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No Red at Harvard

John Reed's Years in the Yard

By Siddhartha Mazumdar

Walter Lippmann--on his first trip to the Soviet Union--took time off from official duties and visited the grave of an old Harvard classmate. He had come to the tomb of a man who had shown no interest for politics while in college--who played court jester at football games, somersaulting and prancing around the sidelines, who trumpeted school spirit, staked more than his pride on gaining acceptance to one of Harvard's elite social clubs, and who lay buried inside the Kremlin wall--a martyr to the Russian revolution.

Graveside reflections or ruminations rarely make it into biographers' transcripts. Only imagination let loose could gather all of Lippmann's thoughts at the tomb of John Reed. There would have been memories, certainly--Lippmann had known Reed during their Harvard days when both wrote for student publications. Later, they belonged to the same circle of Greenwich Village friends, the crowd that steered Reed away from the dreamy indulgence of poetry and humor to the even dreamier of radical politics. Emotion--Lippmann watched Reed rapidly lose touch with the reality of politics and stood by as his friend played himself into a corner of desperation, writing articulate and impassioned articles that precipitated a flurry of romantic sentiment, but little else. And finally, inspiration, for the legend of John Reed was to live on long after even Lippmann's death. "There is a legend of John Reed," Lippmann wrote as early as 1914, and he watched it grow with time. The John Reed clubs of the 1930s captured the spirit that perpetuated the legend: a dream shared by artists and writers of joining hands with all the oppressed peoples of the earth and marching forth into perfect society and a life of happiness. The hard times of those years bred many writers diffident to the system of privilege. They held out their hands--if only for a moment--to the Communist movement which grew in America during the depression.

Imagination let loose--that's what any reconstruction of Reed's life involves. Why be surprised that the man who was both a romantic revolutionary and a soulful dreamer, could inspire the the legends, even if fraudulent, that grew up around his life? The eyewitnesses in the movie Reds, men and women who knew either John Reed or his wife, give a sensuous picture of what life must have meant to a man who graduated from Harvard and died a Russian patriot. But it's almost a shame Walter Lippmann himself couldn't be there to tell all interested about the life of his college friend. One can only think that Walter Lippmann himself might have been the best eyewitnesses for Reed's life from the day both of them walked into Harvard Yard until his interment in the Kremlin. But Granville Hick's 1936 The Making of a Revolutionary and Robert A. Rosenstone's Romantic Revolutionary give the facts.

Students at Harvard 75 years later have a difficult time imagining the thrill their forebearers experienced when they entered the Yard during the twentieth century's first decade. After all, only the most ardent iconoclasts could pass through the Yard on a tranquil, sunlit afternoon and fail to delight in the splendor of its history. Legendary figures, we all know, have passed through, following a path that wound its way through the traditional brick buildings and on to the heights of glory. It's easy to wander through the old American architecture and conjure up impressions of the depths of knowledge thousands of Yard residents might have achieved, the countless hours spent at coursework, the imagination and creativity both inspired and refined. But, like a mirage in the desert, Harvard--and the image it projects--becomes less and less impressive the closer one looks. Turn to Holworthy or Hollis, and you're likely to detect the sounds (and perhaps a whiff) of the 1980s, spoiling the sense of placidity. And it's doubtful that much besides taste has changed since the days when Lippmann and Reed attended classes in the Yard. Harvard loses its glory when it goes from general to specific. Not the individual students--but the path set out for them--is the measure of Harvard's glory.

Yet, behind the image of the great University was a well-defined philosophy, a philosophy of education with forced self-reliance perhaps its most significant tenet. Each student had to fend for himself with a course system that was entirely elective. "The purpose of a University," Harvard president Charles W. Eliot told the entering Class of 1910, is "to allow each man to think and do as he pleases, and the tendency is to allow this more and more," The 18-year-old Reed could not have known how prophetic Eliot's statement would turn out to be--and also what a lie it was.

Harvard, for the young student, was another in a series of social challenges. Reed's father, an affluent merchant in Portland, Oregon, desired the highest in social prestige for his children and Harvard was the logical means to that end. Earlier, however, came Morristown, a fashionable prep school in New Jersey, where Jack devoted himself to athletics, charming the local girls and leading troops in a number of surreptitious raids into the nearby town. He also wrote, contributing short stories regularly to the school's literary magazine, and editing a humor magazine he published with his father's funds. Academics were neither his strong point nor a matter of great concern for the high school student. With a few failing grades, he had to attend summer school one year in order to meet Harvard's entrance requirements.

"In 1906... I went up to Harvard almost alone, knowing hardly a soul in the University," Reed would write later. "My college class entered almost seven hundred strong, and for the first three months it seemed to me, going around to lectures and meetings, as if everyone of the seven hundred had friends but me. I was thrilled with the immensity of Harvard, its infinite opportunities, its august history and tradition, but desperately lonely." The boyish friendliness that had made Reed a celebrity at Morristown did just that at Harvard, except, this time, it might not have been the effect he desired. It did not take Jack long to realize a large part of the reason he found himself lonely. Although Harvard was rapidly becoming a national university, the school remained largely a bastion of New England patricians: some sort of social contact in Boston was still the prerequisite for invitations to many of the formal affairs in Cambidge. His off-hand friendliness could only elicit a put-off from the many who found him amusing, but avoidable. As one of his more genteel classmates expressed it, Jack didn't know the difference "between cricket and non-cricket."

Many students--like Lippmann--who had similarly undistinguished backgrounds went through four years only vaguely aware of the elaborate club system that had evolved to secure the most important social distinctions. Yet Reed was acutely aware of the entire machine, the process that channelled the young "punchees" through the Hasty Pudding Institute of 1770 into the various waiting clubs, and ultimately the final clubs.

Reed could only take it as a slight against his background when a close friend of his refused, after first agreeing to join him as a roommate for the following year. John did his share of hurting as well, turning down a rooming offer from another freshman merely because of his heritage--he was a New Yorker, and Jewish. Other attempts to enter what he though was the mainstream of college life were wasted. After starring in Morristown football, Reed decided to give freshman crew a try. Even being the last man cut didn't deter his efforts to join the crew organization--he immediately began competing for the position of assistant manager for the varsity. Selling more season subscriptions than anyone else, Reed thought he had the position locked up--until the manager of the competition extended the time period, allowing a favored son to edge him out in sales.

Reed's efforts to rise into these organizations might seem pathetic to any student putting a premium on time spent free at schoolwork: there John's priorities left no choice in the matter. He described three types of "Harvard men." The athlete he admired, but nevertheless regarded as something of a dullard. The serious scholars, he conceded benefited from both the discipline and depth of their training, but had none of the spirit that made life, and living it, an experience to be treasured. This spirit of enthusiasm and energy could only be appreciated by the "activities men."

He did find his niche at Harvard: publications. Although dropped--along with Lippmann--from the socially conscious Crimson, Reed, with much writing and publishing experience, found little difficulty gaining staff positions on the Harvard Monthly and The Lampoon. Both served as an outlet for quick imagination and facile wit. The writing was fun, but rarely serious. Too much was written seriously, without revision or even serious editing. Yet, largely for his contributions to these publications, Reed's name became a familiar one to the undergraduate community. Achieving the position of Ibis on the Lampoon, Jack could boast to his mother in Portland that his name appeared more often in the Harvard student index than any other.

Even from his grammar school days, academics never challenged Reed. Exploiting the elective system's flexibility and confining his studies (when he found time for them) to literature, composition and ancient history, he avoided all natural sciences and social sciences--a seemingly odd twist for someone who, only a few years later, would find no other cause but politics worth the effort. This seeming apathy prompted his apparent decision not to join in Harvard's Socialist Club, a serious organization created for the discussion of both the theory and practice that would put control of popular institutions under the control of the people most needing their benefits. With Lippmann, who had already gained a reputation for his precise analytical thinking and staid political viewpoint, the Socialist Club promised more than the good time and energy outlet Reed had become used to.

If the activities of the Socialist Club led to any increased awareness on Reed's part of injustices in the world outside Harvard, it is doubtful that the thought germinated in his mind until, well after graduation, he mingled with the radical Bohemians of Greenwich Village. Reed's senior year saw his last-ditch efforts to gain acceptance by that part of Harvard that had always found him endearing in a distinctly unappealing fashion. The sidelines at Soldiers Field gave him an opportunity to romp around, and act out the clown many thought him. But, more important, was the Hasty Pudding Club, generally open only to those whose upbringing beckoned their selection. Only Reed's talent merited him consideration. The Hasty Pudding Club needed a lyricist for its annual theatrical production and the quality-minded producers knew Reed was the superior choice. They bestowed upon Reed the honor he envied most during his Harvard career.

Not surprisingly, John Reed's degree--awarded on schedule in 1910--was non-honors. Only instruction from one teacher of creative writing seriously competed with his extra-curricular pursuits during his entire four years at college. An impromptu discussion and dinner conversation by an unknown professor--who turned out to be William James--afforded him ample party talk.

He had come to a Harvard that cherished giving freedom to the individual. And he conquered it, although on his own terms. Many others could have left disillusioned with their academic experience, or the stifling social ambience. Harvard, perhaps, didn't bestow on Reed the glory he associated with the name, but he came out of it with energy ready to be sapped, talent eager to go to work, a mind willing to challenge.

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