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A Bunch of Reds

Because Reed wrote in a powerful, rhythmical, descriptive style he is again and again spoken of as a poet, “the poet of the revolution,” and so on. When he goes about the country agitating against conscription and about the Russian Revolution, he is reminded by his friends that he is, essentially, “a poet” and he thinks of himself as such—at times. The truth is that his uniqueness was precisely fulfilled in his prose and he is in no sense genuine otherwise. His love poems are conventional and quite expendable, along with, except for information, such of his letters as appear in books devoted to his life. His efforts to command the inclusive Whitman style are boasting and predictable in language.

I have shot craps with gangsters in the Gas-House district….
I can tell you where to hire a gun- man to croak a squealer,
And where young girls are bought and sold, and how to get coke on 125th Street….

The generalized experience offers little to this writer who needs the landscape of heroic action in what he sees as a just cause. To describe, feel, and experience is his gift; to heighten observation by a free and lovely fluency of language at a moment when all is given, accepted, beyond reflection. World War I, which he covered in a desultory manner, was not a source for his literary inspiration. The long, slogging, murderous destruction of men and history was lamentable, but, for his talent, it was not dramatic, being too dense and blurred.

The narrative power of Ten Days is astonishing when one considers the amount of information needed for Reed’s audience—not to mention the need of the author himself when he gets down to the page—and the effort to organize the documentation, the decrees, shifting alliances, committee meetings, newspaper accounts, without which the book would be only a dazzle. The esprit is unflagging; the rush through history and chaos is the rush to victory. The pace of the book is the pace of the victorious tide. It is all youthful, highspirited, with none of the disfiguring vehemence of the polemicist because Reed is a mind too newly born for moral carping. And he is a comrade without memories. In truth Reed doesn’t really know a soul there in the “vastness”; he hasn’t a single Russian friend and is not humanly acquainted with a foot of the earth.

For the others it was not so fresh and always blooming. When Angelica Balabanoff, the daughter of a wealthy landowning Russian family and a revolutionary since her youth, is sent by the Party to work in Odessa, “the mention of Odessa made me shudder.” Her relatives, from whom she was long estranged for political difference, had gone to Odessa in order to be able if necessary to escape to Turkey. (Her mother escaped to Turkey and died of starvation there.) Madame Balabanoff dutifully goes to Odessa and while outside her office she can hear the shouts of Long Live Comrade Balabanoff, her anti-Bolshevik sister is ushered in, a sister dressed like a beggar and so miserably altered she is hardly recognizable.

It is no diminishment of his stunning reportage to say that for Reed the October Revolution is pageantry from a moonscape. “In Smolny Institute the Military Revolutionary Committee flashed baleful fire, pounding like an overleaded dynamo.” And, “Vast Russia was in a state of solution…. Old Russia was no more; human society flowed molten in primal heat, and from the tossing sea of flame was emerging the class struggle, stark and pitiless—and the fragile, slowly cooling crust of new planets.” Power, vastness, newness, throbbing, rushing, rising, unrolling are the signifiers of the grand purpose, the necessity, the destiny of history. Petrograd falls, and then the bombardment of the “holy” Kremlin itself, and then the pause for the funeral of the Martyrs of the Beginning of World Revolution, and then: “I suddenly realized that the devout Russian people no longer needed priests to pray them into heaven. On earth they were building a kingdom more bright than any heaven had to offer and for which it was a glory to die….”

There is revolution and then there is also love. With the leaders in Russia, love stories are not often in the advance guard of experience. Lenin’s mistress, Issa Armand, is not even mentioned in Trotsky’s biography of Lenin or in his history of the Russian Revolution. Trotsky must have known of her death from cholera in 1920 and of Lenin’s stony grief, mentioned by other memoirists, when she is taken to be buried in the Kremlin, near to the grave of John Reed. As for Lenin’s wife and comrade, Krupskaia, she lived on, a survivor sometimes troublesome enough to lead Stalin to say that if she didn’t watch out, he would find someone else to be Lenin’s widow.

Rosa Luxemburg’s biographer spoke of her love for her husband, Leo Jogiches, as one of the “great and tragic love stories of socialism.” And certainly Emma Goldman was a lover. Her account of her life soon after she arrived in America as a young woman is detailed by short headlines at the top of the page. They read in breathless succession: Sasha Makes Love to Me; I Respond to Fedya; and Most [Johann] Confesses Love for Me. Most was an anarchist-terrorist—“propaganda of the deed” whose criticisms of Sasha (Alexander Berkman) after he had shot Henry Clay Frick led to the next Emma Goldman autobiographical headline: I Horsewhip Most. As she did on the stage of one of Most’s lectures, ending the scene in a majorful manner by breaking the whip in two.

In Reds, the love of John Reed and Louise Bryant is not one of the great stories of socialism. Its landscape for the most part is the America of Oregon, Greenwich Village, Croton-on-the-Hudson outside New York. Much of it is out of the classic film romantic comedy—fighting and making up, husband sent to the sofa, husband in the blazing kitchen, and in this case the historically permissible “free love” infidelities of Louise Bryant.

Louise Bryant met Reed when he was on a visit to his family in Portland. The meeting was brief and thoroughly fateful. She left her husband, went to New York, and married Reed not long after. Louise Bryant is interesting as an American woman who was not so much complicated as murky and given to the improvisations of survival.2

She came from the working class and while this might be a picturesque idea to some of the Greenwich Village intelligentsia, Louise Bryant knew it to be a soot-flecked reality. Her father was born in the mining region of Pennsylvania, worked in the mines, and by self-education became a school teacher and a reporter, finally working on newspapers in San Francisco where the daughter was born, before he vanished completely from the family scene. The destruction of records in the San Francisco fire was a release to the imagination and in Granville Hicks’s biography of Reed Louise gave out the information that she had been “brought up by her grandfather, the younger son of an Anglo-Irish lord.” Instead she was brought up by her mother and stepfather, a railroad conductor, in Wadsworth, Nevada, and made her way out, to the University of Nevada and the University of Oregon. When she married her first husband in Oregon she was twenty-two, but preferred to be thought nineteen. In New York with Reed she was twenty-nine, but chose to be twenty-five.

Louise Bryant’s life is like a traditional realistic novel of which she is the heroine under the domination of an ordained curve of fortune. Unpromising beginnings, sloughed off gradually by charm and by a fierce feminist determination for a worthy self-identification; romantic dishonesties, either profitless or gratuitous, but meant to ensure against something; the upward swing of many successes and no more relative than usual in “success”; and a truly terrible ending, without necessity, without preparation as it seems, except in a Hardy-like fate.

The triangle, supremely interesting in real life and so often the very blood of literature, was a natural mode for this driven coquette from the provinces and at almost every important point in her life with Reed the inclination, with its more or less forgivable deceptions, goes along like a handbag. Her affair with Eugene O’Neill began when the three of them were in Provincetown, continued “heavily” when she invited O’Neill to the house in Croton while Reed was in a hospital in Baltimore for the removal of a diseased kidney. When she returned, two months ahead of Reed, from the first trip to Russia, her immediate action was to get in touch with O’Neill. The way of the world had intervened; O’Neill had taken up with someone else and the affair was not resumed. In Reds, Louise Bryant’s character is given a greater degree of common sense than one can document. Also in certain fluent declamations and in the hintings of moments of “concerned” silence, she is made to appear the possessor of political wisdom, a sort of intuitive feminine guardian against the follies of radical enthusiasm.

In the group of artists and writers in the Village, more was necessary for a woman than attractiveness and compatibility of views, views about love, women’s suffrage, and so on, which Louise had come to before she met Reed. Still it was necessary to be something, if only rich like Mabel Dodge. So, without spectacular talent but with a steady energy she became a political journalist. In Petrograd with Reed she found her subject and Six Red Months in Russia, her book of dispatches based on her four months in Russia, came out in 1918, a year before Ten Days, published in 1919.

The stories, as she calls them in an introduction, “gathered together on the edge of Asia, in that mystic land of white nights in summer and long black days in winter…,” are naïve and written in the style of light feature-journalism, with many exclamation points that serve sometimes as irony or as a clue to excited emotion. “Kerensky again in the limelight! Kerensky visiting the world’s capitals and hobnobbing with the world’s potentates!” An effort is made to sort out the unnerving complexity of the political parties, to explain the Democratic Congress and to “explain away” the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, but it is a rendering finally of the author’s own ignorance and nervous incapacity as a historian. “I was present at the opening of the Constituent; it was a terrific performance from beginning to end. About eight o’clock the delegates assembled and the air fairly crackled with excitement.” In an interview at the recruiting office of the Women’s Battalion, where patriotic women from all classes had enlisted to fight the Germans, she was told that some of them were in the Winter Palace when it fell and were rumored to have been raped. Here Louise Bryant is more sympathetic and her conversational, quick-impression style is more suitable.

  1. 2

    So Short a Time by Barbara Gelb (Norton, 1973; Berkley Publishers, 1981) is the only biography of Louise Bryant and it is a necessary source for her life.

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