Academic journal article Journalism History

John Reed: A Reporter in Revolutionary Mexico

Academic journal article Journalism History

John Reed: A Reporter in Revolutionary Mexico

Article excerpt

Americans tend to not understand social revolutions because their experience after 1776 was largely political. Thus, U.S. news accounts of the fighting which broke out in Mexico in 1910 considered the conflict as simply another exuberant Latin American coup d'etat, this time to end the thirty-six-year dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz. But the military phase of the Mexican revolution lasted almost a decade, claimed a million lives, and seasoned a young writer named John Reed. His graphic dispatches to the New York World as well as radical publications drew praise from some for his vivid writing-a forerunner of the New Journalism or Literary Journalism-and scorn from others for his lack of "objectivity." His later eye-witness account of the Russian revolution of 1917 won him worldwide acclaim, but his Mexican reportage clearly established him as the precursor of later journalists, such as Ernie Pyle and others, who sought to convey reality in a meaningful way.

In some respects, the twentieth century did not begin in 1900 but rather in 1910 with the outbreak of the Mexican revolution, which was to last almost a decade and cost 1,000,000 lives. It preceded the Bolshevik upheaval in Russia by seven years when Marxist-Leninist theory was put to the test at the barricades in 1917. Both events ushered in a century riddled with global and nationalistic wars. It was truly the revolutionary century, bridged in the first decades by John Reed, a young reporter from Portland, Oregon, who not only rode with the forces of Pancho Villa in the Mexican revolution but later wrote an eye-witness account of the Russian revolution which became a classic of modern journalism, Ten Days that Shook the World.1

Unfortunately for Reed, however, his Mexican dispatches-some of which were collected in 1914 in Insurgent Mexico-were later overshadowed by the world's attention focused on Russia. His graphic reportage from Mexico has gone largely unnoticed, although it proved his writing prowess. The only reference to Reed in Mexico in Warren Beatty's motion picture Reds is a shot of Villa charging his troops on horseback across the opening credits. The film was essentially a love story between Reed and Louise Bryant. A Mexican movie, Reed: Mexico Insurgente, which was directed by Paul Leduc and based faithfully on Reed's book, somewhat righted the scales, but the film was not widely distributed.

Seven biographies of John Reed have appeared.2 All have been consulted for this article, and most include a chapter on Mexico. But almost without exception they concentrate on Reed's relationship with Villa and his coming of age under fire. Few dwell on his contributions to journalism while in Mexico, although many of these biographies provide fascinating contextual details and attest to his overall significance. It is this meager attention to his reporting of the Mexican revolution that this article seeks to redress from the historical perspective.

The primary sources are about 100 pages of the handwritten Mexican notebook of Reed along with thirty boxes of material, all of which are available at the Houghton Library of Harvard University. Only a few scholars have skimmed the notebook because it is disorganized and parts are scarcely legible. Yet it is well worth deciphering, for Reed's jottings, sometimes under fire, are the raw material of great reporting. This article also is based on everything he published on the Mexican revolution in the United States, from what appeared in radical journals to mainstream newspapers, as identified by specialists at the Library of Congress. The author has studied all of the original print sources rather than accounts of them because some dispatches were omitted and others altered in Reed's Insurgent Mexico.3

Four months after arriving in Mexico in December 1913, Reed was a conduit of information, accurate or embellished, about Mexico for readers in the United States. Historians would be remiss to dismiss his work because it was literary-even poetic-and at times seemed to stretch the truth to offer the essence of an event or personality to readers unfamiliar with Mexican culture. …

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