Early life and education
Reed was born in Portland, Oregon, the son of Charles Jerome and Margaret (Green) Reed. His mother was the daughter of a leading Portland citizen who had made a fortune in pig iron manufacturing. His father, who had recently come from the East Coast when they married in 1886, represented an agricultural machinery manufacturer and with his ready wit quickly won acceptance in Portland's business community.
The young John, universally called Jack, was born in his mother's mansion and baptized in the fashionable Trinity Episcopal Church. He grew up surrounded by nurses and servants, and his upper-class playmates were carefully selected. He had a brother, Harry, two years his junior. He was sent to the recently-established Portland Academy at the age of nine, which he hated. In September 1904, he was sent to Morristown School, New Jersey, to prepare for college (his father had not gone to college and wanted his sons to attend Harvard). There, he made the football team and although he did poorly in most subjects, showed literary promise. Around this time his father's social standing fell due to his muckraking activities in exposing the timber industry's corruption.
Reed entered Harvard College in September 1906, passing the entrance examination on his second try (something he was allowed to do despite having poor performance in his classes). He joined an array of student organizations and clubs with great enthusiasm, ranging from athletics to theater. His mentor, literature professor Charles Copeland, helped develop his budding talents.
He attended meetings of the Socialist Club, which his friend Walter Lippmann founded in May 1908, but never joined; many of the political views held by the Socialists challenged his own views from his upbringing. He failed to make football and crew but participated in low-prestige sports like swimming and water polo, at which he excelled. He was frustrated by the dismissive attitude of the east coast elite, passing him over for membership in the waiting clubs (which one joined in preparation of the final clubs). Graduating in 1910, he visited England, France, and Spain before moving to New York City in March 1911.
He grew to love New York, relentlessly exploring it and writing poems about it. Reed enjoyed the independence he now had from his parents, from Portland (which he hated), and from Harvard snobbery. He joined the staff of the American Magazine in 1911 with Lincoln Steffens' invaluable help, and in 1912 published "Sangar", likely the finest of his poems.
Reed began a relationship with Mabel Dodge in the spring of 1913, a married woman eight years older than him. She dominated and suffocated him, threatening suicide several times when he seemed to neglect her. Visiting Europe later that year, they consummated their relationship in Paris. Problems soon developed though: he was very interested in the sights the continent had to offer, but she wanted his full attention. Upon their return, she continued to try and keep his mind off politics.
His serious interest in social problems was first aroused, at about this time, by the writings of Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell, eventually even surpassing their radicalism. In 1913 he joined the staff of The Masses, edited by Max Eastman, contributing more than fifty articles addressing the social and economic issues in those days.
The first of Reed's many arrests came in Paterson, New Jersey, in 1913, for attempting to speak on behalf of the strikers in the silk mills, radicalizing him even more. He allied himself with the Industrial Workers of the World (though he was still not a committed Socialist at this point) to be more in tune with the labor movement. His brilliant account of his experiences appeared in June as "War in Paterson". During the same year, following a suggestion made by Bill Haywood, picked up by Dodge and enthusiastically endorsed by Reed, he put on "The Pageant of the Paterson Strike" in Madison Square Garden for the benefit of the strikers.
In the autumn of 1913, he was sent to Mexico by the Metropolitan Magazine to cover the Mexican Revolution. He went directly to the front lines of the battles, giving him excellent material for his articles. He found himself attracted to the cause of Pancho Villa and didn't like his chief opponent, Venustiano Carranza. He saw Pancho Villa as a hero to the rural poor of Mexico, which resonated which his own views on America's working poor. He stayed four months with his army, including when Villa's Constitutionalist Army defeated Federal forces at Torreón, opening the way for its advance on Mexico City. His resulting articles brought him a national reputation as a war correspondent, collected in the book Insurgent Mexico (1914). He would fiercely oppose the United States' intervention in the Civil War to hunt down Pancho Villa after cross-border raids by Pancho, furthering alienating him from the mainstream US political views.
On 30 April 1914, he arrived in Colorado, scene of the recent Ludlow massacre in the midst of a statewide miners' strike. There he spent a little more than a week and investigated the events, spoke on behalf of the miners, wrote an impassioned article on the subject ("The Colorado War", July 1914), and came to believe much more deeply in class conflict and pushed him fully into the Socialist mind thought.
On 14 August 1914, shortly after the beginning of the Weltkrieg, Reed set sail for neutral Italy, having been sent by the Metropolitan. He saw the war as emerging from imperialist commercial rivalries, showing little sympathy for Great Britain. In an anonymous piece ("The Traders' War", The Masses, September 1914), he famously wrote, "This is not Our War." In France, he was frustrated by wartime censorship and the difficulty of accessing the front. In December 1914 he went to Berlin and there he interviewed Karl Liebknecht, who was one of the few socialists in Germany to vote against war credits. Reed was deeply disappointed by the general collapse in working-class solidarity promised by the Second International, and by its replacement with militarism and nationalism. On a visit to the German side of the Front south of Ypres on 12 January 1915, he probably fired two shots in the direction of the French, which earned him widespread condemnation.
After a brief return to New York in the middle of that month, Reed spent three months in Eastern Europe later that year with Canadian Boardman Robinson. Going up from Thessaloniki, they met scenes of profound devastation in Serbia (including a bombed-out Belgrade), also going through Bulgaria and Romania. They passed through the Jewish Pale of Settlement in Bessarabia, and there they were arrested, incarcerated for several weeks and liable to be shot for espionage had not the American ambassador shown some interest. Going to Petrograd, they were re-arrested and this time it was the British ambassador (Robinson being a British subject) who finally secured permission for them to leave, but not before all their papers were seized in Kiev. It was at this time that his hatred for the Tsarist regime and love for the Russian people began to develop. In Bucharest, they spent time piecing together their journey (Reed at one point traveling to Constantinople, hoping to see action at Gallipoli, but being rebuffed), from which Reed's The War in Eastern Europe (April 1916) would emerge. He sailed for New York in October.
He opposed the March 1916 intervention of General Pershing into Mexico, seeing it as futile. That summer Reed covered the Presidential nominating conventions and endorsed Wilson, hoping he would keep America out of the war. In November, he had to undergo the removal of one kidney; the operation rendered him ineligible for conscription and saved him from the fate of a conscientious objector.
As the country drifted toward war, Reed was marginalized; his relationship with the Metropolitan now over. When Wilson asked for a declaration of war on 2 April 1917, Reed shouted at a hastily-convened People's Council in Washington: "This is not my war, and I will not support it. This is not my war, and I will have nothing to do with it." In July and August Reed continued to write very strong articles for The Masses, which the Post Office now refused to mail, and for Seven Arts, which as a result of an article by Reed and one earlier in the summer by Randolph Bourne, had its financial backing cut off and ceased publication. Reed was stunned by the nation's pro-war fervor, and his career lay in ruins.
Reed rose to even more infamy when he went to Russia to cover the Russian Civil War in 1917, showing support for the Bolsheviks. While there he met Trotsky and was introduced to Lenin during a break of the Constituent Assembly on 18 January 1918. He was forced to leave the country in 1921 when the White Army occupied Moscow. He published his thoughts in his most well-known work, Ten Days that Shook the World, and reached the peak of his radicalism.
Combined Syndicates of America
- Main article: Combined Syndicates of America
When he came back to the United States in 1921, Reed continued his Socialist works. He still charged by the revolutionary message of Lenin (while at the same time noting flaws in Leninism), fighting for the cause of workers' rights. He advocated the creation of a coalition of all the separated trade unions, as they would be stronger if united in one entity. The Industrial Workers of the World (which Reed had already joined in 1913) accepted the challenge and became the bulk around which the Combined Syndicates of America were born. Uniting various shades of socialist, syndicalist and communist opinion, they have mobilized the surging throngs of workers in America's industrial heartlands in support of the Socialist Party of America (SPA). Reed quickly rose through the ranks of the SPA, becoming a Senator of New York in 1928. Reed is the presumptive nominee of the SPA for the 1936 presidential election and has received support from various Socialist leaders across the nation, including the ailing leader of the SPA, Alexander Berkman.
Jack Reed fell in love with Louise Bryant in January 1916, and they married in Peekskill in November of that year. Together, they had a daughter.
- Insurgent Mexico (1914)
- The War in Eastern Europe (1916)
- Ten Days that Shook the World (1919)
- "War in Paterson" (June 1913)
- "The Colorado War" (July 1914)
- "The Traders' War" (September 1914)
- "Sangar" (1912)