The Essayist Becomes the Protagonist

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"The Body of Bourne," a play at the Mark Taper Forum, is about a tragic essayist named Randolph Bourne. We all know about tragic poets. The muse sets them on fire, a horrible disease strikes them when they're young, they speak a beautiful last sentence and die.

But a tragic essayist?

The news of any essayist as hero would surprise no less a master than E.B. White, who said he suffered from a "second-class citizen" status compared with novelists, playwrights and poets. The contest between Bourne's body and mind drew playwright John Belluso to a writer whose life started miserably when a botched delivery mangled his face. At 4, he suffered the spinal tuberculosis that left him dwarfed and hunchbacked. He lamented his state as someone "impossible to be desired" yet "doubly endowed with desire."

Bourne's big subjects were power and culture. He extolled youth as an agent of change and critiqued America as a standardizing melting pot. His opposition to America's entry into World War I prompted his most famous line, "War is the health of the state." With his last gasp, at 32, he praised the color yellow.

He died in the flu epidemic of 1918, sipping eggnog: "It's such a pretty color."

Hearing that an actor is speaking Bourne's words from an L.A. stage amazes Robert Atwan. He recently co-edited "The Best American Essays of the Century" (Houghton Mifflin) with Joyce Carol Oates, and Bourne's essay, "The Handicapped--By One of Them," was one of their 55 selections. He says that "even if I had to cut the list down and say who is in the top 20 essayists of the century, I would have him there."

Though he hasn't seen "The Body of Bourne" (frankly, the play got mixed reviews), Atwan calls Belluso "gutsy" for dramatizing Bourne. "He's undeservedly obscure," Atwan said from Massachusetts. "I've been waiting for someone to do a film or a play about him for a long time. He played an important role in the essay and in the country at a time when essays were read a lot more than now."

The Golden Age of the Essayist

Bourne wrote at a time when ruminating essayists shaped American thought, when the written word had a power unimaginable in our age of instant, electronic opinions. Dozens of publications (Bourne wrote mainly for the Atlantic Monthly and the New Republic) tracked America's growth from a vast backwater of reserved potential into an industrialized empire with new social responsibilities. Atwan says the cloistered role of the essay was changing toward the highly personal, journalistic hybrids that writers often practice today. "Bourne, H.L. Mencken and others helped to transform the essay from the genteel, polite form inherited from the 19th century. Before, it had an ivory tower quality--rambling, whimsical, bookish.

"Bourne wasn't so different, at first," Atwan adds. "But then, in essays like 'The Handicapped,' he started to get both more personal and more polemical about the world." In the Taper's production--the playwright, who has spent his life in a wheelchair from a rare disease, and many other actors are handicapped--Bourne's words celebrating music, radicalism, love and friendship appear luminously against the set. A chorus conducts a dialogue of renewing insights with actor Clark Middleton, who plays Bourne. The baseline for this verbal fugue is "The Handicapped," as Bourne discovers both the essay and his dignity out loud:

"At the bottom of all the difficulties of a man like me is really the fact that his self-respect is so slow in growing up. And that is the best thing the handicapped man can do. Growing up will have given him one of the greatest, and certainly the most durable, satisfactions of his life."

The chorus gradually takes over, a kind of chant:

"So to all those situated as I am, I would say--grow up as fast as you can. Cultivate the widest interests you can, cherish all your friends and cultivate some artistic talent. Do not take the world too seriously, nor let too many social conventions oppress you. Keep sweet your sense of humor, and if you do not let any morbid feelings of inferiority creep into your soul, you may well come to count your deformity as a blessing."

Bourne's public musing lives at the level of deep psychological tissue and cultivates an idealism framed by an absolute realism about how the world treats those who don't fit in. The best essayists make the process of feeling and thinking visible, says Atwan, founding editor of the annual "Best American Essays" series, also published by Houghton Mifflin. He reads a lot of interesting essays but says relatively few writers devote themselves to emulating the purer short prose models set by Emerson and Montaigne (whose classic essayist's motto was a question: "What do I know?").

The essay has expanded to embrace postmodern combinations of memoir, reporting and opinion, on subjects from evolution to family relations to fashion. A lot of writers, critics to poets, borrow the form's reflective, probing essence. Atwan names Annie Dillard, John McPhee, Edward Hoagland and L.A.'s Bernard Cooper among Bourne's most committed literary cousins today, though he believes that the writer who comes closest to his ebullient iconoclasm may be Gore Vidal.

Supported America's Transnationality

Bourne belonged to what historian John Patrick Diggins calls "the lyrical left." Belluso weaves his most lyrically political essays into the play, and one gradually sees how prophetic an instrument his writing could be. He was raised a Calvinist in Bloomfield Hills, N.J., essentially a WASP, and wrote at a time when the Anglo-Saxon sense of cultural dominance remained a sturdy fact of life. But he declared immigration as the prospect for a better America and denounced nativists who argued against Jews and other newcomers. His most influential piece on the subject, published in the Atlantic in 1914, was "Trans-National America."

On the day I saw "The Body of Bourne," the diversity of the L.A. audience mirrored Bourne's faith that "America is coming to be, not a nationality but a transnationality, a weaving back and forth, with other lands, of many threads of all sizes and colors." Given the debates that continue in this country, his next point--"Any movement which attempts to thwart this weaving, or to dye the fabric any one color, is false"--stays provocative.

In the end, Bourne's pacifism made him far more radical than most of his fellow writers. His stand against America's entry into the war cost him the support of many editors. Seven Arts, a new journal whose editors did stand by him, had its money pulled for that loyalty. In a darkly witty poem about the event, Robert Frost wrote that it died "a-Bourneing."

Then Bourne died, penniless, in the apartment of the woman he was about to marry after a lifelong search for romantic acceptance.

The 1960s saw him briefly revived as a symbol of youthful conscience in opposition to the Vietnam War. At the start of this century, one still finds people who respond easily to his name. "Bourne was a public intellectual, in that he wrote for a general audience, and that is something that people of my generation respond to," says Benjamin Schwartz, who recently left his home in Los Angeles to become book editor at the Atlantic. Schwartz, 37, wrote an essay for the magazine in 1995, "The Diversity Myth," which drew on Bourne's views of assimilation and culture in "Trans-National America."

New Republic Editor and Chairman Marty Peretz explained in an interview that his differences with Bourne touch his stewardship of the New Republic. "Quite frankly, my foreign-policy views tend to be on the hawkish side, and hawkish is perhaps too common a word even to use when one compares it to Bourne's elevated neo-pacifism," Peretz said. "But, you know, I am conscious when the New Republic endorses, as it has over the years, American interventionism, that it is not in the tradition of Randolph Bourne."

Atwan never stops being perplexed that Bourne isn't better known and by the second-class status of the essay.

Exposure to great essays, he says, teaches a more independent, more skeptical use of one's mind. As his passion for his subject wraps itself into opinions, questions, even a reference to his daughter's questions, it is like listening to--what else?

"Robert Frost once said that there was a difference between thinking and voting. He said that the students he was teaching at Amherst confused the two. That's the problem with most student writing. It isn't that they have no conclusion. It's that they start with a conclusion. They start with a conclusion, give you three reasons they have a conclusion, and then they conclude. People these days always say, 'Get to the point.' Even my daughter says this to me: 'What is your point?' I wonder: Do I have to have a sound bite? What if I don't have a point? What if I have more than one point? The essay takes you through the mind working without necessarily reaching a conclusion. It's a slippery slope and you go into a morass. It's terrifying."

Is that, I ask, the mind-following extreme one must pursue to get into "The Best American Essays"? "Yes," Atwan says. "If you want to get into 'The Best American Essays,' don't give me a piece in which you tell me how you voted. Show me the process of how you think, your meditation. Read the great essayists to see how it's done. Read Montaigne. Read Emerson. Read William James. Read Bourne."

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"The Body of Bourne" by John Belluso runs at the Mark Taper Forum through July 15. Work by and about Bourne is available at the history-conscious Web sites of the Atlantic Monthly and the New Republic: http://www.theatlanticmonthly.com and http://www.thenewrepublic.com. A gathering of Bourne's work currently available in paperback is "War and the Intellectuals: Collected Essays, 1915-1919 (Bourne)," edited by Carl Resek Hackett. There are several biographies. "Forgotten Prophet, The Life of Randolph Bourne," by Bruce Clayton, was reissued in 1998 by the University of Missouri Press.The photo of Bourne that accompanies this story is from the Randolph Bourne Papers, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University.

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