John Reed, Romantic Revolutionary
The persistent timeliness of the poet and activist
“This class struggle sure plays hell with your poetry.”
The words are those of John Reed, American poet, fiction writer, journalist, radical, socialist, and finally communist, whose biography I wrote more than four decades ago. He used that phrase in 1919 in conversation with Max Eastman, editor of the radical little magazine, The Masses, and its successor, The Liberator. Reed was then deeply involved in contentious and time-consuming leftist politics as one of the leaders of a group that broke away from the Socialist Party to form the Communist Labor Party. He had just completed writing Ten Days That Shook the World, a classic that is at once an eye-witness report and a history of the Bolshevik Revolution. Yet despite his radical activities and writings, to me Jack Reed is best understood as someone who lived and saw the world through the eyes of a poet.
October 22, was the 130th anniversary of his birth. He only lived to the age of 33, but in those few years he accomplished the work of more than a single lifetime. For the next half century Ten Days would define how much of the world came to understand the shape and course of the Russian Revolution. It also — though I have never been able to find precise figures — must have been one of the most widely circulated books of the twentieth century. Translated into dozens of languages and promoted by every communist party in the world, it was in theory read by all party members as a roadmap for a twentieth-century revolution.
Reed was an early contributor to Harriet Monroe’s famed little magazine, Poetry, which began publishing in 1912 and continues to this day. During its first year of publication, Reed was one of ten award-winning poets. The competition for space in the journal was fierce. In its pages that year were some of the most formidable poets of the century: William Butler Yeats, Amy Lowell, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Radbindranath Tagore.
Reed led what I would call a poetic, romantic, or even an epic life. He sought out the most intense experiences, threw himself into new and often dangerous situations — labor conflict, wars, revolutions — at home and abroad, the final one being the uprising he witnessed in Petrograd in 1917. To his contemporaries, as to us, he could seem to be a figure out of a novel, someone who was a little (a lot?) larger than life, and — it must be admitted — more than a touch ambitious and egocentric in his quest for truth, justice, art, and love. He was often in the news for being arrested at a strike or protest rally, directing an Industrial Workers of the World pageant at Madison Square Garden, having himself declared persona non grata in two countries for picking up a rifle and firing a shot from a German trench towards France, or pursuing an affair with the rich and famous salon hostess, Mabel Dodge, across two continents.
Jack Reed was born literally and figuratively at the top, on Cedar Hill overlooking Portland in 1887 at the home of his grandfather, Henry Green, one of the great pioneer capitalists of the Northwest. His businessman father was something of a maverick: a progressive in a conservative town, he played a role in Teddy Roosevelt’s prosecution of the timber barons who had been illegally seizing government forests. He was a sickly child with serious kidney problems. Confined to home for several years, he lived through books, particularly Arthurian tales of knights, dragons, and damsels in distress. Such notions of romance never fully left him. Among his papers when he died in 1920 were sketches of two novels that he had been working on while stuck for several months in a prison in Finland on his way home from the Russian Revolution. One was a romance titled The Ever Victorious, about the final battlefield struggles of an aged medieval king. The other, a kind of proletarian romantic epic of the sort that John Dos Passos would later write, was a partially autobiographical work that dealt with the rise of modern industry, and the labor and radical movements in the twentieth century.
Early in life, Jack knew he wanted to be a writer. Some of his first sketches are about camping trips he and friends took up the Willamette River. His parents sent him to a private high school, Morristown Academy, in New Jersey. He went on to Harvard as a member of the Class of 1910, which included Walter Lippmann and T.S. Eliot. Harvard in those years was a place of ferment in the arts and social thought, the early twentieth century’s equivalent of Berkeley or other campuses in the sixties. There Reed became involved in a multiplicity of activities — football cheerleader, Socialist Club member, writer for and editor of various campus papers, literary reviews, and the distinctly upper-class club, Hasty Pudding, for which he penned its annual play. Yet it was at Harvard that he began to see himself as a Westerner, which to him meant someone who lived large and outside the norms of polite society, someone who was free to indulge in unusual and forbidden activities. One good example: in 1910 a tour of the continent was de rigeur for Harvard grads (all men of course), but Reed did the tour his own way. Not in luxury, but by working on a cattle boat. And though he did have a formal suit made for him in London to attend some swanky affairs at the American Embassy, he walked and hitch-hiked his way across much of the continent, even marching across parts of Spain, not one of the normal destinations on such graduation tours.
After returning to the US, there was only one place for an aspiring writer to live: Greenwich Village. In the decade prior to the World War, it was the center of that first great flourishing of American bohemia, an unstable but heady mixture of avant-garde art, lifestyle innovation, and radical politics. Reed was soon friends with major artistic and radical political figures of the day: artists John Sloan and George Bellows; writers Floyd Dell and Lincoln Steffens; anarchist Emma Goldman; activist Margaret Sanger; and labor leader Bill Haywood, president of the Industrial Workers of the World. He quickly became one of the editors of The Masses, the main underground (i.e., small circulation) organ of the Village. Sometime during this period an uptown feature writer labeled Reed the “Golden Boy of Greenwich Village.” The label stuck, though no doubt some villagers used it ironically. But already in his mid-twenties, he was a counter cultural hero.
In 1912 Reed was publishing in both the underground press and commercial magazines — sketches, short stories, and poems. He made his living as a freelance writer and a journalist, sometimes writing for large circulation, slick magazines. He covered events and people both trivial and important, on occasion interviewing or doing profiles of figures like William Jennings Bryan, Evangelist Billy Sunday, Socialist Eugene V. Debs, and President Woodrow Wilson. But the specialty that made him famous or notorious (take your pick) was his reporting from the site of major industrial upheavals. The first time he was arrested for talking back to a cop was during the strike of IWW silk workers in Paterson, New Jersey in 1913, a strike that was being totally blacked out in the New York City press. A year later he was in Ludlow, Colorado, reporting on how the National Guard had shot down in cold blood more than 25 striking coal miners in their encampment. Reed wrote about strikes with such power and identification with the workers — his favorites were the Wobblies — that he ended up in jail several more times for vocally defending their rights.
In mid-1914 the popular, mass circulation Metropolitan Magazine sent him off to cover the revolution that was unfolding in Mexico. Unlike other American reporters who sat in El Paso and interviewed refugees from the conflict, Reed waded across the Rio Grande, hitched a ride in a donkey car with an itinerant Arab peddler, and made his way to Chihuahua where he met and hung out for a while at the headquarters of the legendary Pancho Villa, who gave him a nickname, Chatito (Pug Nose). Then Jack went off and spent six weeks riding with a troop of Villa’s horseback soldiers, living with them and fleeing with them during a major retreat. His electric, visceral reporting, and especially his front-line stories from the crucial Battle of Torreon, turned him into the highest paid journalist in the country ($500 a week plus $500 for every article; $500 equaling $12,300 in 2017 currency). His weekly stories were advertised with a fanciful sketch of Reed, drawn by an artist, standing on a battlefield, sombrero on his head and bandoliers of cartridges across his chest.
Though now a famous figure, Reed did not give up his attachment to the thriving culture of the Village. He continued to publish in and work as an editor of The Masses, backed Margaret Sanger in her campaign for birth control, and was one of the founding members of that avant-garde theater company, the Provincetown Players, which produced the first works of the great playwright Eugene O’Neill. His leftism was instinctual rather than theoretical, though towards the end of his life he did get around to reading a bit of Marx. When the First World War broke out, he wrote an essay in The Masses titled, “A Trader’s War.” This attitude was only strengthened after a 1914 tour as a reporter for the Metropolitan on both the Western and the Eastern Fronts in France and Germany. His writing suffered. He could not draw emotional creativity from the slaughter of the trenches. A year later he was in the Balkans, where he walked across endless fields of corpses, and denounced the struggle between Austria-Hungary and Serbia as dreadful and meaningless.
I am here subordinating his love life, including his many affairs in the Village and abroad, and his love for Louise Bryant, who became his wife, to Reed as writer and activist. Louise has a major role in my book and in the film Reds, where their stormy days together go on way too long for my taste. But their relationship says something about Village culture in those days. When they got married because he was in danger a lot and wanted her to be his legal heir, they kept the act a secret from their friends, ashamed of having such a traditional sanction for their life together. Several times they separated, but she did accompany him to Russia and later wrote her own book, Six Months in Red Russia, about staying on in the new Soviet Union after his demise. I am also leaving out his many illnesses, including his repeated kidney troubles and eventual surgery. When he was in Russia, Reed was a man with only one kidney.
As the US edged towards and then entered the conflict in 1917, Jack, both in print and on the podium at mass rallies, denounced American involvement, and got himself arrested and jailed a couple of more times. These antiwar activities got him banned from all major US commercial publications, including the Metropolitan. By mid-1917 the highest paid reporter in the country was now out of work, his only outlets the newspaper, the Socialist Call, and The Masses. Soon even the latter was gone, banned from postal circulation by the U.S. government. In 1919 he stood trial twice with other editors under the Sedition Act, but they were not convicted. His offense: a headline he put over a medical report from the UK that talked about how many soldiers were suffering from Shell Shock, or what we would call PTSD. The headline read: “Knit a straightjacket for your boy.”
In the summer of 1917, Reed’s reportorial nose sniffed a major story brewing in Russia, which had gone through a “democratic” revolution a few months earlier. He borrowed money from a friend, got an assignment from two tiny leftist publications, and went off to Petrograd, a perilous journey in seas full of German submarines sinking American ships. He arrived just a few weeks before the October Revolution and went everywhere in Petrograd: to the cafes on the Nevsky Prospekt where writers gathered; factories in the Viborg district where workers debated which parties to support; the Winter Palace, where Prime Minister Kerensky lived in the Tsar’s old chambers; the Marinsky Palace, seat of the Provisional Government; Smolny Institute, where the Bolsheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries made their headquarters; the trenches on the front lines in nearby Latvia. He interviewed everyone from factory workers to Kerensky, Leon Trotsky, and the leader, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. Through American government intervention, he was stopped in Finland on the way home and jailed in solitary confinement. Freed after two months, he returned to New York where officials met him on the docks and seized a trunk load of papers he had collected in Petrograd. It took influential friends almost a year to spring them free.
Difficult as it is to believe, he wrote Ten Days That Shook the World in two months. Following its publication, he helped to organize the Communist Labor Party of the United States, then returned to Moscow as the tiny party’s representative to the Second Congress of the Communist International, where he argued with Bolshevik leaders over the tactics of how to bring the revolution to America. Annoyed at their support for the AFL rather than the IWW, he resigned when he was outvoted, then reconsidered and withdrew his resignation before going off to the Congress of the Peoples of the East in Baku. There he contracted the typhus that would kill him in 1920 just a few days short of his thirty-third birthday. Some three million Russians died of the same disease, in part because the Allies were blockading the ports of the new Russian regime and no supplies or medications could get through.
On the first page, Reed calls Ten Days “a slice of intensified history.” We might want to call it The New Journalism. Decades before Hunter Thompson began including himself in his reporting, Reed was doing the same thing. He is the observer participant in the days that he immortalized. But the book can be a difficult one to read because its narrative is slowed down, stuffed as it is with so much raw data (posters torn from walls, pages from newspapers, memos written by political factions, and resolutions from various groups of soldiers, workers, or committees jam the pages along with his firsthand reports and reflections.)
Even so, anyone who makes the effort will find it to be an exciting book. The most diverse people have given it ringing endorsements. Lenin, of course, writing in an introduction: “Unreservedly do I recommend it to the workers of the world.” George Kennan, the conservative diplomat and father of the theory of Containment, the policy which governed American actions towards the Soviet Union for many decades: “Reed’s account of events . . . rises above every other contemporary record for its literary power, its penetration, its command of detail.” In 1999 a group of judges centered at New York University created a list of the top 100 works of American journalism of the twentieth century. Ten Days was number seven.
John Reed should be remembered as a symbolic figure, the poet as radical and revolutionary. He was a man who took his beliefs, those of the counter culture of his era, all the way. Not many of his fellow Bohemian radicals followed. The anarchist George Bellows could go from drawing anti-war to pro-war posters after 1917, but Reed stayed true to his beliefs. What struck me when I was writing his biography in the early seventies, and what is true again today, is the absolute contemporaneity of the issues he wrote about: the implicit and then explicit critique of capitalism that runs like a thread through his writings; his support for immigrants (he knew mostly Italian, Polish, and Russians), and for the birth control movement; his exposures of exploitation in factories, opposition to involvement in foreign wars and to government censorship; his fervid support of the right to have one’s voice and opinions heard. Ultimately, with Reed one sees the growing realization that what was taught in high school and college about the way America functioned — the notion of a pure democracy, equality, liberty and justice for all –was as much (perhaps more?) a mythic ideology than a daily reality. The more things change the more they stay the same.
Robert A. Rosenstone, Emeritus Professor of History at Caltech, is the author of more than a dozen books, including Romantic Revolutionary: A Biography of John Reed (Knopf, 1975) and, most recently, Adventures of a Postmodern Historian (Bloomsbury, 2016). He is the Founding Editor of the journal Rethinking History.