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