- Historic Sites
The Harvard Man In The Kremlin Wall
February 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 2
John Reed was as American as apple pie and store cheese. Yet he was one of the founders of the Communist International, and his ashes lie under the Kremlin wall. From a mansion on Cedar Hill in Portland, Oregon, through respectable Harvard College, to the Kremlin wall in the heart of Moscow—such is the trajectory of his life. Except that his further evolution was cut short by untimely death, it was the trajectory, too, of the pre-igi^ Greenwich Village radicalism of which he was an integral part. Indeed, to follow his adventures of Mesh and spirit is to learn more about native American radicalism than about Russian Communism.
John Silas Reed, as he was christened in Portland’s fashionable Trinity Episcopal Church, was born on October 20, 1887, in the sumptuous mansion of his maternal grandparents. His childhood memories center around their lordly hilltop home, “a French chateau, with immense park, formal gardens, lawns, stables, greenhouses, glass grape-arbor, tame deer … Chinese servants … idols, strange customs and ceremonies … pig-tails and gongs and fluttering red paper.”
But Jack’s father and mother, the C. J. Reeds, were neither so rich nor so colorful. They owned a little home in Portland, then moved to an apartment hotel. His father did well as agent for an eastern agricultural implement company, until the international Harvester trust swallowed it up. Then he struggled along as an insurance salesman. He strove to give his tsvo sons the education proper to Portland “society” (private school, eastern prep school, Harvard), never letting his boys know the effort it cost him. In later years he became a crusader against the deeds of the great Portland families of which his father-in-law was a leading representative. Some of Oregon’s leaders were pre-empting the forests (to say Oregon was to say lumber). When Theodore Roosevelt began his battle for conservation of the forest lands, C. J. Reed became a United States marshal to fight the despoilers of the Oregon forests. The divisions in Portland society, the excitements of the crusade, the friendship between Jack’s father and Lincoln Steffens, the firing of Portland’s United States marshal by Taft—such was the political heritage which John Reed took with him to Harvard and Greenwich Village.
Jack’s boyhood was troubled by illness, particularly a kidney ailment, a sense of physical weakness, the fear of older and tougher boys. He was never really well and strong until his sixteenth year. His way to the Portland Academy lay through Goose Hollow, inhabited by “brutal Irish boys.” He fought when he had to, ran when he could, paid tribute to his tormentors, finally got himself accepted precariously as one of the less valued members of the Fourteenth Street Gang.
The boy’s happiness was not in the world of fights and sports but, his mother having early taught him to read, in the world of books and dreams. Soon he was writing verses, telling fanciful talcs to younger listeners, seeing in every girl a Guinevere and in himself Sir Galahad, aquest for the Holy Grail. “History was my passion, kings strutting about and armored ranks of men.” At twenty-six, in Florence, he saw a “Field of Dragons’ Teeth, where turbulent armies bred"; in Venice he was lost in the beauty of history. “The things Men have donel” he murmured over and over again to Mabel Dodge. “But I wish that I could have been there at the domg of it, or that they were doing it now .”
In the Portland Academy Jack was an outsider. “I wasn’t good at the things the other boys were, and their codes of honor and conduct didn’t hold me … They had a good natured contempt for me … That is why my impression of my boyhood is an unhappy one, and why I have so few close friends in Portland, and don’t ever want to live there again.”
Only at swimming did he excel, spending long hours in the Willamettc River outdiving and outracing his companions. He staged plays of his own writing, founded and managed juvenile journals, filling them with his own stuff. Since his education was what is today called “permissive,” and his reading wide and disorderly, his mind would be to the end as amazing for what he didn’t know as tor what he did, and most amazing for the things he knew that weren’t so. In 1917, just before he left for his look at the Russian Revolution, he wrote a brief memoir, a backward glance at the first twenty-nine years of his life, from which we have been quoting. Of the temper of his spirit he wrote: I never stuck long at anything I didn’t like … On the other hand, there are few things I don’t get some fun out of, if only the novelty of experience. I love people, except the well-fed smug, and am interested in all new things and all the beautiful old things they do. 1 love beauty and chance and change … I suppose f’ll always be a Romanticist.
No one could put better what his friends meant when they said: “fack is a poet.”