Review of Reporting the Chinese Revolution: The Letters of Rayna Prohme

Letters from a fading past

This book consists of a narrative by two editors, Baruch Hirson and Arthur Knodel, written around a few dozen letters by Rayna Prohme. Rayna was an American who, together with her husband Bill Prohme, ran the People’s Tribune, the English language newspaper of the Nationalist Party (the KMT) in China from 1926-27. You have never heard of her unless you read Vincent Sheean’s 1934 autobiography, Personal History. Personal History was a best seller, one of those books that convinced people that the most adventurous thing to do with your life was become a reporter. Rayna is a central figure in Sheean’s book, where she is portrayed as the very spirit of Revolution, an event which “Jimmy” Sheean thought was just around the corner.

Apparently quite a few men who read the book decided that the most romantic thing a reporter could do was fall in love with this radical spirit, and went around for years searching for someone like her. The book did not have that effect on me, but it certainly made me wonder what she was really like and how she had got into a very unusual situation. This book (partly) answers both questions, giving a moving description of Rayna and her husband Bill through letters she wrote from 1926 to 1927. The letters are to her sister, Grace Simons, her friend in Berkeley, Helen Freedland, and her husband Bill. They end a few days before she died in Moscow, and are supplemented by a few more letters written by Jimmy Sheean and Bill Prohme, describing the aftermath of her death from some type of meningitis or encephalitis.

In the early letters, Rayna is excited to be in Canton and Hankow, working for a cause with people like Eugene Chen, foreign minister of the KMT regime in Hankow, Michael Borodin, chief Russian advisor to the KMT, and Soong Ching-ling, the widow of Sun Yat-sen. In the end though, the KMT expelled both the Chinese Communists and their former Russian advisors, for reasons sketchily explained in the preface to the book. Rayna strongly identified with the Communists (it is not clear whether she was a party member), so she and Bill quit the paper (or were fired) and returned to Shanghai.

Mrs. Sun chose to go to Moscow rather than remain in China, perhaps to express her rejection of the KMT’s change of direction (or perhaps not). For reasons quite unclear, Rayna was invited to accompany Mrs. Sun, and Bill was asked to stay in Shanghai. Mrs. Sun and her fellow travelers arrived in Moscow in early September, at the climax of the struggle between Stalin and Trotsky. The failure of the Russian efforts in China played an important part in the struggle, and as an inconvenient witness, Rayna was very unwelcome. She was still looking for a regular job and a place to stay, when she became ill and died suddenly on Nov. 23, 1927. The last few letters she wrote to Bill, which unknowingly describe the onset and progress of the disease that killed her, are truly heartbreaking.

That these letters survived after all those decades is simply eerie. When Helen Freeland died in 1956, Helen’s sister Nancy gave the letters to Marian Parry, a friend of Rayna from Berkeley in the 1920s. Marian (who died in 1986) then gave letters to Knodel, who had been a fan of Sheean’s book since the 1940s. Knodel began preparing a manuscript based on the letters, and apparently had a typescript by the early 1980s (according to the C Frank Glass papers in the Hoover Library), but eventually he must have put it aside.

The letters to Bill Prohme had an especially turbulent passage. Bill was tubercular, and after some very difficult times he killed himself in 1935, on the anniversary of Rayna’s death. He destroyed all his papers except for the letters Rayna sent him from Moscow, which he gave to Rayna’s sister Grace. The letters were found in Grace’s papers after she died in 1985, and finally passed into the hands of Baruch Hirson, who was interested in writing a biography of Grace’s husband, C. Frank Glass. Hirson was unaware that there were more letters from Rayna until two years later, when he was shown Knodel’s manuscript of Rayna’s letters to Helen. The two then collaborated on this book, but it is hard to say when. In any case, their collective work must have lain in yet another box for many years: Hirson died in 1999 and Knodel in 2001. How it was rescued from this final oblivion is also hard to say; Gregor Benton, who wrote the introduction, does not explain. Perhaps a letter to Benton might be in order before he too passes away! Truly a haunted book.

For those interested in the period, this book is fascinating. If you have read Andre Malraux’s book Man’s Fate, read this to find out about real radicals in China in the 1920s. If you have read Sheean’s book, read this to find out what kind of person Rayna really was. Read this even if you haven’t read Sheean. Despite an extremely difficult situation, she comes across as a talented, resilient, and loving woman.

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