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Reed, John (1887-1920)

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Biographical Introduction

John Reed
John Reed

For John Silas Reed, the conservative, early twentieth century city of Portland could never be “prepared to understand his dreams” of social revolution and change. Born in 1887, Reed grew up in a stately Portland mansion, attended the Portland Youth Academy and later, boarding school. Fascinated with the travels of his uncle and the unfamiliar habits of his family’s Chinese servant Lee Sing, Reed’s early writings were inspired by his desire to see the world.

Praised for his poetry and writing skills, Reed graduated from Harvard in 1910 and began a career in journalism in New York. He wrote predominantly for leftist magazines and was celebrated among Greenwich Village radicals. Reed first gained prominence when he covered the 1911 Mexican revolution alongside revolutionary Pancho Villa. The event inspired his romanticized chronicle, Insurgent Mexico. In 1915, Reed toured Eastern Europe reporting on the atrocities and injustices of World War I. He became especially captivated with Russia and its potential for revolution, writing that Russians “are perhaps the most interesting human beings that exist.”

Returning home in 1916, Reed was lonely and tired of war, but on a visit to Portland he met Louise Bryant. In Bryant, Reed found his intellectual match. They married in 1916 and departed for Russia to witness the Russian revolution. Reed’s 1919 Ten Days That Shook the World was an account of the Bolshevik seizure of power. In 1920, Reed traveled back to the U.S. to coordinate a domestic Communist party. Upon his return to Russia he was imprisoned and held in solitary confinement in Finland. Later released to Russia, a sickly Reed reunited with Bryant, but was tragically stricken with typhus.

John Reed died in October 1920. The only American ever buried at the Kremlin, Reed’s idealism, intellect, and spirit would inspire radicals to form John Reed Clubs across the United States.

— From The Oregon History Project

The Poetry of John Reed

I have watched the summer day come up from the top of a pier of the Williamsburgh
I have slept in a basket of squid at the Fulton Street Market,
Talked about god with the old cockney woman who sells hot-dogs under the Elevated at
South Ferry,
Listen to the tales of dago dips in the family parlor of the Hell-hole.
And from the top gallery of the Metropolitan heard Didur sing “Boris Goudanov” . . .
I have shot craps with gangsters in the Gas House district,
And seen what happens to a green bull on San Juan Hill. . .
I can tell you where to hire a gunman to croak a squealor,
And where young girls are bought and sold, and how to get coke on 125th street
And what men talk about behind Steve Brodie’s, or in the private rooms of the Lafayette
Baths. . .

Dear and familiar and ever new to me is the city
As the body of my lover . . .
All sounds—harsh clatter of the Elevated, rumble of the subway,
Tapping of policemen’s clubs on midnight pavements,
Hand-organs plaintive and monotonous, squawking motor-horns,
Gatling crepitation of airy riveters,
Muffled detonations deep down underground,
Flat bawling of newsboys, quick clamoring ambulance gongs,
Deep nervous tooting from the evening harbor,
And the profound shuffling thunder of myriad feet . . .

All smells—small of sample shoes, second-hand clothing,
Dutch bakeries, Sunday delicatessen, kosher cooking,
Smell of damp tons of newspapers along Park Row,
The subway, smelling like the tomb of Ramses the Great,
The tired odor of infinite human dust-drug-stores,
And the sour slum stench of mean streets . . .

People—rock-eyed brokers gambling with Empires,
Swarthy insolent boot-blacks, cringing push-cart peddlers,
The white-capped wop flipping wheat-cakes in the window of Childs’,
Sallow garment-workers coughing on a park-bench in the thin spring sun,
Dully watching the leaping fountain as they eat a handful of peanuts for lunch. . .
The steeple-jack swaying infinitesimal at the top of the Woolworth flag-pole,
Charity workers driving hard bargains for the degradation of the poor,
Worn-out snarling street-car conductors, sentimental prize fighters,
White wings scouring the roaring traffic-ways, foul-mouthed truck drivers,
Spanish longshoremen heaving up freight-mountains, hollow-eyed silk workers,
Structural steel workers catching hot rivets on high-up spidery girders,
Sand-hogs in hissing air-locks under the North River, sweating subway muckers, hard-
rock men blasting beneath Broadway,
Ward-leaders with uptilted cigars, planning mysterious underground battles for power,
Raucous soap-boxers in Union Square, preaching the everlasting crusade,
Pale half-fed cash girls in department stores, gaunt children making paper flowers in dim
Princess stenographers, and manicurists chewing gum with a queenly air,
Macs, whore-house madams, street-walkers, touts, bouncers, stool-pigeons. . .
All professions, races, temperaments, philosophies,
Al history, all possibilities, all romance,
America . . . the world. . . !