Review of John Reed and the Writing of the Revolution

by John Goodspeed,
Easton, MD

John Reed, a founder of the American Communist Labor Party and one of the most ardent fans of the Russian Revolution in U.S. history, died at age 33 in 1920. That was four years before the death of his friend and hero, V.I. Lenin, and the rise to power of Joseph Stalin, the Communist tyrant whose brutal purges. prison camps and political executions killed millions of people and led–over 50 years later–to the widespread decline and fall of communism.

Reed was born into affluence in Oregon, was educated at Harvard (1910)., became-one-of the highest- paid journalists in.the country, and partied with sporty fringe radicals like Mabel. Dodge: Luhan. He was influenced by muckrakers like Lincoln Steffens and socialists like Max Eastman (before they became anti-Communist), and he thought the Bolsheviks were harbingers of international utopia. Reed remained d believer until he died (in Russia. he was buried in the Kremlin),. but he later fell out of favor with the mainstream Communist Party, probably because he praised Leon Trotsky, the Bolshevik pioneer who was exiled by Stalin and eventually murdered.

Reed wrote his most famous book, Ten Days that Shook the World, in a few weeks while hiding in. Greenwich Village under indictment for sedition. It was first published in 1919, is still in print, and may have inspired more sympathy for early Russian communism than any book written in English–perhaps because it is much better written than most pro-communist writing, which is often duller than borscht.

Reed was a talented writer, and this new book about him is presented as primarily a critique of his literary technique, not his ideology. The author, Daniel W. Lehman, an English professor at Ashland (Ohio) University, describes Reed's prose as nonfiction narrative which is, I gather, a compound of hard facts, precise descriptions, development of individual personalities, social: ranking, political background and human interest .anecdotes, flavored with strong verbs,. colorful dialogue, suspense and other devices associated with fiction writing, including dramatic rearrangement of events from real life. As in some great novels, the result is often "truer” than "objective" fact.

Professor Lehman accordingly classifies Reed as an early practitioner of what much later came to be called “New Journalism,” the founders of which are said to be Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson, Truman-Capote and maybe Norman Mailer. Earlier, in his travel books, Mark Twain wrote what might be called New Journalism, regardless of who invented it. Although, Reed was certainly pretty good at it, especially in Ten Days -, etc. and Insurgent Mexico, his book that first made him famous and was based with a few rearrangements of fact on his contact with Pancho Villa and other coverage of the Mexican. Revolution. An 1914 for Metropolitan, then a popular monthly magazine.

During World War I, Reed as a reporter wrote about the suffering that was inflicted on civilians on both sides in Europe. He became. very antiwar (as well as antireligious and anticapitalist), which caused most U.S publishers to stop hiring him. He edited a radical periodical for a while, then fled to Russia to escape trial. He was too romantic about socialism to object to Lenin's rejection of press freedom and he died too young to know that- Stalin was god awful. I doubt he will ever be classified as a major American writer, but he was an effective New Journalism, reporter, and thanks to his vivid prose and Lehman's scholarly balance, John Reed & the Writing of Revolution is despite a somewhat awkward title - a stirring book.

John Goodspeed
Easton, MD