmann believed it was impossible for anyone to know all that must be known to fulfill the duties of citizenship, a shortcoming that calls into question that ‘the original dogma of democracy’— “the belief that individual citizens have the mental faculties to be capable of self-government.” With age came Lippmann’s decline. It was slow, sad and beyond the command of his once formidable intellect.

Max Eastman may have been the most typical of McCarter’s five Young Radicals; he was drawn to both poetry and democracy. His was the engine that drove The Masses, the famous socialist essay and art magazine for five years from 1912 until 1917 when repression by the federal government shut it down because of its pacifist editorial. Within a year Max was the editor of its direct descendant, The Liberator. Yet Max Eastman was divided within and drifted between the two poles of art and political causes. By the 1940s, Max had become an anti-Marxist, and by the end of his life, he had drifted onto a sinecure as a roving editor for Reader’s Digest. The revolutionary had converted into a reactionary.

Alice Paul (1884-1977) lived longest, 92 years, and may have had the widest impact as an indefatigable and successful tactician for female suffrage. Hers was a narrower focus than pleased some: securing the vote for white women. She refused to be shamed by African-American women or progressives into pursuing the battle on two fronts, knowing there was no hope in securing Southern Congressional support for a constitutional amendment if her crusade confronted racism as well as sexism.

We do well to remember that the 1910s saw widespread lynching of black people during the rise (1915) of Second Ku Klux Klan. Although the KKK II peaked in the mid-1920s, it has infected American politics ever since and as late 2017. Could a campaign for universal suffrage have succeeded, one that empowered black women with votes and voices to amplify the progressive call for civil rights and federal intervention to combat terrorism and lunching during a presidency occupied by Woodrow Wilson, who opposed female suffrage and was racist?

The least likely radical to have a lasting impact on American life and thought was ‘the Forgotten Prophet’, essayist Randolph Bourne (1886-1918). Today, pacifists, libertarians and progressives alike cite his essays. But Bourne was denied the joy of seeing his worthy analysis endure when complications due to his birth defects stilled his pen. He died feeling denied, discouraged and unfulfilled.

In addition to admiring Jeremy McCarter’s elegantly compelling prose, I marvel that he retailed these interwoven stories (actually more than those of the five principals) into a clear, concise, pulsing narrative that never grew dense or dull. I do wish, however, that Random House had inserted some photographs. Highly Recommended. Available in hard cover, Kindle and Nooks.

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