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.”
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.
The one remembered teacher was “Copey,” who “stimulated me to find color and strength and beauty in books and in the world, and to express it.” Professor Charles Townsend Copeland, in turn, led young Reed back to the tutelage of his father’s old friend and comrade in arms, Lincoln Steffens, who was destined to influence him more deeply than any other man for the rest of his days.
Lincoln Steffens was attracted to younger men and greatly enjoyed the influence he could exercise over them. As a topflight journalist, he was always being made an editor of some magazine or daily, yet he hated a desk and four walls and was no editor at all- except for his uncanny ability to think up assignments for himself and his love of scouting for young writers. He had gone to Harvard to ask Copeland for the names of some promising young men. Copey’s list included Lippmann, whom Steffens put on the staff of Everybody ’s, and the son of his old friend C. J. Reed, whom he got a job on the American Magazine .
Jack’s ambitions were modest: “To make a million dollars … to get married … to write his name in letters of fire against the sky.” When he confided this, “Steffens looked at me with that lovely smile: ‘You can do anything you want to,’ he said … There are two men who give me confidence in myself—Copeland and Steffens … More than any other man, Steff has influenced my mind.”
In 1911, Steffens was at the zenith of his reputation —though the foundations on which it was built were already eroded. For a few years, America had been much taken with crusades against Big Business, and against political corruption. Leading magazines vied with each other to publish exposés. Wrongly regarded as “the inventor of muckraking,” Steffens was surely its most celebrated practitioner. He contributed a unique off-beat note: liking for the crooks and grafters, and dislike for the men of his own class, the reformers to whose crusades his articles contributed.
Publicly Steffens was beginning to affirm that he admired Tammany Boss Richard Croker more than any of his enemies, and thought J. B. Dill, who had framed the New Jersey loophole laws for corporations, “one of the wisest, and, yes, about the Tightest man I ever met.” He offered President Charles William Eliot of Harvard a “course in corruption,” not to teach the young how to avoid it but how to “succeed in their professions,” whereupon President Eliot turned on his heel and walked out of the room.
Steffens was chagrined when editors would not let him turn from muckraking to didactic essays to show that “intelligence was above morality,” that there was no science nor certainty to morals, that if you “threw the grafters out” they were bound to get right back in again. He wanted to explain that it was “the system” that was corrupt, and the cure quite simple: nationalize all industry, and industry will be government, hence no longer be able to corrupt it. His valedictory in the field was fittingly entitled “An Apology for Graft,” its thesis being that “a strong man, however bad, is socially better than a weak man, however good.”
Having no patience for the sobering thought that a good fight has to be fought again and again, Steffens’ cocksure, arrogant mind cast about for a swift and simple solution. He must work out “the scientific laws of revolution” as previously he had worked out “the scientific laws of corruption.” There was a revolution going on in Mexico, but scientists “need more than a single case.” Steffens was delighted when revolution broke out in Russia in 1917, and in Italy in 1922. He made a pilgrimage to each. John Reed followed him to Mexico and Russia, but was no longer able to go on the third.
“I would like to spend the evening of my life,” Steffens wrote, “watching the morning of a new world.” It was a long evening: born twenty-one years before Reed, Steffens died sixteen vears after him. To the end, influencing and propagandizing young people in favor of revolution was his ruling passion.
As he had admired Croker and Dill, so now he admired the strong and ruthless men who were shaping, or misshaping, our age. His admiration for Lenin is too well known to require comment here. No less instructive was his apostrophe to Mussolini: It was as if the Author of all things had looked down upon this little planet of His, and seeing the physical, mental, moral confusion said: “I will have a political thunderstorm, big enough for all men to notice and not too big for them to comprehend, and through it I will shoot a blazing thunderbolt that will strike down all their foolish old principles, burn up their dead ideas, and separate the new light I am creating from the darkness men have made.” And so he formed Mussolini out of the rib of Italy.
After his “study” of three revolutions, Steffens was sure that “it is useless—it is almost wrong—to fight for the right under our system; petty reforms in politics … were impossible, unintelligent, immoral.”
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.
Moreover, the Village’s conception of “the Revolution” was esthetic rather than social. Its high point was the Armory Show of 1913. Mabel Dodge, whose $500 check and busy visits to owners of “advanced” art to get loans of pictures, did much to make the show possible, characterized it well with her usual uninhibited precision: I felt as though the Exhibition were mine. I really did. It became, over night, my own little Revolution. / would up- 97 set America … It was tragic—I was able to admit that- but the old ways must go, and with them their priests … My hand would not shake nor could I allow my personal feelings of pity to halt me. I was going to dynamite New York …
In 1913, the salon of Mabel Dodge was a unifier of Village life. Like V. F. Calverton in the postwar generation, she had a rare gift for bringing together the atomized particles of our decentralized culture.
Born Mabel Ganson in Buffalo in 1879 (which made her eight years Jack’s senior), she would become Mabel Evans in 1900, Mabel Dodge in 1903, marry the painter Maurice Sterne in 1916, and a HispanoIndian, Antonio Luhan, in 1923. Between the second marriage and the third she came to play a large role in the Village and in John Reed’s life.
Returning from three years in her elegant Florentine villa to “ugly, ugly America” and on the way to becoming estranged from her loyal, conventional second husband, she sought to fill the void in her life by turning her beautiful apartment at 23 Fifth Avenue into an open house for everybody that was anybody, and many a nobody. Wealthy, gracious, open-hearted, beautiful, intellectually curious, and quite without a sense of discrimination, she was Bohemia’s most successful lion-hunter. “I wanted to know the Heads of things, Heads of movements, Heads of newspapers, Heads of all kinds of groups … anything that showed above the tribal pattern.” Her hospitality, her capacity for listening, her quiet, encouraging smile, brought together the great, the near-great, and those who came to dream of greatness.
Steffens was one of her lions; he brought the three young Harvard classmates, Lee Simonson, Walter Lippmann, and John Reed. There they could meet of a Wednesday evening the Hapgoods, Jo Davidson, Margaret Sanger, Alexander Berkman, Emma Goldman, Max Eastman, Frances Perkins, Andrew Dasburg, Charles Demuth, Marsden Hartley, Amos Pinchot, Amy Lowell, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Carl Van Vechten, Harry Kemp, Frank Harris, George Sylvester Viereck, John Collier … an inexhaustible Who’s Who .
Sometimes Mrs. Dodge set the subject and selected the opening speaker; sometimes she shifted the night to make sure of a more uniform group. More often the talk flowed out of the diversity of personalities and convictions. Here, from her Intimate Memories , is her account of a “special” evening: I switched from the usual Wednesday to a Monday, so that none but more or less radical sympathizers would be there. People who believed that others had the right to kill on principle, if they thought it Right: The Live and Let Live Kind of People.
One evening, they all went to hear Bill Haywood (”a great battered hulk of a man, with one eye gone, and an eminent look in the other") at the home of his mistress, a schoolteacher who lived in the Village. He talked on the desperate Paterson silk strike, police brutality, the silence of the press.
“Why don’t you bring the strike to New York and show it ?” asked Mabel Dodge. “In Madison Square Garden, why not?”
“I’ll do it,” cried a voice—and a young man detached himself from the group and assumed a personality before my eyes … His olive green eyes glowed softly, his high forehead was like a baby’s with light brown curls rolling away from it and two spots of shining light on his temples, making him lovable. His chin was the best … the real poet’s jawbone … eyebrows always lifted … generally breathlessl
(Max Eastman has affectionately described Jack as having a face “rather like a potato.” Curiously, we who knew him found both descriptions, each in its way, correct.)
Reed spent three weeks in Paterson in the midst of the strike, leading the foreign-born workers in revolutionary songs, listening to I.W.W. speakers, getting himself thrown in jail. When the police, who had arrested him “for resisting an officer,” found that he was embarrassing them by articles on prison conditions, they threw him out. He headed straight for Mabel Dodge’s home. Since it was her idea, he took it for granted that she would work with him on it. His exuberance dragged her into an enterprise alien and indifferent to her nature. Thus was born “The Pageant of the Paterson Strike.” His scenario was rather bare and simple. But the novelty of masses of strikers and I.W.W. leaders as actors gave the performance an unexpected intensity. Jack appeared in his own pageant to lead the strikers in revolutionary songs.
It is hard work to fill Madison Square Garden. The dollar and two-dollar seats remained almost empty until workers and strikers were let in free or at ten cents a seat. Instead of making money, the pageant ended with a deficit. The long strike was finally lost. But Jack did not stay to learn the results. The day after the pageant, he and Mabel left for Europe.
When he came to the Village he had a girl he wanted to marry. For the first five months, he wrote, “I was sentimental about it and remained chaste.” Then she was forgotten, and he followed a roving eye and fancy into a succession of affairs, all “wonderful” but none deep. When he told his current love, “Rose, I don’t love you; I love Mabel Dodge,” she shed a few tears on his shoulder and sobbed, “I am so unhappy,” then suddenly raised her eyes in surprise and said: “Why, no I’m not!” But his love for Mabel Dodge was different. It must have been a possessive, even oppressive passion. She owns herself to have been jealous of the stones of Venice, of the way he felt about history, and the way he said, “The things Men have donel” ("Past or present, I did not care what they had done … I jumped into the automobile and returned to Florence, leaving him there to it.") She was jealous of the Harvard friends who soon came to take him on stag explorations. She was jealous of Mexico and his life with Villa’s band, when Steffens had him sent there as a correspondent; jealous of the Great War when he became a correspondent in Europe.
Good-bye, my darling [he wrote in one such quarrel]You smother me. You crush me. You want to kill my spirit. I love you better than life but do not want to die in my spirit. I am going away to save myself. Forgive me. I love you. I love you. Reed.
Yet he returned, and the torment continued. Sud_ denly, after a year and some months, love for Reed died in her as swiftly as it had flared up. Yet he continued to count on it, had editors send her reports on him, wrote her of brief affairs with other girls and his enduring love for her.
For her part, she could not see why they “should not continue to be close friends.” She tried to house him as her guest in the attic of the farmhouse she took with Maurice Sterne, but he could not act out this desperate Village convention. “Why can’t people live their theories, anyway?” she cried. Not until December, 1915, was Jack able to break the spell. Then he wrote: I think I’ve found Her at last. She’s wild, brave and straight-and graceful and lovely to look at. In this spiritual vacuum, this unfertilized soil [he was writing from Portland where he was visiting his mother], she has grown (how, I can’t imagine) into an artist. She is coming to New York to get a job—with me, I hope. I think she’s the first person I ever loved without reservation.
The new love was Louise Bryant Trullinger, wife of a Portland dentist, unhappy with Portland and with her husband, hungering for New York and adventure. New York took on new radiance as Reed showed her its wonders. Thus began a stormy love, broken by intermittent affairs on both sides, yet continuing. In November, 1916, when Jack went to the hospital to get his ailing kidney removed, they were married. In 1917, and again in 1919, she went to Russia when Reed was there, the first time as a correspondent in her own right. She was with him in Moscow when he died.
Following Reed’s loves we have run ahead of his life as a writer. In November, 1913, he went to Mexico to report for the Metropolitan and the World . To Reed the Mexican Revolution was a pageant, a succession of adventures, a delight to the eye, a chance to discover that he was not afraid of bullets. His reports overflow with life and movement: simple, savage men, capricious cruelty, warm comradeship, splashes of color, bits of song, fragments of social and political dreams, personal peril, gay humor, reckless daring. Neither Steffens, who joined and counted on Venustiano Carranza, nor Reed, who celebrated the pastoral dreams and bold deeds of Pancho Villa, had any real notion of the Mexican maze. But Reed’s mingling of personal adventure with camera-eye close-ups lighted by a poet’s vision made superb reporting. The book he made of them, Insurgent Mexico , despite its careless ignorance of men, events, and forces, and even of Spanish, which he mangled in the ballads he quoted, was closer to the feeling of Mexico in revolution than most things that Americans have written on it. When he returned to New York, he found that he had a reputation as a war correspondent.
When war broke out in Europe in 1914, he was asked to cover it for the Metropolitan . First Italy—nothing worth reporting. France, having settled down to trench warfare, seemed dull and gloomy to him, with none of the excitement of Pancho Villa’s hard-riding bands. He tried England-no exciting story there either. “The real war,” he wrote, echoing Steffens, “is a clash of traders.” Like most Village radicals, he was inclined to sympathize with Germany as the “underdog,” the late-comer among the trading and colonial nations who had arrived when everything was preempted. Not much to choose between the sides, but the Entente seemed “more hypocritical.” His most violent language was reserved for England, who grips the Red Sea, sucks the blood from all India, menaces a half billion human beings from Hong Kong, owns all Australia, half North America, and half of Africa … the great intriguer, sitting like a spider in the web of nations … It was England’s will that Germany should be destroyed.
The Metropolitan did not print his article.
Taking advantage of the fact that America was neutral, he left for Germany and its front in occupied France. His accounts are in general favorable to the occupiers. He spent a night under fire in the foremost trench, where he could see the French lines and the dead in no man’s land. After a night in rain and mud, under a hail of shrapnel and shells, he was asked by a German lieutenant whether he would like to have a shot. With a rifle borrowed from a German soldier, he fired two shots at daybreak in the general direction of the French. This escapade, reported by a fellow correspondent, was to cause trouble for him later in Czarist Russia, be held against him in Washington, cause him to be barred from France. That is how John Reed came to be transferred to the eastern front, with Boardman Robinson as his artist-illustrator. The results of their collaboration appeared in 1916 as The War in Eastern Europe .
His tour of duty as a European war correspondent was a disappointment to editors, friends, and to Jack himself. His daring recklessness, his poet’s vision and camera-eye, his shallow explanations of the “traders’ war,” were not enough to work with in the grim, vast, irreducible stalemate. “I have come to hate Europe,” he wrote his mother.
The eastern front proved scarcely more rewarding. Having worked his way up through the Balkans into Russia, without permission from the Russian authorities and pursued by the story of his two shots at the French, he landed in a Russian jail. It was sixteen days before American officials could arrange his peaceful and ignominious departure. With his usual boyish exuberance, he had written on his passport for the benefit of the Russian authorities: “I am a German and an Austrian spy. I do it for money. Reed.”
Despite misadventure, his brief stay in Russia had made him a Russophile: Russian ideals are the most exhilarating, Russian thought the freest, Russian art the most exuberant; Russian food and drink are to me the best, and Russians themselves are, perhaps, the most interesting human beings that exist … There the people live as if they knew it were a great empire … Every one acts just as he feels like acting, and says just what he wants to. There are no particular times for getting up or going to bed or eating dinner, and there is no conventional way of murdering a man, or making love.
It was Czarist Russia of late 1915 that he was celebrating.
Back in America in 1916, Reed was alarmed by his country’s drift toward war. With Henrietta Rodman, Franklin Giddings, Carlton Hayes, John Dewey, he signed an appeal to Socialists to vote for Wilson because “he has kept us out of war.” George Creel organized a group of writers to re-elect Wilson; among them were Steffens, Howe, Zona Gale, Hutch Hapgood, George Cram Cook, Susan Glaspell, and Reed. America’s swift entrance into the war on the side of the Allies, even before Wilson had pronounced his second inaugural, goes far to explain the subsequent fury of Village radicalism.
After the removal of his long-ailing kidney, the publication of a slender and undistinguished volume of poems, the writing of the essay on the first twenty-nine years of life, and exemption from the draft because of the kidney operation, Jack sought an assignment to Russia where the Czar had fallen and a revolution begun. In his “Almost Thirty,” Jack wrote: I must find myself again. Some men seem to get their direction early … I have no idea what I shall be or do one month from now. Whenever I have tried to become some one thing, I have failed; … only by drifting with the wind I have found myself. … I wish with all my heart that the proletariat would rise and take their rights … But I am not sure any more that the working class is capable of revolution, peaceful or otherwise. The War has been a terrible shatterer of faith … And yet, I cannot give up the idea that out of democracy will be born the new world—richer, braver, freer, more beautiful … I don’t know what I can do to help … My happiness is built on the misery of other people … that fact poisons me, disturbs my serenity, makes me write propaganda when I would rather play.
It was in this mood that John Reed, on August 17, 1917, set sail with Louise Bryant for Russia.
He arrived late that August with an exalted preconception of what he was going to see. His own civilization was in crisis; his country had gone to war. He was ready to support the party that wanted to take Russia out of the war and, he hoped, put an end to war. It was a simple, comforting, and by no means ignoble belief.
Of Lenin’s authoritarian party structure and organization creed he knew nothing: so much the freer was his fancy to endow the conflict and chaos he was to witness with the form and substance of his own dream.
To Boardman Robinson he wrote: “We are in the middle of things and believe me it’s thrilling. For color and terror and grandeur this makes Mexico look pale.”
His Russian was even sketchier than his Spanish, but no matter. For worker and peasant there was a gay smile and the sputtering of Ya amerikanskii sotsialist! And, since all Russia was talking and yearning to unburden its soul, any number of officers, intellectuals, and political leaders could talk to him in English, French, or German. Makers of history and those being unmade by it, veteran fighters for freedom smarting under the new-found epithet, “counter-revolutionist"—who would refuse to talk to an American reporter who was so ardent, attractive, and boyish a listener? In the back of every meeting into which Jack shouldered his way, there was always someone to answer his perpetual, breathless “Say, what’s going on here?”
He made his way into the Smolny, where the Bolsheviks had their headquarters; into the City Duma, stronghold of liberal democracy; into the soviets of workers and soldiers and into the soviets of peasants; into barracks, factory meetings, street processions, halls, courts; into the Constituent Assembly, which the Bolsheviks dispersed; into the Winter Palace when it was being defended by student officers and a women’s battalion, and again when it was being overrun and looted. All Russia was meeting, and John Reed was meeting with it.
If two shots from a German Mauser did not make him cease to be a neutral in the Great War, in this “class war pure and simple” he strove to be a participant. Twice he addressed crowds in the Cirque Moderne, bringing fraternal greetings (from whom?), being presented as spokesman for the American Socialist party (which he was not), and as a man under indictment in far-off America (which, as an editor of the antiwar Masses , he was). He addressed Bolshevik factory meetings, careened around the city on one of their trucks hurling out leaflets he could not read, joined the looting of the Winter Palace, carrying off some notes of a doomed minister and a jewel-handled sword concealed under his coat.
With his poet’s blood and rebel’s heart he decided what to believe. Then, with the artist’s gift for selection, heightening and unifying, he assimilated all the chaotic impressions into a picture more impressive and more beautiful than life itself.
When Boardman Robinson reproached him once with “But it didn’t happen that way!” his answer was an ad hominem of artist to artist. “What the hell difference does it make?” And, seizing one of Robinson’s sketches: “She didn’t have a bundle as big as that … he didn’t have so full a beard.” Drawing, Robinson explained, was not a matter of photographic accuracy but of over-all impression. “Exactly,” Reed cried in triumph, “that is just what I am trying to do!”
Yet there is nothing of the mean, deliberate lie about John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World . A good reporter, always in the thick of things, he possessed an honest sense of vivid detail that makes one page refute another.
He idealized the masses. He believed the ridiculous legend, born perhaps of his own dream, that the Bolshevik Central Committee, after having rejected the idea of an insurrection, was made to reverse itself by a single speech of a rank and file working man. (There was such a reversal, but the “rank and file workingman” was Lenin!) Though literacy was declining all through the war, and would continue to decline for years after, Reed wrote sincerely: “All Russia was learning to read.” A few pages later, without any sense of contradiction, comes this vivid scene: We did not notice a change in the attitude of the soldiers and Red guards around us … A small group followed us until by the time we reached the great picture gallery … about a hundred men surged in after us. One giant of a soldier stood in our path, his face dark with sullen suspicion. “Who are you?” he growled. The others massed slowly around, staring and beginning to mutter … I produced our passes from the Military Revolutionary Committee. The soldier took them gingerly, turned them upsidedown and looked at them without comprehension. Evidently he could not read. “Bumagi!” ("Papersl") said he with contempt. The mass slowly began to close in, like wild cattle around a cow-puncher on foot …
It was an officer, from the intelligentsia Reed professed to despise, who—frightened and sweating—managed to save Jack and Louise from instant lynching. Twice he is nearly lynched and saved by an officer, but Reed never permits himself to doubt that lynchings are salutary and the mob just.
For Reed the Revolution is holy. As a devout Christian may believe that on the night of the Savior’s birth “no spirit dares stir abroad; the nights are wholesome, then no planets strike, no fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm, so hallow’d and so gracious is the time"— so Reed writes of the night Lenin seized power: “On that night not a single hold-up occurred, not a single robbery.” The same impression of sacredness is repeated three days later: “Quiet the city lay, not a hold-up, not a robbery, not even a drunken fight.”
Yet this does not prevent his quoting Trotsky on the all-embracing wave of drunkenness that accompanied the seizure of power. Nor prevent his reproducing an order showing that the drunken wave continued into late December. It is instructive to compare Reed’s “Quiet the city lay” with the plaint of AntonovOvseenko, leader of the attack on the Winter Palace: The Preobrazhensky regiment got completely drunk while guarding the wine cellars of the Palace … The Pavlovsky regiment did not withstand temptation either … Mixed, picked guards were sent; they, too, got drunk. Members of the regimental committees were assigned … These succumbed too. Men of the armored brigades were ordered to disperse the crowds—they paraded to and fro, then began to sway suspiciously … An attempt was made to flood the cellars. The fire brigades got drunk … The whole city was infected with this drinking madness …
How could Reed not have seen it?
Though his “vision” raced ahead of his eyes, creating its own illusion, yet his eyes were everywhere. And his person, too. He tried to see it all and put it all on paper. The dream of the Bolsheviks, the realities of their deeds, and the tension between the dream and the reality are in his pages. If he did not comprehend the meaning of the large events, what observer or participant did? He understood less and misunderstood more than many, so that one of the personages of whom he wrote would say to me of his book: “The work of an innocent who did not know whether he was attending a wedding or a funerall” It was a funeral—of Russia’s newly won liberties, achieved after a century of struggle. If Jack thought that he was witnessing the wedding of liberty and justice destined to live together happily ever after, so well does he report that we can see the acts of burial even as he sings of nuptials.
As a repository of facts for the historian, his book is bursting with precious material: interviews, speeches, resolutions, press clippings. One of his habits was to tear down a specimen of every poster or proclamation for future translation. The book is full of quotations from these documents, and illustrated by photos of many of them—a priceless opportunity for the historian to enter into a time that has passed.
Whether because of or despite the dream that possessed him, as literature Reed’s book is the finest piece of eye-witness reporting the Revolution produced. It is his true monument, more enduring than the ashes and the name carved on the Kremlin wall.
After the Ten Days , the rest of his life is anticlimax. He tried to become a Communist politician, but as a politician he was out of his element. After his return to the United States in the spring of 1918, he sat on tiresome committees and toured the country speaking on the Russian Revolution. Despairing of politics, he sought martyrdom. Though the country was in the grip of wartime fever and hysteria, officials returned the posters they had seized from him on his landing; the indictments against him as an editor of the Masses , as opponent of the war, as “inciter to riot,” as preacher of sedition and revolution, all were quashed, or dismissed, or ended in acquittal. He helped to split the Socialist party, got caught up in a frustrating split in the nascent Communist party, and all the while longed to get back to the old life of adventure and poetry. Twice he fled from cheerless meetings to seek out Sherwood Anderson. “If I were dead sure I had something on the ball as a poet …” he told Anderson wistfully.
He wrote propaganda articles on America, the world situation, communism. They are dull, foolish, barely readable.
Then came the chance to return to adventure. The occasion was petty: to present the case of one of the splinters of the new Communist movement against the other, before the Communist International.
It was a quest perilous to get to the Red mecca. Fearful of the contagion of revolution, the West had set up a cordon sanitaire around Russia, as later the Kremlin would set up its own “iron curtain” against the contagion of freedom. Denied a passport, Jack sailed with forged identification papers as Jim Gormley, stoker on a Scandinavian vessel, in September of 1919. Though his health had been weakened by his kidney operation and his irregular habits, “Gormley” did his work satisfactorily as a stoker—until he jumped ship in Norway. From there he stowed away in a greasy pile of rags on a ship bound for Finland, and was smuggled across the Finnish frontier into Russia.
It was not the Russia of his dreams. He was hurt by the spectacle of hunger, misery, breakdown, apathy, above all by the way the new bureaucracy was beginning to lavish care on itself in the midst of universal misery. As in 1917, he insisted on living like the unprivileged. He sought to preserve the fragments of his dream by attributing everything to the civil war and the blockade, and ignoring the contribution made by Lenin’s absurd outlawing of trade between town and country and nationalization of everything “down to the last inkwell.”
“From every trip,” wrote Angelica Balabanoff, then Secretary of the Communist International, “he would come back to the capital less and less cheerful, more and more sad and preoccupied … because of the superfluous sufferings of the people, those which could have been avoided.” He made two attempts to return to America. On the 1 second he was caught in Finland, and after more than two months of hunger and filth in a Finnish jail, was deported back to Moscow. He had scurvy; his arms and legs were swollen from malnutrition. But he continued to insist on living like the masses.
Now he decided to wait for the Second Congress of the Communist International in Moscow. From it came another sort of disillusion to which his heart was peculiarly vulnerable.
The order of business for the Second Congress had been determined by Lenin. Having concluded that the great push for world revolution had failed, and with it the attempt to smash the old Socialist parties and trade unions, Lenin set it as the task of all revolutionaries to return to or infiltrate the old trade unions. As always, Lenin took it for granted that whatever conclusion he had come to in evaluation and in strategy and tactics was infallibly right. In the Comintern, as in his own party, his word was law.
But the British delegates had worked out their own attitude toward the Labor party, and the American delegates were hostile to the American Federation of Labor and supported the I.W.W. As for Reed, he had been brought to the labor movement by the I.W.W.'s strike in Paterson. The I.W.W. leaders had gone to jail en masse for opposing the war, while the A.F. of L. had been prowar and supported “the system.” The A.F. of L. must be smashed, the I.W.W. supported.
That Lenin had made up his mind for America did not impress him. It was the Americans who knew their land and had to determine the policies they were to carry out in it. Jack prepared for a fight. On behalf of thirty delegates from the English-speaking countries, he introduced two motions: to put the trade-union question at the top of the order of business, and to add English to the already adopted German, French, and Russian, as an official language of debate. With Zinoviev in the chair, the motions were not so much voted down as simply ruled out.
As I was the only translator [writes Angelica Balabanoff] I remember the protest of the English-speaking delegations because the Chair decided not to have the speeches translated into English. I was naïve enough to believe that this “omission” was to save time or translation work. When I said I would gladly translate into English, too, my offer was not taken into consideration.
Thus Reed could neither have his arguments seriously presented to other delegations nor find out what was being said against him. He had seen steam-rollers before, but never one like this.
Shunted to the Trade Union Commission, he was told that the matter had been “settled” and he must obey discipline. Radek accused him of sabotage. Mocking him for believing that America could be taken from the Rockefellers and Morgans, but not the A.F. of L. from the Gomperses, Zinoviev mobilized obedient henchmen, lined up delegations on the basis of loyalty to the Russians, held meetings without notifying Reed of time or place.
Reed would not give in. A rebel, not a robot, he was not made to be a cog in a ruthless machine. The Comintern, even then, was on its way to becoming a “monolith,” appropriate symbol not of the diversity of rebellious humanity, but of the solid block of granite that might serve as a tombstone over men’s hope of freedom. Not one of the impatient and ardent rebels who had flocked from all over the world to Moscow would long endure in the Comintern. Even Angelica Balabanoff, despite her two decades of activity in two parties and the Second and Third Internationals, would last only a few months longer.
By the time the Congress was over, Angelica was the only Russian leader to whom Jack could still talk and confide his doubts and sorrows. Yet he still had fight in him, and wrote an article for his party’s journal in which he said: “Nobody in Russia seems to understand industrial unionism … At the next Congress these theses must be altered.”
But for him there was to be no “next Congress.”
“When he came to see me after the Congress,” Dr. Balabanoff wrote, “he was in a terrible state of depression. He looked old and exhausted. The experience had been a terrible blow.”
Either during the Congress or right after it, Reed resigned his post as member of the Executive Committee of the International, as a protest—his Communist biographers have circumspectly said—"on an organizational question.” Somehow he was made to withdraw his resignation, and somehow, despite broken health and spirit, made to go with Zinoviev, Radek, and a trainload of delegates to a congress of the “Toiling Peoples of the East” in Baku. The hues and costumes of the men from the East, and their sudden way of drawing and raising aloft curved scimitars to approve a resolution, stirred Jack’s romantic heart. But the demagogy of Zinoviev and Radek, and the luxury on the special train running through a land of famine, sickened him.
Back in Moscow, Jack took to his bed with typhus. How much the virus, how much the ravaged body, how much the broken spirit prevailed, we can only guess. To Angelica Balabanoff, and to Louise Bryant, who had just managed to come to Moscow from America, it seemed, as Angelica was to write, that “the moral and nervous shock had deprived him of the wish to live, of that love of life that was so prominent in his character.”
When Kobetski, technical secretary of the International, wrote to Lenin that Reed was dead, Lenin answered: Comrade Kobetski
- 1. Your report (that is the report of the physician you sent me) and the note, should be sent abroad.
- 2. Who is in charge of the Hotel Lux? Its remodelling for the Comintern? The management part?
With Reed’s death, all rebellion ended. As the author of what Lenin rightly esteemed to be the best book on his seizure of power, Reed was given a state funeral. Feeling that she could not speak of him without speaking of his last days, Angelica Balabanoff refused to deliver an address or even attend his funeral. “I knew Reed would have understood … Most of the people who commemorated him were not entitled to do so. Their speeches had to be cold, official, conventional.”
A decade passed, and the ashes lay forgotten, along with the sturdy example of independence. Then Stalin began to utilize the names of the safely dead, and to purge the living, including most of the men who figured so prominently in Reed’s book: Trotsky, Antonoy-Ovseenko, Bukharin, Radek, Zinoviev, Kamenev, and so many more. Ten Days That Shook the World was alive with them, so it too was suppressed, first in Russia and then wherever the Comintern owned the copyright through a manipulated publisher, as in England.
But in America, John Reed’s name was exploited through the John Reed Clubs. A biography was invented for him in which rebelliousness and manly opposition to dictatorial authority found no place.
Then suddenly, the “line” changed. In the new “Popular Front” period of the 1930'$, revolution had to be played down. Jack’s name was too inseparable from the idea of the October Revolution. It was dropped as remorselessly as it had been previously used; overnight, the John Reed Club became the League of American Writers.
With Stalin’s death, the wheel of fortune took another turn. Reed’s book reappeared in Russia; Lenin’s cold letter to Kobetski was published as evidence of Lenin’s “concern for American writers.”
Still John Reed’s spirit evades official control and goes its own characteristic way. It lives on in the record of his rebellious, adventurous, generously romantic, perpetually immature, brave poet’s life, in his colorful Insurgent Mexico, and, at its enduring best, in Ten Days That Shook the World.