Howard Fast Fast, Howard - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Howard Fast 1914-

(Full name Howard Melville Fast; also wrote under the pseudonym E. V. Cunningham) American novelist, short story writer, biographer, nonfiction writer, memoirist, playwright, and screenplay writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Fast's career through 1996. See also Howard Fast Criticism (Volume 23).

A prolific and politically controversial author, Howard Fast has written numerous works of popular fiction, biographies, plays, and film scripts, though is best known for his historical fiction and the novel upon which the 1960 movie Spartacus was based. In a career that extends over the greater part of the twentieth century, Fast has demonstrated a talent for writing fast-paced, engaging narratives and an ability to provide realistic historical backdrops to his stories. Often violent and sometimes sentimental, his novels display a respect for personal courage and a desire for social justice. At one time a devoted Communist—and then a repentant one—Fast is almost as well known for his political life as he is for his novels, which have introduced millions of readers to his liberal vision and interpretation of America's historical legacy.

Biographical Information

Fast was born in New York City to immigrant parents; his father was from the Ukraine and his mother from Lithuania. Fast grew up in poverty and his mother died when he was eight. His older sister soon moved out to get married, leaving his father to take care of Fast and his two brothers. His father held a series of low-paying jobs, forcing Fast and his older brother to earn money from a newspaper route and sometimes to steal food from their neighbors. Fast worked various odd jobs while in high school, from which he graduated in 1931. He won a scholarship to the National Academy of Design, but after selling a story to a science fiction magazine, he dropped out the next year. He ran away from home and traveled through the South with a friend, but had to return home after failing to secure a job. Fast managed to have his novel Two Valleys (1933) published at the age of eighteen. The book was well received but its successor, Strange Yesterday (1934), was not similarly welcomed. While his next novel, Place in the City (1937), failed to sell, Fast's career was strengthened when in 1937, Story magazine published his short story, “The Children.” Several New England cities, including Boston, banned the story, which centers on a Halloween lynching, no doubt aiding sales. The rapid publication of several successful novels followed: Conceived in Liberty (1939), The Last Frontier (1941), The Unvanquished (1942), and Citizen Tom Paine (1944). Fast wrote Voice of America broadcasts to occupied Europe from 1942-44. The following year, he served as a war correspondent in the China-Burma-India theater. He joined the Communist party in 1944. Fast appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and in 1950 was briefly imprisoned on contempt charges leveled against him by HUAC. Inspired by his time in prison, Fast wrote Spartacus (1951). Unable to find a publisher due to interference from J. Edgar Hoover's FBI headquarters, Fast finally published the novel himself, producing a great popular success. Politically active, he worked for the Progressive party in 1948 and in 1952 attempted to run for Congress. The subsequent year, Fast was awarded the Stalin International Peace Prize. In 1954 he joined the permanent staff of the Communist party newspaper the Daily Worker. However, he finally resigned from the party in 1956 after Khrushchev's speech on the horrors of Stalin's regime was released. Fast was once again welcomed by mainstream publishing and released such novels as April Morning (1961) and The Hessian (1972), as well as numerous science fiction and detective novels under the pseudonym E. V. Cunningham. At the end of the 1970s, Fast's popularity enjoyed a renaissance with the publication of the series that began with the novel The Immigrants (1977). Since then, Fast has continued his pattern of publishing frequently, including the memoir Being Red (1990).

Major Works

Fast's career can be roughly divided into three periods, during which his writing was affected by his political leanings. His first novels, published during an initial period of devoted liberalism, often focus on early American history, specifically the fight for freedom. His first novel, Two Valleys, is a frontier adventure set during the American Revolution. The Last Frontier looks at a group of Cheyenne Indians who attempt to leave their reservation in Oklahoma for their homeland in North Dakota while being pursued by cavalry. The Unvanquished provides a human portrait of George Washington during the American Revolution's darker days. Citizen Tom Paine offers an interesting portrayal of one of the revolution's most important political leaders.

The next period in Fast's literary development revolves around his membership in the Communist party, a time in which his novels reflected not only his political beliefs but the influence of party leaders as well. Freedom Road (1944) presents a vision of Reconstruction as a period in which southern blacks and whites worked together to construct a new society. The American (1946) features a profile of John Peter Altgeld, the governor of Illinois who pardoned three anarchists in the 1886 Haymarket bombings, while Spartacus details the mainly fictitious revolt conducted by Roman slaves. During this time, Fast also wrote partisan works of nonfiction that demonstrated his political concerns, including Peekskill, U.S.A. (1951), Spain and Peace (1952), and The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti (1953). In The Naked God (1957), Fast's refutation of Communism, the author described his growing disenchantment with the Communist party and his renunciation of Communist affiliations. Fast would return to this subject in Being Red, in which he attempted to explain his experience as a member of the Communist party.

In the period following his disavowal of Communism, Fast's writings demonstrate a more compassionate philosophy than what his Communist-influenced writings provided. April Morning describes a teenage boy's coming of age during the Battle of Lexington, while The Hessian depicts the struggles of a Quaker family and a doctor during the American Revolution when a young Hessian soldier faces hanging. This period also features the novels Fast wrote under the pseudonym E. V. Cunningham, in many of which he explores his attraction to Zen Buddhism. Fast's most recent popular success has been The Immigrants, the title referring both to the 1977 novel and to the series which now comprises several novels—Second Generation (1978), The Establishment (1979), The Legacy (1981), The Immigrant's Daughter (1985), and An Independent Woman (1997). Beginning in turn-of-the-century San Francisco, the first installment focuses on an Italian fisherman named Dan Lavette who marries a Nob Hill heiress and builds a shipping empire, yet finds happiness only with his Chinese mistress. Second Generation centers upon Lavette's daughter, who endeavors to come to terms with her double heritage of immigrant and upper-class backgrounds. Along with the publication of these novels, Fast continued to release many additional works of fiction, notably Max (1982), The Dinner Party (1987), The Pledge (1988), and Seven Days in June (1994).

Critical Reception

Fast's reputation with critics has not, unfortunately, kept pace with his prolific output. His earlier novels, in fact, have tended to receive the most praise among his works. Two Valleys was welcomed as an exciting start for a promising beginner. Within the following decade, Fast's compelling novels of the early American frontier established him as a talented writer of historical fiction; many of these books became standard reading for high school students. Highly praised among Fast's early novels was Citizen Tom Paine, which reviewers commended for providing a convincing portrait of Thomas Paine set against an expressive wartime background. The popularity of these historical novels among both critics and the reading public was fostered by the atmosphere of patriotism that the United States experienced as the nation entered World War II. The critical esteem that Fast received during his career peaked with this group of historical novels, which also includes The Last Frontier and The Unvanquished. While many reviewers and public figures such as W. E. B DuBois and Eleanor Roosevelt lauded Freedom Road as a significant novel on race relations, it was also criticized for showing little resemblance to reality.

The writing that Fast released during his most active years as a Communist tended to receive negative comments, not surprising during the Cold War. In these works, Fast was accused of being a party hack, allowing his Marxist themes to intrude on his storytelling and proving himself unable to maintain an adequate distance from his subject. While Spartacus returned Fast to mass popularity, reviewers were left unimpressed by the novel. Today, the fame of Spartacus rests perhaps less with the novel than with the 1960 movie starring Kirk Douglas. Though The Naked God, Fast's contemporaneous look at his rejection of Communism, was dismissed as badly written and lacking in analysis, Being Red was received as a more balanced account of American Communism, though criticized for its lack of introspection and historical accuracy. With the novels April Morning and The Hessian, Fast was credited as having demonstrated a more mature vision. While Fast's fame was renewed with the popular series The Immigrants, his critical standing was not rejuvenated. Critics applauded Fast for demonstrating that he could still tell a good story, but otherwise were not much impressed by the work, citing a lack of subtlety as well as pointing to Fast's tendency toward didacticism. While Fast has continued to publish much since the 1970s, none of his more recent works have had the critical or popular appeal of Citizen Tom Paine, Spartacus, or The Immigrants. Fast, however, has consistently shown himself capable of producing engrossing works of fiction, causing some critics to call for serious reevaluation of his massive oeuvre and literary significance.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Two Valleys (novel) 1933

Strange Yesterday (novel) 1934

Place in the City (novel) 1937

Conceived in Liberty: A Novel of Valley Forge (novel) 1939

Haym Salomon (novel) 1941

The Last Frontier (novel) 1941

Lord Baden-Powell of the Boy Scouts (novel) 1941

The Romance of a People (novel) 1941

The Unvanquished (novel) 1942

The Tall Hunter (novel) 1942

The Picture-Book History of the Jews [with Bette Fast] (nonfiction) 1942

Goethals and the Panama...

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George Mayberry (review date 10 May 1943)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Journeyman of Revolution,” in The New Republic, May 10, 1943, p. 646.

[In the following review, Mayberry offers positive assessment of Citizen Tom Paine, though notes the work's limitations.]

To his growing portrait gallery of the American Revolution Howard Fast now adds a full-length, unvarnished picture of the man whom Theodore Roosevelt in arrogance and ignorance once called a “a filthy little atheist.” With adequate recognition of the warts upon Paine's character, Fast presents sympathetically this sometime staymaker, resident of Gin Alley, editor, soldier, inventor, politico and always pamphleteer and journeyman of revolution. Particularly...

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Irving Howe (review date 16 December 1957)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Captive Not Quite Freed,” in The New Republic, December 16, 1957, pp. 18-9.

[In the following review, Howe objects to Fast's Communist loyalties and offers unfavorable analysis of The Naked God.]

The first though not least important thing to be said about The Naked God is that simply as a piece of writing it is extremely shabby: incoherent in structure, florid in diction, inflated and hysterical in tone. Since books of this kind are generally treated as “documents,” they seldom meet with such criticism; but I am enough of a literary man to believe that Fast's ineptitude is a significant fact in estimating the political meaning and value of his...

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Kenneth Fearing (review date 23 April 1961)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Meeting at Concord,” in New York Times Book Review, April 23, 1961, p. 38.

[In the following review, Fearing offers positive assessment of April Morning.]

Two meanings are attached to the title April Morning. The first is a literal reference to the action that took place throughout the Middlesex countryside in 1775 when the British forces marched out to capture certain stores in Lexington and Concord. The second is a symbolic dramatization of the turning point in the life of a 15-year-old boy, forcibly becoming a man in the course of a single day.

Neither point is labored and events move swiftly along in a nimbus of historic...

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R. Z. Sheppard (review date 7 November 1977)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Reds to Riches,” in Time, November 7, 1977, pp. 120-2.

[In the following review, Sheppard offers unenthusiastic assessment of The Immigrants. “Unfortunately,” writes Sheppard, “Fast's life contains more dramatic and moral conflict than his new novel.”]

There is something basically unpatriotic about F. Scott Fitzgerald's contention that American lives have no second acts. The tainted blessing of early success (“the victor belongs to the spoils”) and a guilty sense that character is fate may have accounted for his bitter judgment. But the fact remains that the world's best-advertised nation of immigrants was built on second—even third...

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Merle Rubin (review date 30 September 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Rabbi Ponders Social Justice,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 30, 1983, p. 4.

[In the following review, Rubin offers a qualified endorsement of The Outsider.]

In 1946, gentle, conscientious young David Hartman, formerly a U.S. Army chaplain, comes to a small Connecticut town to serve as rabbi to an even smaller Jewish congregation. He is accompanied by his bride, Lucy, who is also Jewish, but who does not share his religious beliefs or his idealism.

Howard Fast's latest novel follows the rabbi's story from his arrival up to 1977. Hartman suffers through the Rosenberg trial and execution, the ugliness of McCarthyism,...

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Christopher Lehmann-Haupt (review date 9 February 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Books of the Times,” in The New York Times, February 9, 1987, p. C16.

[In the following review, Lehmann-Haupt offers positive evaluation of The Dinner Party, though he finds fault in Fast's lack of literary sophistication.]

An old-fashioned Ibsenesque moral drama is what Howard Fast has undertaken in his latest novel, The Dinner Party, about a wealthy liberal United States Senator who is forced to confront his own limitations.

Honoring Aristotle's prescription that a tragedy should occur “within a single circuit of the sun,” The Dinner Party begins with Senator Richard Cromwell waking up on his estate in the...

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Diana McLellan (review date 17 February 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Washington's Power Eaters,” in The Wall Street Journal, February 17, 1987, p. 32.

[In the following review, McLellan offers unfavorable assessment of The Dinner Party.]

Recently, an attractive woman told me of attending a Washington dinner party with a lobbyist beau. During the evening, she met a bigwig she had once expressed a fleeting desire to know.

Next morning, her lover mailed her a bill: “For Introduction: $600.”

Romantic, no? No. Romance is never invited to Washington dinner parties; the lingering glance and secret touch are out of place. Introduction is the main course: “Persuasion, meet Power.”


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David Savage (review date 22 February 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Dinner Party, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 22, 1987, p. 6.

[In the following review, Savage offers negative assessment of The Dinner Party.]

A Washington dinner party could make for a good novel. Politicians are calculators, and the best of them know how the figures will come out before all the numbers are punched in. An ostensibly social occasion—a dinner or a reception—is among the best places to watch a politician at work. He seeks information, asks what others think about an issue, tries out an argument on one side—analyzing, calculating. Put another politician there too, and you might want to listen in.


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Jacqueline Trescott (essay date 3 March 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Fast and Furious,” in The Washington Post, March 3, 1987, pp. D1, D4.

[In the following essay, Trescott provides an overview of Fast's life, literary career, and critical reception, including Fast's own comments on these subjects.]

Howard Fast, one of the world's most prolific writers and four decades ago one of the country's best-known Communists, is cordially mad. His anger over politicians and other people who he feels have little respect for history keeps his flame of intolerance going.

“The actual fact of the matter is that the United States is like no other country,” he says. He sits in a leather armchair, this man of memory,...

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Howard Fast with Mervyn Rothstein (interview date 10 March 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Howard Fast in a New Mode with Latest Novel,” in The New York Times, March 10, 1987, p. C16.

[In the following interview, Fast discusses his life, political concerns, and The Dinner Party.]

“It's been said,” Howard Fast remarked, “that I am the most widely read writer of the 20th century. The number of books I've sold runs into untold millions. Freedom Road alone we calculated at one point years ago had sold over 20 million copies. The only complete bibliography of my work was done by a Russian scholar who came up with 82 languages and something in the neighborhood of 30 million books, but that was in 1952, so it's more than 30 years ago. I...

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Michael Kilian (review date 21 April 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Tom Paine Returns to Life—Briefly—on Stage,” in The Chicago Tribune, April 21, 1987, p. 3.

[In the following review, Kilian discusses Fast's stage version of Citizen Tom Paine and actor Richard Thomas's lead performance as Paine.]

Tom Paine lives.

He has been brought back to life by Richard Thomas, an actor of intellect and range who gained fame playing John-Boy in “The Waltons,” and playwright Howard Fast, the iconoclastic and prolific left-wing author of Freedom Road, Spartacus, The Immigrants and more than 40 other books, who was jailed and blacklisted in the 1950s for membership in the Communist...

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Bruce Cook (review date 23 October 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Crimes Against Conscience: The McCarthy Era in Fiction,” in Washington Post Book World, October 23, 1988, p. 10.

[In the following excerpted review, Cook praises the authenticity of The Pledge, though finds fault in Fast's literary ability.]

To their everlasting discredit, American novelists, most of them, have conscientiously avoided the big subjects since the war. All exceptions granted, those whom we hold in highest esteem today seem to work small.

Take, for example, the red witchhunt period of the '40s and '50s, otherwise known as the McCarthy era. (Actually, it was well under way before Tail-Gunner Joe made his appearance.)...

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Rhoda Koenig (review date 5 November 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Party Time,” in New York, November 5, 1990, pp. 124-5.

[In the following review of Being Red, Koenig provides an overview of Fast's life and literary career.]

Novelist, playwright, biographer, detective-story writer—Howard Fast has been all these, but we know the author of more than 70 books best as a former Communist.

As the title of his autobiography indicates, he knows we do, too Being Red stops in 1957, several years after Fast ended a prison sentence for refusing to name names to the House Un-American Activities Committee and a few months after he left the party, when Khrushchev revealed the crimes of Stalin. The...

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Christopher Hitchens (review date 25 November 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Citizen Howard Fast,” in Washington Post Book World, November 25, 1990, p. 5.

[In the following review of Being Red, Hitchens praises Fast's engaging recollections, though he finds fault in his writing.]

Murray Kempton once told me what he called the only really funny story about American Communism, adding that unlike many such stories it had the merit of being true. In the early 1950s, Howard Fast was walking along a New York street when he encountered the cultural attache of an Eastern European mission. Bidding good day to Comrade Fast, the attache asked if he would be attending next week's special caviar-and-culture soiree, to be held at the...

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Leo Braudy (review date 9 December 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Rolling Up the Red Carpet,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, December 9, 1990, pp. 2, 13.

[In the following review of Being Red, Braudy commends Fast's insight into political history, though he finds fault in his reticence concerning his personal life and motivations.]

Howard Fast published his first novel in 1933 at age 18. He was part of a generation of up-from-poverty writers who came of age in the 1930s, working a multitude of odd jobs while they read their way through the library stacks. It seemed almost inevitable that he would also join the Communist Party.

Fast's first great successes were in historical novels that looked...

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Stefan Kanfer (review date 10-24 December 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Fast Backward,” in The New Leader, December 10-24, 1990, pp. 21-3.

[In the following negative review of Being Red, Kanfer condemns Fast's “disingenuous” account of his life and the Communist Party.]

Thanks to such works as Lillian Hellman's memoirs, Vivian Gornick's The Romance of American Communism and now Howard Fast's Being Red, an elaborate new myth is flourishing on college campuses and in salons afflicted with political amnesia. It goes like this:

Once upon a century there were two ogres, one with a small moustache and one with a big moustache.

There was never a doubt about Small Moustache....

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Clancy Sigal (review date 20 January 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Comrade Novelist Howard Fast Sentimentally Evokes Himself as an American Communist,” in Chicago Tribune Books, January 20, 1991.

[In the following review of Being Red, Sigal commends Fast's accounts of his persecution, though finds fault in his sentimentality and lack of insight.]

We American ex-Communists sometimes find it hard to tell the truth about our Party experiences, partly because being hunted like animals isn't always nice to recall. The United States is the only western democracy that has not been able to live with its native Reds. In Britain, France and Italy, even Canada and Mexico, indigenous Communists are accepted as part of a...

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Ronald Radosh (review date March 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “About-Face,” in Commentary, Vol. 91, No. 3, March, 1991, pp. 62-4.

[In the following negative review of Being Red, Radosh criticizes Fast's involvement in the Communist Party and discrepancies in his recollection of such activities.]

Howard Fast is best known as the author of a score of historical novels which epitomized what the Old Left liked to call the true spirit of “progressive” America—Citizen Tom Paine, Freedom Road, The American, and Spartacus. He was also one of the last writers in America to give his allegiance to the American Communist party, of which he was a member from 1944 through 1957.


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Gerald Meyer (review date Spring 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Howard Fast: An American Leftist Reinterprets His Life,” in Science & Society, Vol. 57, No. 1, Spring, 1993, pp. 86-91.

[In the following review, Meyer discusses Fast's political involvements and offers tempered assessment of Being Red, which he describes as “readable and useful” though “inaccurate” and evasive.]

The publication of Being Red, Howard Fast's account of his association with the Communist Party, should be a valuable addition to the growing list of memoirs and historical studies about the CPUSA. Unfortunately, Fast is unable to separate his primary role as a novelist from his less familiar role as memoirist.


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Howard Fast with Alan Wald and Alan Filreis (interview date 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Conversation with Howard Fast, March 23, 1994,” edited by Thomas J. Sugrue, in Prospects: An Annual of American Cultural Studies, edited by Jack Salzman, Vol. 20, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 511-23.

[In the following interview, Fast discusses his life, literary activities, the Communist Party and his involvement in that organization, and his memoirs The Naked God and Being Red.]

[Alan Wald]: When we read your memoir that came out in 1990, Being Red, many of us had also read an earlier book called The Naked God in 1957—and our impression of your experience was represented by The Naked God until we...

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George Traister (essay date 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Noticing Howard Fast,” in Prospects: An Annual of American Cultural Studies, edited by Jack Salzman, Vol. 20, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 525-41.

[In the following essay, Traister provides an overview of Fast's life, literary career, political consciousness, and popularity, drawing attention to the need for critical reevaluation of Fast's numerous works and their significance.]


In 1933, Dial Press in New York published Two Valleys, the first novel by a very young man named Howard Melvin Fast. The publisher's blurb noted that “Mr. Fast is not yet nineteen.” (He had been born in...

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Andrew Macdonald (essay date 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Howard Fast: An American Life,” in Howard Fast: A Critical Companion, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996, pp. 5-35.

[In the following essay, Macdonald provides an overview of Fast's life, literary career, and numerous published works, drawing attention to the recurring preoccupations and unifying themes that link the author's biography and fiction.]

I've been very fortunate, no question about it, because even during the blacklist years my books were selling by the millions all over the world. There were always enough royalties for us to live decently. I was very lucky, very fortunate. But I was born and grew up in the greatest, the...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


MacDonald, Andrew. Howard Fast: A Critical Companion. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996.

The only book-length study of Fast's life and literary works, including extended analysis of his major novels and a bibliography of his writings.

Additional coverage of Fast's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 16; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4R; Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Vol. 18; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 1, 33, 54; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 9; DISCovering Authors...

(The entire section is 91 words.)