The Journal of San Diego History
Summer 1985, Volume 31, Number 3
Thomas Scharf, Managing Editor

Book Review

Pancho Villa and John Reed: Two Faces of Romantic Revolution. By Jim Tuck. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1984. Bibliography. Photographs. Index. 252 Pages. $16.95

Reviewed by Clare V. McKanna, Jr., Lecturer in history at San Diego State University and author of several articles on crime in California.

Dual biographies are not new. They have significant appeal, but probably function best when they involve individuals who travel parallel paths that eventually lead to conflict. Stephen Ambrose’s Crazy Horse and Custer offers an excellent example. One could think of numerous other possibilities such as Grant-Lee, Funston-Aguinaldo, or Rommel-Patton. Jim Tuck’s dual biography provides us with analyses of John Reed and Pancho Villa, two revolutionary figures who meet briefly and then continue on their separate ways.

Tuck begins his narrative with a chapter on Abraham Gonzalez and Lincoln Steffens, respective mentors of Villa and Reed; traces their careers as they develop their revolutionary ideas; explains their supporters and detractors; relates the tragic death of these “romantic revolutionaries;” and finally concludes that they were “par excellence, popularizers and showmen of revolution.” Though informative and entertaining, somehow it does not hold together well as a biography. There is so much information on secondary figures such as Steffens, Gonzalez, Ambrose Bierce, Felipe Angeles, Louise Bryant, Venustiano Carranza, and Alvaro Obregon that occasionally one gains only fleeting glimpses of the main characters.

Though this work may not be intended for the academic or research historian, still there is much here for the general reader wishing to understand the Mexican Revolution. Tracing the lives of several Americans who crossed the border to fight with Villa in his attack on the usurper Victoriano Huerta, Tuck offers the reader short vignettes of several unknown revolutionaries. His narrative, however, sheds no new light on the demise of Bierce. Albert L. Michaels and James W. Wilkie, in their introduction to a 1969 Clarion edition of Insurgent Mexico, seem to offer the most plausible explanation of Bierce’s death. He called Villa’s army “a band of thieves and assassins,” and stated he would join Carranza, “the only man of worth” in Mexico. One can easily imagine his fate.

In his concluding chapter evaluating Villa and Reed as “romantic revolutionaries,” Tuck suggests that “responsible scholarship demands an analysis of mathematical precision.” Although this book, based primarily upon secondary sources, offers interesting anecdotes, it is hardly precision. One doubts that any biography can be. Despite these criticisms, however, Tuck provides the layman with a useful volume that explains the brief relationship between Villa and Reed in Mexico and traces them to their untimely deaths. With a colorful and informative narrative, along with several good photographs, this work is highly recommended as good reading.