Thursday, 22 September 2016

Adventures Of A Young Man - John Reed


It was John Reed who wrote Ten Days That Shook The World, the account of the Russian revolution that was turned into a film - Reds - directed by Warren Beatty and starring himself alongside Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson.
Adventures Of A Young Man is a collection of Reed's short stories written between 1912 and 1917 though not published until 1963 and then by a European publishing house. The copy that's fallen into my hands is a reprint by City Lights Books, published in 1975 - the first time these writings were published in America.
The significance of this is highlighted in the introduction taken from the original 1963 pressing where it says: 'Such stories as appear in this volume have been quietly and effectively suppressed'. The fact that only City Lights led by Lawrence Ferlinghetti chose to reprint these stories tells us something - though whether it's confirmation that yes, these stories were up til then 'quietly and effectively suppressed' I'm not sure. It could well be true?

Reed's an interesting character. He was born to rich parents in Portland, Oregon in 1887 and ended up going to Harvard. He knew that what he wanted to do was to write but he knew also that to be a successful writer he might require a more worldly experience. Rather than fiction, he was more interested in the real world so he ventured out to explore it and to report back.
He ended up as a news correspondent in the Mexican War of 1916 where he rode with Pancho Villa before heading off to Europe for the First World War; a job that took him to Petrograd, the Russian revolution and ten days that shook the world.
Before all of this, however, it was the streets of New York where he would roam searching for material which he found in plentiful supply in the form of people - primarily poor, working class people: 'In my rambles about the city,' he wrote 'I couldn't help but observe the ugliness of poverty and all its train of evil, the cruel inequality between rich people who had too many motor cars and poor people who didn't have enough to eat. It didn't come to me from books that the workers produced all the wealth of the world, which went to those who did not earn it.'

Reed's encounters with the denizens of New York are what makes up the bulk of these stories and what's good about them is that he allows his characters to speak for themselves. Essentially, he simply records their monologues. So, we get street girls telling us of their lives, along with tales from the homeless, the poor, the unfortunate, the sick, and the starving. One of the best of these is a story entitled Another Case Of Ingratitude, in which Reed stumbles upon a tramp whilst out walking one night on Fifth Avenue.
'What's the matter - sick?' Reed asks.
'No sleep for two nights,' replies the tramp 'Nothing to eat for three days.'
Reed takes the tramp to a restaurant and gets him fed and after the meal asks him a few questions: 'No work? What's your job? Where do you come from? Been here long?'
The tramp objects to being questioned to which Reed replies he was only asking to make conversation.
'Naw, you wasn't,' says the tramp 'You t'ought because you give me a hand-out, I'd do a sob story all over you. Wot right have you got to ask me all them questions? I know you fellers. Just because you got money you t'ink you can buy me with a meal...'
Reed views him as being and declares him to be ungrateful but there's obviously more to it than that. It's hard to tell whether Reed is aware of it or not and whether it's by accident or design but the story speaks volumes about dignity, pride, equality, and the chasm between the rich and the poor. It's an echo, in fact, of Baudelaire's prose piece Let's Beat Up The Poor! in which rather than giving money to a beggar Baudelaire beats one up instead. The beggar fights back until Baudelaire stops the fight declaring the beggar to now be his equal, therefore restoring the beggar's pride and dignity.

In another story, entitled The Thing To Do, Reed encounters a Cambridge-educated Englishman who is on his way back to England to join the army so as to fight in the Great War. As with the tramp in the restaurant story, Reed tries to engage in conversation with him, seeking among other things, his views on revolution and war, only to be left perplexed by his answers: 'Revolutions occur only when a people is oppressed,' the Englishman says 'And British working men are not oppressed. They are paid excellently for persons of their class...'
And as for his reason for going to war: 'I fight because my people have always been army people.'
They both soon part ways, leaving Reed with a thought: 'I had a momentary, guilty idea that perhaps the spirit that conquered India was the same which would wade through fire and blood to get a cold bath in the morning - because it was the Thing to Do.'

The overall picture that is painted by these short stories is that the world is in need of change. Reed was rightly contemptuous of the rich, ruling elites of America based, I suspect, on his experience of them and their sons at Harvard. Likewise, however, the rich, ruling elites and their sons were equally contemptuous of Reed.
It was among the working class that Reed discovered the most virtuous of men and women, particularly among those involved in political struggle and industrial disputes. Not that he erred towards viewing the working class romantically at all as evidenced by some of the stories where he allows working men to tell their tales but in doing so damning themselves utterly with their stupidity, racism, and blind acceptance of and allegiance to the status quo.

Reed's involvement with the Bread and Roses strike of 1912 in Lawrence, Massachusetts involving immigrant textile workers brought home to him the knowledge that 'the manufacturers get all they can out of labor, pay as little as they must, and permit the existence of great masses of the miserably unemployed in order to keep wages down; that the forces of the State are on the side of property against the propertyless.'
In Reed's essay Almost Thirty, an assessment of himself looking back over the years in which most of his short stories were written, he wrote: 'I have seen and reported many strikes, most of them desperate struggles for the bare necessities of life; and all I have witnessed only confirms my first idea of the class struggle and its inevitability. I wish with all my heart that the proletariat would rise and take their rights - I don't see how else they will get them. Political relief is so slow to come, and year by year the opportunities of peaceful protest and lawful action are curtailed. But I am not sure any more that the working class is capable of revolution, peaceful or otherwise; the workers are so divided and bitterly hostile to each other, so badly led, so blind to their class interest.'
Months later in Russia, the October Revolution and the storming of the Winter Palace would take place, out of which Reed would write Ten Days That Shook The World. Three years later he would die of typhus and be buried near the Kremlin Wall, a hero of the Russian revolution.

Looking back on the life of John Reed now, we can see how he and the Russian revolution itself was betrayed by the failure of the totalitarian State to wither away as it was meant to. In this same light he may now be viewed as the sailors of Kronstadt are now viewed - as the pride and flower of the revolution brought to heel for wanting to carry the revolution through to its ultimate conclusion - and that's a fine accolade to bestow upon anyone.
Adventures Of A Young Man. 'Quietly and effectively suppressed'? It could well be true.
John Serpico

No comments:

Post a Comment