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.
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).
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).
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.