on July 17, 2012
John Reed's journalism is excellent, and these reports, collected as a book following his sojourn in Mexico during the Revolution there offer telling insights into the nature of the conflict, into difficulties faced by the insurgents, and into the very character of revolutionary Mexico. The book contains first class portraits of both Villa and Carranza and develops a very fine understanding of the terrain in Northern Mexico over which some of the battles were fought.
This amazing accounting of the Mexican Revolution was written in 1914 by John Reed, who was an American correspondent assigned to cover the front line - which was the main reason I chose this particular book to read, having an interest in learning more about Pancho Villa. This wasn't written by an intrepid Historian from another century and another culture removed, but by someone who was there; who rode the "repair train" into the heart of battle, ran for his life under fire from the opposition, or "Colorados"; ate and drank practically nothing, along with the rest of the downtrodden Revolutionists who were trying to achieve what we take for granted as "human rights" in their own country fueled only by grim courage and nothing more to lose.
The describing of the fierce battles, ragged, shattered bodies trying to carry on with nothing but fortitude or dying where they fell; all this - but the bloody human suffering and destruction made worse under primitive conditions, paled beside Reed's intense word painting of Old Mexico itself, the Land worth dying for. His prose is vivid, fluid, genuine, without pretense. The barren yet beautiful mountains rising from the cacti desert floor, bearing stolid witness to the carnage below; the softness of a desert night under clouds, moon and stars while surrounded by a thousand campfires and Mexican voices; the stark, unrelenting stress of poverty and constant upheaval combined with the courage of the hopeless; the complexity and brilliance of an outlaw-turned-Revolutionist, Pancho Villa; and "The Alamo Trees".
Pancho Villa was obviously a lot more than what I had ever given him credit for, not having read very much actual history about him as I had Zapata. He was a highly intelligent individual, self-taught in the ways of war against despots; complex yet simplistic in logic; which, by the way, was pure common sense. As a man of the saddle and cactus, only concerned with a winning strategy, he was astounded when he was accused by the Federals of "not playing fair" in the "written rules of engagement" and likened that to the absurdity of a man having a fistfight in a bar while stopping to check the handbook to make sure he was doing it according to the rules. When he was advised "we need money", he thought for a minute and then said, "then let's print some money". So he did, providing the State Mexican bankers (those in charge of keeping the middle and peon classes out of the equation) with an unexpected headache because they thought they had all the money of Mexico corralled safely, bought and paid for within their walls and here came the the Villa counterfeits. But Revolutions only last as long as the passions that serve them.
But it wasn't all blood and sand. The last two chapters dealt with his interaction with the people there, and it is a fitting ending to the book. It has to be true. Nobody could make up stuff like that. From little kids playing leapfrog on "a yellow sow" while they waited for another youthful messenger to return from a 12 mile round trip on a burro to retrieve necessary gambling materials, to a policeman thowing job descriptions to the wind and sitting down to a hand of poker while on duty, "crouching like a tiger" over his hand of cards...it is a myriad of intimate snapshots that add immense flavor to the entire report.
I was enchanted almost as much by the continued reference to the mysterious species of trees known as the "Alamo" - meaning "poplar" or 'cottonwood" in Spanish - the one silent, invincible sentinel that grew along every waterway, providing blessed shade, tranquil beauty, amid whose stately branches bird voices sweetly awoke each dawn with joyful song before the sounds of cannon and rifle silenced them when daylight came. Strange are the origins of the beautiful Spanish names.
on June 3, 2014
When I was young I read to understand the book; now I read to understand the man who wrote the book. The principle works of John Reed are two - Insurgent Mexico and Ten Day that Shook the World. He was an idealist.
This book is a great read. It offers incredibly colorful observations of Mexican life in the time of the Revolution.
I suggest Strange Communists I Have Known by Bertram Wolfe (there's a chapter on Reed).
This book was published by Red and Black Publishers. Leaves of the book were not well-attached and have a tendency to fall out, but fortunately no pages were missing. There are a number of misspellings. I suggest buying an older used copy of this book.