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John (Silas) Reed (1887-1920)


American journalist and poet-adventurer, whose colorful life as a revolutionary writer ended in Russia but made him the hero of a generation of radical intellectuals. Reed was a close friend of V.I. Lenin and an eyewitness to the 1917 October revolution. He recorded this historical event in his best-known book, Ten Days that Shook the World (1919). Reed is buried with other Bolshevik heroes beside the Kremlin wall.

"It was just 8.40 when a thundering wave of cheers announced the entrance of the presidium, with Lenin-great Lenin-among them. A short, stocky figure, with a big head set down in his shoulders, bald and bulging. Little eyes, a snubbish nose, wide, generous mouth, and heavy chin; clean-shaven now, but already beginning to bristle with the well-known beard of his past and future. Dressed in shabby clothes, his trousers much too long for him. Unimpressive, to be the idol of a mob, loved and revered as perhaps few leaders in history have been. A strange popular leader-a leader purely by virtue of intellect; colourless, humourless, uncompromising and detached, without picturesque idiosyncrasies-but with the power of explaining profound ideas in simple terms, of analysing a concrete situation. And combined with shrewdness, the greatest intellectual audacity." (from Ten Days That Shook the World)

John Silas Reed was born in Portland Oregon into a wealthy family. His father, Charles Jerome Reed, was a businessman, socially active and admired Theodore Roosevelt. At college Reed joined the swimming team and the dramatics club. He served on the editorial board of the Harvard Monthly and Lampoon, and was class orator and poet. After graduating from Harvard in 1910, Reed travelled in England and Spain. Upon his return to America Reed started his career as a journalist in the leftist magazines. He was one of the leading socialists of the New Review and The Masses. Van Wyck Brooks called him in The Confident Years "the wonder boy of Greenwich Village." Later Reed appeared in Max Eastman's novel Venture (1927) as Jo Hancock, a young man in love with life.

During this time Reed made close friends with Mabel Dodge, the rich hostess, who ran her salon at 23 Fifth Avenue. She helped organize the 1913 Armory Show, which brought Cubism to New York. In 1913 Reed published his first book, Sangar, a collection of poems. He was arrested for trying to speak for striking silk worker in Paterson, New Jersey. Reed spent four days in a jail. He then wrote 'The Pageant of the Paterson Strike,' which was enacted at Madison Square Garden, as a benefit to aid the workers. In the following years Reed was arrested several times for organizing strikes.

In the early 1910s Reed went to Mexico to cover the Mexican revolution for the Metropolitan Magazine and the New York World. He spent four months with Pancho Villa and his troops and described the revolutionary fighting in Insurgent Mexico (1914). Partially his trip was financed by Vanderbilt and Guggenheim money. Reed did not carry weapons and fight with the Mexicans, whom he characterized in his notebook as "natural anarchists" whose politicis are entirely personal.

During World War I Reed worked as a war correspondent for the Metropolitan Magazine, where some of his stories were rejected on the basis of leftist sympathies. Reed's reports on the fighting in Germany, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria and Russia were published in The War in Eastern Europe (1916). All what he saw, depressed him - there was no revolutionary enthusiasm. Reed was forced to return to the United States for an operation that removed one of his kidneys. In 1916 Reed supported Woodrow Wilson and warned about dark forces that want to plunge the country into war. His fears came true: Wilson declared war on Germany. In the early 1917 Reed married the journalist Louise Bryant; they had met a few years earlier at a dinner party. At that time Louise was married to Paul Trullinger, a successful dentist and an amateur painter.

Reed was one of the best paid reporters in the U.S. but his idea to travel to Russia was received lukewarmly. With the help of Max Eastman and some other friends he managed to get enough money. In the autumn he started with Bryant his journey to St. Petersburg to witness and report on the revolution for The Masses. Reed was not an impartial observer. He identified himself with Bolsheviks and his pro-Communist and anti-war articles were partly responsible for that journal's indictment and trials on the grounds of sedition.

In St. Petersburg Reed began one of his most ambitious poems, 'America', 1918, which was inspired by Walt Whitman. In it personal subject matters blended with his vision of America, "my country, my America." During this period Reed became active in politics. He started to write in 1919 for The New Communist edited the Voice of Labour. In the summer he participated in Chicago in the meeting of the Socialist Party of America. It ended in chaos, and as a result, two Communist parties were born. Reed himself became the leader of Communist Labor Party. To secure the status of the party, Read realized that it should recognized as soon as possible by Comintern (Communist International), also known as the Third International. Reed was sent to Russia.

In autumn he crossed Gulf of Finland on a ship, hiding in a sort of iron shaft, arrived at Turku, and continued to Helsinki. Through the contacts of the writer and businesswoman Hella Wuolijoki he met Lydia Stahl, who was later arrested in France as a Russian spy. At this time she was close to Otto Ville Kuusinen, a Finnish Communist working underground. Stahl and Reed continued correspondence until his death. While in Finland, Reed stayed at the house of Ivar Lassky (1889-1938) or at the home of Sulo and Hella Wuolijoki. Lasky was a marxist orientalist and folklorist, who was shot during Stalin's Great Purge. When the future film director Joseph Losey met him in Moscow in 1935, he wrote to Hella Wuolijoki, "I like him enormously."

Reed had visited Finland briefly in 1917 and 1918, but when he returned in 1919, the Finnish authorities had started to contol more tightly the border and followed movements of emigrants and revolutionaries. In November Reed was in Russia. He met several times Lenin at the Kreml, and gave him Ten Days That Shook The World. He planned to get out of Russia through Latvia, but found it impossible avoid there the battle lines between the Whites and the Reds. So he crossed again the Finnish border and tried to use "the traditional Bolshevik coalboxroute," but this time the adventures ended in Turku, on a ship, where he was found hiding in the well-known coalbox. After being arrested Reed was taken to a shower. With him he carried 102 diamonds, a large sum of money, and letters written by Trotsky and Lenin. Possibly he had been betrayed by his traveling companion, a Russian Communist, who had followed the orders of Grigory Zinoviev, president of Komintern.

In Finland he was found guilty of smuggling, but also the State Department in the United States wanted him - in Chicago he was suspected of "criminal anarchy." While in prison Reed wrote more poetry and outlined a pair of novels, which he never completed. Much of his time he was in a solitary cell. From the window, he could catch a glimpse of the prison yard. In addition to his lawyer Frans Johannes Leino, he was also visited by Aino Malmberg, a friend of Rose Strunsky, who brought him some books. Reed never revealed the names of his Finnish contacts. During the interrogations, he was never threatened with physical violence, but the conditions in the cells were unsanitary and condemned even by the local police commissioner as unfit for human habitation. A decade later an anonymous police officer wrote admiringly in an article of Reed's gentleman-like behaviour and his stubborn silence.

Reed was released in June. Most of his paper were handed over to the U.S. Embassy, except his forged pasport and some documents and letters. Reed  traveled to Estonia and from there to St. Petersburg. The three months in Turku had exhausted him mentally and physically. He was put up at the Hotel International, where Emma Goldman found him in a deprorable condition, "his arms and legs swollen, his body covered with ulcers, and his gums badly affected as a result of scurvy acquired in prison." (from Living My Life, 1931)

Back in Russia Reed gave speeches and was joined by Bryant, whom he had sent letters from the prison. In Moscow Reed was elected in the Executive Committee of the Comintern. At the peak of his career, Reed was stricken with typhus after his return from Baku. It took a week before the physicians agreed in their diagnosis, and then Reed was turned to an incompetent doctor. He died in Moscow on October 19, 1920. During Alexandra Kollontay's tribute to Reed in the Red Square, Bryant crumpled to the ground. Reed's popularity as a radical leader led to the creation of John Reed clubs across the United States. His life was subject for the successful 1981 motion picture Reds.

"This is just a beginning... It's not happening the way we thought it would. It's not happening the way we wanted to, but it's happening. If you walk out of it now, what's your whole life then?" (Warren Beatty in The Reds)

Ten Days That Shook the World focused on the crucial moment of history, when Lenin pressed the Bolsheviks to seize power. Workers, soldiers, peasants, and sailors stormed the Winter Palace. Trotsky announced the overthrow of the provisional government, and counterrevolutionary forces threatened Moscow. Reed recounts conversations and arguments, details political machinations, and speculates on personal motives. Although Reed's enthusiasm for the revolution hinders his objectivity, book gives an unique, firsthand account of the turning point in Russian history.

For further reading: John Reed by G. Hicks (1936, rev. 1968); Heroes I Have Known by Max Eastman (1942); Writers on the Left by D. Aaron (1961); The Lost Revolutionary by D.L. Walker (1967); So Short a Time by B. Gelb (1973); John Reed by T. Hovey (1975); Romantic Revolutionary by R.A. Rosenstone (1975); Six Who Protested by F.C. Giffin (1977); Mannen i kolboxen: John Reed och Finland by Max Engman, Jerker A. Eriksson (1979; suom. Vallankumouksen salamatkustaja: John Reed Suomessa, 1982); Friend and Lover by V. Gardner (1982); Pancho Villa and John Reed: Two Faces of Romantic Revolution by Jim Tuck (1984); John Reed by D.C. Duke (1987); John Reed by E.Homberger (1990); John Reed: The Early Years in Greenwich Village by Alex Baskin (1990); John Reed & the Writing of Revolution by Daniel W. Lehman (2002) - Film: The Reds, (1981), dir. by Warren Beatty, screenplay by Warren Beatty and Trevor Griffiths. The film depicts the last years of John Reed, who goes with his wife to Russia and writers Ten Days That Shook the World. The story begins in 1915 when Reed first met the writer Louise Bryant (Daine Keaton). Their marriage, breakup, and reunion is portrayed against the leftist movements in the US, and bringing on the screen intellectuals, writers, politicians, eyewitnesses of the period. Jack Nicholson is Bryant's lover Eugene O'Neill. Maureen Stapleton as Emma Goldman won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Celebrities in the film included Adela Rogers St. John, George Jessel, Will Durant, Rebecca West, Hamilton Fish, Jerzy Kosinski, and Henry Miller. Vittorio Storaro won an Oscar for his superb cinematography. The Reds was partly filmed in Finland and the scenes from Moscow were actually made in Helsinki. "I said, I think that a guy who is always interested in the condition of the world and changing it, either has no problems of his own or refuses to face them." (Henry Miller about Reed in The Reds) - See also: Richard Wright

Selected bibliography:

  • Diana's Debut, 1910
  • Everymagazine: An Immortality Play, 1913
  • Sangar, 1913
  • The Day in Bohemia; or Life among the Artists 1913
  • Insurgent Mexico, 1914
    - Meksiko kapinassa (suom. Pentti Lehtinen, 1982)
  • The War In Eastern Europe, 1916 (illustrations by Boardman Robinson)
  • Freedom: A Prison Play, 1916
  • The Provincetown Plays: Second Series, 1916 (Freedom by John Reed; Enemies by Neith Boyce and Hutchisn Hapgood; Suppressed Desires by Georg Cram Cook and Susan Glaspel)
  • Tamburlaine, and Other Verses, 1917
  • Red Russia, 1919 
  • The Structure of the Soviet State, 1919
  • Ten Days That Shook the World, 1919 (with a foreword by V.I. Lenin, edited, with an introduction, by Floyd Dell, 1935)
    - John Reed: kymmenen päivää jotka järisyttivät maailmaa: näytelmä 15:ssä kuvaelmassa (suom. I. Terentjev, 1927) / Kymmenen päivää jotka järisyttivät maailmaa (suom. Elvi Sinervo ja Osmo Helin, 1977)
  • The Daughter of the Revolution, and Other Stories, 1927 (edited, with an introduction, by Floyd Dell)
  • The Education of John Reed, 1955 (with an introductory essay by John Stuart)
  • An Anthology, 1966 (Moscow, Progress Publishers)
  • Adventures of a Young Man, 1966 (Berlin, Seven Seas Publishers)
  • The Complete Poetry of John Reed, 1973 (edited with a pref. by Jack Alan Robbins, introd. by Granville Hicks, memoir and sonnet by Max Eastman)
  • Labor's Grand Old Man, 1976
  • Collected Poems, 1985 (edited and with a foreword by Corliss Lamont)
  • John Reed for the Masses, 1987 (edited by James C. Wilson)
  • John Reed and the Russian Revolution: Uncollected Articles, Letters and Speeches on Russia, 1917-1920, 1992 (edited by Eric Himberger with John Biggart)
  • The Collected Works of John Reed, 1995
  • Writings of John Reed: "The Days That Shook the World", and Other Essays, 2011

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