Sunday, June 10, 2012

Michael Gold On John Reed: Excerpts from 1927 `New Masses' article

In an article that appeared in the November 1927 issue of New Masses magazine, U.S. working-class writer and literary critic Mike Gold wrote the following about the early 20th century U.S. writer and journalist John Reed (whose life was dramatized, somewhat, in Warren Beatty’s early 1980s Hollywood movie, Reds):

John Reed was a cowboy out of the west, six feet high, steady eyes, boyish face; a brave, gay, open-handed young giant; you meet thousands of him on the road, in lumber camps, on the ranges, the mines.

“I used to see Jack Reed swimming at Provincetown with George Cram Cook, that other Socialist and great-hearted adventurer now dead too. I went out a mile with them in a catboat, and they raced back through a choppy sea, arm over arm, shouting bawdy taunts at each other, whooping with delight. Then we all went to Jack’s house and ate a big jolly supper.

“He loved every kind of physical and mental life; the world flowed through him freely…And Jack wrote the most vivid book on the Bolshevik Revolution that has yet appeared in any language. After ten years it is as sound and fresh as at first. It was written white-hot, almost at the scene of the event. It is the greatest piece of reporting in history. It is a deathless book that sells by the million.

“The Revolution is the romance of tens of millions of men and women in the world today. This is something many American intellectuals never understand about Jack Reed. If he had remained romantic about the underworld, or about meaningless adventure-wandering, or about women or poem-making, they would have continued admiring him. But Jack Reed fell in love with the Revolution, and gave it all his generous heart’s blood. This the pale, rootless intellectuals could never understand. When he died they said he had wasted his life. It is they who lead wasted, futile lives in their meek offices, academic sanctums, and bootleg parlors.

“Jack Reed lived the fullest and grandest life of any young man in our America…

“He burst into American writing like a young genius. Everyone followed his work eagerly, waiting for the inevitable masterpiece. At the outbreak of war Jack Reed was the best paid and most brilliant war correspondent in America. He had written some of the best short stories. Everyone waited for the masterpiece…

“Jack Reed’s life was not wasted; he did write his masterpiece, Ten Days That Shook The World. But the `intellectuals’ haven’t yet recognized this.

“The role of the intellectual in the revolutionary labor movement has always been a debating point. In the I.W.W. the fellow-workers would tar and feather (almost) any intellectual appeared among them. The word `intellectual’ became a synonym for the word `bastard,’ and in the American Communist movement there is some of this feeling.

“It is part of the American hard-boiled tradition, shared by revolutionists here who believe it is unproletarian and unmanly to write a play, or study politics, or discuss the arts. Mr. Babbitt feels the same way.

“This tradition is dying in the American revolutionary movement. Jack Reed was one of the `intellectuals’ who helped destroy the prejudice. He identified himself so completely with the working class; he undertook every danger for the revolution; he forgot his Harvard education, his genius, his popularity, his gifted body and mind so completely that no one else remembered them any more; there was no gap between Jack Reed and the workers any longer.

“…He was on trial during the war for sedition. He rose in the courtroom, hitched up his pants, looked the Judge squarely in the eye, and testified boldly and frankly, like a revolutionist.

“It is a difficult career being an active revolutionist, It takes all one’s nerves, energy and character. It is almost as difficult to be a pioneer revolutionary writer. Jack Reed, in his short life, managed to combine both careers…

“…I am sure that the best elements of Jack Reed’s spirit will be preserved in any revolutionary writers who will appear in this country. They will have the bigness to be humane. They will laugh, but they will not sneer. Jack Reed was a fierce enemy to capitalism, but in all his books you will never find a sneer at humanity. And this is difficult to refrain from, too…

“…Jack Reed went through the Paterson strike, and the Lawrence strike, and the Bayonne strike, and understood their significance. And he understood the economic basis of the World War, and refused to be a tool of J.P. Morgan, like Walter Lippman and many other wise men who knew so much about Bergson, and so little about the inevitable treaty at Versailles.

“And he had read and thought enough to grasp the full political and economic significance of the Bolshevik Revolution for the world…
“…He had loved the Revolution when she was a haggard outlaw fighting for life against the ravening pack of capitalist nations.

“He had lived with the revolution in famine, in civil war, in chaos…He had seen hundreds of frozen corpses of Red Guards piled high in a railroad station and had worked himself to the bone for this Revolution. He wandered through typhus areas, he had been bitten by a louse, and died…

“And what he had died for was the real thing…Walter Lippman’s war to end war did not end war, but was the prelude to a more rapacious capitalistic imperialism and a greater imperialist war….”

(New Masses, November 1927)

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