Now, in his next book, Young Radicals, McCarter takes revolutionary figures as his subjects once again. He focuses on five different radicals—Randolph Bourne, Max Eastman, Walter Lippman, Alice Paul, and John Reed—who fought for American ideals on the brink of World War I.
Below, McCarter explains the book’s genesis, and what yesterday’s revolutionaries can teach us about how to act in today’s world. Young Radicals hits shelves June 13, 2017.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did the idea for this book come to you? It seems so timely, but you’ve been researching it for six years.<
JEREMY McCARTER: In college, I loved hearing about this extraordinary moment in American history around 1912 and 1913, when it seemed like all the engines — social, political, cultural — began to roar at once. Young people came of age thinking that they had the big problems figured out, that they could take peace and progress for granted. Then the worst war in history wrecked those hopes, and a lot more besides.
The irony of that reversal haunted me for years. How would it feel to live through that kind of shock? If you left college thinking that you were going to make the country better, and then one day the country goes mad, where do you find the courage to keep chasing your ideal, even when your life is on the line?
Eventually I settled on five main figures — young idealists who got seized by some vision of a better world, and started to make it real in the days before the war, then had to rethink their plans when America’s decision to fight Germany plunged the country into violence and repression.
I picked those five because I thought they evoked their era and had some special resonance in ours. Lately, they’ve turned out to be more resonant than I expected. The militant suffragist Alice Paul led an enormous march for women’s rights in Washington. Sound familiar?
At the same time as you were doing all this research, you were also involved in documenting the creation of Hamilton, as we read in Hamilton: The Revolution. How did working in and around that show influence your work, and this book specifically?
Young Radicals was pretty far along by the time Lin said we should do the Hamilton book (a.k.a. the Hamiltome) together. We had to knock it out in a crazy couple months in 2015. But that hiatus turned out to be a lucky bit of cross-training for my storytelling muscles.
I wanted the Hamilton book to trace the show’s creation by following the same narrative arc as the show itself. That would only work if Lin’s songs alternated with my profiles, essays, etc. Figuring out how to thread a single story through three dozen chapters and four dozen songs was a tricky puzzle. Which was fun, because I love puzzles. Young Radicals is a very different book, but it’s a puzzle, too—one that I could see more clearly after the break to write the Hamiltome. Here are five complicated figures whose lives need to be braided together to form a single (hopefully satisfying) story. And then—the ultimate test of a storytelling puzzle—all traces of the puzzle pieces need to disappear. You don’t want readers to think about your storytelling moves. They should be too busy wondering what escapade is coming next, or hoping that everything will turn out ok for the hero.
How did the election and its aftermath affect the book?
As I say in the introduction, I spent six years trying to imagine how it feels when your hopes for the country and your confidence in progress go up in flames, and then, in the final weeks of working on the book, I got to feel it for myself. Spoiler: It did not feel good.
Which of these “radicals” would you resurrect to lead the resistance today?
I wouldn’t do it even if I could. That’s not how this works. America only gets to have one Alice Paul, and we already had her. We have to learn from what she did. We have to be fearless, resourceful, and self-sacrificing, as she was. But the point is to go beyond what she did. A big argument of the book is that we inherit the ideals of the “young radicals” and the legacies of their struggles so we can build on them. The point is to do better than they did.