Quantcast

The Legend of John Reed | The Nation

  •  

The Legend of John Reed

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

The author of Ten Days That Shook the World was one of the greatest journalists of his day or any day.

About the Author

Also by the Author

The Great Dissenter would have had a lot to say about the current Supreme Court--and none of it good.

Should his former membership in the Ku Klux Klan disqualify
this Supreme Court nominee?

0ne of the best ways to damn a man, if you can't ignore him or vilify him outright, is to build a legend around him. That makes him a hazy and unreal figure and takes the edge off whatever sharp meaning his life might otherwise have. John Reed was a dangerous man. His life traced a pattern which, if it were followed by other middle-class lives, would burst the bounds of our entire present social system. And so those who have feared him, unable to fight his influence in any other way, have welcomed the chance to make him incredible. They have called him wild, irresponsible, reckless; dubbed him--and the name has stuck--a playboy; underscored his pranks and amours; mocked the bewildering succession of his plans and projects; damned him not with faint but with exaggerated praise for his versatility, so that the versatile passed by innuendo into the superficial; marveled at his all-seeing reporter's eye, the implication being that what was all eye could scarcely be much brain; endowed him with seven-league boots for bestriding all the roads and oceans of the world; condescended to his Faustian thirst for life. Thus they have made of him an unreal mythical figure instead of a lusty life-sized man. Walter Lippmann set the pattern as early as 1914, four years after they were both out of college, in his article on "Legendary John Reed," and Reed's enemies have followed the pattern, as his friends have often stumbled into it.

Granville Hicks has now written a biography of Reed which has, among many merits, that of making him credible. It required restraint to do this, for the legend is deeply rooted, and Reed's life was indeed fertile soil for such a growth. An Oregon boy of good family and considerable means, one of the possessors of the earth, educated at the fashionable private schools and at Harvard--such a boy becomes a rough-and-tumble war correspondent, labor journalist, radical poet, war resister; and after witnessing and describing the "ten days that shook the world" in the October revolution, he stands trial for sedition in America, helps organize an underground American revolutionary party, and finally at thirty-three dies of typhus in Moscow and is buried with honors in the Kremlin.

What made it an important as well as an exciting life? Not merely Reed's unquenchable desire for experience. Through all its apparent gyrations it had order, sequence, an inner logic. Actually it was one of the most deadly serious attempts ever made by an American to organize his experience into something that had meaning and stature. If Reed's story is seen that way--the story of a middle-class boy and of how he is educated by events, how he is led by an unswerving instinct to break with his class and his past, how he explores every channel of rebellion and innovation until finally he throws his lot in with a workers' collectivism--it takes on a meaning that places it high in the history of the American consciousness.

Reed had to an enormous degree a life-affirming quality. He was a long time in discovering it, as he was in finding himself at all. He had first to pass through the phase of negative rebellions against the culture around him. Then came a period of crisis and uncertainty, precipitated by the war. And finally, in his last and revolutionary phase, came a sense of peace and discipline. But throughout his life the pattern that we may trace is the growing affirmation of joyous, human values. Prodigal in his own talents and resources and prodigal in spending himself, he felt stifled in a world where the sort of freedom and experience he wanted was not accessible to all.

It was probably at Harvard, at once the citadel of social orthodoxy and the breeding-ground of intellectual dissenters, that Reed first became restlessly aware of the cleavage which it would take the rest of his life to heal. And yet he left college essentially unscarred, and his cattleboat trip to Europe, his adventures in Paris and Spain brought him back to New York determined to make a million and get married. His discovery of New York was what every Western boy and every Harvard poet has reenacted--the warm polyglot life of the city, the sweet sense of personal freedom, the reckless spending of oneself in its pursuit. But he discovered also social misery and oppression, and his energies took the form of an increasingly bitter indictment of middle-class culture because it stifled life. It was this that led him inevitably to break with the successful New York literary groups, join the staff of the Masses, turn with sympathy to the Mexican peons whom he learned to know as a war correspondent. But the more nomadically he wandered about the world, the more restlessly he explored the possibilities of love and adventure the more doubtful his solutions and successes seemed to him.

Contact with the labor movement was not enough. He was still, even as master of ceremonies at the Paterson pageant in Madison Square Garden, essentially the John Reed who was cheer leader at Harvard the year when Hamilton Fish was captain of the football team. He had got a sense of the possibilities of the common man from his experiences with Villa's jacquerie. He had been labor journalist as well as war correspondent, and the Ludlow massacre had left its mark on him. But it was not enough. The American entrance into war found him troubled, indecisive, discouraged--world weary at twenty-nine. To a considerable extent the Russian Revolution resolved his personal crisis. What had been troubling him was that, despite his clear recognition that capitalist culture was life-denying rather than life-affirming, he could not get any conviction that the workers were any better or different. He ate his heart out at their lack of courage and spirit, at the docility with which they allowed themselves in every country to be herded into the war-pens and butchered there, at the bewildered way in which they accepted conscription in America, at their fear of finding out how hard a policeman's club could really hit. But in Russia he found that it was the workers and the soldiers and the peasants who stood fast in the great emergencies of those ten days and who won the revolution.

Thus through all his wanderings and explorations Reed was led, by some hard and uncanny inner sense, to discover truths and solutions that remained hidden from wiser minds than his, like Lincoln Steffens's, and from subtler minds, like Walter Lippmann's. He often got the right answers on the basis of the wrong reasons. Part of his genius lay in his being so terribly unfooled. "This is not our war," he kept saying, when everyone else was getting lost in a maze of sophistry and propaganda. He was no thinker but a man of action. But it was his good fortune to be led to the most desirable of all fates for a man of action who is also a writer and a poet--the chance at once to write history and to make it.

It is this emphasis on freedom and action and joyousness &mdahs almost this obsession of Reed's with them--that gives his life its importance for us and makes the incidents of it credible. Reed died thinking he had found in communism a solution not only for himself but for the workers and the creative everywhere. How deep his communism was is a question that is difficult to answer. He probably understood communism only as he understood everything else--as a verifiable part of his own experience. Whether he would have stayed with communism is an even more difficult question. Could his restless spirit have disciplined itself to withstand the weariness and the bitter disappointments of the years that have elapsed since his death? That question need not be answered. His experience went deeper than communism. It raised, without answering in any final way, the basic question of how to secure the generous and expansive values of life for all men--a problem in solving which communism may prove, as individualism has proved, a historical episode.

John Reed was a great journalist and, when he could be genuinely a part of all that he met, a first-rate writer. Already he has become for the thinking minority of our young people in and out of the colleges the most evocative figure we have produced--terribly close to them, moved by their impulsions, confronted by their dilemmas. Mr. Hicks's book should get the Pulitzer prize for biography; for its theme and for the moving yet scholarly and restrained way in which it is handled, for the mastery with which the author shows Reed coming to maturity amid the attractions and tensions of life in a bewildering era. It should get the prize, but it will not. That, too, is part of John Reed's story.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.