"The Gangster of the Pen": Joseph Stalin on Max Eastman (1900)

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Did you know there are two Mercersburg alumni who have served as editors of Reader's Digest? Last month we highlighted Peggy Northrup '72, one of our early female graduates. This month we share a little history about the other: Max Eastman, Class of 1900, a more controversial alum who once counted Leo Trotsky as a friend and Joseph Stalin as a sworn enemy.

Max could be found hanging out in speakeasies with Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald or getting into fights with Earnest Hemingway in the office of Scribner's. He came to Mercersburg in 1899 as an 11th grader who was shy, unconfident, and unsure of his direction in school. By the time he graduated and headed to Williams College, he was the valedictorian, won declamation, and earned the highest academic marks in the history of the school to that point with an average of 99.

Max was a poet/writer/critic/gameshow host/magazine editor and all-around man of the world. He published more than 20 volumes throughout his career on a variety of topics, from poetry to communism. Max was simultaneously promoting the cause of women's suffrage and an early adopter of the free love movement of the roaring '20s. In the early 20th century, he and his sister Crystal were the editors and creators of the liberal magazine The Masses/The Liberator, which featured the works of such luminaries as Hellen Keller, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Carl Sandburg, and many others.

As an outspoken and leading socialist of the early 20th century, Max changed his philosophy after the Great Depression and became a staunch conservative voice that led him to be a roving editor of Reader's Digest in the 1940s and later write under William Buckley at the National Review. Max has been criticized for having opinions on both sides of the fence on issues and often completely changing his stances. He was one of Mercersburg’s most complex, contradictory, and truly fascinating characters.