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||John (Silas) Reed (1887-1920)|
American journalist and poet-adventurer, whose colorful life as a revolutionary writer ended in Russia but made him the hero of a generation of radical intellectuals. John Reed was a close friend of V.I. Lenin and an eyewitness to the 1917 October revolution. He recorded this historical event in his best-known book, Ten Days that Shook the World (1919). Reed is buried with other Bolshevik heroes beside the Kremlin wall.
"It was just 8.40 when a thundering wave of cheers announced the entrance of the presidium, with Lenin-great Lenin-among them. A short, stocky figure, with a big head set down in his shoulders, bald and bulging. Little eyes, a snubbish nose, wide, generous mouth, and heavy chin; clean-shaven now, but already beginning to bristle with the well-known beard of his past and future. Dressed in shabby clothes, his trousers much too long for him. Unimpressive, to be the idol of a mob, loved and revered as perhaps few leaders in history have been. A strange popular leader-a leader purely by virtue of intellect; colourless, humourless, uncompromising and detached, without picturesque idiosyncrasies-but with the power of explaining profound ideas in simple terms, of analysing a concrete situation. And combined with shrewdness, the greatest intellectual audacity." (from Ten Days That Shook the World)
Silas Reed was born in Portland Oregon into a wealthy
family. Margaret (Green) Read, his mother, was the daughter of a
prominent Portland industrialist. "I still remember my grandfather's
house where I was born -
a lordly gray mansion modelled on a French chateau, with its immense
park, its formal gardens, lawns, stables, green-houses and glass
grape-arbor, the tame deer among the trees," he recalled in his
unpublished autobiographical essay. (John Reed: Radical Journalist, 1887-1920 by Kenneth Z. Chutchian, 2019, p. 13) Reed's father, Charles Jerome Reed, was a businessman, socially
active and admired Theodore Roosevelt. At college Reed joined the
swimming team and the dramatics club. He served on the editorial board
of the Harvard Monthly and Lampoon, and was class
orator and poet.
After graduating from Harvard in 1910, Reed travelled
in England and Spain. Upon his return to America Reed started his
career as a journalist in the leftist magazines. He was one of the
leading socialists of the New Review and The Masses,
edited by Max Eastman. Reed used "John" as his professional writer's
name, but he was known as "Jack" to his friends and
acquaintances. Along his life, Reed acquired many nicknames, such
as "Stormy Boy," "Playboy," "Wonder Boy," and "the Golden Boy of
These papers brought him into contact with John Dos Passos, Emma Goldman, Eugene O'Neil, Louise Bryant, and other radical voices. Van Wyck Brooks called him in The Confident Years "the wonder boy of Greenwich Village." Later Reed appeared in Eastman's novel Venture (1927) as Jo Hancock, a young man in love with life.
During this time Reed made close friends with Mabel Dodge, the rich hostess, who ran her salon at 23 Fifth Avenue. She helped organize the 1913 Armory Show, which brought Cubism to New York. In 1913 Reed published his first book, Sangar, a collection of poems. He was arrested for trying to speak for striking silk worker in Paterson, New Jersey. Reed spent four days in a jail. He then wrote 'The Pageant of the Paterson Strike,' which was enacted at Madison Square Garden, as a benefit to aid the workers. In the following years Reed was arrested several times for organizing strikes.
In the early 1910s Reed went to Mexico to cover the Mexican revolution for the Metropolitan Magazine and the New York World. He spent four months with Pancho Villa and his troops and described the revolutionary fighting in Insurgent Mexico (1914). Partially his trip was financed by Vanderbilt and Guggenheim money. Reed did not carry weapons and fight with the Mexicans, whom he characterized in his notebook as "natural anarchists" whose politicis are entirely personal.
During World War I Reed worked as a war correspondent for the Metropolitan Magazine, where some of his stories were rejected on the basis of leftist sympathies. Reed's reports on the fighting in Germany, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria and Russia were published in The War in Eastern Europe (1916). All what he saw, depressed him - there was no revolutionary enthusiasm. Reed was forced to return to the United States for an operation that removed one of his kidneys. In 1916 Reed supported Woodrow Wilson and warned about dark forces that want to plunge the country into war. His fears came true: Wilson declared war on Germany. In the early 1917 Reed married the journalist Louise Bryant; they had met a few years earlier at a dinner party. At that time Louise was married to Paul Trullinger, a successful dentist and an amateur painter.
Reed was one of the best paid reporters in the U.S. but his idea to travel to Russia was received lukewarmly. With the help of Max Eastman and some other friends he managed to get enough money. In the autumn he started with Bryant his journey to St. Petersburg to witness and report on the revolution for The Masses. Reed was not an impartial observer. He identified himself with Bolsheviks and his pro-Communist and anti-war articles were partly responsible for that journal's indictment and trials on the grounds of sedition.
In St. Petersburg Reed began one of his most ambitious poems, 'America', 1918, which was inspired by Walt Whitman. In it personal subject matters blended with his vision of America, "my country, my America." During this period Reed became active in politics. He started to write in 1919 for The New Communist edited the Voice of Labour. In the summer he participated in Chicago in the meeting of the Socialist Party of America. It ended in chaos, and as a result, two Communist parties were born. Reed himself became the leader of Communist Labor Party. To secure the status of the party, Read realized that it should recognized as soon as possible by Comintern (Communist International), also known as the Third International. Reed was sent to Russia.
In autumn he crossed Gulf of Finland on a ship, hiding in a
sort of iron shaft, arrived at Turku, and continued to Helsinki.
Through the contacts of the writer and businesswoman Hella Wuolijoki he met Lydia Stahl, who was
later arrested in France as a Russian spy. At this time she was close
to Otto Ville Kuusinen,
a Finnish Communist
working underground. Stahl and Reed continued correspondence until his
death. While in Finland, Reed stayed at the house of Ivar Lassy
(1889-1938) or at the home of Sulo and Hella Wuolijoki. Lassy was a
broad-minded marxist, orientalist, and folklorist, who was shot during
Purge. When the future film director Joseph Losey, who studied
experimental Soviet theatre in Moscow, met him in
1935, he liked him immediately.
Reed had visited Finland briefly in 1917 and 1918, but when he
returned in 1919, the Finnish authorities had started to contol more
tightly the border and followed movements of emigrants and
revolutionaries. In November Reed was in Russia. He met several times
Lenin at the Kreml, and gave him Ten Days That Shook The World.
He planned to get out of Russia through Latvia, but found it impossible
avoid there the battle lines between the Whites and the Reds. So he
crossed again the Finnish border and tried to use "the traditional
Bolshevik coalboxroute," but this time the adventures ended in Turku,
on a ship, where he was found hiding in the well-known coalbox. After
being arrested Reed was taken to a shower. With him he carried 102
diamonds, a large sum of money, and letters written by Trotsky and Lenin. Possibly he had been
betrayed by his traveling companion, a Russian Communist, who had
followed the orders of Grigory Zinoviev, president of Komintern.
In Finland he was found guilty of smuggling, but also the
State Department in the United States wanted him - in
Chicago he was suspected of "criminal anarchy." While in prison Reed
wrote more poetry and outlined a pair of novels, which he never
completed. Much of his time he was in a solitary cell. From the window,
he could catch a glimpse of the prison yard. In addition to his lawyer
Frans Johannes Leino, he was also visited by Aino Malmberg, a friend of
Rose Strunsky, who brought him some books. Reed never revealed the
names of his Finnish contacts. During the interrogations, he was never
threatened with physical violence, but the conditions in the cells
were unsanitary and condemned even by the local police
commissioner as unfit for human habitation. A decade later an anonymous police officer wrote
admiringly in an article of Reed's gentleman-like behaviour and his
Reed was released in June.
Most of his paper were handed over to the U.S. Embassy, except his
forged pasport and some documents and letters. Reed traveled to
Estonia and from there to St. Petersburg. The three months in Turku had
exhausted him mentally and physically. He
was put up at the Hotel International, where Emma Goldman found him in
a deprorable condition, "his arms and legs swollen, his body covered
with ulcers, and his gums badly affected as a result of scurvy acquired
in prison." (from Living My Life, 1931)
Back in Russia Reed gave speeches and was joined by Bryant, whom he had sent letters from the prison. In Moscow Reed was elected in the Executive Committee of the Comintern. At the peak of his career, Reed was stricken with typhus after his return from Baku. It took a week before the physicians agreed in their diagnosis, and then Reed was turned to an incompetent doctor. He died in Moscow on October 19, 1920. During Alexandra Kollontay's tribute to Reed in the Red Square, Bryant crumpled to the ground. Reed's popularity as a radical leader led to the creation of John Reed clubs across the United States. His life was subject for the successful 1981 motion picture Reds.
"This is just a beginning... It's not happening the way we thought it would. It's not happening the way we wanted to, but it's happening. If you walk out of it now, what's your whole life then?" (Warren Beatty in The Reds)
Ten Days That Shook the World was written in two weeks, in a burst of creativity. Reed's account of the revolution focused on the crucial
moment of history, when Lenin pressed the Bolsheviks to seize power.
Workers, soldiers, peasants, and sailors stormed the Winter Palace.
Trotsky announced the overthrow of the provisional government, and
counterrevolutionary forces threatened Moscow. Reed recounts
conversations and arguments, details political machinations, and
speculates on personal motives. Although Reed's enthusiasm for the
revolution hinders his objectivity, book gives an unique, firsthand
account of the turning point in Russian history. In her own book, Six Red Months in Russia (1918), which came out month's before Ten Days That Shook the World,
Bryant paid more attention to Russian life in the days of the
revolution, the people and their voices, events and personalities, and
the cultural differences between the United States and Russia.
For further reading: John Reed by G. Hicks (1936, rev. 1968); Heroes I Have Known by Max Eastman (1942); Writers on the Left by D. Aaron (1961); The Lost Revolutionary by D.L. Walker (1967); So Short a Time: A Biography of John Reed and Louise Bryant by Barbara Gelb (1973); John Reed by T. Hovey (1975); Romantic Revolutionary by R.A. Rosenstone (1975); Six Who Protested by F.C. Giffin (1977); Mannen i kolboxen: John Reed och Finland by Max Engman, Jerker A. Eriksson (1979; suom. Vallankumouksen salamatkustaja: John Reed Suomessa, 1982); Friend and Lover by V. Gardner (1982); Pancho Villa and John Reed: Two Faces of Romantic Revolution by Jim Tuck (1984); John Reed by D.C. Duke (1987); John Reed by E.Homberger (1990); John Reed: The Early Years in Greenwich Village by Alex Baskin (1990); Queen of Bohemia: The Life of Louise Bryant by Mary V. Dearborn (1996); John Reed & the Writing of Revolution by Daniel W. Lehman (2002); John Reed: Radical Journalist, 1887-1920 by Kenneth Z. Chutchian (2019) - Film: The Reds, (1981), dir. by Warren Beatty, screenplay by Warren Beatty and Trevor Griffiths. The film depicts the last years of John Reed, who goes with his wife to Russia and writers Ten Days That Shook the World. The story begins in 1915 when Reed first met the writer Louise Bryant (Daine Keaton). Their marriage, breakup, and reunion is portrayed against the leftist movements in the US, and bringing on the screen intellectuals, writers, politicians, eyewitnesses of the period. Jack Nicholson is Bryant's lover Eugene O'Neill. Maureen Stapleton as Emma Goldman won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Celebrities in the film included Adela Rogers St. John, George Jessel, Will Durant, Rebecca West, Hamilton Fish, Jerzy Kosinski, and Henry Miller. Vittorio Storaro won an Oscar for his superb cinematography. The Reds was partly filmed in Finland and the scenes from Moscow were actually made in Helsinki. "I said, I think that a guy who is always interested in the condition of the world and changing it, either has no problems of his own or refuses to face them." (Henry Miller about Reed in The Reds) - See also: Richard Wright