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The Harvard Man In The Kremlin Wall
February 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 2
Obsessed with the sense of being an outsider, his youth was absorbed with an attempt to belong. In the eastern prep school to which his family sent him to prepare for Harvard, he was more successful. His health better, though his kidney never ceased to give trouble, he played football and ran the quarter mile. Where all were strangers, they were more willing to accept him.
But in Harvard, which he entered in 1906, he felt an outsider once more. Of the 744 young men in his entering class, it seemed that all had friends but Jack. How to make acquaintances, get into the clubs, become a part of all the gaiety? To make the freshman crew he .stayed all through a lonely vacation in Cambridge practicing on the rowing machine, only to be the last man dropped from the squad before the meets began. He tried out for the college papers, sought a desirable roommate and was snubbed, snubbed a Jewish boy who wanted to room with him —lor which he sought and won forgiveness later. Through it all, he felt terribly alone.
As an upperclassman, his status improved. He made one of the papers as managing editor, though the top posts eluded him “because the aristocrats blackballed me.” He had actually prayed to God to make his fellow students like him: now his prayers were being fulfilled. To be sure, he never made the “better” clubs, except Hasty Pudding in his senior year, when it needed someone to compose comic lyrics for the annual show. But he became president of the Cosmopolitan Club, outsiders banded together from fortythree lands, which offered the boy from Portland a heady brew of ideas and ideologies. Administrative posts were open to him: manager of the Dramatic Club, manager of the musical clubs, captain ol the water
polo team (recognition for his long hours of swimming in the Willamette), song leader of Harvard’s cheering section, where “I had the blissful sensation of swaying two thousand voices in great crashing choruses during the big football games.” His admiration for Bill Nye and Mark Twain, and his fecundity in thinking up sophomoric jokes and comic rhymes, won him second place on the Lampoon . He got on the Monthly , but could not make the staff of The Crimson , the Harvard daily. He felt almost, but not quite, “in.”
When a fight developed between “aristocrats” and “commoners,” Reed wavered. The commoners lived in the dormitories in Harvard Yard, the aristocrats on Mt. Auburn Street, whence the fight was known as one between Yard and Street. Tempted by the symbols of status, Jack had taken a room on the Street. That, and a modicum of acceptance from the “insiders” in his senior year, made him choose to run on their ticket—and go down to defeat.
Even then, the aristocrats did not altogether accept him. When he did get invited to their Back Bay drawing rooms, a perverse, defiant streak made him play some prank, affront some great personage, denounce some cherished institution, behave as badly as possible. When his roommates were invited to the next affair without him, he would feel sorry for himself. To reject while yearning to belong, this was always to be the squaring of the circle for John Reed.
Being a Harvard man remained important in later years. The Harvard Club in New York, Harvard menin Washington and Paris, rooming with Harvard men, continued to matter. It was at a Harvard gathering in Washington that he dramatized his opposition to conscription and America’s entrance into the war by refusing to stand up when “The Star-Spangled Banner” was sung. Afterwards it wounded him deeply when they hesitated to speak to him. This concern with Harvard was a part of the lifelong boyishness in Reed, a boyishness noted by all who have written of him, but misinterpreted by the many who have set him down as a “playboy.”
The Harvard of his day was in a ferment of intellectual radicalism (though that would decline during the war). The Socialist Club, where Reed’s classmate Walter Lippmann was holding forth as pundit, got Jack to some of the meetings, but he would not join. His reasons, truth in jest, are suggested in his lines to Lippmann as one
Reed shopped around, too, at the Single Tax and Anarchist clubs, the Harvard Men’s League for Woman’s Suffrage, and the other causes enlisting enthusiasm on the campus: modern art, thesis drama, antipuritanism—an apprenticeship lor the life he was to find in Greenwich Village.