On the idealistic, activist, partly un-American and yet profoundly American lives and love of John Reed and Louise Bryant.
I am, for I hope obvious reasons, very hesitant to call anyone or anything un-American. The phrase, after all, has almost always been used as a blatant, and very destructive, attack, one directly linked to treason (the highest national crime, as defined by our Constitution) and a host of other ills. Yet in a way that common usage represents a significant bit of slippage, since the act of treason is much more anti- than un-American, an action taken against the nation rather than simply outside of its definitions or communities. And if we use the word in the latter, more neutral sense, then it’s certainly fair to say that the late 1910s actions of journalists, writers, and lovers John Reed and Louise Bryant—as they embraced the Russian Revolution and the resulting new Soviet government, and indeed in Reed’s case sought formally to join that government’s propaganda efforts—were in a definite sense un-American.
Of course it’s nowhere near that simple, though. For one thing, Reed and Bryant both wrote complex, autobiographical yet also deeply journalistic books about their experiences in Russia, works clearly meant for American audiences and conversations; whatever their individual feelings about the Revolution, that is, they did not in any way abdicate their roles as journalists and writers in the face of it. And remembering those books connects us to both writers’ multi-stage careers as muckraking journalists and activists, histories that are, to my mind, as “American” (particularly in their era) as it’s possible to be. Reed’s 1914 experiences with and article on the Colorado miners’ strike and the resulting Ludlow massacre, for example, provide a unique and indispensable glimpse into a significant, under-narrated, and volatile American community; many of Bryant’s unpublished writings do the same for American artistic communities in the pre-modernist and modernist eras. In this light, Reed and Bryant’s Russian efforts represent just another community to which they traveled and out of which they sought to draw inspiration—one certainly less overtly American, but no less a part of the world they sought to impact.
Moreover, Reed’s and Bryant’s passionate and eventually tragic romance provides additional and not at all irrelevant layers to their American stories. Obviously that romance is the most universally compelling side to their lives, as Hollywood proved; but it also connects them to multiple other contemporary stories and identities: the liberated communal lives of modernist authors like Eugene O’Neill, with whom both writers lived and Bryant had an affair; the post-World War I Lost Generation atmosphere, with its social rebellions, searches for meaning and companionship, and international influences and identities; and, perhaps most complexly, the ways in which Bryant’s radical feminism both connected her to the equally radical Reed and yet was (at least in part) silenced as a result of her relationship with him. In all those ways as well, Reed and Bryant exemplified their America, however much their lives (and particularly his life and death) took them away from it.
Next lovers tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? And two more posts to come—any nominations or suggestions?6/6 Memory Day nominee: Nathan Hale, who had but one life to lose for his country, and in so losing it became one of America’s first truly mythologized heroes and figures.
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