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About Max Forrester Eastman
Max Forrester Eastman (January 4, 1883 – March 25, 1969) was an American writer on literature, philosophy and society, a poet, and a prominent political activist. For many years, Eastman was a supporter of socialism, a leading patron of the Harlem Renaissance and an activist for a number of liberal and radical causes. In later life, however, his views turned sharply, and he became an advocate of free market economics and an anti-Communist.
Early life and education
Eastman was born in Canandaigua, Ontario County, New York. Both his parents, Samuel Elijah Eastman and Annis Bertha Ford, were Congregational Church clergy and together served as pastors at the church of Thomas K. Beecher near Elmira, New York. (In 1889, his mother had become one of the first women ordained as an American minister.) This area was part of the "Burned-over district," which earlier in the 19th century had generated much religious excitement, including the formation of the Mormon movement, and social causes, such as abolitionism and support for the Underground Railroad. Through his parents, he became acquainted with the famous author Samuel Clemens, better known as "Mark Twain," in his youth.
Eastman graduated with a bachelor's degree from Williams College in 1905. His good friend and roommate while at Williams was Charles Whittlesey, later known as the Lost Battalion commanding officer and a World War I hero. From 1907 to 1911, Eastman completed the work toward a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in philosophy at Columbia University under the noted philosopher John Dewey, and was a member of both the Delta Psi and Phi Beta Kappa societies. Settling in Greenwich Village with his sister Crystal Eastman, he became involved in a number of political causes, including helping to found the Men's League for Women's Suffrage in 1910. While at Columbia, he was an assistant in the philosophy department, as well as a lecturer with the psychology department. After completing the requirements for his doctoral degree, he refused to accept it and simply withdrew in 1911.
Marriage and family
After moving to New York City, Eastman married Ida Rauh, a fellow radical; they divorced in 1922.
In 1924 he married the painter Elena Krylenko, a native of Moscow, whom he met during his nearly two-year stay in the Soviet Union. Elena was sister to Nikolai Krylenko, the Soviet Commissar of Justice and the organizer of many of Joseph Stalin's infamous "show trials" of the 1930s. Elena died in 1956.
Eastman became a key figure in the left-leaning Greenwich Village community, and lived in its influence for many years. He combined this with his academic experience to explore varying interests, including literature, psychology and social reform. In 1913, he became editor of America's leading socialist periodical, The Masses, a magazine that combined social philosophy with the arts. Its contributors during his tenure included Sherwood Anderson, Louise Bryant, Floyd Dell, Amy Lowell, Mabel Dodge Luhan, Robert Minor, John Reed, Carl Sandburg, Upton Sinclair and Art Young. The same year Eastman published Enjoyment of Poetry, an examination of literary metaphor from a psychological point of view. During this period, he also became a noted advocate of free love and birth control.
In his first editorial for The Masses, Eastman wrote:
"This magazine is owned and published cooperatively by its editors. It has no dividends to pay, and nobody is trying to make money out of it. A revolutionary and not a reform magazine: a magazine with a sense of humour and no respect for the respectable: frank, arrogant, impertinent, searching for true causes: a magazine directed against rigidity and dogma wherever it is found: printing what is too naked or true for a money-making press: a magazine whose final policy is to do as it pleases and conciliate nobody, not even its readers."
The numerous denunciations of U.S. participation in World War I later published in The Masses, many written by Eastman, became intensely controversial and stimulated official reaction. Eastman twice stood trial under provisions of the Sedition Act, but was acquitted each time. In a July 1917 speech, he complained that the government's aggressive prosecutions of dissent meant that "[y]ou can't even collect your thoughts without getting arrested for unlawful assemblage. In 1918, The Masses was forced to close due to charges under the Espionage Act of 1917.
Eastman raised the money to send the radical John Reed to Russia in 1917, and Eastman's published Reed's articles later collected as Ten Days That Shook the World, his notable account of the Bolshevik Revolution.
In 1919, Eastman and his sister Crystal (who was one of the founders of American Civil Liberties Union) created a similar publication titled The Liberator. They published such writers as E. E. Cummings, John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, Helen Keller, Claude McKay and Edmund Wilson. In 1922 after continuing financial troubles, the magazine was taken over by the Workers Party of America. (In 1924, The Liberator was merged with two other publications to create The Workers Monthly, and Max Eastman's association with the magazine ended.
In 1922, Eastman embarked on a fact-finding tour of the Soviet Union to learn about the Soviet enactment of Marxism. He stayed for a year and nine months, observing the power struggles between Leon Trotsky and Joseph Stalin, and he attended the Party Congress of May 1924. Leaving Russia in June 1924, he remained in Europe for the next three years.
Upon returning to the United States in 1927, Eastman published several works that were highly critical of the Stalinist system, beginning with Since Lenin Died, which was written in 1925. In that essay, he described Lenin's Testament, a copy of which Eastman had smuggled out of Russia and in which Lenin proposed changes to the structure of the Soviet government, criticized the leading members of the Soviet leadership, and suggested Joseph Stalin be removed from his position as General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party. The Soviet leadership denounced Eastman's account and used Party discipline to force Trotsky, then still a member of the Politburo, to write an article denying Eastman's version of the events. In other essays, Eastman described conditions for artists and political activists in Russia. Such essays made Eastman unpopular with American leftists of the time. In later years, however, his writings on the subject were cited by many on both the left and the right as sober and realistic portrayals of the Soviet system.
Although Eastman's view of the Soviet Union was sharply altered by his experiences there and by subsequent study, his commitment to left-wing political ideas continued unabated. While in the Soviet Union, Eastman began a friendship with Leon Trotsky, which endured through the latter's exile to Mexico. There Trotsky was murdered by an agent of Stalin in 1940. Having mastered the Russian language in little more than a year, Eastman translated several of Trotsky's works into English, including his monumental three-volume History of the Russian Revolution, as well as works by the poet Alexander Pushkin, including The Gabrieliad.
During the 1930s, Eastman continued writing critiques of contemporary literature. He published several controversial works in which he criticized James Joyce and other modernist writers, who, he claimed, fostered "the Cult of Unintelligibility." When Eastman had asked Joyce why his book was written in a very difficult style, Joyce famously replied, "To keep the critics busy for three hundred years." Eastman published The Literary Mind (1931) and Enjoyment of Laughter (1936), in which he also criticized some elements of Freudian theory. In the 1930s, he debated the meaning of Marxism with the philosopher Sidney Hook (who, like Eastman, had studied under John Dewey at Columbia University) in a series of public exchanges. Eastman was an traveling lecturer throughout the 1930s and 1940s, when he spoke on various literary and social topics in cities across the country.
Changing political beliefs
Hegelism is like a mental disease--you cannot know what it is until you get it, and then you can't know because you've got it.
—Max Eastman, Marx and Lenin (1926)
Following the Great Depression, Eastman started to abandon his socialist beliefs, becoming increasingly critical of the ideas of Karl Marx, Thorstein Veblen, and G. W. F. Hegel which he had once admired. In 1941, he was hired as a roving editor for Reader's Digest magazine, a position he held for the remainder of his life. About this time, he also became a friend and admirer of the noted free market economists Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises and Wilhelm Röpke, and an ally to the American writers James Burnham, John Chamberlain and John Dos Passos. Hayek referred to Eastman's life and to his repudiation of socialism in his widely read The Road to Serfdom, and, in turn, Eastman arranged for the serialization of the future Nobel laureate's work in Reader's Digest. Later, Eastman wrote articles critical of socialism for the early libertarian publication The Freeman when it was edited by his friends John Chamberlain and Henry Hazlitt.
Initially, Eastman had supported Senator Joseph McCarthy, but he soon came to believe that the anti-Communist movement was "taken over by reactionary forces." In 1955, his repudiation of the Left reached a high water-mark with the publication of Reflections on the Failure of Socialism. By this time, he had come to believe that the Bolshevik Revolution, "rather than producing freedom, produced the most perfect tyranny in all history." Also in 1955, he became one of the original contributing editors of the conservative National Review magazine.
In the 1950s, Eastman joined the classical liberal Mont Pelerin Society founded by Hayek and Mises, and was a participating member of the American Committee for Cultural Freedom at the invitation of Sidney Hook. Although his politics took Eastman into conservative circles, he remained a lifelong atheist. In the 1960s, he broke with his friend William F. Buckley, Jr. and resigned from the National Review's Board of Associates on the grounds that the magazine was too explicitly pro-Christian. Shortly after this, he publicly opposed U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Despite his advocacy of free market economics, many of Eastman's positions remained unconventional for a political "conservative." Favoring the self-description of "radical conservative," he rejected the label "libertarian" then being used by political writer Rose Wilder Lane, a term which Eastman associated with the ideas of the writer Albert Jay Nock.
Assessment of literary works
A prolific writer, Eastman published more than twenty books on subjects as diverse as the scientific method, humor, Freudian psychology and Soviet culture. He composed five volumes of poetry, a novel and translated into English some of the work of Alexander Pushkin. For the Modern Library, he edited and abridged Marx' Das Kapital.
He also produced two volumes of memoirs, as well as two volumes of recollections of his friendships and personal encounters with many of the leading figures of his time, including: Pablo Casals, Charlie Chaplin, Eugene Debs, John Dewey, Isadora Duncan, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Ernest Hemingway, H. L. Mencken, John Reed, Paul Robeson, Bertrand Russell, Edna St. Vincent Millay, George Santayana, E. W. Scripps, George Bernard Shaw, Carlo Tresca, Leon Trotsky, Mark Twain and H. G. Wells. His biographical portraits have been called "brilliant," and his psychological study of the young Trotsky, "pioneering," by the historian John Patrick Diggins. Eastman's last memoir was Love and Revolution: My Journey Through an Epic (1964).
In 1969 he died at his summer home in Bridgetown, Barbados, at the age of 86.
Representation in other media
Edward Herrmann portrayed Eastman in the film Reds (1981), starring Warren Beatty, which was based on the life of John Reed. Eastman's biographer, John Patrick Diggins, noted that it was ironic that Herrmann was cast as Eastman, who was known for his good looks, while the handsome Beatty portrayed Reed, who had a bookish appearance.
Max Eastman's Timeline
July 4, 1883
Canandaigua, Ontario County, New York
Roving editor for Reader's Digest
March 25, 1969
summer home in Bridgetown, Barbados