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The Harvard Man In The Kremlin Wall
February 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 2
He kept urging young people to go to Russia. Personally, he lingered long in a villa in Mussolini’s Italy, then settled in “corrupt” Paris and in California’s Carmel-by-the-Sea. He “had been to Heaven” (Moscow), but was “so accustomed to Hell” (Paris) that for himself he preferred it. He could “recognize salvation, but could not be saved.”
Such was the temper and mind of the distinguished journalist and man of the world who in 1911 took Reed under his care, introducing him to life and art and the men, women, and isms of Greenwich Village.
Instantly, Jack fell in love with New York: the Village where he roomed, the theaters, Chinatown, the Fulton Fish Market, the soaring towers, the Hudson smelling of spice and far-off places, the teeming life of the Jewish East Side and Little Italy, Bowery drifters, cheap lodging houses, restaurants “where the foods of the entire world could be found,” dope peddlers, streetwalkers, gangsters who killed for hire, Coney Island’s garish glitter—all was enchantment. In verses that were derivative but bespoke an eye and a heart all his own, Jack celebrated “the monuments uncouth” of the city’» “wild ungovernable youth,” the splendors of her achievements and of her still-unfulfilled dreams, the excitements of his own adventures in this splendid and chaotic setting. “In New York I first loved, and first wrote of the things I saw with a fierce joy of creation … I was not happy or well long, away from New York … I am not now for that matter.” ∗
∗ Written in croton in 1917
Best of all in the beloved city was his beloved Village. Here were famous men and women, impassioned talk, endless inspiration, unflagging excitement, physical and spiritual adventure. Indeed, when John Reed and three comrades from Harvard took rooms in a seedy old building at 42 Washington Square South (and Lincoln Steffens, to be near them, forsook his accustomed luxury to move into rooms on the floor below), Greenwich Village was one of the most exciting spots in the world. The Villagers were creators or devotees of the arts and the isms , advocates and exemplars of life lived recklessly, free from the trammels of puritanism, respectability, or convention.
The Village was Freud and Margaret Sanger; Big Bill Haywood, Carlo Tresca, and Emma Goldman; Marx, Henry George, Tolstoi, and Benjamin Tucker; Alfred Stieglitz and Isadora Duncan, and all the other heads of all sorts of movements, some of them with their whole movement in a single head. Editors scouted there. Alongside the established journals new ones sprang up that could not pay a penny, even begged funds from their contributors to keep going. Reed tried to write things that would sell, but as solace for rejection slips found that the Village had an openhearted, empty-treasuried magazine: the Masses. By then, Max Eastman presided over it. Hopeful, vaguely modern, radical, experimental, it was more a Catherine wheel of artists, poets, light and heavy thinkers, and literary pranksters, than a cause or tendencyworlds apart from the New Masses and the un-Reedlike “John Reed Clubs” of the thirties. Like the Village itself, it was a home for personal rebels, esthetic rebels, anarchists, socialists, feminists, any ists whatsoever. It was perpetually dying for lack of funds, perpetually springing to life again out of the abundance of high spirits that was its real capital.
Before long Jack was, as he had been at Harvard, the managing editor. For one of its resurrections he wrote: We refuse to commit ourselves to any course of action, except this: to do with the Masses exactly what we please … We don’t even intend to conciliate our readers … Poems, stories, drawings rejected by the capitalistic press on account of their excellence will find a welcome … We intend to be arrogant, impertinent, in bad taste, but not vulgar … to attack old systems, old morals, old prejudices … to set up new ones in their places … We will be bound by no one creed or theory of social reform, but will express them all, providing they be radical …
It was a credo for the Masses and a personal statement of Jack’s own “radicalism.” Notable in it was the sense of beleaguered comradeship among these assorted rebels. Though they fought and argued endlessly with each other, they stood shoulder to shoulder against the established. They could write, without mockery, of “the good love of comrades.” They might disagree with each other’s creeds but they defended each other’s right to utter and publish what to each might seem good—for none thought then that his heresy might one day become a new orthodoxy, leveling inquisition, anathema, and death at all who might continue to be rebels.