Before John Reed chased down the Russian Revolution and wrote his eyewitness account in Ten Days That Shook the World, he rode with the legendary Pancho Villa in 1914, during the Mexican Revolution. His dispatches from the front were gathered together in an exciting account called Insurgent Mexico.
And what an account it is! The reporting is startling vivid, and Reed instantly puts the reader in the middle of the action, the words and images poetically visceral. His portrait of Villa, an uneducated but wily outlaw turned revolutionary, is both an ode to the common man and the power of personality. Reed rode with, drank with, sang with, danced with, but above all, fought with the peon revolutionaries who sought to wrest a little piece of land for themselves from the giant Hacienda landowners in that feudal-like society. Villa was the Revolutionary leader of the Northern army, while the more politically sophisticated Emilio Zapata controlled the South of Mexico. The history of the Mexican Revolution is littered with betrayals and leaders jumping from one side to the other, but Villa was always true to the peons he served, and to their revolutionary fervor. While Villa was untutored, his instinctive cunning saw that it would be good for the Revolution to have such a reporter as Reed send back dispatches to the United States, and so he welcomed Reed’s company with open arms.
Reed slept, ate, and fought with Villa’s troops. While Reed’s account is non-fiction, the strength and immediacy of the prose is something that any fiction writer could envy and learn from. Here’s a passage that describes the revolutionaries encountering the Federal troops:
We could see them now, hundreds of little black figures riding through the chaparral; the desert swarmed with them. Savage Indian yells reached us. A spent bullet droned overhead, and then another; then one unspent and a whole flock singing fiercely. Thud! went the adobe walls as bits of clay flew. Peons and their women rushed from house to house, distracted with fear. A trooper, his face black with powder, and hateful with killing and terror, galloped past, shouting that all was lost…
Apolinario hurried out the mules with their harness on their backs, and begin to hitch them to the coach. His hands trembled. He dropped a trace, picked it up, and dropped it again. He shook all over. All at once he threw the harness to the ground and took to his heels. Juan and I rushed forward. Just then a stray bullet took the old mule in the rump. Nervous already, the animals plunged wildly. The wagon tongue snapped with the report of a rifle. The mules raced madly north into the desert.
Reed said himself that when he wrote Ten Days That Shook the World, he was striving to make his prose as objective as possible. But fortunately for us, in this earlier work about Mexico, Reed was not afraid to let the full force of his literary talent be displayed. This is a fast read, and a pleasurable one, and it makes me sad to think that the talent that produced this work at the age of twenty-six was lost at his premature death, only seven years later. But this book is a testament to a great journalist and a great writer.