From Vagabond to Journalist: Edgar Snow in Asia, 1928-1941

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At the age of nineteen Edgar Snow (1905-1972) left his native Kansas City to begin a career in advertising in New York. Four years later, impatient with the lack of recognition for his achievements, he broke from his advertising job to try the adventure of working and writing his way around the world. His journey stalled for thirteen years in Asia, where Snow came to be considered the most authoritative reporter on the Communist movement in China and an important reporter on Asia at large to the Western world. His Red Star over China has been recognized as a classic of modern journalism. In From Vagabond to Journalist, Robert M. Farnsworth brings to life the Snow who went to and reported on China between 1928 and 1941.

This intimate and meaningful portrayal of Edgar Snow draws on the rich legacy of personal letters, diaries, and manuscripts left by Snow and his first wife, Helen Foster. Farnsworth's skill in using this material gives the reader a clear understanding of how Snow's personal life and his philosophical perspective affected his writings and contributed to his success.

Beginning with Snow's youthful ambition to travel the globe and concluding with his notable, if unobtrusive, role in the reestablishment of diplomatic ties between America and China, Farnsworth weaves a spellbinding narrative. Snow's adventure in Asia began in Yokohama where he landed as a stowaway from Hawaii. Then, just steps ahead of Japanese port police, he made his way to China, where he soon empathized with the suffering of the Chinese people and became curious about the role Communism might play in the rebellion against colonialism. As he traveled throughout the continent during the next thirteen years, Snow established contacts with many important people and won extraordinary personal access to the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party. In 1936 he became the first Western journalist to visit the Chinese Red forces and report on a detailed interview with Mao Tse-tung after the completion of the epic Long March. His connections in China allowed him to return to the country several times during the Cold War, and as the Cold War began to thaw, American magazines were again happy to publish his writing because of his access to the major players in China.

Well researched and well written, From Vagabond to Journalist will be of great interest to anyone concerned with the history of modern China, U.S.-Chinese relations, journalism, or Edgar Snow.

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Editorial Reviews

Reporter and author Edgar Snow (1905-1972) gained his reputation reporting on the Communist movement in China during the 1920s and 1930s for the Western world. Farnsworth (English, Emeritus, U. of Missouri-Kansas City) provides an intimate and engaging portrait of Snow's adventurous life and work derived largely from Snow's journals, correspondence, and autobiography as well as his first wife's records. A few b&w photos. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
Kirkus Reviews
However long the odds on such a conjunction, two biographies of Snow are scheduled for publication in June, Though S. Bernard Thomas's Season of High Adventure (see page 519) is more complete, Farnsworth is livelier and offers greater detailed about the geopolitical forces convulsing Asia during Snow's sojourn there.

Farnsworth, professor emeritus of English at the University of Missouri, Kansas City (archival home to Snow's voluminous papers), provides no more particulars than absolutely necessary to get the venturesome midwesterner to the Orient. After reaching Shanghai at age 23 in 1928, Snow was able to support himself as a freelancer for Western newspapers and periodicals. An observant reporter and fiercely independent thinker who had no use for imperialism of any stripe, Snow was among the first to appreciate the scope of Japanese aggression in mainland China. No friend of the repressive Chiang Kai-shek regime, he sought and in 1936 (with help from Sun Yat-sen's widow) finally secured access to the Communist forces bottled up in the country's remote Northeast. His account of their revolution, Red Star Over China (1937), earned him considerable fame. There were other books (notably Battle for Asia, which not only probed the complexities of a united Communist/Nationalist front against the Japanese but also challenged readers to face the questions colonialism posed for democracy on the eve of Pearl Harbor) and projects (including personal involvement in the launching of industrial cooperatives) before Snow left the Middle Kingdom early in 1941. Thereafter, the Cold War, McCarthyism, and other factors caused the foreign correspondent's own star to fade, and Farnsworth accords the years after China only once-over-lightly attention.

A resonant briefing on an American who bore eloquent witness to a turning point in Asian history.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780826210609
  • Publisher: University of Missouri Press
  • Publication date: 6/1/1996
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 472
  • Product dimensions: 6.13 (w) x 9.25 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert M. Farnsworth is Professor of English, Emeritus, at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. He is the author of Melvin B. Tolson, 1898-1966: Plain Talk and Poetic Prophecy and editor of Caviar and Cabbage: Selected Columns by Melvin B. Tolson from the Washington Tribune, 1937-1944 and A Gallery of Harlem Portraits.

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