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Daniel W. Lehman, John Reed and the Writing of Revolution.

Daniel W. Lehman, John Reed and the Writing of Revolution (Athens: Ohio University Press 2002)

UNDERSTANDING THE CAREER and reputation of John Reed has long been a preoccupation of American historians and literary critics primarily because it is not readily apparent where to place him and his work. The subject of several biographies as well as shorter evaluations in works about Greenwich Village intellectuals and the forerunners of literary radicalism in the 1920s and 1930s, Reed continues to occupy a central if disputed place. As a writer, a romantic hero, a rebel, a journalist, as well as a participant in two of the great revolutions of the 20th century (Mexico and Russia), he remains a figure of interest and controversy. On this last point Reed's allegiance was claimed by supporters and enemies of the Soviet Union. Because he died just as the Communists were consolidating their hold on Russia, Reed's future loyalties could not be known: all the more reason to speculate. Would he have joined his friend Max Eastman as a bitter critic, or would he have gulped back his objections and become a defender of Stalin?

Reed's writings have also been the source of varying evaluation. Some critics have found his production uneven and lightweight, sometimes careless. He also has his admirers, among them, Professor Lehman whose work is both an attempt to defend Reed against his critics as well as explain exactly in what ways Reed contributed to modern journalism and literature. His book thus takes up the argument around several important works: Insurgent Mexico and Ten Days That Shook The World, his war correspondence on the European Front in 1915, and shorter essays such as the sketch of Billy Sunday during his Philadelphia religious crusade. The book also reprints two samples of Reed's reporting: "In the German Trenches" and "Back of Billy Sunday," both of which were published by Metropolitan Magazine in 1915.

While the outline of this reevaluation of Reed is more or less chronological, Lehman does not strictly adhere to a time-line, principally because he is more interested in defining Reed's style and working habits. This purpose encourages him, at numerous points in the book, to compare Reed's on-the-spot notes with his later journal manuscripts. In other words, he attempts to depict the way the author employs metaphors, opens up and generalizes from experience, and embellishes and invents dialogue. At the same time, Lehman carries on a running debate with other biographers of Reed such as Robert Rosenstone, Eric Homberger, and Christine Stansell--his purpose being to defend Reed's stylistic and methodological choices. Quite clearly, Lehman's larger project is to restore Reed to a central place in the literature of American journalism.

Given the contemporary journalistic controversy over "imbedded" war correspondents and the rather longer existence of participatory journalism created by such novelists as Truman Capote and Norman Mailer several decades ago, it is instructive to see just where this tendency began. Quite clearly Reed as well as Stephen Crane were originators of this modern technique. Abandoning the pose of neutrality, Reed stitched his enthusiasms and political opinions into his sketches. Indeed, to get the story itself, he became an advocate and even a participant in the events he was sent to cover such as the Mexican and Russian Revolutions. This put him at odds with the prevailing biases of American journalism. In particular, this affected his view of World War I where his critical reports alienated his most important benefactors, publishers, and journalistic friends. Believing that the causes of the war were nationalistic expedience, international intrigue, and class antagonism that sacrificed millions of men to a cause they did not share, Reed lost most of his publishing outlets except in radical journals, themselves subject to censorship and repression. For Lehman, the question here is not bias or overt opinion. After all, being pro-war was a bias that shaped most of the journalistic reports. Rather, it is what Reed accomplished with his journalism that intrigues the author.

In explaining why Reed's writing should be considered pioneering and exemplary, Lehman spends considerable time evaluating style: for example, the metaphors chosen and the development of characters. In his ability to sketch exciting scenes and crisp dialogue, Reed seems to have matured and toward the end of his life had mastered ways to give vitality to elusive characters, even anonymous working men and women. As Lehman concludes, "Reed writes with lively, crafted diction; builds immediate description into larger truths; constructs effective scenes from skillful dialogue; manipulates point of view and structure effectively; establishes his personal presence to guide his readers toward self-discovery; and reveals the power of his stories to affect his subjects and readers." (63) There is little to question about this summary. In many respects it captures what Reed was up to in his journalistic style. But if Reed was the innovative reporter he seems to be, there is perhaps more to be said than this defensive list of prose attributes provides. Lehman does not, for example, consider the question of audience and Reed's relationship to it--except insofar as the journalist found outlets for his writing or suffered censorship. Yet this is a crucial question for Reed as well as other practitioners of participatory journalism. The participant, himself, in this genre, is both observer and audience. That is why he appears in the first place, to register reactions to the scenes he observes. Thus his response is intended to shape those of the audience. In many cases, Reed's pose was one of heightened innocence, shaped by a credulous belief in fair play, justice, and democracy. Confronting the terrible contradiction to such values in real life--in the random slaughter of World War I and the hypocrisy of Billy Sunday, or, more abstractly, the implicit assumptions of readers about revolution, Reed constantly invokes an ironic mode in his narrative. Sometimes this means that Reed subjects himself to satiric presentation, but far more often, he uses irony to strip away pretence and literary obfuscation to reveal--much in the manner of contemporary naturalist novelists--the bleak landscape of reality. In many respects, the point of much of Reed's journalism is the exploration of getting the story itself and the distance he traveled in this pursuit: from the elite classrooms and social high life of Harvard's ivy halls to the muck of trench warfare. It was a predisposition he shared with many writers and artists of Greenwich Village, even if he carried it much further.

In some respects, this makes Ten Days That Shook the Worm somewhat more difficult to understand and evaluate. Here Reed is an unabashed advocate of the revolution he described. Thus the tone of irony is repressed in favour of celebration, and the book becomes as much testament as journalism. There are many things that Lehman might have explored at this point, but one seems crucial since Reed's experience was a foretaste of the hundreds of travelers' accounts of positive experiences that surrounded the Soviet Union from its inception. Lehman does not explore how it was that Reed came to identify emotionally with the Revolution, why, in fact, he went so far and how this might help us understand what others would see. In fact, however, there are strong hints in Reed's account: his personification of the masses; his wide-eyed admiration for Russian culture; his delight in decisive action; his esteem for Lenin and Trotsky; his sense that the mundane world was being reshaped by high moral principle.

But how much of this did Reed actually see? How much existed in translation, through his enthusiasms, and from a language that he did not understand completely? (Lehman never confronts the language barriers Reed experienced in Russia and Mexico). Certainly, the author might have pursued some of these questions further, but he is too often trapped in a defensive posture. In the end, he succeeds in making a case that Reed was a self-conscious stylist and an innovator in journalistic techniques. But the harder case remains elusive: whether Reed ought to be remembered as a literary artist and not for the romantic and tragic story of his life.

James Gilbert

University of Maryland, College Park
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Author:Gilbert, James
Publication:Labour/Le Travail
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2004
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