Saturday, April 11, 2020

Randolph Bourne, Abbott Thayer, and pandemic flu

Randolph Bourne
At the end of World War I, there was a major flu pandemic that began in January 1918 and continued to December 1920. About 500 million people were infected worldwide, about a quarter of the planet's population then. Of those, the death toll is uncertain but it may have been as many as 100 million.

In my lifetime, I have either known personally or have heard the stories about children who were orphaned when their parents died in that pandemic. Two of those children, for example, were the writer Mary McCarthy (author of The Group and Memories of a Catholic Girlhood) and her brother Kevin McCarthy, who became a Hollywood actor.

Another prominent person who died in that pandemic was a radical American writer and intellectual named Randolph Bourne (1886-1918). Bourne was well-known for his provocative essays about societal reform. But, in advance of that, he himself was socially conspicuous because of his physical deformity, part of which occurred at birth. During his delivery, forceps were used improperly and the umbilical cord was wrapped around his left ear, leaving that ear jutting out and that side of his profile distorted. Tragically, four years later, he was struck by tuberculosis of the spine, which stunted his growth, leaving him hunchbacked and dwarfish for life.

Despite such disabilities, Bourne went on to study at Columbia University, where he earned both undergraduate and graduate degrees, and where he was greatly influenced by philosopher John Dewey. He then spent time in Europe but returned in 1914 just as World War I began. In the remaining few years of his life, he was a contributing writer to various progressive magazines, including The New Republic and The Seven Arts.

At some point, perhaps in the summer of 1915, he asked a friend if she knew of “any attractive place in New England where one might go with the expectation of meeting somebody interesting?” She suggested Dublin NH, and arranged for a cabin in which he could stay. Once there, Bourne reported that he’d found “people of quick roving intelligence who carry their learning lightly,” and even better, those “who use their learning as fuel to warm them into sympathy with all sorts and conditions of men.” Among those he befriended were the families of Abbott Handerson Thayer (the “father of camouflage,” George de Forest Brush, and Raphael Pumpelly (whose daughters were the models for some of Thayer’s finest paintings).

Dublin NH (1906)

He also met Amy Lowell, who often spent summers in Dublin. According to Van Wyck Brooks (in Fenollosa and His Circle, With Other Essays in Biography), when Bourne dined at Lowell’s home, she “walked up to him as one of the oldest of friends and they had a truly grand gossip. She was surprisingly fair-minded and a lover of all sorts of queer and little people whom she touched off inimitably…” But she later had a change of mind, and, after a subsequent meeting, she told a friend that Bourne was a “weakling” whose physical deformity was evident in his “twisted mentality and tortured [writing] style.” “Everything he writes,” she said, “shows he is a cripple.”

Bourne was especially drawn to Abbott Thayer, whom he described as “a winsome and Emersonian old person.” About the artist’s family, he described how they live “in the woods, in a romantic warren of studios and big low rough rooms, with great fireplaces, and windows that frame delicious pictures of pine trees and mountain and sunset. [The Thayer family, he wrote] are all such charming, simple wistful, unworldly people, with whom you can sit silently before the fire and know you understand them.”

As reported by Brooks, during the summer that Bourne lived in Dublin, Thayer was (inevitably) preoccupied with Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom, the book that he and his son Gerald H. Thayer had first produced in 1909 (it would later be reissued in 1919) “on protective coloration, which was so useful in the war, and he showed Randolph and [his friend] Fergus his color diagrams and demonstrations and told a great many stories.” The US had not yet entered the war, but Thayer was determined to share his wartime proposals on camouflage with the British.

Music was central to the Thayers’ daily life, and on one summer evening, Abbott brought out from storage an antique German piano (probably the one that had been shipped in the "piano box" that we described in an earlier posting) and combining that with a violin, the family and their guests enjoyed singing lieder songs by Schubert for an hour. As Bourne himself later described it:

Mr. Thayer’s appreciation was almost embarrassingly ecstatic, and he proferred sketches and dinners and thanks if we would come two or three times a week and do it again. I liked his simple emotional ways and his telling us we had “watered his soul.” He took us down to the road with the quaintest of lanterns and spoke constantly of the music.

Still, Thayer’s focus on camouflage, and his efforts to convince the world of the rightness of his theories was always at the forefront. As Bourne wrote to one of his friends—

Mr. Thayer’s head was so full of piebald warships and the conversion of college presidents to protective coloration that he couldn’t any longer let his emotional nature be stirred by our Schubert and Bach.

For whatever reason, the Thayer friendship did not last. While Bourne considered the option of buying a house in Dublin, and becoming a permanent resident there, Thayer stopped short of suggesting even another summer visit. Bourne’s visits, recalled Van Wyck Brooks, “were too exciting for Abbott Thayer, and, as Randolph said, ‘I talk too much.’”

Nevertheless, some distant contact still remained, and—

…when Mr. Thayer’s daughter Gladys came to New York, Rudolph offered to find a studio for her. She had just marched in a suffrage parade in Boston, led by what she called "a hag-like lady in regal dress of brocade, riding on a black steed just in front of us…Seeing the prim red-nosed antis with their unbearably smug and pampered demeanor I felt once and for all which was the great and human side and the lines of progress.”

In December 1918, Bourne fell victim to the flu epidemic and died that month. He was only thirty-two. He was buried in Bloomfield NJ (his birthplace) on—

a dreary day with a cold rain falling. The Abbott Thayers came to the funeral with others of his older friends; and Norman Thomas,* at the time a clergyman, conducted the service. Lewis Mumford wrote, a little later, "Randolph Bourne was precious to us because of what he was rather than because of what he had actually written."


* One of the most memorable events of my life took place on May 17, 1967, when (as a student) I attended a talk by American Socialist Norman Thomas in the Auditorium at the University of Northern Iowa (then the State College of Iowa). What a courageous man and a powerful speaker. He was 83 when he spoke, and would die at the close of the following year.