Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Insurgent Mexico by John Reed

Sensationalized, but not sensational
Journalist John Reed is most famous for his coverage of the Russian Revolution, but prior to that he was a war correspondent in the Mexican Revolution. Insurgent Mexico, published in 1914, collects 42 of Reed’s reports from Mexico. Reed’s writing is really a cut above typical journalism and often approaches the vivid imagery and emotional power of well-written historical fiction. By comparison, Jack London’s writings from Mexico at about the same time period seem wooden and tame, like the observations of a detached sociologist. Reed makes you feel like you’re on the ground with the soldiers. This is the book’s great strength, but it may also be its biggest fault. Though he excels at describing the gritty reality of camp life and the details of troop movements, Reed rarely steps back and takes a broader view of the war.

As individual articles, most of the pieces included here are pretty strong, but when read together in book form there is a great deal of redundancy that gradually becomes more and more tedious as the book progresses. I have travelled extensively in Mexico and have an avid interest in the history of the nation, but this book managed to bore even me. When battles appear they are riveting, but they’re few and far between. Mostly, the book is a series of campfires around which the revolutionaries and peons chew the fat and party while waiting to be called into action. Reed traveled around northern Mexico where Pancho Villa and his Constitutionalist forces were fighting the Federal army, and he spent a great deal of time with Villa himself. Whenever Villa appears in the book, he lights up the page. Reed’s portrait of him is complex, colorful, and captivating. The President of the Constitutionalist movement, Venustiano Carranza, gets less coverage than Villa, but Reed provides an equally intriguing profile of this enigmatic leader.

When it comes to the lesser generals, common soldiers, and the average peasants, however, Reed’s subjects are largely indistinguishable from one another. The view he offers of the Mexican people is the romanticized perspective one often associates with the Revolution. He emphasizes their joie de vivre with many scenes of drinking, dancing, singing, and gambling. He also revels in depictions of their fearlessness of death and nonchalance toward violence. These Mexicans gaily fire guns at one another over the most trifling matters. Reed’s intention is to entertain American readers by playing up the Mexicans’ devil-may-care attitude, but in doing so he unintentionally reinforces a stereotype that they’re all a bunch of dumb, third-world rednecks. To be fair, there are also quite a few passages where Reed poetically captures the sublime beauty of the landscape or the artistic richness of Mexican culture. Despite my quibbles about political correctness, my biggest complaint about the book is that it’s far duller than it should be. The final chapter is its absolute nadir—an interminably long description of a religious play that offers little insight into the nation in question or its people.

Reed’s take on the Revolution is more sensationalized than the perspective one gets from reading works of Mexican fiction like Mariano Azuela’s Los de Abajo or Juan Rulfo’s The Burning Plain. Nevertheless, he does provide a first-hand account of Mexico during this tumultuous period, even if it is from an outsider’s perspective. Anyone with an ardent interest in the Mexican Revolution should read Insurgent Mexico—there are enough informative details to make it worth your while—but those with only a casual interest in the subject can skip it.

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