JOHN REED never quite lived down his early reputation as a playboy. Even after he had become a thorough radical and willingly suffered ostracism, imprisonment, hunger, and death as a consequence, he continued to be regarded as "the playboy of the Social Revolution." Nor can it be denied that during his long adolescence he was a playboy and prankster, or that he ever lost his characteristic ebullience of spirit. Yet to stress this part of his personality is to do him a grave injustice: it implies not only a misunderstanding of the inner working of his mind but also a disrespect for the idealism which led him to martyrdom.
After an ailing and timid childhood, during which he "fed on fantasy" and dreamt defiance, Reed entered adolescence with a surplus of physical energy. As a son of the frontier, he took naturally to horseplay and practical jokes as a means of gaining attention. He was also, however, a budding poet and a warm admirer of his politically insurgent father, who was instrumental in exposing the land-grabbing of the lumber and railroad companies. In Portland, Oregon, where John Reed was born in 1887, he belonged to one of the leading families; at Morristown School in New Jersey, which he entered at the age of sixteen, he was an outsider and on his own. Eager though he was for social approval, he simply could not conform to rules. The spirit of the pioneer -- a yearning for complete freedom of action coupled with a craving for acceptance -- moved him to seek success by accentuating his nonconformity.