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‘Young Radicals’ review: Jeremy McCarter recalls a quintet of American idealists on the eve of WWI

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In "Young Radicals," author Jeremy McCarter looks at the activities of five artists, activists, writers and intellectuals during a volatile time. Photo Credit: Random House

YOUNG RADICALS: In the War for American Ideals, by Jeremy McCarter. Random House, 368 pp., $30.

High-minded visions meet brute reality in Jeremy McCarter’s “Young Radicals: In the War for American Ideals.” In this lively, if at times swooningly earnest, portrait of artists, activists, writers and intellectuals, McCarter chronicles a moment in American history when “socialism, progressivism, modernism, and feminism all exploded at once.”

McCarter, a former drama critic for New York magazine and co-author with Lin-Manuel Miranda of “Hamilton: The Revolution,” takes up the stories of a quintet of figures who came of age in the years leading up to World War I. It was a combustible time of bohemian dreams and soaring visions of a modern America remade by newfangled ideas that would tame capitalism and push art and literature into new realms.

We meet left-wing writers John Reed and Max Eastman, the latter the editor of The Masses, a bold magazine of art and politics. Suffragette leader Alice Paul agitated to get women the right to vote and endured brutal prison stints. Socialist turned presidential adviser Walter Lippmann pondered the theory and practice of democracy, while social critic Randolph Bourne wrote searching meditations on American culture.

His eye very much on our own time, McCarter looks at these figures as hopeful examples who, he notes in the final chapter, might inspire a way forward in the age of Trump. But the story he tells is often dispiriting, full of reversals and setbacks. If Paul and her comrades ultimately achieved their goal — the 19th amendment was ratified in 1920 — the fortunes of other young radicals were mixed.

The coming of World War I would profoundly alter their circumstances. President Woodrow Wilson, who inspired liberals with ambitious reforms, initially kept America out of the war. Lippmann, working for The New Republic magazine, advised the Wilson administration and backed the American declaration of war in 1917. John Reed, Lippmann’s old Harvard classmate, was horrified by Wilson’s action. “War means an ugly mob-madness, crucifying the truth-tellers, choking the artists, side-tracking reforms, revolutions, and the working of social forces, he wrote.” (Lippmann went so far as to call Reed a fake radical: “You are no more dangerous to the capitalist class in this country than a romantic guerilla fighter.”)

Reed’s assessment was not far off. As Wilson waged war for democracy abroad, American democracy suffered at home. This disjunction would inspire some of Randolph Bourne’s best essays. Wilson’s pious sanctimony inflamed him, as did intellectuals, such as philosopher John Dewey, who supported the war effort.

Bourne and Eastman backed an unsuccessful referendum to be put to the American people on the U.S. entry into the war. Bourne wrote plangently about the need to maintain “a heightened energy and enthusiasm for the education, the art, the interpretation that make for life in the midst of the world of death.”

It would take a lot to keep the prewar spirit alive. A freewheeling magazine like The Masses, which gave equal space to art and politics, looked downright dangerous in a wartime climate of suspicion and intolerance. Eastman and his colleagues were put on trial twice for violating the Espionage Act. Both times the juries were deadlocked, but the magazine went out of business.

Eastman would drift from left to right and continue to write poetry. Reed would look elsewhere, to the newly founded Soviet Union, where he hoped to find his radical visions given real-life form. Lippmann would go on to become one of Washington’s wise old men, penning influential newspaper columns. Paul would push for the Equal Rights Amendment. Only Bourne, a victim of the 1918 flu epidemic, would not live to see the postwar era.

McCarter’s take-away is poignantly optimistic. “Their defeats were painful, but not final. Battles for ideals never are.”

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