“The Handicapped” by Randolph Bourne (1911)

June 19, 2011 | Posted in Essays in America |

Randolph Bourne was born in Bloomfield, New Jersey, on May 30, 1886. Bourne suffered facial deformities due to complications at birth and later developed spinal tuberculosis which left him hunchbacked and inhibited his growth.

Bourne attended Columbia University, during which time he began publishing in The Atlantic Monthly. An ardent pacifist, Bourne is often remembered for his saying, “War is the health of the state.”

Many magazine editors pressured Bourne to tone down his anti-war rhetoric but he was not willing to compromise. In response, Bourne helped found The Seven Arts, a literary ‘little magazine’, which ran from 1916 until 1917. The magazine folded when the publisher withdrew support because of the magazine’s ardent anti-war stance.

Bourne’s first book, Youth and Life (1913), is a collection of his essays. He compiled his essays on education in The Gary Schools (1916) and Education and Living (1917). Bourne died in the flu epidemic of 1918.

Essay’s Form

This essay originally appeared anonymously under the title “The Handicapped – By One of Them.” This title both associates and disassociates Bourne from the subject of the essay, which is significant because, at the time the essay appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in 1911, Bourne was a frequent contributor to the magazine and his name was beginning to get known by its readers.

The decision to publish anonymously is a subtle signal that Bourne may have been embarrassed by his disability. Such embarrassment suggests that Bourne was capitulating to the prevailing views of his time at the same time that he was challenging them.

Bourne’s writing style also hints at discomfort in speaking about his handicap. Bourne frequently uses the impersonal pronoun “he,” but the title and first-person references within the essay make it sound far more personal. This shifting pronoun use suggests a learned discomfort in discussing his own disability and in speaking for other handicapped individuals.

Essay’s Immediate Context

Bourne’s essay was published at a time when handicapped individuals faced a lot of discrimination. For instance, in 1911 Chicago passed a law that barred from public view anyone “who is diseased, maimed, mutilated or deformed in any way, so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object.” Ostensibly designed to cut down on mendicancy, “ugly laws” like this demonstrate a troubling intolerance for both handicapped and poor individuals.

Additionally, Bourne’s essay ran counter to the theory of eugenics, which held that controlled reproduction could improve the human race and was influential among the Progressive community of which he was a part. Milder forms of eugenics urged procreation by people deemed eugenically “fit.” More radical eugenicists argued that the “unfit” should be sterilized or killed.

Although not a universally accepted idea, some of the most influential thinkers and writers of the day were eugenicists, including H.G. Wells, T.S. Eliot and D.H. Lawrence.

Subsequent Appearances

Bourne published Youth and Life in 1913, in which “The Handicapped – By One of Them” was revised and reprinted as “A Philosophy of Handicap.”

The essay later appears in The Best American Essays of the Century, edited by Joyce Carol Oates and Robert Atwan, and The Radical Will: Selected Writings, 1911-1918, edited by Olaf Hansen. Both anthologies title the essay “The Handicapped” and provide Bourne’s name as the author.


The original title, “The Handicapped – By One of Them,” highlights the anonymous authorship in ways discussed earlier. Alteration of the title to “A Philosophy of Handicap” or “The Handicapped” omits Bourne’s personal connection to the subject and shifts the focus from Bourne’s own handicap to the social condition of the handicapped individual.

Read Bourne’s “The Handicapped” in its entirety as reprinted in Ragged Edge Online 22.3 (May 2001).


Bourne, Randolph. “The Handicapped.” The Best American Essays of the Century. Ed. Joyce Carol Oates and Robert Atwan. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000. 57-70. Print.

_____. “The Handicapped.” The Radical Will: Selected Writings, 1911-1918. Ed. Olaf Hansen. Berkeley: U of California P, 1977. 73-87. Print.

_____. “The Handicapped – By One of Them.” The Atlantic Monthly Sept. 1911. 320-9. Print.

_____. “A Philosophy of Handicap.”Youth and Life. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1913. 337-65. Google Books. Online. 9 Apr. 2011.

Schweik, Susan M. The Ugly Laws: Disability in Public. New York: New York UP, 2009. Google Books. Online. 9 Apr. 2011.

The Staff of the Columbian, 1913, student newspaper of Columbia University; Bourne, 4th from the left, first row:

Text and images: Aimee Wilson.