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John Reed (journalist)

John "Jack" Silas Reed (October 22, 1887October 19, 1920) was an American journalist, poet, and communist activist, famous for his first-hand account of the Bolshevik Revolution, Ten Days that Shook the World. He was the husband of the writer and feminist Louise Bryant.

Early life and education

Reed was born in Portland, Oregon, the son of Charles Jerome and Margaret (Green) Reed. His mother was the daughter of a leading Portland citizen who had made a fortune in pig iron manufacturing. His father, who had recently come from the East when they married in 1886, represented an agricultural machinery manufacturer and with his ready wit quickly won acceptance in Portland’s business community.

The young John, universally called Jack, was born in his mother's mansion and baptized in the fashionable Trinity Episcopal Church (later abandoning religion). He grew up surrounded by nurses and servants, his upper-class playmates carefully selected. He had a brother, Harry, two years his junior. A sickly child, he was sent to the recently-established Portland Academy, a private boarding school where he was unhappy, at the age of nine. In September 1904, he was sent to Morristown School, New Jersey, to prepare for college (his father had not gone to college and wanted his sons to attend Harvard). There, he made the football team and although he did poorly in most subjects, showed literary promise. Around this time his father's social standing fell due to his muckraking activities in exposing the timber industry's corruption.

Reed entered Harvard College in September 1906 (passing the entrance examination on his second try – something he was allowed to do despite having earned a C in English, a D in history and French, a pass in Chemistry, and failing Latin and geometry). Tall, handsome, and light-hearted, he threw himself into all manner of student activities. He was a member of the cheerleading team, the swimming team and the dramatic club. He served on the editorial boards of the Lampoon and the Harvard Monthly and as president of the Harvard Glee Club. He wrote a play produced by the Hasty Pudding Club, and was made ivy orator and poet. He attended meetings of the Socialist Club, which his friend Walter Lippmann founded in May 1908, but never joined – his social conscience was still dormant and there were too many contradictions involved. Reed failed to make football and crew, but participated in low-prestige sports like swimming and water polo, at which he excelled. He was frustrated by the dismissive attitude the Eastern aristocracy showed the energetic young man, passing him over for membership in the waiting clubs (which one joined in preparation of the final clubs) despite his having broken a friendship with a Jewish classmate for the purpose of social advancement. Still, his mentor, literature professor Charles Copeland, helped develop his talents. Graduating in 1910, he visited England, France, and Spain before moving to New York City in March 1911.

Journalism

He grew to love New York, relentlessly exploring it and writing poems about it. Reed enjoyed the independence he now had from his parents, from Portland (which he hated), and from Harvard snobbery. Although living in Greenwich Village, he kept somewhat apart from its myriad intense, hostile cliques. He joined the staff of the American Magazine in 1911 with Lincoln Steffens' invaluable help, and in 1912 published “Sangar”, probably his finest poem (Poetry, December 1912; also privately printed), besides producing the first of the Dutch Treat Club shows, Everymagazine. The following year he issued privately The Day in Bohemia.

Reed's central, tortuous, relationship in New York was with Mabel Dodge, a married woman eight years his senior. They met in early spring 1913. She dominated and suffocated him, threatening suicide several times when he seemed to neglect her. Visiting Europe later that year, they consummated their relationship in Paris. Problems soon developed. He was very interested in the sights the continent had to offer. She was mainly preoccupied with him. Upon their return she continued to attempt to keep his mind off politics.

His serious interest in social problems was first aroused, at about this time, by Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell, and once aroused it quickly led him to a far more radical position than theirs. In 1913 he joined the staff of The Masses, edited by Max Eastman, contributing more than fifty articles, reviews and shorter pieces. The first of Reed's many arrests came in Paterson, New Jersey, in 1913, for attempting to speak on behalf of the strikers in the silk mills. A short jail term radicalized him. He allied himself with the IWW (though he was still not a socialist). His brilliant account of his experiences appeared in June as "War in Paterson". During the same year, following a suggestion made by Bill Haywood, picked up by Dodge and enthusiastically endorsed by Reed, he put on "The Pageant of the Paterson Strike" in Madison Square Garden for the benefit of the strikers.

In the autumn of 1913 he was sent to Mexico by the Metropolitan Magazine to report the Mexican Revolution. Dodge followed him to El Paso but returned several days later. He participated for four months in the perils of Pancho Villa's army, while his articles brought him national reputation as a war correspondent. They were republished in book form as Insurgent Mexico (1914). He was with Villa's Constitutionalist Army when it defeated Federal forces at Torreón, opening the way for its advance on Mexico City. He adored Villa. Carranza left him cold. Reed deeply sympathized with the plight of the peons and vehemently opposed American intervention, which came shortly after he left. On April 30, he arrived in Colorado, scene of the recent Ludlow massacre. There he spent a little more than a week and investigated the events, spoke on behalf of the miners, wrote an impassioned article on the subject ("The Colorado War", published in July), and came to believe much more deeply in class conflict. That summer he spent in Provincetown, Massachusetts with Dodge and her son, putting together Insurgent Mexico and interviewing President Wilson on the subject. (The resulting report, much watered down at White House insistence, was not a success.)

On August 14, 1914, shortly after Germany declared war on France, he set sail for neutral Italy, having been sent by the Metropolitan. He met Dodge in Naples and they made their way to Paris. They were uneasy with each other and she was depressed, knowing she could never fully possess him. He saw the war as emerging from imperialist commercial rivalries, showing little sympathy for Great Britain. In an anonymous piece ("The Traders’ War", The Masses, September 1914), he famously wrote, "This is not Our War." In France he was frustrated by wartime censorship and the difficulty of accessing the front. Reed and Dodge went to London and Dodge soon left for New York, leaving Reed relieved. The rest of 1914 he spent drinking with French prostitutes, and with a German woman. The two went to Berlin in early December but then broke off the affair. While there he interviewed Karl Liebknecht, who was one of the few socialists in Germany to vote against war credits. Reed was deeply disappointed by the general collapse in working-class solidarity promised by the Second International, and by its replacement with militarism and nationalism. On a visit to the German side of the Front south of Ypres on January 12, 1915, he probably fired two shots in the direction of the French, which earned him widespread condemnation.

Returning to New York in the middle of that month, he for the most part failed to reconcile with Dodge and spent time writing about the war until going on a three-month visit to Eastern Europe later that year with Canadian Boardman Robinson. Going up from Thessaloniki, they met scenes of profound devastation in Serbia (including a bombed-out Belgrade), also going through Bulgaria and Romania. They passed through the Jewish Pale of Settlement in Bessarabia, and in Chełm they were arrested, incarcerated for several weeks and liable to be shot for espionage had not the American ambassador shown some interest. Going to Petrograd, an outraged Reed found the ambassador inclined to believe they were spies, and they were re-arrested when they tried to slip into Romania. It was the British ambassador (Robinson being a British subject) who finally secured permission for them to leave, but not before all their papers were seized in Kiev. It was at this time that his hatred for the Tsarist regime and love for the Russian people began to develop. In Bucharest they spent time piecing together their journey (Reed at one point traveling to Constantinople, hoping to see action at Gallipoli, but being rebuffed), from which Reed’s The War in Eastern Europe (April 1916) would emerge. He sailed for New York in October.

After returning to New York, he paid a visit to his mother in Portland, where he fell in love with Louise Bryant, who joined him east in January 1916. Bryant was less domineering than Dodge, and both had affairs rather freely. Early in 1916 Reed met Eugene O'Neill, and beginning that May the three rented a cottage in Provincetown, where Bryant and O'Neill, who fascinated her, began a romance. At one point during this love triangle, Dodge showed up in Provincetown but Reed told her firmly that he was not interested in renewing their relationship. He opposed the March 1916 intervention of General Pershing into Mexico, seeing it as futile. That summer Reed covered the Presidential nominating conventions, showing pity for the Progressives, whose nomination Theodore Roosevelt, now an inveterate war agitator, declined. Reed himself endorsed Wilson, hoping he would keep America out of the war. He married Bryant in Peekskill in November before heading for an operation at Johns Hopkins Hospital resulting in the removal of one kidney, staying in hospital until mid-December. One of his doctors was Carl Binger, the Jewish friend he had dropped at Harvard, but nothing was said of the matter. The operation rendered him ineligible for conscription and saved him from the fate of a conscientious objector. During 1916 he published privately Tamburlaine and Other Poems.

As the country drifted toward war, Reed was marginalized: his relationship with the Metropolitan was over, he pawned his late father's watch and sold his Cape Cod cottage to Margaret Sanger. Germany's Kaiser was a strong critic of American and Western capitalism, and this appealed to Reed. When Wilson asked for a declaration of war on April 2, 1917, Reed shouted at a hastily-convened People's Council in Washington: "This is not my war, and I will not support it. This is not my war, and I will have nothing to do with it. In July and August Reed continued to write very strong articles for The Masses, which the Post Office now refused to mail, and for Seven Arts, which as a result of an article by Reed and one earlier in the summer by Randolph Bourne, had its financial backing cut off and ceased publication. Reed was stunned by the nation's pro-war fervor, and his career lay in ruins.

Communism

First trip to Russia

Reed and Bryant traveled via Finland to Russia in August-September 1917; she stayed until January 20, 1918 and he until early February. Upon his arrival he was greatly excited by the fervor of revolution, and the American Ambassador placed him under close surveillance. Reed sensed that power was draining away from the Provisional Government to the Soviets, something which was confirmed by an October 10 visit to the Latvian Front, where he observed the troops' usual deference had been replaced by defiance to their officers. However, unlike Trotsky and other Bolsheviks, who would later claim that their party had planned and guided events leading up to the October Revolution (of which Reed and Bryant were enthusiastic observers), Reed saw a much more chaotic version of events that lacked inevitability. He wrote much of the Bolshevik propaganda dropped over the German lines. He met Trotsky and was introduced to Lenin during a break of the Constituent Assembly on January 18, 1918. By December, his initial $2000 grant (donated by a wealthy American radical) was nearly exhausted and, desperate for cash, he took employment with an American, Raymond Robins of the Red Cross, who wished to set up a newspaper promoting American interests; Reed complied, but in the dummy issue he prepared he included a warning beneath the masthead: "this paper is devoted to promoting the interests of American capital. The dissolution of the Constituent Assembly left Reed unmoved, and two days later, armed with a rifle, he joined a patrol of Red Guards prepared to defend the Foreign Office from counter-revolutionary attack. Reed then attended the opening of the Third Congress of Soviets, where he gave a short speech promising to bring the news of the revolution to America, where he hoped it would "call forth an answer from America's oppressed and exploited masses." American journalist Edgar Sisson told Reed that he was being used by the Bolsheviks for their propaganda, a rebuke he accepted. In January, Trotsky, responding to Reed's concern about the safety of his substantial archive, offered Reed the post of Soviet Consul in New York; as the United States did not recognize the Bolshevik government, his credentials would almost certainly have been rejected and he faced prison (which would have given the Bolsheviks some propaganda material). The appointment was viewed as a massive blunder by most Americans in Petrograd, and the businessman Alex Gumberg directly approached Lenin, showing him a prospectus in which Reed called for massive American capital support for Russia and for the setting up of a newspaper to express the American viewpoint on the negotiations at Brest-Litovsk. Lenin found the proposal unsavory and withdrew the nomination; thereafter, Reed only mentioned Gumberg's name with a string of epithets attached. Ten Days that Shook the World would emerge from these experiences, being published early in 1919 and subsequently translated into numerous languages.

Back in the USA

On his away back to USA Reed travelled from Russia to Finland Reed, didn't have a visa or passport while crossing to Finland. In Turku harbor when Reed was on boarding a ship on his way to Stockholm Finnish police arrested Reed and took him to a prison in Suomenlinna coast of Helsinki until he was released. From Finland Reed travelled to Kristiania, Norway via Stockholm until April; during this period and after, US government surveillance of his activities and correspondence remained intense. His papers were not returned to him until November. Back in America, he took pains to defend the Bolsheviks and oppose American intervention, but a hyper-patriotic public incensed at Russia's departure from the war gave him a generally cold reception. While he was in Russia, his articles in The Masses and particularly a headline, "Knit a straight-jacket for your soldier boy", had been largely instrumental in bringing an indictment against that magazine for sedition. The first Masses trial ended the day before he arrived in a hung jury; the defendants, including himself, were to be retried, so after returning, he immediately posted $2,000 bail on April 29. The second trial also ended in a hung jury. In Philadelphia, he stood outside a closed hall on May 31, harangued a crowd of 1,000 until police dragged him away, was charged with inciting a riot, and posted $5,000 bail. He was now more aggressively political, intolerant, and self-destructive; his third arrest since his return from Russia came on September 14, when he was charged with violating the Sedition Act and freed on $5,000 bail. This was a day after possibly the largest demonstration for Bolshevik Russia held in the United States (in The Bronx), when Reed passionately defended the revolution, which he seemed to think was coming to America as well. He tried to prevent Allied intervention, arguing that the Russians were contributing to the war effort by checking German ambitions in the Ukraine and Japanese designs on Siberia, but this came to naught. On February 21-22, 1919, Bryant was fiercely grilled before a Senate committee exploring Bolshevik propaganda activities in the US, but emerged resilient; Reed followed on the 22nd, delivering quick, subtle testimony which was, however, savagely distorted by the press. Later that day he went to Philadelphia to stand trial for his May speech; despite a hostile judge, press, and patriotic speech by the prosecutor, Reed's lawyer convinced the jury the case was about free speech, and he was acquitted. Returning to New York, Reed continued speaking widely and participating in the various twists of socialist politics that year.

Affiliated with the Left Wing of the Socialist Party, Reed with the other radicals was expelled from the National Socialist Convention in Chicago on August 30, 1919. The radicals then split into two bitterly hostile groups, forming the Communist Labor Party (Reed's, in the creation of which he had been indispensable) and, the next day, the Communist Party. Reed was the international delegate of the former, wrote its manifesto and platform, edited its paper, The Voice of Labor, and was denounced as "Jack the Liar" in the Communist Party organ, The Communist. Reed's writings from 1919 display doubts about Western-style democracy and defend the dictatorship of the proletariat, which he saw as a necessary step that would prefigure the true democracy "based upon equality and the liberty of the individual.

Second trip to Russia

Indicted for sedition and hoping to secure Comintern backing for the CLP, he escaped from America in early October on board a Scandinavian frigate by means of a forged passport, working his way to Bergen as a stoker. Given shore leave, he disappeared to Kristiania, crossed into Sweden on October 22, passed through Finland and made his way to Moscow by train. In the cold winter of 1919-1920, he traveled in the region around Moscow, observing factories, communes, and villages; filling notebooks; and carrying on an affair with a Russian girl. His feelings about the revolution were now ambiguous: on the one hand, he told Emma Goldman, who had recently arrived aboard The Buford and especially complained about the Cheka, that the enemies of the revolution deserved their fate. However, he suggested that she see Angelica Balabanoff, a critic of the current situation, indicating he wanted Goldman to hear the other side.

Reed, although facing arrest in Illinois, tried to go back after February 1920, when the Soviets called for a merger convention to create a United Communist Party of America. He first tried to leave through Latvia that month but his train never came and he returned in the boxcar of an eastbound military train, appearing frozen and exhausted in Petrograd. In March, he crossed into Helsinki, where he had radical friends including a future polician and SDKL member of parliament Hella Wuolijoki, and was hidden in the hold of a freighter; on the 13th, customs officials found him in a coal bunker. Taken to the police station, he maintained that he was the seaman "Jim Gormley", until his jewels, photographs, letters, and fake documents made him give his real name. Although beaten several times and threatened with torture, he refused to give the names of his local contacts. Because of his silence, he could not be tried for treason, instead being convicted of smuggling and having his jewels (102 small diamonds worth $14,000) confiscated. The US Secretary of State was satisfied with his arrest and pressured the Finns for his papers, which were eventually delivered; otherwise, American authorities remained indifferent to his fate. Although he paid the fine for smuggling, he was still detained illegally, and his physical condition and state of mind deteriorated sharply. He suffered from depression and insomnia, wrote alarming letters to Bryant, and threatened a hunger strike on May 18. He was finally released in early June, sailing for Tallinn on the 5th. Two days later he traveled to Petrograd, recuperating from malnourishment and scurvy (having been fed dried fish almost exclusively) but in high spirits.

At the end of June he went to Moscow and after discussing with Bryant the possibility of her joining him, she sailed on a Swedish tramp steamer on July 30, arriving in Gothenburg on August 10. In July, Reed attended the second Comintern congress. There, although he was as jovial and boisterous as ever with other delegates, he appeared much thinner, weak and sallow, his face lined. He bitterly objected to the meek submission that other revolutionaries showed to Russian wishes, which assumed the tide of revolutionary fervor that had marked the end of the war had now ebbed and it was the duty of communists to work within existing institutions – a policy he thought disastrous. He was contemptuous of the bullying tactics displayed during the congress by Karl Radek and Grigory Zinoviev, who ordered Reed to attend the Congress of the Peoples of the East to be held at Baku on August 15. It was a long journey, five days by train through countryside devastated by civil war and infected by typhus. Reed was reluctant to go and asked to arrive later, as he had planned to go first to Petrograd, where Bryant was traveling from Murmansk. Zinoviev insisted Reed take the official train: "the Comintern has made a decision. Obey." Reed would normally have rebelled at being spoken to with such contempt, but he needed Soviet good-will at the moment and was not prepared for a final break with the Comintern, so he made the trip with great reluctance.

What Reed did and thought on the way to the congress, while there, and returning is a matter of speculation, but years after abandoning Communism, his friend Benjamin Gitlow asserted that after the treatment he received from Zinoviev, Reed died in bitter disillusionment with the Communist movement. While in Baku, Reed received a telegram announcing Bryant's arrival in Moscow, where he impatiently came on September 15 and was able to tell her something of the preceding eight months, now looking older and wearing rags. He took her to meet Lenin, Trotsky, Lev Kamenev, and other leading Bolsheviks, and to visit Moscow's ballet and art galleries.

Death

Reed was determined to return home, but fell ill on September 25. At first diagnosed with influenza, he was hospitalized five days later and was found to have spotted typhus. Bryant spent all her time with him, but there were no medicines to be obtained due to the Allied blockade. His mind started to wander, and then he lost the use of the right side of his body and could no longer speak. His wife was holding his hand when he died. After a hero's funeral, his body was buried in the Kremlin Wall Necropolis.

Legacy

Reed, allowed to occupy the roles of "romantic revolutionary" and "playboy" in American culture, was also used as a symbol by the Communist movement to which he belonged. He was the only American buried in the Kremlin, although half of Bill Haywood's ashes are there as well. By the 1930s, John Reed Clubs, affiliated with the Communist Party, existed in his honor in nearly all the large cities of the United States.

The 1981 film Reds, starring Warren Beatty, Diane Keaton, and Jack Nicholson and based on his life, won three Academy Awards, and was nominated for nine more. Other film portrayals of Reed include the 1982 two-part Soviet production Red Bells, starring Franco Nero; and the 1973 film Reed: Mexico Insurgente, based on his accounts of the Mexican Revolution.

A perennial urban legend in Reed's hometown states that Reed College was named for him. Despite the college's reputation for leftist politics, there is no truth to this rumor.

Bibliography

References

Further reading

  • Homberger, Eric. John Reed: Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1990.
  • Dictionary of American Biography, vol. 15, pp. 450-51. New York, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1935.

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