The Armory Show introduced New Yorkers to a trans-Atlantic avant-garde in the visual arts. Another avant-garde emerged at the same time: the “young intellectuals” who wrote for a secular middle class educated at elite institutions but impatient with academic niceties. Two manifestoes published in 1913 helped define what it meant to be a modern, New York intellectual: 24-year-old Walter Lippmann’s A Preface to Politics and 26-year-old Randolph Bourne’s Youth and Life. These were young men’s books—brash, ironic, fearless–that celebrated youth as an insurgent force. “Youth is the avenging Nemesis” on the trail of elders, Bourne announced. Its “whole philosophy…is summed up in the word Dare!” Lippmann quoted Nietzsche: “Let the value of everything be determined afresh by you.”
The search for connections between power, culture, and values distinguished this generation from previous American thinkers. “Little magazines” like The New Republic and The Seven Arts showcased political and cultural criticism and reported from the frontlines of modernism. Floyd Dell’s Women as World Builders and Elsie Clews Parson’s The Old-Fashioned Woman, also published in 1913, registered the intellectuals’ fascination with feminist critiques of gender and personal life.
Historians have since debated whether the young intellectuals confused cultural transformation with politics or offered genuine insights into the cultural and psychological roots of modern domination. Lippmann cited Freud in proposing that reformers recognize the unconscious sources of human behavior. Bourne acknowledged desire for pleasure as a resource for social action. Both saw cultural change as the precondition and goal of meaningful political change. “It is out of culture that the substance of real revolutions is made,” Lippmann wrote. “Real revolutions” would in turn enable a “full and expressive life” for citizens. Revising Marx, Bourne declared: “The world has nothing to lose but its chains—and its own soul to gain.”
Casey Nelson Blake is Professor of History and American Studies at Columbia University and Senior Historian for The Armory Show at 100.
Biel, Steven. Independent Intellectuals in the United States, 1910-1945 (New York: New York University Press, 1992).
Blake, Casey Nelson. Beloved Community: The Cultural Criticism of Randolph Bourne, Van Wyck Brooks, Waldo Frank, and Lewis Mumford (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990).
Lasch, Christopher. The New Radicalism in America, 1889-1963: The Intellectual as a Social Type (New York: Knopf, 1965).