Monday, November 5, 2018

Book Review: 'Young Radicals: In the War for American Ideals' by Jeremy McCarter

Young Radicals: In the War for American Ideals

By Jeremy McCarter

Review by David Wineberg

Every decade seems to have its bright fresh new voices. My own favorite was the 20s, when The Algonquin Roundtable brought together such minds as Edna Ferber, Ruth Hale, Dorothy Parker and a bunch of young men who all made their mark in the media, like Harold Ross founding The New Yorker. Just across the street at the Royalton, George Jean Nathan, HL Mencken and James Thurber hung out. It was the peak of literary creativity. Jeremy McCarter has gone back one further decade, and assembled five fresh young minds to guide us through their era. Their efforts were political; their goals much loftier. Most hung out in Greenwich Village, where it was cheap. It’s a great way to view the state of the nation. And it gives life to dimly recognized names.

Walter Lippmann, Jack Reed, Max Eastman, Alice Paul, and Randolph Bourne are the protagonists of The Young Radicals. We hardly know the names today, but in their time they made their marks, landed hard punches and racked up real achievements. They only had one common trait – drive. And America before WWI was the perfect environment for it. Their focus was equality, in women’s suffrage or workers’ rights, or arts and letters. It’s hard to imagine them getting anywhere today.

The first section gives a lightning round chapter to each of them and how they came to be those radicals. With the basics out of the way quickly, McCarter develops their stories and the connections between them. It continues to move rapidly; the whole 310 pages is over well before you want it to be.

It was an era with promise and change just ahead. The future looked brighter than the present. There were ideas about. They flowed freely, and got rational consideration. Woodrow Wilson proposed to end all wars with a League of Nations. Bourne praised America’s acceptance and encouragement of every kind of immigrant. Lippmann saw equality as reachable, and Paul saw women voting and running for office.

McCarter writes as much as possible in the present tense. It gives the book a more tentative feel and a stronger presence. It makes everything more real. The lives he follows are up and down and never far from disaster. Even when they win, they lose. Even flat out victories are disappointing. The world moved past them, ignoring their ideals. There is constant suspense, constant reversals, and numerous rebounds. It is an exciting time and life is hectic. And it is made worse by highly developed minds, frustrated. It’s a gripping book, giving bright life and style to a seemingly bland time.

McCarter has done a great service in rehabilitating this era and these characters. They are all sympathetic, subject to criticism, and very much alive. They risk all, every day. He looks to them for inspiration in our uncertain political and social climate. He takes solace in seeing Americans protesting today, when for decades they seemed to just accept everything taken from them. His five protagonists are an inspiration for everyone.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.