Young Radicals by Jeremy McCarter Read Online (FREE)
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We must march, my darlings, we must bear the brunt of danger,
We, the youthful sinewy races, all the rest on us depend
This is a story about hope and what comes after hope, and despair and what comes after despair.
It’s about what happens when the world, which had seemed to be spinning rapidly in the direction of peace and social progress, falls to pieces. It’s about reaching out to grasp the new America that seems to be drawing near—freer, more equal, more welcoming—and having America try to break your hand.
Maybe you know the feeling.
For six years, I tried to imagine how it felt to live through the 1910s, when Americans saw their faith in progress and their hope for their country surge as they have rarely surged before or since, only to see many of their dreams broken by the violence and repression that accompanied American entry into World War I. Lately I find it easier to make that imaginative leap. In fact, as I type this in late January 2017, in the bewildering early days of a new presidential administration, it’s no leap at all.
The dislocation of World War I isn’t what drew me to this subject: It was the dreamers who found themselves dislocated. In Greenwich Village, just before the war, a lively, funny, kaleidoscopic bohemia thrived. Mainly young and mostly broke, artists and writers and activists incubated all sorts of rebellions. They helped to shape the rise of modernism in painting and poetry and theater, socialism in politics, and a dazzling array of social advances—in women’s rights, in means of expression, in the final sweeping away of Victorian strictures. They gave vivid expression to a spirit that young Americans across the country could feel in those years—not merely a sense of motion, because society is always moving, but acceleration. Encountering their stories during college, I was struck by how much more vibrant their hopes for America seemed than anything I was hearing amid the cool technocratic triumphalism of modern liberalism. Those rebels expected life to be as vivid as the fauvist colors they wore.
In 1917, when Woodrow Wilson sent the country to fight Germany, the vibrant prewar atmosphere vanished more quickly than anyone had thought possible. America’s first taste of foreign war on such a scale was enough to drive it mad. Yet the young radicals—some of them, anyway, the bravest of them—persisted. They didn’t surrender their hopes. They didn’t retreat to a college quad. The country grew more dangerous, but they kept striving to bend reality in the direction of their ideals. Why?
That was the large and tantalizing question that impelled me to start writing this book in the winter of 2011. And it kept me writing for nearly six years, because it presented so many other tantalizing questions. Where do idealists come by their galvanizing visions of a better world? Why do they give up health, safety, comfort, status to see those visions made real? How do they reckon with failure—or, more rarely, with success? The pattern recurs throughout our history, but rarely in so compact a form as the World War I years. Life changed so much and so quickly, in ways good and bad, that idealists traveled the entire arc of inspiration, struggle, hope, despair, and final reckoning not over the course of a long lifetime, but in eight or nine frenetic years.