Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1584
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.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 611
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 Canal (nonfiction) 1942
Citizen Tom Paine (novel) 1944
Freedom Road (novel) 1944
The Incredible Tito (nonfiction) 1944
Patrick Henry and the Frigate's Keel and Other Stories of a Young Nation (short stories) 1945
The American: A Middle Western Legend (novel) 1946
The Children (novel) 1947
Clarkton (novel) 1947
My Glorious Brothers (novel) 1948
Departure and Other Stories (short stories) 1949
Intellectuals in the Fight for Peace (nonfiction) 1949
The Hammer (drama) 1950
Literature and Reality (nonfiction) 1950
The Proud and the Free (novel) 1950
Tito and His People (nonfiction) 1950
Peekskill, U.S.A.: A Personal Experience (nonfiction) 1951
Spartacus (novel) 1951
Thirty Pieces of Silver (drama) 1951
Fallen Angel [as Walter Ericson; republished as The Darkness Within, 1953; republished under Howard Fast as Mirage, 1965] (novel) 1952
Spain and Peace (nonfiction) 1952
The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti: A New England Legend (nonfiction) 1953
Silas Timberman (novel) 1954
The Story of Lola Gregg (novel) 1954
The Last Supper and Other Stories (short stories) 1955
George Washington and the Water Witch (drama) 1956
The Naked God: The Writer and the Communist Party (memoir) 1957
Moses, Prince of Egypt (novel) 1958
The Winston Affair (novel) 1959
Spartacus [with Dalton Trumbo; based on Fast's novel of the same title] (screenplay) 1960
Sylvia [as E. V. Cunningham] (novel) 1960
April Morning (novel) 1961
The Edge of Tomorrow (short stories) 1961
The Crossing (drama) 1962
Phyllis [as E. V. Cunningham] (novel) 1962
Power (novel) 1962
Alice [as E. V. Cunningham] (novel) 1963
Shirley [as E. V. Cunningham] (novel) 1963
Agrippa's Daughter (novel) 1964
The Hill (screenplay) 1964
Lydia [as E. V. Cunningham] (novel) 1964
Penelope [as E. V. Cunningham] (novel) 1965
Helen [as E. V. Cunningham] (novel) 1966
Margie [as E. V. Cunningham] (novel) 1966
Torquemada (novel) 1966
The Hunter and the Trap (novel) 1967
Sally [as E. V. Cunningham] (novel) 1967
Samantha [as E. V. Cunningham; republished as The Case of the Angry Actress, 1985] (novel) 1967
Cynthia [as E. V. Cunningham] (novel) 1968
The Jews: Story of a People (nonfiction) 1968
The Assassin Who Gave Up His Gun [as E. V. Cunningham] (novel) 1969
The General Zapped an Angel: New Stories of Fantasy and Science Fiction (short stories) 1970
The Crossing [based on his drama of the same title] (novel) 1971
The Hessian (screenplay) 1971
What's a Nice Girl Like You? (screenplay) 1971
The Hessian [based on his screenplay of the same title] (novel) 1972
Millie [as E. V. Cunningham] (novel) 1973
A Touch of Infinity: Thirteen Stories of Fantasy and Science Fiction (short stories) 1973
The Ambassador (screenplay) 1974
Time and the Riddle: Thirty-one Zen Stories (short stories) 1975
21 Hours at Munich [with Edward Hume] (screenplay) 1976
The Art of Zen Meditation (nonfiction) 1977
The Case of the One-Penny Orange [as E. V. Cunningham] (novel) 1977
*The Immigrants (novel) 1977
The Case of the Russian Diplomat [E. V. Cunningham] (novel) 1978
*Second Generation (novel) 1978
The Case of the Poisoned Eclairs [as E. V. Cunningham] (novel) 1979
*The Establishment (novel) 1979
The Case of the Sliding Pool [as E. V. Cunningham] (novel) 1981
*The Legacy (novel) 1981
The Case of the Kidnapped Angel [as E. V. Cunningham] (novel) 1982
David and Paula (drama) 1982
Max (novel) 1982
The Case of the Murdered Mackenzie [as E. V. Cunningham] (novel) 1984
The Outsider (novel) 1984
*The Immigrant's Daughter (novel) 1985
The Wabash Factor [as E. V. Cunningham] (novel) 1986
Citizen Tom Paine (drama) 1987
The Dinner Party (novel) 1987
The Novelist (drama) 1987
The Pledge (novel) 1988
The Confession of Joe Cullen (novel) 1989
Being Red (autobiography) 1990
The Second Coming (drama) 1991
The Trial of Abigail Goodman (novel) 1993
War and Peace: Observations on Our Times (essays) 1993
Seven Days in June (novel) 1994
The Bridge Builder's Story (novel) 1995
*An Independent Woman (novel) 1997
Redemption (novel) 1999
*All part of the “Immigrants” series.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 426
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 good are those passages in which the disheveled and frequently drunken Englishman arouses the American colonists to transform their uprising into revolution and then sustains them by his writing and example to carry through to victory. Less successful are the episodes of Paine's last years when a bewildering succession of scenes and characters flit through the book. Fast, however, has blocked in the background of a turbulent era with an understanding of its historical complexity, and the figure of Paine is never lost in the carpet of social and intellectual forces which embraces it. It is a masterful drawing done in a prose as sharp and clean and as loving of its medium as the pen of a Daumier or an Ingres.
But it remains a line drawing, with all the virtues and limitations of the medium, whereas we have long needed a full-dress oil of the man and his age—a Life and Times by a master that will rectify, illuminate and refurbish the vituperative, pedestrian and outmoded work of Paine's earlier biographers. Possibly the difficulty lies with the subject; for Paine the writer is far more alive than the man, indeed is the man, and although his personality and his story are fascinating, it is in “Common Sense,” “The Rights of Man” and “The Age of Reason” that his enduring importance lies. Although Howard Fast's fictionalized biographies are not the bastard things such products usually are, his method raises questions to which there are no satisfying answers, and I am by no means certain that he gains in not accepting the limitations (and the possible riches) of straight-forward biography. The novel is one of man's greatest achievements, but there is no reason to believe that it transcends biography, which has an older and equally honest place among the arts of creation. To reply with Shakespeare and Tolstoy is no answer; for if Fast is to deal with historical characters after their fashion, we might require from him an Enobarbus or a Natasha.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1637
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 book.
It is true of course that other people, including many who were never Communists, also write badly; but the particular kind of badness found in Fast's book is not that of an amateur or novice: it is a learned badness, the heritage of that corrupt Popular Front rhetoric which makes precise thought impossible and emotional candor unlikely. Even when Fast was most deeply involved with Stalinist politics, his literary inclinations were toward those middle-brow values which, being pervasive to our time, are not the monopoly of any political movement. And the middle-brow in Fast may yet survive the Old Stalinist, bringing him success of a kind parallel to that which he enjoyed during the past two decades. Popular tales about American heroes can be tailored to any bias; mass culture undercuts all opinions.
Nevertheless, The Naked God does contribute a few items to the documentation of the psychopathology of Stalinism. There is the Pravda correspondent whom Fast quotes as saying angrily: “Howard, why do you make so much of the Jews? Jews? Jews? That is all we hear from you! Do you think Stalin murdered no one but Jews?” There is Joseph Clark, then foreign editor of The Daily Worker, telling Fast: “If you and Paul Robeson had raised your voices in 1949, Itzik Feffer [a Yiddish poet murdered by the Stalin regime] would be alive today.” There is Boris Polovoy, head of the Union of Soviet Writers, reassuring Fast that another Yiddish writer, Kvitko, was well and alive (“at present living in the same apartment as he, Polovoy”), though as it turned out, Kvitko “had been dead for years.” And, most pitiful of all, there is Fast himself, being ordered by “a petty Party functionary … in terms of savage vindictiveness … to change the third act” of a play he had written. “I made the changes.”
Beyond such bits of information, and a few shrewd observations about life inside the Communist party, such as a description of the sadistic glee with which the leader prepares to be “sharp” in treating a dissident within the ranks, there is little to recommend in The Naked God. My objection, I should stress, is not that Fast hesitates to condemn his allegiance of yesterday: no one could charge that against a man who writes that to join the CP is to “sell one's soul” or who says that he found Eugene Dennis less humane in his treatment of Communists than the warden of the prison in which he, Fast, was unjustly confined during the McCarthyite hysteria. But on the level of analysis, and still more important, of self-confrontation, the book is a failure.
Fast never explores the crucial question: what was it that held him, and others like him, for so long a time in a condition of intellectual bondage? The question matters not because it may reveal something about his personal psychology or because it comes as a thrust from hostile critics like myself, but because it helps us get at a major political and intellectual problem. At one point Fast does sidle up to it:
… the simpletons say, “But we have always known the truth about the Party. Why did it take you so long?”
What truth? Even in this brief book, I have put down a picture that few people outside actually understood.. . [emphasis added.]
One finds it hard to suppose that this is anything but disingenuous. Fast's picture of the Communist movement, far from being something that a few outsiders understood, is essentially the same that hundreds of writers have drawn for the past few decades. “What truth?” cries Fast as if he were Pilate himself. Very simply the truth that Communist Russia is a brutal dictatorship, that the Stalin regime murdered millions of innocent persons and that the Communist parties are dupes of this regime. The truth which Fast so violently refused to credit when it was told by honest men like Andr‚ Gide or John Dewey or Sidney Hook, he finally did believe when he heard it from Khrushchev, a self-confessed participant in mass murder. Had Khrushchev not spoken, Fast would probably still be a loyal Stalinist. Now surely this presents an interesting political and moral problem that a person in Fast's position ought to consider and perhaps even find a bit troubling. And if to suggest this makes one a simpleton, well—call me a simpleton.
Fast's book is written with a high and exalted moral tone, almost as if he were the first—instead of the most recent—to be discovering what is by now the common property of decent men. When Trotsky or Victor Serge used this tone in writing about Russia 25 years ago, they had earned it, for they were battling against widespread illusions among “progressive” intellectuals in the West. But while Fast, like any other human being, has earned his right to sorrow and pain, he might have taken a more modest tone had he kept asking himself the question which he neither can nor should wish to avoid: why so late?
For it is a question that brings us to the heart of a major distinction in the analysis of Communism and its relationship to intellectuals. A few decades ago the average Communist or fellow-travelling intellectual suffered from ignorance and illusions. He generally believed that Russian society conformed to his vaguely libertarian and socialist desires; he felt himself to be identified with a movement that was weak and a country that was besieged; he thought he was casting his lot with the oppressed and powerless of the world. Once he was forced to compare the reality of Stalinism with the ideals he confusedly held, he could often be broken from the party.
During the last ten or fifteen years, however, men like Fast were identifying themselves not with a besieged outpost of revolution, but with one of the two most powerful nations on earth Communism was persecuted in America, but on a world scale it had become enormously strong. Loyalty to Russia now rested not primarily (though, in some cases still partly) on humanitarian illusions, but upon a corruption of values: Communism, inhumane as it might be, came to be regarded as the wave of the future. By now the Communist intellectuals could hardly help knowing at least some of the truth about Russia—for them to deny this would be as credible as the claim of the Germans that they did not know what was happening in Buchenwald. Those who remained faithful to the party learned to look the other way they, became masters at the art of deadening their sensibilities.
Between, say, 1932 and 1948 the whole nature of Communist politics and psychology changed significantly, and among American intellectuals Fast was one of the few who stuck it out through the climax of Stalinist horror. The question, “why so long,” therefore becomes more than a personal reproach; it is a request for an analysis of political morality which men like Fast cannot avoid if they are to finish the painful task of earning their freedom.
As it is, Fast has broken loose from Communist belief but not from the style of thought behind it. Let me cite one example, apparently trivial yet very revealing. The writer in America, says Fast, faces “the Communist party on his left, the fleshpots of well-paid mediocrity on his right; but I make no judgments. … Ours is an old and honorable craft, and perhaps someday it will be that again.”
Now, by its tacit elimination of a large number of choices other than the CP and the fleshpots, is this not the kind of offensive nonsense that characterizes the style of Communist thought? There are no doubt plenty of writers in America who have sold their souls, but there are also many who, whatever intellectual disagreements one may have with them, remain honest and free. These are writers who find no difficulty in foregoing both the Communist party and the fleshpots, and who pursue their craft as honorable men. Being fallible and human, they are open to many criticisms, but I doubt that Fast is the one to make them. Besides, does he really suppose that writing for The New Republic or any number of similar journals is exactly equivalent to dipping into a fleshpot?
The Naked God, like many bad books before it, may prove to be a useful book. For if politics requires men to refight battles that a disinterested intellect considers to have been settled long ago, then the need remains for hammering away at the deceit of Communism. If Fast's book is widely circulated in France and India, it may do some good. If it is read by those sections of crypto-Communist opinion in America which, though horrified by the Khrushchev report, still think that some sort of “progress” or even “socialism” can be found in Russia, it may do some good. For we had better recognize that pro-Russian sentiment is far more significant than the present collapse of the Communist party would indicate: those for whom Dnieperstroy was an adequate reply to the slave camps in Siberia will now find Sputnik a brilliant reply to what happened in Hungary.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 548
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 color and detail. The reader always knows which turnpike he has reached without being too heavily forewarned, at the same time, of precisely what action is coming up next. When the curtain rises for the juvenile Adam Cooper, who can't understand why his disputatious father is always picking on him, a lone horseman has ridden out of the night with the alarm that the redcoats are coming. The message may be a little crude, but it can't be misunderstood. No matter what happens, it can't be all bad, and for the Cooper family, it needn't be all good. Or at least, not too good.
A veteran at this sort of historical re-creation, Howard Fast has admirably recaptured the sights and sounds, the religious and political idioms, the simple military tactics and strategies of that day—maneuvers that foreshadowed the painful development of a professional army. Adam Cooper has seen his father shot down on the village common, where the local Minute Men had assembled for a peaceful debate with the British regulars. He has witnessed the dismay of the naive local militia, fleeing the massacre. Then he hears the plan of a veteran fighter of the Indian wars:
“It seems plain to me that the redcoats are going to march down that stretch of road. * * * All that five miles to Lexington, and ten miles more to Charlestown, we'll give them no peace whatsoever. At least half the stretch of that road is lined with stone walls. We'll lie down behind those walls and make them mighty uncomfortable.” Whereupon Adam is forced to take another giant stride forward in his blind pilgrimage to maturity: “I wondered. Could you be shot down and run away in such fear as we had on the common, and then fight and win—and all of it on the same day?”
That prolonged, bloodstained and yet disciplined retreat is portrayed with an eye to the innocence that obtained—on both sides—at the time it occurred. While it would be too much to say the Continental Army came into being at that time, it is only logical to assume that mature staffwork grew out of it. And in that connection, the seasoning of the armed forces in that baptism of fire greatly resembled the tempering also undergone by Adam. At day's end an orphan, a duly mustered-in militiaman, the betrothed of a childhood sweetheart, he could already look back upon a 24-hour past that was like an abyss:
“Then, falling asleep, I said farewell to a childhood, a world, a secure and sun-warmed existence and past that was over and done with and gone away for all time.”
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 822
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 and fourth—acts.
Howard Fast's novel The Immigrants is yet another pop epic to underscore this fact. The life and writing career of the author follow a familiar script as well. Fast, 62, was once the U.S.'s best-known literary Communist. In the '40s he wrote throbbingly about American history: the Revolutionary War in The Unvanquished and Citizen Tom Paine, Reconstruction in Freedom Road. As a political activist of the far left, he spent three months in jail during 1950 for failing to comply with a House Un-American Activities Committee subpoena. He was a columnist for the Daily Worker, a 1952 American Labor Party candidate for Congress, a 1953 winner of a Stalin Peace Prize and the most popular American author in the U.S.S.R. “There is no nobler, no finer product of man's existence on this earth than the Communist Party,” he said in 1949.
In 1957, the year of Sputnik, Fast declared his disenchantment with Soviet Communism in a book called The Naked God. It ensured his distinction as American letters' slowest study in Stalinism. Like the immigrants of his new novel, the author looked to California, where some of his earlier novels, including Spartacus, had been turned into film scenarios. He wrote science fiction and mysteries under the name E. V. Cunningham, eventually acquired a house in Beverly Hills, a Porsche and a yen for Zen Buddhism.
Unfortunately, Fast's life contains more dramatic and moral conflict than his new novel, The Immigrants. It is the first book in a projected trilogy that will follow a number of families from 1888 into the present. Universal already plans to film the saga as a 36-part TV series, for which Fast should gross $975,000. The paperback rights have been sold for $832,000.
As an entertainment package, The Immigrants could easily be read, and eventually seen, under the title Uphill, Downhill. The principal setting is San Francisco, where Daniel Lavette battles his way from crab fisherman to business tycoon. “He had come out of nothing and he had made himself a king, a veritable emperor,” writes Fast with stagy solemnity. “He ruled a fleet of great passenger liners, an airline, a majestic department store, a splendid resort hotel, property, land, and he dispensed the food of life to hundreds of men and women who labored at his will.”
This handsome hulk of a capitalist-benefactor was born in a boxcar, son of an Italian immigrant mother and a French-Italian father en route to a railroad job in California. Mama and Papa Lavette perish in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Daniel is left with his father's small boat and a shockproof will to rise in the world. He is a tough, practical, democratic cuss who cares little for racial, religious or class barriers. To keep track of his profitable fishing venture, he hires a Chinese bookkeeper and later takes a Jewish business partner. An unself-conscious climber, he woos, and wins the hand of, a beautiful Nob Hill heiress.
Need one go on? Only to say that Daniel Lavette is always in the right place at the right time—getting into shipping for World War I and out of it before the armistice gluts the seas with empty freighters; that he hedges his private happiness by keeping a wise, patient Oriental mistress in reserve; and that he is neither too proud nor too dissipated to return to his nets when the Depression shatters his empire.
Fast, too, leaves no base uncovered as he once again demonstrates his knack for soap history. The old Marxist reveals a genuine enthusiasm for the rugged values of laissez-faire enterprise in his energetic descriptions of Lavette's schemes and deals. Lest one think that this hero escaped from an Ayn Rand novel, appropriate lip service is paid to such issues as war profiteering and the passive wisdom of ancient Chinese philosophy.
The author is still a pro at milking emotions out of his characters' complicated personal relationships, and still a hacker when it comes to pumping life into his historical props. An overripe description of the Statue of Liberty, for example, ends with the line, “Across the water, there was the mass of buildings on the battery, but the lady of liberty was something else.” It is a long way from Emma Lazarus' New York to Howard Fast's Beverly Hills, where descendants of immigrants cater to huddled masses yearning for TV.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 394
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, repeated bouts of local anti-Semitism. He participates in freedom marches in the early days of the civil rights movement and later takes part in demonstrations against the war in Vietnam. But while he always seems to do the right thing, he spends much of his time feeling guilty and worried, which, alas, may well be the fate of many decent people in the world today.
He is sustained by his friendship with a Congregational minister and by the support of some good people in his own congregation, but he is undermined by his wife, whom he considers refreshingly frank and clever, but who, in fact, is basically unsupportive of his goals.
In the same years that find the rabbi pondering questions about social justice, the nature of evil and his own fitness to be a rabbi, one member of his congregation, Jake Osner, rises to a position of power in the federal government. Osner's career—in direct contrast to Rabbi Hartman's—seems intended to serve as an almost allegorical model of how far someone without a conscience can travel.
The novel as a whole, despite its focus on recent history, has an air of unreality rising from such literary flaws as sketchy characterization, stagy dialogue and generally lackluster writing—surprising flaws from an author who has written more than 40 books in his long career.
Fast is one of those popular writers who profess not to understand why critics do not admire their work. He handles his worthy themes with a clumsy simple-mindedness. Readers who are tired of sleazy sagas may welcome an uncomplicated story that at least tries to ask some ethical questions. But those in search of a subtler and more thoughtful treatment of such questions would do well to look elsewhere.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 947
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 suburbs of Washington early in the morning, and ends with his retiring to bed late the same night. Between these moments, a great deal happens.
Cromwell gets up, goes for a run and makes an appointment with his secretary—who is also his mistress—to do some work on a Senate bill he is preparing. His wife, Dolly, sets the household in motion to prepare for an important dinner party to be held that evening, at which the Secretary of State and his assistant are to be the guests of honor. Later in the day, the Senator and his wife reconcile certain differences and make passionate love together for the first time in several years.
The Cromwells' son, Leonard, comes home from Harvard Law School with a black classmate, Clarence Jones, who turns out to be his lover. During a talk the two have together, it becomes apparent that Leonard has AIDS. Later in the day, he will reveal this fact not only to his sister, Elizabeth, who is, of course, devastated by the news, but also to his parents, for whom it becomes the final blow in a series of unhappy events.
Dolly Cromwell's parents, Augustus and Jenny Levi, arrive. Augustus, the billionaire head of an engineering firm (and the source of the Cromwells' affluence), is the point of the coming dinner party. As Augustus tells Senator Cromwell, the Secretary of State wants him to quit work on a road he has contracted to build across Central America, linking the oceans, because the United States won't be guaranteed control of the road.
Later, in the afternoon, the Senator will ask his father-in-law to make a deal with the Secretary of State to stop work on the road only if the Government will protect the rights of refugees seeking sanctuary in American churches from Guatemalan and Salvadoran death squads. Augustus will answer that sympathy and compassion are “not my line. … I don't bleed for anyone, not here, not in Africa, not in Asia. I'm in this to have fun and make money.”
Finally the dinner guests gather. After politely slicing one another up over lamb and Lafite-Rothschild, the women will withdraw and the men will try to come to a meeting of minds. Augustus, out of sheer contempt for the Secretary and his assistant, will reverse himself and try to bargain for his son-in-law's sanctuary deal. The Senator will withdraw and try to comfort his stricken son.
Mr. Fast, writing sparely and trying always to register his points through his plot and his dialogue, succeeds here in dramatizing many of the major moral dilemmas of our age. His after-dinner showdown crackles with tension, and the daylong drama is heightened by the choruslike commentary of the black couple who run the Cromwells' household.
Indeed the polish of the entire exercise raises the question in the reader's mind why it was ever necessary, historically, for drama to evolve from the well-made play. Why shouldn't the eternal questions that the novel grapples with always be treated in the old-fashioned form that Mr. Fast has chosen to cast The Dinner Party in?
Looking at the novel in this light, one begins to wish that Mr. Fast had availed himself of certain modern literary techniques. One wishes, for instance, that he had made use of symbolism, so that the various characters could stand for something more than the mere categories they now seem to represent: blacks, liberals, Jews, women and homosexuals ranged against the brutal and bigoted representatives of the American establishment.
One wishes that Mr. Fast had made use of the techniques of irony and ambiguity so prevalent in modern literature, if only so that the main message of The Dinner Party weren't so blatantly didactic: that the maintenance of the Cold War military economy inevitably obviates such humane priorities as protecting refugees from foreign tyrannies or researching a cure for AIDS.
As crusty old Augustus Levi tells the Secretary of State and his assistant: “You and your mirror image in the Kremlin could have stopped this lunacy years ago, but neither of you had the brains or the guts. There's no way to rectify it now. You've doomed this lovely little planet of ours. Sure we're enemies. You damn fool, it's not communism that's going to destroy us—it's plain, old-fashioned ignorance and stupidity.”
All the same, considering the artistic limitations he has set himself, Mr. Fast has produced a powerful and absorbing drama. If its characters are types, they are richly illustrated ones. And in addition to Cold War politics, it concerns itself with an issue that isn't narrowly ideological, the problem of coming to terms with death in a secular world.
At the end of the book, after Senator Cromwell has gone to bed and wept “for his son and for himself,” we get a final glimpse of the doomed Leonard, alone in his bedroom meditating. “He sat cross-legged on a small round pillow, watching the rise and fall of his breath, listening to the question, Where were you before you were born? For this moment, his fear was gone.”
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 813
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.”
Over snowy napery and gleaming silver, their faces magically softened by candlelight and their wits sharpened by wine. Washington's great, near-great, and Oh-God-if-I-pull-this-one-off-I'll-be-great gather for their kind of dinner party.
It is the kind where you hustle clients, push causes, and, after careful premeditation, pass, share and relish the tastiest dish of the night, inside Washington gossip. Austin Kiplinger, renowned newsletter mogul and guest, remarked that in Washington. “At any given party it's hard to know who's paying the bill, and for what motive you happen to be invited.”
These days, fun comes to an end sooner rather than later. Washington's curfew has become earlier and earlier. For the past year or so. Washington hosts have bade their last dinner guests adieu as early as 10 p.m. Some say It's because of the advanced age of top administration figures. Others point out that Power Diners of the late '80s expect to rise at dawn for the obligatory game of Power Tennis that precedes their Power Breakfast. (That will be at the Hay Adams near the White House, La Colline on Capitol Hill, or Joe and Mo's downtown.)
“Since fitness hit,” crows one athletic lobbyist, “the backstage bonding that once took place exclusively over cigars and brandy—the bonding with your White House person, your senator, your powerful journalist, your diplomat—now, it all happens in the mornings.”
It is not too late, though, for author Howard Fast's novel The Dinner Party, which is about a senator's dinner party and that purports to show how power, pelf and push interact over the lemon mousse.
Mr. Fast seems like a man keenly tuned to trends. He served a three-month jail sentence in 1950 for taking the Fifth before the House Un-American Activities Committee; he won the Stalin International Peace prize in 1953; was blacklisted in Hollywood along with the very nicest people; and he repented, writing of communism as The Naked God in 1957. In season, his passions have been pricked by Zen meditation, Jewishness, Sacco and Vanzetti, immigrants, Hessians, Thomas Paine (his play Citizen Tom Paine will hit the Washington stage this spring) and Spartacus. Many of his 50-odd works are standard biographies used in high schools.
This, his latest, is, well, weighty. We learn, for example, that the senator who hosts the dinner party is 30 pounds overweight at 190 pounds—at least 50 pounds heavier than his gay son, Leonard, who has AIDS. In this corner, the senator's wife, Dolly, weighs in at 122 pounds. Joan his mistress and secretary, tips the scale at 130. Mother-in-law Jenny is 30 pounds overweight at 150 pounds. (A handy size for a referee if wife and mistress ever go for each other. But they don't.) The senator's father-in-law, a billionaire whom some of the guests wish to dissuade from building a road clear across Central America, appears “large but not fat” at 240 pounds.
Obsessional as he is about the results of eating, Mr. Fast is surprisingly inaccurate about the details of dinner itself. Food and clothing are of very limited interest at Washington dinner parties—what comes out of people's mouths being far more important than what goes in. Few Power-Circuit Washingtonians would insist, or notice, that beans and chopped spinach are hotsy-totsy veggies, as Mr. Fast does. Nor would they think white tuxedos are particularly grand. Oh, they appear occasionally, like peregrine falcons over the Pentagon, but vanish as quickly. Once last year, George Shultz sported a white brocade dinner jacket to a fete at the Canadian Embassy. Washington Post publisher Kay Graham, was far more stricken by Shultz's get-up than she was by the now-notorious slapping scene that was about to occur. “Oh my God, a white tuxedo! I think I'll go home,” she told a chum. The jacket has not reappeared.
Nobody in Mr. Fast's book gets what he wants from the dinner party. Well, except the billionaire. I guess that's pretty true to life. Most of the other characters, regardless of weight, are constantly fumbling through a ragbag of fashionable issues and, with Mr. Fast's help, treating them as matters of ethics and morality.
No matter how sleazy their acts, how primitive their consciences, how witless their talk and how inexplicable their motives, we are definitely supposed to know that this senator and his family think right.
Well, they can't come to dinner at my house.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 442
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.
But not at a dinner party created by Howard Fast. Rather than ideas, issues, names and witticisms, you get a couple of college kids sounding off about Buddhism and meditation—reverberations of the worst of the 1960s. “I mean, to me,” the senator's son tells the secretary of state, “taking a human life is an act of murder.” His daughter, equally given to profundity, tells the secretary about “mushroomlike clouds” that will “blow us all away.”
Her father, Sen. Richard Cromwell, is silent at dinner, and silent through most of the novel. He is shown to be vaguely liberal. He is angry about the arrest of the Tucson activists who gave sanctuary to Salvadorans. And he's against nuclear war.
But other than that, we get “Dallas” or “Dynasty” in the Washington suburbs. We see him jogging in the morning, cruising in his Mercedes sports coupe, swimming in his pool, setting up a rendezvous with his female assistant, discussing wines with his butler. He is surrounded by a cardboard cast that includes a son at Harvard Law, tall and handsome but with AIDS, and a wife with family wealth but aging and unhappy. And guess what? She is seeing an analyst.
“She realized that there was a true mythic connection in what was happening this evening,” Fast tells us about the impending dinner party. “Two of the most powerful people in all of mankind's history on Earth were coming to her pleasant old country house. They represented a power that dwarfed the Alexanders and Caesars and Napoleons and Hitlers. They could press a button and extinguish not only mankind, but all that lives on Earth.”
Guess who's coming to dinner? Not Reagan and Gorbachev. It's the secretary of state and an assistant secretary. An assistant secretary with his finger on the button?
My suggestion is, don't wade through another 100 pages waiting for this dinner party to begin. Skip the book, call a few friends who are good conversationalists, and meet them for dinner.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1836
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, his thin body seeming about to propel itself forward but held back by the dignity of his 72 years. From the president to the expression “page-turner,” Fast can move from impatience to indignation.
“When you get a group of thugs like you have in the White House today with a semi-senile actor playing the part of the president, then it is possible to wipe the entire consciousness of the country into a state of knowing nothing about their country. In particular, I guess the most outrageous example of that is when [President] Reagan compared the men around George Washington to the contras. This is like comparing them to the Mafia.”
The author of 44 books, many of them historical novels such as Citizen Tom Paine, Freedom Road, Spartacus and The Immigrants, thinks Americans shortchange their history. He doesn't feel that when Reagan said in 1985 of the contras that “they are the moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers and the brave men and women of the French Resistance,” that many people were as angry as he.
So the volley against the president is fired, the dry wit and biting passion are there, but for an aging leftist, the volleys are aimed in large measure at the darkness. He's written like a causist “all my life,” he says, but “it doesn't do much good, believe me.”
Fast is one of the survivors of the blacklisting of the 1940s and 1950s, a popular writer who was a member of the Communist Party for 14 years and refused to name names to the House Un-American Activities Committee. In 1950 he spent three months in a federal prison for contempt of Congress, and there finally finished reading his favorite book, War and Peace.
When publishers wouldn't touch his work, Fast published his own books, and later he wrote successfully under such pseudonyms as E. V. Cunningham and Magnus Erickson. He survived, he says, “because all through that time my books sold tremendous quantities in Europe.”
Since the late 1970s, Fast has been enjoying a renaissance of attention and financial rewards. The Immigrants, the first of a five-volume saga, was made into a television miniseries, and his latest book. The Dinner Party, is receiving respectable notices.
This week Citizen Tom Paine, a drama based on a book Fast wrote 43 years ago, opens at the Kennedy Center, starring Richard Thomas.
Fast detests most adaptations of his work. “The people who adapt them are very often idiots and the producers who produce them are very often illiterates. And so the product is very often a frightful travesty of what I wrote,” he says.
But he is lavish in his praise of Paine. It was first revived with a script written by Fast at the Williamstown Theater Festival in the summer of 1985. “There never was in my experience so beautiful an equation as Richard Thomas and Tom Paine. Richard is an indestructible bundle of energy. He is not only a brilliant actor, I think one of the fine actors of our time … but Richard is an intellectual, which is not too common among actors.” As for director James Simpson, Fast tags him “the most gifted director since [Elia] Kazan.”
While Fast talks, this clear winter day in his homey Fifth Avenue apartment overlooking Central Park, he looks downward, his chin almost buried in a sleeveless pullover. But his dry humor filters up through the wool, even with occasional fading of his strong voice. “If I don't remember, I talk softly,” he laughs. But he fairly shouts about politics.
The evening news is his video B-12 shot, entertaining, agonizing and infuriating. General U.S. dismissal of Soviet reforms under Mikhail Gorbachev, Fast finds, is part of “the infantile approach to history that permeates overstuffed American commentators … These pompous idiots know nothing about history and nothing about politics. They write such things off as public relations gestures, and they are not. They are gigantic movements, and Gorbachev is simply the apex of the movement.”
Though his renaissance of the last few years has made him prosperous, Fast grew up in poverty on New York's Lower East Side. His grandparents had immigrated from Fastov in the Ukraine. His father was a working man with stretches of unemployment during which the family lived off the children's earnings. Fast and his brothers had newspaper routes, and Fast worked in the Harlem branch of the New York City library.
His first novel, Two Valleys, was published in 1933, and for the next 20 years Fast was a regular on the bestseller lists. At the same time, his success was tempered by frustration over the minimal social impact of his books.
“In 1944 I wrote a novel about black Reconstruction in the South, Freedom Road. It became the most widely read novel of the 20th century. It was reprinted in 82 languages. It is a record that as far as I can find out no other book matches. There was a tribe in Africa … where a few members of the tribe had been educated in England, and they created a [written] language and it was the first book ever published in their language. For all that I could see, it didn't shake America one bit. The liberation of black people was still 20 years in the future,” he says.
Fast was one of the headliners in the 1950s in the famous anti-Communist hearings spearheaded by Sen. Joseph McCarthy. He had joined the Communist Party in 1943 and in 1950 was elected to the honorary presidium of the Congress for the Struggle for Peace Committees in Romania, along with Paul Robeson and Josef Stalin.
When he was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, he refused to answer the question that symbolized the inquiry and the era: “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?”
“The first thing, they asked me if I was an agent of a foreign power and I said ‘Yes.’ They said, ‘Is this a conspiratorial power?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ They asked, ‘Are you in the service, do you take orders from this power?’ and I said, ‘Yes.’ They said, ‘Are you ready to name this foreign power?’ At that point they were so excited they were having orgasms in their seats. They were ready to embrace me. They said, ‘Very well, name the power.’ And I said, ‘God.’ And I went to jail. But I got in a good one-liner.”
Six years later, he was called to testify before McCarthy's Senate committee, and after the session, he recalls, “I walked over to where Senator [Everett] Dirksen was. I said, ‘Senator Dirksen, take a few minutes. I want to explain something to you.’ And he was so taken aback. He stopped and said, ‘All right.’ I said, ‘We are not a conspiracy. These are people who are trying to help the country. We are trying to bring a little more freedom, a little more this and that into it.’ I said, ‘If you would read your history, if you would read about Eugene Debs … you would understand these things better.’ And this silly man just stood there and nodded his head and said, ‘Yes sir, I'll try.’ And he walked off …”
“It was so important,” he says, “to talk back and not be afraid.”
Why did he buttonhole Dirksen? “We used to buy his records. He would sing country songs,” the author recalls, launching into a little Dirksen discography.
Fast has never written about that period, but says, “I will, if I live long enough. It is very personal and I would not know how to tell it except in nonfiction.”
But there are aspects of the McCarthy era he doesn't want people to forget: “The fact that in our beautiful country, the same thing could happen that happened in Nazi Germany. That you could terrify an entire nation to the point of hysterical fear …”
“I was terrorized, my kids were threatened. I expected it. I had nothing to hide. The real terror was among people who had something to hide. Those people—I could walk down the street and meet three people I had known for years, and they would all walk past me pretending not to see me for fear of what might happen to them if they said hello.”
In The Naked God, published in 1957, Fast explained his involvement with the Communist Party. After Nikita Khrushchev revealed details about the murders of writers under Josef Stalin without promising reforms, Fast left the party. Later he was denounced by the Soviets as a “deserter under fire.”
“Why can't they say the book is a pleasure to read or a delight to read or a bore to read?”
This year Fast and his wife Bette, a sculptor, will have been married 50 years. They have two children, Rachel, a psychologist, and Jonathan, a novelist. In recent years Fast has adopted Buddhism. He once called it “the only nonexclusionary religion on Earth, and therefore the only one I feel at ease with.”
Fast thinks audiences at the Kennedy Center will be able to connect with Citizen Thomas Paine's crusade to convince the Founding Fathers that a new experiment and new country could be created. “The enormously energetic, enthusiastic Paine in the first act is something that any young person would find great rapport with,” he says.
But he remains troubled that history, both in and out of school, remains terribly neglected in the United States. “If this country had a consciousness of history, such as exists in Great Britain, they would have been much more outraged at Reagan's comparison of Washington to the contras … an explosion of such incredible ignorance that … he is not fit for public office of any kind.”
But with all his strong opinions, Fast still respects his readers. He remains grateful to them. And at times, he even spies on them. Occasionally, he says, he hangs around a bookstore at 82nd and Madison. “They sell a great deal of my books there, and sometimes I see the people buying and no one under 30 comes in there and buys a book.” This reader-browsing gives him energy. “You do it out of curiosity. If you do a play, you see the audience, you watch their faces, you go in the lobby and circulate and listen to what they say. You write a book, you cast it into the wind, and who knows what anyone says?”
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 873
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 always tell myself that someday I'm going to try and add this up, but there's really no way I can do it.”
Mr. Fast, 72 years old, the author of Spartacus, Citizen Tom Paine, April Morning, Freedom Road, The Immigrants and more than 60 other novels, was sitting in his Fifth Avenue apartment getting ready to discuss his latest book, The Dinner Party, a work that is a departure from his best-selling immigrant saga of recent years. The cast of characters includes a United States Senator and his wife; the Secretary of State; the Senator's billionaire father-in-law; the Senator's homosexual son, and the son's black lover. The topics include Zen meditation, AIDS, quantum mechanics, and the church-related sanctuary movement that has helped illegal aliens from Central America enter this country.
Critics have said that The Dinner Party reads like a well-made play. Mr. Fast has written nine plays; his most recent, an adaptation of Citizen Tom Paine, is being done in Philadelphia and Washington, and there is a possibility that it will come to Broadway. “The play is a marvelous form,” he said. “But it demands less than a novel. A really fine novel to me is the highest form of literature we have today. On the other hand, the theater is direct and intimate, and I wanted that quality in this book—a direct confrontation with the audience.”
Some critics have lamented that Mr. Fast did not use in the novel certain techniques of modern fiction, such as irony and ambiguity. “I think I used a good deal of irony,” Mr. Fast said. As for ambiguity, he said, he's not an ambiguous person—“An opinion, any opinion, unless it's voiced tentatively, is in black and white.”
A ‘STAIN’ ON HONOR
“The Dinner Party is a direct result of my being unable to get over my problem of indignation,” he said. “I get indignant too easily. I had been following this sanctuary business. To me, this was the kind of stain on the honor and decency of America that had never happened. To wire an informer and send him into a church to record conversations, and then to use those recordings to threaten priests, a minister, a nun and other people with five years' imprisonment?”
“I began brooding over this,” he said. “What happens,” I asked myself, “if a United States Senator is equally horrified by this sanctuary business? What could an honest man do in the face of this abomination? Or could he do nothing? Is a man in the Senate, the highest deliberative body we have, as powerless as I am?” These are interesting questions. The book is my attempt to explore these questions—not to answer them, because I don't know the answers. And I thought the exploration of these questions was terribly important.
Mr. Fast was born in New York City, into poverty. “I began to work when I was 11 years old, to help support our family,” he said. “When I got out of high school there was no way I could even dream of going to college, so I got up at 6 in the morning and wrote for two hours and then went down to the garment district to work in a factory. I sold my first story when I was 17, to Amazing Stories magazine. When I was 18 I sold my first novel.”
THREE MONTHS IN PRISON
A successful writer, Mr. Fast joined the Communist Party—a move he attributes at least in part to the poverty of his youth. Appearing before a Congressional committee investigating Communism, he refused to name names, and served three months in prison in 1950 for his refusal. Then, from 1950 to 1960, he was blacklisted.
In 1956, Mr. Fast denounced and left the Communist Party. “It was one thing after another,” he said, and it culminated “when Khrushchev gave that speech before the 20th Party Congress” exposing the horrors of the Stalinist era. Another reason, he said, was the growing realization “that anti-Semitism had taken root and had grown in the Soviet Union.”
After the blacklist, Mr. Fast of course went back to being a best-selling novelist, and his books have sold millions of copies.
“I've been very fortunate,” he said. “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 noblest achievement of the human race on this planet—which was called the United States of America.”
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1009
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 Party (from which he subsequently resigned).
Their collaborative efforts have produced Citizen Tom Paine, a two-act patriotic play adapted from Fast's novel of the same title. It is a tour de force for Thomas, who nearly exhausts himself in an energetic 2 1/2-hour re-creation of the life of the brilliant and unkempt firebrand and pamphleteer whose words helped inspire America's independence from Britain and the survival of George Washington's beleaguered Continental Army.
Paine, who died in poverty and disgrace in New York in 1809, is brought back to life twice in the play. The drama had originally ended with a deathbed scene, but a clever addendum by Thomas and Fast has Paine talking, lambasting and blaspheming past his own expiration.
If Paine lives, Citizen Tom Paine is unfortunately in limbo. It played to packed houses in Philadelphia and last week completed a successful seven-week run at Washington's Kennedy Center. But its future is uncertain as it has not received another booking.
Although he intends to return to television for a time, Thomas is disappointed that Paine is without another audience, if only temporarily. “I think it's a show the heartland would enjoy a great deal,” said Thomas, 35. “It's more important than getting it into New York. In the heartland, people won't be expecting this kind of fun thing. That's the audience it's really meant to reach. It's a popular show with a populist appeal, just as Paine himself was.”
“Of course, he breaks all the rules, and he's a very disagreeable person. He has no manners. But people enjoy seeing that on stage every now and then. I think they enjoy seeing me raise a little hell.”
To call Paine a patriotic play is not to imply a Fourth of July tableau. The unshaven, brandy-swigging, ink-stained journalist and propagandist gave short shrift to the pomposity and upper-class arrogance exhibited by many of the Founding Fathers, including such gentlemen as Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe. Fast—and Thomas—bring forth this radical and sometimes roguish disrespect with force and hilarity.
Washington, for example, is not the noble general of “Crossing the Delaware” fame. His big moment with Paine comes in a drinking scene in a very cold tent, which is much closer to the real man. In the actual crossing of the Delaware, Washington sat huddled in a cloak and is reported to have spoken only the words, “Shift your arse, Knox, and trim the boat.”
Paine has received decidedly mixed early reviews from local critics. Local television's Arch Campbell, probably Washington's most popular critic, gave it a rave review. The Washington Post's David Richards called it “instructive, picturesque and well-intentioned,” but added it was “stuffed with pomposity, pretension and dialogue so ripe that, were it fruit, you wouldn't be able to see the stage for the flies.” Still, Joe Brown of the Post's “Weekend” section gave it a plus, saying Thomas “packs such fireworks into his portrait of Paine that it seems like a one-man show with a few human props.”
It is a one-man show in that the play would be absolutely impossible without Thomas, whose fire and gall keep the show going at times when it might otherwise collapse. As with Hal Holbrook and his famous portrayal of Mark Twain, Thomas has put his own stamp on the character so indelibly that one cannot imagine anyone else in the part.
Thomas Paine spends a lot of time stepping out of scenes to talk to the audience. In fact, he spends part of the time among the audience, swaggering noisily down the center aisle and up on stage at the beginning.
But rather than a flawed play, perhaps, Paine is simply a strange one. Modern critics who fault the dialogue forget how archly 18th-Century men of position spoke, and if there ever was a man for ripe invective, it was Tom Paine.
The plot is odd and occasionally disappears, but essentially it consists of Paine's life, one of the more melodramatic in history. The first act deals with his arrival in colonial America in 1774 from England, the revolutionary struggle that prompted him to write “Common Sense” and “Crisis” and his personal triumph at Revolutionary War's end.
The second half depicts the long misadventure that was his involvement in the French Revolution, his imprisonment and exile and ultimately, his death in New York, where his body was forbidden burial because of his deist tract “The Age of Reason,” which was almost universally condemned as atheistic.
If the scenes are episodic, there is really no other way to present 35 years of a man's life and confrontations with the historic likes of Benjamin Franklin and Washington, Robespierre and Napoleon. Besides, most of these scenes are rousers.
“I like to play it,” said Thomas, who read all of Paine's works in preparing himself for the part. “I like to bring this man's ideas out to the public. It's not just that one is doing a play that's fun to do and fun to see. He (Paine) is reminding us of what our roots as Americans are and letting us know that radicalism is part and parcel of every great central earthquake that takes place. Certainly this country is the result of a great one.”
Thomas, a veteran stage actor whose television credits also include the lead roles in “All Quiet on the Western Front” and “The Red Badge of Courage,” may have the ideal solution for “Paine's” future.
“This play, I think, would work splendidly on television.”
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 878
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.) Although relevant histories and biographies appear every season, few works of fiction by established writers have dealt with this period. It was a theme, one of a few, in Lionel Trilling's The Middle of the Journey. It formed the plot of Frederick Buechner's The Return of Ansel Gibbs, which not many remember now. But of the important novelists of the postwar period, only Norman Mailer has given it serious attention—in two novels, The Barbary Shore and The Deer Park.
But now, practically simultaneously, two novels about this shameful period have been published. One, The Pledge, by Howard Fast, was predictable, perhaps even inevitable. The other, The Big Nowhere [by James Ellroy], comes as something of a surprise. …
Howard Fast has done something quite different. His novel, The Pledge, takes the red witchhunt following World War II directly as its subject. He meets it head-on, just as the witchhunt once met Howard Fast himself. Today's best-selling author of chronicles depicting upwardly mobile protagonists in their battles to get to the top (books such as The Immigrant and The Outsider) was himself jailed for contempt of Congress during that period. He refused to give the House Committee on Un-American Activities names it already had. At the time he was already well established as a novelist, with at least a couple of bestsellers to his credit—Citizen Tom Paine and Spartacus.
Bruce Bacon, the young hero of The Pledge, is not quite so well known. A reporter, and a good one, he had earned a solid reputation for himself as a war correspondent in Europe. We pick him up in Calcutta, post VE Day, where he has gone to finish out the war. (Why there and not the South Pacific is anybody's guess.) There is a rice famine: millions are dying in Bengal. Local communists prove to him that there is rice enough to feed the starving population. The Muslim merchants are holding it back with the connivance of the British colonial authorities. Bacon tries to get this story out and gets kicked out of the China-Burma-India Theater for his trouble. Back in New York he starts to write a book about the war that will include the famine story. That's when his troubles really begin.
A word about Bruce Bacon. Simply put, he's a stiff. People are always telling him how innocent he is, saying he's an Eagle Scout. Well, he is, sort of—but he is also rather thick-headed, all too confident that his reputation as a reporter and his comfortable upper-middle class background will see him through every sort of test.
As a matter of fact, the reader may find himself rather bored with Bruce (that awful WASP name!) and will welcome the entrance of Molly Maguire on page 77. This is a woman with some style. An Irish-Catholic from Boston, she has become a communist without giving up her religion; she is passionately both a Catholic and a communist. She also becomes Bruce Bacon's passionate lover. A reporter for The Daily Worker, she is well-informed about the threat to the reds posed by the HUAC and the FBI. She is not in the least surprised when personal pressure from J. Edgar Hoover forces publisher after publisher to turn down Bruce's book. Nor is she astonished when he is brought before the Committee to answer questions on his contracts with communists in India and New York. Although he is not then and never was a member of the Communist Party, Molly of course is. Her name comes up, and he refuses to name her as a communist.
(Another word here: Howard Fast presents his communists realistically in The Pledge: there are careerists and tunnel-visioned true believers among them, just as there are idealists who need a dream to hold onto. Fast himself was a Communist Party member until 1956, when he broke with it over Soviet repression of the Hungarian revolution.)
Bruce is convicted on charges of contempt of Congress and sentenced to a year in prison. The section of The Pledge covering Bruce's imprisonment—roughly the last hundred pages—is wonderfully written, as though it were from a different book entirely. But it's from no book at all; it's written from life—Howard Fast's own. Bruce Bacon comes out of prison a better man, as I suspect the author also did, having learned a lot about himself and common humanity.
If the rest of the book could only have been written as honestly from the well of personal experience, The Pledge might have been that novel on the witchhunt that we still look for. We may never find it. Those best prepared by experience seem unequipped as writers.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1084
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 story he has to tells is a lively and gripping one, and better written than Fast's preachy excursions into other people's histories, though there are lapses: “A writer is a strange creature. He is a delicate sheet of foil on which the world prints its impressions. …” Like the imprisoned Oscar Wilde remarking that the writer who should have been locked up was Marie Corelli, a character in a Mordecai Richler novel set in the fifties says that Howard Fast should stay in jail for “violence to the English language.”
Left-wing activism was part of the Fast family tradition. In 1898, his father, a Ukrainian immigrant, “and a few other Jewish boys working at the tin factory organized regiment to fight in Cuba and thereby revenge themselves for the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492.” Unfortunately, there was also a tradition of dissension in the ranks: The worker who collected money for uniforms, sabers, and horses ran off with it. Barney Fast, “a man who always had both feet planted firmly in midair,” married and fathered five children (Howard was born in 1914), a poor but close-knit family that was shattered when Fast's mother died and his father sank into depression.
Eight years old at the time, he went to work soon after, delivering newspapers and hiring himself out to a cigar-maker. (Later, his jobs, such as reclaiming overdue library books from whorehouses, became more interesting.) Worse, his father, in a shortsighted attempt to help the family, moved them from the Lower East Side to the Upper West, where they were the only Jews. After being attacked again and again, Fast “put the largest kitchen knife we had in my belt, walked down the stairs and into the street, and as four kids advanced on me, I presented the butcher knife and stated that I might get only one of them, but that one would be dead.” He was eleven. When not working or fighting, Fast read his way through the public library and started to write. At seventeen, he sold a short story. At eighteen, he sold a novel, his sixth. Shortly before that, thumbing his way through the South, he saw police set on other vagrants with clubs and haul them off, and only his plea to phone his father for bus fare home, he believes, saved him from a chain gang.
The brutality of Fast's background, he says, and his awareness of the misery caused by the Depression, made him a socialist. “And because I came to believe that the only serious socialist party in America was the Communist Party, I was bitterly attacked and slandered for fifteen years of my life.” The ironies alone of Fast's persecution would be enough to make him bitter. Not only was he the author of such advertisements for America as Citizen Tom Paine and Freedom Road (the story of a slave who becomes a congressman), he also wrote the government's daily shortwave broadcast to occupied Europe on the progress of World War II. Also during the war, Fast organized a Communist-sponsored reception for Harry Truman (who, Fast says, knew who his backers were) and was invited to the White House as a reward for his contributions to the 1944 Democratic campaign. The lunch was somewhat less glamorous than Nancy Reagan's affairs: Eleanor Roosevelt explained that while combat GIs were eating cold C rations, she didn't think it right to serve a meal costing more than 30 cents.
The money and influence Fast's career brought him, however, were no use against the anti-Communist mania of the postwar period. He brings alive the days of parochial-school children carrying signs that read KILL A COMMIE FOR CHRIST, of the moronic and vicious editorials that justify his lurid metaphor “dogs sniffing a trail of blood,” and of the Peekskill concerts of 1949, where local rednecks, assisted by local police, burned peace pamphlets and beat and stoned the “white niggers” who had come to hear Paul Robeson. The persecution did not stop with Fast's conviction and imprisonment; magazines and book publishers rejected his work, some of them simply afraid, some directly threatened by the FBI, which also sent an agent to the New York Public Library with an order to destroy his books.
Against this, of course, one must set the fact that even if Communism was no threat to America, it was evil. Fast's defense concerning his ignorance of the party's crimes is that he heard so much anti-Communist nonsense it was hard to believe that some of the accusations were true. But the censorship and interference he suffered from the party higher-ups, too, was a comic distortion of the grimmer restrictions of freedom in the Soviet Union. (Of course, much about the American Communist Party was strange: One wonders what Lenin would have made of The Daily Worker's Broadway-gossip column.) When a play of his was put on by the Communist-backed New Playwrights group, he was told that the part of one son in a Jewish family would be played by James Earl Jones and was reprimanded for his “white chauvinism” when he protested.
Explaining his disenchantment with the party, Fast says, “When you find that a priest can be a selfish bastard and a rabbi a lecher and a judge a cold-blooded murderer … and in your Communist Party, the same lechers and mindless jerks and egotistical power-hungry bastards, then something washes out of you and you are cold and empty inside.” To put it another way, you are grown-up and free of illusions about a perfect substitute family. But that is by the way. Oscar Wilde also thought that it was not as bad to be immoral as to be mediocre, but about that he was wrong. What the strongest nation on Earth did to its woolly thinkers was a lasting shame and a permanent warning. It is good to have this sordid and salutary tale told again.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 894
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 mission in the interests of peace and brotherhood. Stiffening slightly, Fast replied that if the comrade read the newspapers he would know that fascism was coming to the United States and that, as a direct consequence he, Fast, would be in prison by the following week. He therefore had no choice but to decline the kind invitation. “All right then,” returned the Pole or Czech or Hungarian envoy, “Come when you get out.”
This memoir brought that tale back to mind. Like the tale, the memoir is modern history as it affected Fast. But like the tale, the memoir is also true. Fast did go to jail for his convictions (one of the few Stalinists who did) and he has led a life rich in incident. Moreover, his Spartacus and his Citizen Tom Paine are still on many a shelf, and once set the blood coursing through the veins of men and women who are now safe, staid liberals. Fast also differs from the classic pattern of the ex-Communist stereotype, made notorious by James Burnham and Whittaker Chambers. He left the Communist Party for the same reason that he joined it—which is to say he left it because he was interested in social justice and historical truth.
Love him or hate him, it's very difficult to read him. “There is no way to tell the story of the curious life that happened to me without dealing with the fact that I was for many years what that old brute Senator Joseph McCarthy delighted in calling ‘a card-carrying member of the Communist Party.’” Hold it right there, one wants to exclaim, except that this is the opening sentence. Do you intend to include any punctuation? Will all your passages and periods be so exhaustingly informal?
Things improve a little, though it's not as if one hasn't read other accounts of being a Jewish proletarian, kicked around by poverty and the police, happening suddenly upon the work of Jack London and John Reed. After about 50 pages, however, Fast tells us of being turned down by a white street gang because he was an “unwanted Jew bastard,” thus missing the fight where “They took one of the black kids prisoner, driving away the others, and in imitation of stories they had read in the tabloids and movies they had seen, they lynched the little boy—he was thirteen—putting a rope around his neck and pulling him up on a tree branch in the woods to the south of Macomb's Bluff.”
A hell of a story, you'll have to admit, and later fictionalized by Fast as part of his astounding output.
The most moving and effective parts of this book show Fast's engagement in the battle against racism. There is an outstandingly graphic eyewitness description of the near-pogrom at Peekskill, where a crowd that wanted to hear Paul Robeson was set upon by a mob which acted with all the courage guaranteed it by police complicity. The other accounts of rallies, picket-lines and causes long past are small beer compared to this, and could have benefited from the blue pencil. I hope it's not churlish to say the same about his confrontation with the House Un-American Activities Committee, which except for some two-fistedly Fastian details is the story of bovine, philistine persecution as we have come to know and accept it.
Published as it is at the beginning of the post-Communist era, Fast's book seems even more dated than many narratives that emerged considerably earlier. There is, however, one episode that might tickle the historians. In 1946, the famous French Communist physicist Frederic Joliot-Curie came to New York. During a conversation with Fast, he revealed that the Soviet Union already possessed atomic bombs and that he had seen and worked on the weaponry. He gave an approximate timetable for the growth in Soviet nuclear capacity. To Fast's astonished questioning, he replied calmly that there was nothing to be surprised about, except that all Americans thought Russians were primitives. Fast printed the claim in the Daily Worker, expecting to elicit some official response, and was surprised at the resulting silence. Three years later, when Truman and Omar Bradley made the announcement for themselves, there was hysteria. How does this anecdote alter the fabled “atom spy” controversy?
Everyone, they used to say, has his Kronstadt—his breaking point with the mixture of Utopianism and cynicism that was American Communism. For Fast, it was anti-Jewish mania in the Soviet Union that broke the main spring. But, as this rambling first-person stream of consciousness makes plain, if it hadn't been that, it would assuredly have been something else. How fortunate we are to live in a time when this book will arouse no controversy.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1396
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 at American values from the vantage point of the rebel, the outsider and the slave. They reflected the revisionary view of what was truly “American” that animated both Popular Front politics and the then-embryonic academic interest in American history and literature. Conceived in Liberty (1939), The Unvanquished (1942), and Citizen Tom Paine (1943) recounted in Fast's plain-spoken passionate prose his story of the American Revolution.
The story of The Last Frontier (1941) was the desperate Cheyenne march from Oklahoma to their native lands on the Yellowstone. The hero of Freedom Road (1944) was a freed slave and of Spartacus a Roman gladiator. And when Fast wrote a novel called The American, his central character was not some Jamesian American abroad but John Peter Altgeld, the governor of Illinois who freed the anarchists accused in the Haymarket riots in Chicago.
In 1957, after Khrushchev's revelations at the 20th Party Congress, Fast left the party and wrote The Naked God to describe his disillusionment as a Communist writer. Since then, his writing has been as prolific as before. His series of novels about the immigrant Lavette family brought him to the best-seller list several times (although perhaps no single book of his has sold as well in the United States as did his brother Julius' Body Language).
But as far as his new memoir, Being Red, is concerned, the years since 1957 have been primarily a lengthy postscript to his life in a movement and at a time when moral commitment and political engagement really counted. “We are romantics,” he says, “like a priesthood,” and a good deal of his attitude evokes the sustaining feeling of being embattled for a good cause, what Fast at another point calls “the burden of morality,” that was assumed by so many party members, confirmed in their beliefs in part because of their persecution by the obviously fiendish and evil. As Fast remarks later, he would not mind leaving his FBI report behind as a testament for his grandchildren of his commitment to human rights.
The image of himself that Fast presents in Being Red is that of a heterodox and independent writer who believed in the Communist vision of a better future at the same time that he chafed under party discipline. As the most prominent American writer who remained a party member during the hard days of the blacklist, he was allowed a certain latitude, although he recounts being attacked for his “I Write as I Please” column in the Daily Worker by John Howard Lawson and here, as in The Naked God, he details the attacks made on his novels by party functionaries for their doctrinal deviations.
The issue of artistic independence was always a vexed question, especially for the writers in the party. In memoirs and other books about the period, Fast often appears as a staunch defender of the party's political authority over errant artists. But by his own account, he is just as frequently a victim. In one incident, he is threatened with expulsion for his refusal to change “boys and girls” to “youths” in a passage describing a group of black and white teenagers. Yet, when he complains about the CP's tyranny over artists and praises the moral conscience of Albert Maltz (with whom he was in prison in 1951), the reader has no way of being reminded (except by omission) that in 1946 when Maltz complained in the New Masses of the aridity and constriction of party artistic life, Fast attacked him roundly a few weeks later for his “reactionary” point of view.
Fast made an anguished apology in The Naked God for the attack on Maltz. But despite his growing misgivings, Fast remained in the party until Khrushchev's speech. His general disaffection from the party leadership and his disillusionment over the increasing evidence of Soviet anti-Semitism drove him out. Unlike many who recanted their old allegiances, Fast never named names, and even now he carefully avoids incriminating those who might still wish to be anonymous.
On the whole, his account of the faults and virtues of American Communism is more balanced than it was 23 years ago in The Naked God. But the basic question still remains: What was the bargain that Faust had struck with his own demons and his ideals that allowed him to stay in the party so long as its most prominent apologist in the arts, and then to leave with an equally strenuous denunciations?
Some aspects of Fast's political history will need a historian's care to verify and interpret. He recounts, for example, how in 1949 he carried to the Paris Peace Congress a formal charge of anti-Semitism brought by the Communist Party of the United States against the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. According to Fast, the charge was summarily rejected by Alexander Fadeyev, the head of the Soviet Writer's Union, the same man who a short time before (in a story told fully in The Naked God and only alluded to here) had assured Fast and others that Soviet Jewish writers were flourishing, when they had in fact been tortured and executed.
It's hard not to see Fadeyev as a kind of Soviet doppelganger for Fast—the writer as political operative. But, while Fadeyev coolly offered up historical necessity in place of truth, Fast's own commitment to the party line held a precarious rein on his passions. With Khrushchev's revelations, Fadeyev committed suicide. Fast, the American literary commissar, curiously compounded of totalitarian and anarchist impulses, left the party.
But in general there is a peculiarly disjointed quality to Fast's view of himself in Being Red. Like the revolutionary heroes in his best novels, Fast has more gift for action than for introspection. There are gestures toward his personal psychology (he remarks that his childhood was so tormented that he has been virtually unable to write about it), but they are largely abortive. The little fragments of personal psychology and peevishness and over-explanation that might help the reader to put together a picture of him are there, but it is difficult to make a meaningful mosaic.
We never really learn what writing means to him beyond a way of getting out of the ghetto. Nor do we finally understand what the party meant to him, and why by the early 1950s he “was steadily and sometimes obsessively destroying a career that had started off only ten years earlier as one of the most promising of the time.” His books were selling by the millions abroad, while they were being banned from libraries at home (he had to publish Spartacus on his own). But finally both the lionized Communist hero and the despised Communist traitor were equally unreal to him.
In essence, Being Red is exactly what its title says. It is a memoir of his political nature and its involvement with American Communism, where the political and the personal always had uneasy commerce. Although Fast's wife, her cooking, her sculpture and their children do get mentioned, along with a few enigmatic arguments, Being Red is less an autobiography than a moral testament, an implicit self-exoneration with enough mea culpa to keep away the shadows but not enough light to dispel them.
Perhaps it is the testament that he hopes he will leave to his grandchildren—like his FBI file. But another version of himself seems equally valid:
When Fast is in prison, he works on a fountain sculpture of the famous Prince of Essen, the lost young boy who is immortalized as he is discovered urinating. Others will have to sift through the facts of the history of American Communism and decide how Being Red contributes to them. But for Fast, who wore his politics on his sleeve while his heart remained more hidden, the Prince of Essen may be his own sardonic emblem.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2248
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. He was evil incarnate. He was an absolute ruler who believed in terror as a political means. He was psychotic. He was responsible for the deaths of millions. Hate underlay his actions, especially toward the Jews.
Big Moustache was different. He was evil incarnate. He was an absolute ruler who believed in terror as a political means. He was psychotic. He was responsible for the deaths of millions. Hate underlay his actions, especially toward the Jews.
But everyone knew the sins of Small Moustache, and no one knew the flaws of Big Moustache. After all, he had helped defeat Small Moustache, and his followers were forever trumpeting the benefits of freedom and equality. How could he stand for anything bad? Thus the minstrels and the scribes were completely taken in.
Then, long after Big Moustache had passed into legend, a minor ogre revealed his ancient and hidden crimes. Imagine the surprise of the True Believers! They ran from the shadow of Big Moustache into the sun, never to be deceived again.
If Bill Moyers ever decides to produce The Power of Myth II on PBS, he should aim his cameras at Fast. The author's 47th book is the most fabulous of them all. He rushes to tell us that he grew up in New York, Jewish, poor, hungry, and filled with compassion for the down-trodden. After fellow-traveling through the '30s he finally made his allegiance official—but not without some internal swaggering: “You don't join the Communist Party without carrying a burden of morality. …”
Thousands took the same path: writers, performers, intellectuals, politicians. Somewhere along the line, though, they realized that the burden was outside the party; that official American Communism was false to the minorities it said it would protect, and injurious to the workers it promised to represent; and that below all it apotheosized the century's second greatest mass murderer, Josef Stalin.
Not Fast. Like one of those guests who get loaded and immobile in the first hour, he hung around at the party until no one was left but his uncomfortable hosts. Only after cold water was splashed in his face did he rise and wobble to the door, loudly announcing that he was just about to depart.
Fast claims to have been dismayed by the Moscow Trials of 1936: “In August of that year, 16 of the true old Bolsheviks, men who had participated nobly in the making of the Revolution only 20 years earlier … were put on trial, forced to confess, and then executed.” Many others took this as a symptom of the Soviet Union's malaise and got out.
Not Fast. He dealt with Stalin's lethal farce by looking the other way for eight years. “During that time, I educated myself, went on with my task of learning to write. …” The autodidact pursued a fool's course. In 1944 he joined the CP. Without a trace of irony, he describes his colleagues as “a galaxy of talent and national distinction and international fame.” Assuming the posture of a man on the witness stand, he refuses to name names, perhaps wisely. Richard Rovere, who had his own youthful adventure with the party, once described the esthetics of the Old Left: “The American intellectuals who fell hardest for Communism were men … of tastes at once conventional and execrable. Many of them, of course, had no literary tastes of any sort. The reading matter of Communists was the dreariest kind of journalism. If they read poetry at all, it was likely to be Whittier and Sandburg, not Rimbaud and Ezra Pound … the cultural tone they set in the '30s was … deplorable because it was metallic and strident. Communist culture was … cheap and vulgar and corny.”
For good old-fashioned self-delusion like mother used to make, Fast's chapter on the '40s is indispensable. “Most of us,” he testifies, “had never been to the Soviet Union [Fast, 75, has yet to visit the USSR] and we knew little about it and less about Stalin. I don't believe our leadership lied to us; I think they knew as little as we did. …” He could have come up with a whomping working hypothesis from a re-examination of the Moscow trials, a look at the 1939 Stalin-Hitler Pact, a reading of Orwell's Animal Farm (“‘Ah, that is different!’ said Boxer. ‘If Comrade Napoleon says it, it must be right.’”) Alternatively, he might have flipped through the observations of Irving Howe or Murray Kempton or Richard Wright or Ignazio Silone, or, just for laughs, the arrogant and premonitory comments of Josef Stalin: “One death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic.”
Not Fast. He and his colleagues were in business to deceive each other first and the public second. Some 50 years later he cannot let go of the legends that sustained them. “F. Scott Fitzgerald had been ready to embrace the party, I was told, but whether he actually joined or not, I don't know.” That is Fast talking. Here is Fitzgerald sneering, in re Dorothy Parker's radical babble in the New Masses: “Dotty has embraced the church and reads her office faithfully every day, [but it] does not affect her indifference.”
In 1949 came the Scientific and Cultural Conference for World Peace, held at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in Manhattan. Fast proclaims: “Subsequent histories and the newspapers of the time indicate that it was Soviet-inspired and backed with Soviet money. Let me put that to rest. It was my idea.”
The Conference occurred at the apogee of the shameful blacklisting epoch in Hollywood, and the cusp of the McCarthy hysteria in Washington. Many significant personalities showed up at the Waldorf in a defiant mood, and the idea man used their presence to publicize his own agenda. He is still using them: “I do believe that it brought home to the Truman Administration that its carefully orchestrated campaign of terror had not yet reduced everyone to the point of abject cowardice and indifference.”
In fact, the Conference was designed to encourage that master of terror and promoter of abject cowardice, Josef Stalin. No one critical of the Soviet Union was invited to participate. On various platforms the ideals of peace were boomed at a time when the USSR was blockading Berlin, when purges (i.e. executions and one-way voyages to labor camps) were taking place in Eastern Europe, and when the falsities of Lysenkoism (acquired characteristics are inherited) were being forced on Soviet scientists. None of this, naturally, is of concern to Fast; he has other flesh to fry.
Whenever he mentions Soviet processes, the writer trots out his notions of political parity. A friend is involved in a Soviet-American TV project when he finds himself tailed. Since this is a co-operative venture, the man wonders, why the KGB? Fast gives an official explanation: “If the KGB did not ask for more money each year, their budget would be cut. But when the money was forthcoming, they had to use it, and that meant more operatives, and having an American film crew here in Moscow was a golden opportunity to use up the excess. … I imagine it's no different in the FBI.” Just so; and the Gulag was merely a snowbound version of Leavenworth.
Other malicious tales are set down without a shred of supporting evidence. The Truman Administration, Fast reports, had “a list of 300,000 people … [who] would immediately be interned in case of war with Russia, and a number of large concentration camps had already been built (and are still in existence, for all know).” As for the President himself, a lawyer informed Fast “that the biggest and best fix in the city was at the White House … and then went on to explain, with a good deal of admiration, that Harry Truman was totally honest and dependable, that when he was Senator, his price was $3,000, when he was Vice President, his price was $3,000, and when he became President, his price was still $3,000—and he always delivered. There are enough men still alive who know that I am writing the truth. I am not trying to trash the memory of Harry Truman. I am telling what I know. …”
Having scattered the field with his unique amalgam of smear, rumor and innuendo, Fast prepares for the confessional. In 1949 he heard of horrific anti-Semitic purges in the USSR. During yet another Old Left conference, this time in Paris, he confronted Aleksandr Fadeyev, head of the Soviet Writers Union. The accusations were categorically denied, and the plaintiff dropped the subject. Four years later—just about the time Fast was accepting the Stalin Peace Prize—nine Jewish doctors were framed in a “Zionist plot” against the Soviet State. Fast told a colleague about the earlier conversation with Fadeyev.
“Oh, my God,” exclaimed the listener. “Why haven't you written about this?”
“Because the party asked me not to.”
“Because the party asked you not to? My God, Howard, what are you saying to me?”
“You know I'm a Communist. I can't write about this unless they agree. I spoke to Fadeyev as a disciplined party member. …”
In 1956, Nikita S. Khrushchev went public with the crimes of Stalin, safely dead for three years. Thousands rushed for the doors. Fadeyev took a pistol and blew his brains out.
Not Fast. The disciplined party member continued to write for the Daily Worker and to skirmish, in the way that professional wrestlers do, with his conscience. Irving Howe recalls that period in A Margin of Hope: At Brandeis, “I debated Howard Fast, the popular writer who in a month or two would break with the Communist Party, but was still defending Stalinism. I lashed Fast without kindness or mercy. … Students could not understand the bitterness some of us felt toward Fast, and when he appealed to their sense of ‘fair play’—hack that he was, defender of the Moscow trials, defamer of the Yiddish writers murdered by Stalin!—they responded sympathetically. I could only reply that the spectacle of Fast asking for ‘fair play’ was like a man who kills his mother and father and then asks for mercy on the ground that he is an orphan.”
But that is a hostile memory. What about a friendly one? Here is the lapsed Daily Worker editor John Gates, who was expelled from the party, recalling the comrade who could not bring himself to resign from the CP until 1957: “Fast … defended everything Communist and attacked everything capitalist in the most extravagant terms. It was to be expected that he would react to the Khrushchev revelations in a highly emotional manner. … Later, when he announced his withdrawal and told his story, party leaders leaped on him like a pack of wolves and began that particular brand of character assassination which the Communist movement has always reserved for defectors from its ranks.”
It has been suggested that Fast recently wrote a critique of Leninism in the New York Observer not out of conviction, but because of those character assassins. I am not attempting to trash the image of Howard Fast. I am telling what I know. …
“The Leninist structure became a prison and a church,” the lecturer harrumphs. “As a church, it paraded Marxism as a religion, a new earthly religion given as new knowledge, and as a prison it sealed the minds of its believers. … At the very beginning the men who took power in Russia forgot that dissent, disbelief, questioning and doubt are the only roads to the stars. The devil has two names—orthodoxy and righteousness.”
I would add a third, disingenuousness: “adj.” says the dictionary, “not straightforward; not candid or frank; insincere.” That marks Fast's combination of chutzpah and mendacity from bottom to bottom—there is no top. There is, however, an exchange worth nothing in Being Red. During the convention of the Progressive Party in 1948, H. L. Mencken saw through the Communist agitprop and warned Fast to cut loose:
“I can't put politics aside.”
“‘Put it aside?’ Hell, no. Henry Louis Mencken is a party of one. Do you understand me? You're a party of one. You don't put politics aside; you taste it, smell it, listen to it, and write it. You don't join it. If you do, these clowns will destroy you as surely as the sun rises and sets.”
Why would Fast quote such damaging dialogue? Manifestly because he hopes, even at this late date, to shift the culpa away from mea and onto “those clowns”—the men and women who were once his mates at the pulp barricades. It is not a bad strategy. A lot of readers were not alive during the later Revolutionary era, and they may very well be taken in. The sharper ones will discern that Mencken was wrong. No conspiracy of buffoons could ever destroy Howard Fast. That demolition was an inside job, as evidenced by Being Red, composed by a mythmaker who got along, went along, stayed too long, and has lied happily ever after.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1129
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 political scene. People pass in and out of the Party in those countries as Democrats and Republicans do here. Although a million or more Americans have been Communists since the 1920s, the memoirist's tone has tended to be either celebratory, defensive or disillusioned: Howard Fast is all three, but he's also illuminated by a serious attempt to be straightforward.
Fast's look back at his Party days—from his bitterly poor New York childhood to his fame as the Communists' best-selling writer and internationally acclaimed “cultural” figure—is, by turns, warm, cozy, angry and informative (if not always informed). He is not one of the world's great political thinkers. Except, sometimes, as a byproduct of his research on historical novels like Freedom Road and Citizen Tom Paine, Fast is not predisposed to cool analysis. His strength has always been a tremendous faith in ordinary people to move social mountains—a slightly fulsome love of an American ideal as exemplified in its radical dissidents. Nobody can beat him at establishing historical credentials, in the popular novel vein, of such figures as Illinois' great liberal governor John Peter Altgeld, in The American, or Rome's immortal slave rebel, Spartacus.
But even thoughtful Communists like Daily Worker editor John Gates used to brood that Fast “was not noted for his depth of characterization or historical scholarship.” I'm not sure that's what we want of a populist writer “whose genre falls somewhere between Harold Robbins (without the sleaze) and James Michener (without the historical bulk),” as Fast likes to quote an admiring reviewer. In fact, Fast succeeded in his earlier novels at doing what not even Hollywood's left-wing screenwriters were able to do: put real Communist propaganda into work that passed the censor and sold brilliantly. (Later mainstream books like The Immigrants carried on his historical obsessions but with less slanting.)
As Fast makes clear in this unashamedly affectionate, irksomely egocentric portrait of his young Party self, he—like thousands of Communists—saw absolutely no contradiction between pro-Soviet agitation and a strong, even fanatic, American patriotism. That's the way it was back then. If you were poor in the Depression, you wanted to overthrow capitalism for a socialist utopia, where kids didn't have rickets and black people weren't lynched; a lot of the time it seemed as bald as that. And if you were Jewish and felt Hitler had to be fought, Russia seemed the best hope of the “anti-fascist struggle.”
In other words, you had to have a fairly simple heart to stay a Red. It helped if, like Fast and other non-religious Jews, you “felt a sense of identity with the early Christians” and were, as a more or less full-time activist, “a sort of priest.” The problem is that Fast wasn't a simple rank-and-filer. He was up here with the cultural elite, a big name and a front man. He knew—when he wanted to know—where the bodies were buried.
Those bodies had little or nothing to do with being Soviet agents or spies, as Fast makes clear. With the possible exception of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg—Fast only lightly touches on their ticklish “atom bomb espionage” case—“the issues that Communists fought for were issues that people of good will believe in,” such as anti-racism, affordable housing and labor struggles. The real dead body was the American Communist leadership.
For reasons best left to radical scholars and argumentative old men, the U.S. Communist Party was cursed with leaders considerably more stupid than the membership. Fast finally couldn't tolerate these “arrogant, thickheaded people,” as he calls them. He left the Party in the late '50s and wrote his apologia, The Naked God.
The present book is different in tone and aim from his previous exculpatory and perhaps even obligatory anti-Red confession. (Remember, in those days, “re-entry” for blacklisted artists often was possible only by informing on one's friends or “making a clean breast of it.”) Being Red may be partly an apology for The Naked God or just Fast's way of tying up loose ends. He is still very angry at the witch-hunters, especially the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover (who personally intervened with publishers to ban Fast's novels), and almost embarrassingly warm toward his old comrades. But then what can you expect of an adult who can say, with a straight face, that “[f]or the most part, writers are gentle and sensitive creatures”?
The chief value of Being Red is Fast's first-person evocation of what it felt like to take your whacks in the public eye. The episodes are vivid and plausible, including the nearly forgotten Peekskill, N.Y. riot, when townspeople, including local cops and American Legionnaires, attacked an audience assembled to hear Paul Robeson; his brief spell at a “country club” prison for refusing to tell government inquisitors who had donated to the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee; and the experience of seeing publishers like Alfred Knopf bend to Hoover's pressure and reject Fast's manuscripts.
But Fast is a sentimentalist at heart. He buys into an essentially unreal picture of what people really are like and won't deal with anything that doesn't fit into a worldview he first developed as the gutter-smart son of a horribly depressed, low-wage steel-and-garment worker. He credits two people with saving his life, his older brother Jerry and his wife of 53 years, Bette, and lavishes a rich stream of compliments upon them. But praise is no substitute for insight. The only people written about with real care in this book are Fast himself and some of the famous people he met, especially the Frenchmen Joliot-Curie and Jean-Paul Sartre.
“Today,” Sartre intones, “how else can a man confirm his right to existence and his membership in the human race” except by being a Communist? Fast reports this, as so much else, without irony. The author has many fine qualities, and a talent for comradeship is not the least. Few writers have conveyed as successfully the thrill of standing side by side with Communist comrades against a common enemy. But he lacks a sense of humor about anything having to do with himself—and in this book that means almost everything.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2192
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.
Now, in a memoir of that period, Fast offers us a very strange book indeed. It is a book which Rhoda Koenig in New York magazine called a wonderful remembrance of “the anti-Communist mania of the postwar period,” and which inspired Christopher Hitchens, in the Washington Post Book World, to describe Fast as one who “left the Communist party for the same reason that he joined it … because he was interested in social justice and historical truth.” Yet, as is clear from a comparison of Being Red with the book Fast wrote in 1957, The Naked God: The Writer and the Communist Party, the one thing he is not devoted to is historical truth, not even about his own experiences in the Communist movement.
Fast's earlier memoir was a strong indictment of American Communism. In that volume, for example, he declared:
There was the evil in what we dreamed of as Communists: we took the noblest dreams and hopes of mankind as our credo; the evil we did was to accept the degradation of our own souls—and because we surrendered in ourselves, in our own party existence, all the best and most precious gains and liberties of mankind, … we betrayed mankind, and the Communist party became a thing of destruction.
Now, nearly thirty-five years later, Fast has produced a new memoir in which he keeps telling us that the Communist version of events, which motivated people like himself to join the party, was essentially correct. For Fast, the enemy of enemies is still Harry Truman, whom he blames for both the cold war and McCarthyism. As for the Soviet Union, whose internal faults he readily acknowledges, it is seen as having had no responsibility for the international tensions of that age.
So too with the American Communist party. After all, American “Communists had laid down their lives” fighting “for the hungry and the homeless and oppressed,” and they had a well-deserved “reputation for integrity and decency and honor.” Moreover, Fast now asserts, “a very substantial number of the best minds and talent in these United States were party members.” It is a pity, he tells us, that their identities cannot be revealed, because their very names would “refute the uncounted slanders hurled against the Communist party.” Why, having once strongly renounced the party, Fast now seems so eager to rehabilitate it, he never makes clear.
Fast informs us that he joined the party in 1944 with full knowledge of the Nazi-Soviet pact and the purge trials of the 30s. But those episodes were “part of the past,” something to be forgotten at a time when Soviet troops were destroying Nazism and restoring hope to humanity. In any case, “Stalin was no great presence in our thoughts,” and the lies being told about the party were so severe that there was simply no way of “winnowing out the truth about Russia and Stalin from the mass of manufactured indictments.” No way? What about the writings of Anton Ciliga, or Victor Serge, or Walter Krivitsky, or George Orwell? In continuing to act as though such writings did not exist, Fast shows that he has still not learned to deal with the truth.
Nor is this the only example. Thus, attempting to nail what he considers crude slanders about the party, Fast recalls that once, at Indiana University, when he commented that the novelist James T. Farrell was “one of the finest social realists of our time,” a member of the English department announced that Fast could not say such things and be a Communist, “since any party member would face expulsion if he dared to praise Farrell.” Fast offers this as typical of “the arrant nonsense” that was spread about the party.
Is Fast simply being disingenuous here, or has he suffered a complete lapse of memory? For he himself played a major part in the famous Albert Maltz affair. Maltz, a well-known author and screenwriter, once published a piece in the Communist magazine New Masses in which he called James T. Farrell (then a Trotskyist) a great writer even if ideologically incorrect. In response, Fast accused Maltz of, among other sins and crimes, perpetrating “the ideology of liquidation,” while Maltz's Hollywood party cell called a special meeting at which scores of his closest comrades and associates denounced him. Finally, two months later, to save himself from expulsion, Maltz published a humiliating retraction.
In The Naked God, Fast admitted his own role in the Maltz affair. Maltz, he then said, was “a writer of talent and unshakable integrity,” who had been “denounced by his own comrades as one seeking to strike a death blow at man's holiest hopes and aspirations … he had sinned, and the aim was to make him submit to a process of total degradation.” In 1957 as well, Fast was able to acknowledge that he himself was “among those who blew up [Maltz's] criticism all out of proportion to its intent; a matter for which I have never forgiven myself.” Yet today he can dismiss an “arrant nonsense” the idea that “any party member would face expulsion if he dared to praise Farrell.”
Another discrepancy between The Naked God of 1957 and Being Red of 1990 concerns the so-called Waldorf Peace Conference in 1949. Anti-Communist intellectuals like Sidney Hook and Mary McCarthy correctly saw this event as part of a Communist-controlled attempt to win the minds of the world's intellectuals, while participants in the conference, like the playwright Lillian Hellman, claimed, then and later, that it was not run by the CP. On this point Fast confirms the anti-Communists (whom he and so many others attacked at the time for “Red-baiting”): “Over 500 of the nation's leading intellectuals were willing to put their careers and names on the line for a conference created by the Communist party.. . the lines were clearly drawn, and no one at the conference had any illusions as to who the organizers were.”
Yet the official conference booklet, published by the National Council of Arts, Sciences, and Professions, stated that the meeting included sponsors who “ranged in their political orientation and social philosophy from a half dozen outspoken Communists to another handful of persons barely Left of the political Center. … The majority were … merely New Dealish liberals.” In other words, the party then engaged in its usual attempt to make it appear that the conference was the effort of a broad front, in which only a few Reds participated. Moreover, the conference brochure noted that a campaign had been waged in advance to discredit the meeting. How? “The Red label was to be pinned on the meeting.”
This makes it all the more puzzling when Fast now writes that the intellectuals “rallied to the cause of peace with the Soviet Union,” as if that were the conference's purpose, when, as he well knows, it really was to defend Soviet policy and build up a movement against America's response to Soviet aggression.
In another change of tune, Fast also ridicules Mary McCarthy's attempt at an intervention (she “was neither a supporter nor was she invited, but she appeared, umbrella in hand, striding fiercely down the center aisle … where the literary panel was in session,” at which point Fast “took the wind out of her sails” by helping her onto the platform).
Here, by dramatic contrast, is how he described the same incident in The Naked God:
It should also be noted that when … [Fadeyev, the Soviet Cultural Commissar] was asked directly by Mary McCarthy and some of her friends to explain what had happened to a number of Soviet writers, whom they carefully named, he not only gave his solemn word as a Soviet citizen that all of the named writers were alive and well, but he brilliantly ticked off the titles and description of the work that each particular writer had engaged upon. He … even repeated details of their merry reaction to the “capitalist slander” that they were being persecuted. So smooth and ready was his rejoinder, so rich was the substance of his quickly supplied background, that one might as well credit him with more creative imagination than he had ever shown in his own books. As chairman, … I was quite naturally provoked that Miss McCarthy … should so embarrass this fine and distinguished guest. His conviction and meticulous sincerity were above suspicion … how could they possibly have believed that a man would create such a monstrous and detailed lie and expect it to hold water? …Yet this is precisely what it was … and all of the men Fadeyev had spoken of so casually and lightly and intimately were, at the time he spoke, either dead from the torture chambers of the secret police or by firing squads, or lying in prison, being tortured and beaten.
The Rosenberg case provides yet another instance of Fast's inability to deal with historical truth. He writes that “with all the books and articles about the Rosenbergs, no one ever questioned why the important atomic physicists of the time were not brought in as witnesses.” But in The Rosenberg File, Joyce Milton and I show that the defense had indeed approached the major scientists—including sympathetic fellow-travelers—and they all responded that the information supplied by David Greenglass could well have been of value to the Russians.
Again, Fast accurately notes the party's reluctance to enter the case, and he claims credit for persuading it to change its mind. The evidence, however, strongly indicates that the American party went in only after it was sure that the Rosenbergs would not cooperate with the government, and after French CP chief Jacques Duclos began an international campaign around the case, meant to deflect the West's attention from the anti-Semitic Slansky purge trial going on in Czechoslovakia. The Rosenbergs, Duclos proclaimed in Paris, were being sentenced to death because they were Jews, while the Slansky group had received a death sentence because they were traitors.
Fast's own contribution to this propaganda campaign was to paint a picture abroad of a United States in the grip of fascism, with Truman and then Eisenhower playing the role of Hitler. Today, instead of repudiating that version, he endorses it: “The terror was not slackening,” he writes incredibly of those years in Being Red, “the Rosenberg case had been orchestrated to an anti-Communist frenzy that matched the exuberant hysteria of the Nazi horror.”
In general, Fast seems intent on propagating the myth of moral equivalence—in particular the idea (also espoused by Carl Bernstein in Loyalties) that America too had its gulag and reign of terror. Yet Fast once knew better. In his earlier account, Fast acknowledged that although he himself went to prison for contempt of Congress and was forced to become his own publisher because his books had been dropped by his commercial house (as well as being removed from library shelves), he nevertheless “continued to write” and “continued to live,” while his Soviet counterpart “was silenced … [and] cruelly tortured and … put to death.”
Today, amazingly, he seems unaware even that the McCarthy era is over. He says that the Communist Control Act of 1954—which, due to Supreme Court decisions, became inoperative—is “still part of the criminal code of the United States,” and writes that “there is no law extent in any country … as all-embracing and terrifying.” He even says that, for all he knows, the internment camps set up under the act still exist. Does he not know that these camps, which were kept intact but never used, were finally closed down by the hated Nixon administration?
Years ago, Fast co-authored a polemical article with his comrade Paul Robeson called “We Will Never Retreat.” Events forced Fast to make precisely such a retreat, and when he did, his old comrades spewed their venom on him. Lester Cole, a Communist screenwriter and one of the Hollywood Ten, gave his own reason for Fast's quitting the party: “The swimming pool and house on the hill in Hollywood.. . are now his at last.” Now, nearly thirty-five years later, it almost sounds as though Fast wants to end his days winning back the admiration of those unreconstructed Communists—“some of the noblest human beings I have ever known.”
How ironic that, when Communism is collapsing everywhere, one of the earliest defectors from the American party should look back to reaffirm the “nobility” of that lost cause, and to condemn the anti-Communist American administrations of the 40s and 50s which repelled Stalin's advances in Europe. And how ironic too that, in our strange culture, a book written from that point of view should be so warmly received.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2262
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.
Fast is an unusually prolific writer: his corpus includes more than 80 books, including 50 novels, ten plays, and 20 books of nonfiction. Worldwide sales of his novels have exceeded 80 million. His writings have been translated into 82 languages and many observes—including Fast—insist that he may be the most widely read writer of the 20th century.
From 1943, until 1956, while Fast was a Party member, the Party and indeed the world movement lionized him. It was during this period that the vast circulation of his books occurred. In his popular historical novels—Citizen Tom Paine, Freedom Road, The American, (about John Peter Altgeld), The Last Frontier, and Spartacus—protagonists from the oppressed classes—craftsmen, freed slaves, immigrant workers, Native Americans, and slaves—dramatized the class struggles, with its tragic setbacks yet somehow certain ultimate victory. Fast was a major figure in the Party's remarkable enterprise of developing a complex and almost complete popular “progressive” American culture.
As a result, Howard Fast entered the Party's pantheon. At home he was ranked together with Paul Robeson and W.E.B. Du Bois. When he traveled to the 1949 World Peace Conference in Paris, he entered “a world where Communists were honored, not hunted down and imprisoned.” He sat on the stage next to Louis Aragon. Pablo Picasso kissed him on the mouth and offered him any painting he chose. Later, Pablo Neruda wrote a poem to him. In 1954, he received the Stalin Peace Prize.
At home, the system visited on Howard Fast every punishment it had devised to persecute and obliterate the Communist movement. In April 1946, the House Committee on Un-American Activities subpoenaed Fast and 15 other members of the executive board of the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee, an organization supporting medical facilities for Spanish Republican refugees living in Southern France. The House Committee demanded the names of the Joint Committee's 30,000 donors. (Fast tells us they included Eleanor Roosevelt, José‚ Ferrer, Ruth Gordon, Stella Adler, Leonard Bernstein, Van Wyck Brooks, Mark Van Doren, and Lucille Ball.) The board refused and, by a Congressional vote of 262 to 56 eleven of its members became the first group to be cited for contempt of Congress for refusal to cooperate with the Congressional inquisition. In 1950, after the Supreme Court refused to issue a writ of certiori, Fast and ten other members of the executive board were imprisoned for three months.
In 1949 Citizen Tom Paine was removed from New York City's libraries. Fast was barred from speaking at City College and many other campuses. He was under constant surveillance by the FBI (his file ultimately reached 1100 pages), and he was refused a passport until 1961. Publisher after publisher (Little Brown, Viking, Scribners, Harper, Knopf, Simon & Schuster, Doubleday) rejected his new historical novel, Spartacus, which, published privately, ultimately sold 50,000 copies.
After resigning from the Communist Party, it was not until 1977 that Fast found a new audience and a new identity with the publication of The Immigrants, the first in a highly successful series that has been characterized as a San Francisco family saga. One critic noted: “I'm sure [The Immigrants] has some overriding social purpose, but happily it never gets in front of the relentless pace of events. In short, you can enjoy this book without a thought in your head. …” Ironically, the most significant literary event in Fast's career after leaving the Party was his 1960 collaboration with Dalton Trumbo on the screenplay for Spartacus, which represented a major breakthrough in overcoming the Hollywood blacklisting.
Fast was never again to attain the same degree of fame he had enjoyed as a Communist. The most important prize he ever received was the Stalin Peace Prize and he is remembered as the writer who converted the genre of the historical novel to the requirements of Popular Front culture. Freedom Road, The Unvanquished (Fast's novel about George Washington and the American Revolution), Citizen Tom Paine, and The American encapsulate Party Secretary Earl Browder's understanding that if Communism was to become 20th-century Americanism it had to have historical antecedents.
Fast chaired the 1949 Peekskill concert, sponsored by the Civil Rights Congress, where mobs of rock-hurling youths screaming “Kill a Commie for Christ” prevented Paul Robeson from singing. One week later, 15,000 attended the rescheduled concert, protected by 3,000 trade unionists. After a most successful program, mobs attacked the concert-goers' cars and buses as they left routed by police through narrow back roads, causing many severe injuries. Recently while interviewing an elderly woman who had been present at the affair, I mentioned that I was writing this review. With great vehemence she said: “Don't you go and say anything bad about Howard Fast. I saw him in Peekskill with a Coke bottle in each hand fighting back.”
Being Red then is the story of the best years of Howard Fast's life. “I don't know anything in life so satisfying and nourishing as the sense that you are doing what you were put on earth to do, fighting for things you believe, for the poor, the oppressed and against racism. It gives one a feeling of being, of consciousness, and connection.” This is what Fast now remembers he found in the Party.
Fast also refutes all the major criticisms of the Party. He insists that the Party was not dominated by the Soviet Union and, in any case, that it was “Russia [which] had paid a price of twenty million human lives to destroy the Nazis … and moved three million Polish and Ukrainian Jews eastward beyond the reach of the Nazis.” He states that the Daily Worker “never compromised with the truth as it saw truth. …” Again and again he returns to the theme that the Communists were “priests in the brotherhood of man. When I joined the Communists Party, I joined the company of the good.” Fast also reminds the reader that the Party was the group which best knew how to conduct the anti-Fascist struggle, and that Communists “fought and often enough died for black freedom.” He also recalls the Party's leading role in the organization of the Progressive Party and speaks of the famous people who joined its ranks.
Similarly, Fast provides vivid and often touching descriptions of his early life, a life which could logically lead a thinking person toward the Communist movement. He ascribes his “sense of identity with the poor and oppressed of all the earth” to his working-class father, a Jewish immigrant from the Ukraine. The extreme poverty experienced by Howard and his brothers was overcome only through their cooperative efforts. This too must have led him to believe in the possibilities of collaboration among the oppressed.
But apparently Fast's need to glorify his past prevents him from accurately remembering a number of critical events. Most egregious is his account of an incident at the World Peace Conference in Paris in 1949. He says he was carrying instructions given him by Paul Novick, leader of the Jewish Commission of the CP, from the Central Committee of the Communist Party, USA. He claims to have been instructed to inform the head of the Soviet delegation that the CPUSA was bringing charges against the Communist Party of the USSR because of anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union! The implausibility of this story is total. Nowhere in the public record is there any instance of the CPUSA criticizing the CPSU, much less “levying charges” against it. Moreover, none of the many memoirs of or interviews with Party leaders or ex-Party leaders has ever mentioned this extraordinary event.
Even more significantly, Fast himself never mentions this episode in his earlier memoir, The Naked God (New York: Fredrick Praeger, 1957) which does deal with Soviet anti-Semitism. Indeed although it covered much of the same ground as Being Red from a very different viewpoint, Fast never mentions The Naked God in this autobiography. It is even omitted from the “Books by Howard Fast” listed in this volume. Clearly, The Naked God is something he wants to forget, and amazingly the reviewers of Being Red have allowed it to be forgotten.
Being Red is the autobiography of an old man who wants to be remembered as a man of the left. After all, everything that happened to him before joining the CP seemed to lead to that decision, and his fame and feelings of self-worth were at their height when he was a member. He has recently reestablished his connections with the left by becoming a columnist for the New York Observer, writing trenchant and militant critiques from a strongly left perspective.
The Naked God served as a questionable passport used to gain reentry into the capitalist publishing world. Its account of many events greatly contrasts with those in Being Red. The Naked God stated that communism was based on “naked terror, awful brutality, and frightening ignorance.” It goes on to say that the evil Communism did “was to accept the degradation of our own soul,” and that in joining the CP “one sells his own soul.” At the same time, it underplays Fast's own persecution by the United States government.
To be sure, The Naked God also contains glowing descriptions of party members: “Never in so small a group have I seen so many pure souls, so many gentle and good people. So many men and women of utter integrity.” But its leitmotif is that the CP is an “oriental temple of organization [led by a] dogma-ridden priesthood. …” Although all his best work was written during his Party years, Fast writes about the Party's destruction of his muse, claiming he had to leave the Party in order to become a better writer.
Fast's resignation from the Party was announced in a front-page New York Times interview with the extreme anti-Soviet reporter, Harry Schwartz. And while there is no record that Fast ever named names, Natalie Robins reports in Alien Ink: The FBI's War on Freedom of Expression that Fast's FBI file indicates he contacted the FBI to report that his just completed book would “assist the anti-Communist cause” and gave its agents a set of galleys.
Intellectuals remaining within and close to the Communist Party filled the pages of Mainstream, the Party's cultural journal, with angry and sad comments. Walter Lowenfels queried:
Where are your wound stripes? Your torn and battered uniform? Your badge in the fight for the clean word? … I expected a battle scarred front line dispatch from you. Instead, you give us a political report on the Russian situation. What I was expecting was not your farewell to Russia but your salute to the people of the U.S.A.
However, it was Joseph Starobin who drew the most blood. He depicted Fast as the Party's Frankenstein:
In the CP Fast found adulation. … And he reveled in what he should have resisted. … For Howard became in the CP the oracle on every issue from Negro rights to socialist realism … he headed every conceivable committee, took the floor each time without saying too much, refused the pleas of his best editors to revise his first drafts, published the best novel of the year every year. … But throughout it all he neither grew as a writer nor gained wisdom as a man. … [He lived] in a left which had lost all sense of proportion about Howard Fast.
It is understandable that Fast may want to forget all this, but Being Red is finally only as important as it is accurate. It would seem that Fast invented his mission to the 1949 Paris Peace Conference, in order to bury the memory of having uncritically supported a movement which at that time glorified a regime obliterating Yiddish culture. Similarly, in Being Red Fast accuses Morris U. Schappes of having threatened to bring him up for expulsion from the Party on charges of Jewish nationalism because of the publication of My Glorious Brothers, a novel about the Maccabees. Schappes pointed out in Jewish Currents that although Fast had mentioned his name in The Naked God, he did not there connect Schappes to this report of a threatened expulsion. In a somewhat similar though less damaging way, Angus Cameron has rejected Fast's explanation that he resigned as editor-in-chief and vice president of Little, Brown in protest against Little, Brown's refusal to publish Spartacus. Cameron insists that the question of Spartacus was only peripheral to his decision, which was prompted more by the general retreat of the company in the face of the intensifying repression.
Despite these serious weakness, Being Red is both readable and useful. It helps the reader to understand the attractions of the Communist Party in the 1930s and 40s, as well as its many accomplishments. It also effectively documents the as yet not fully acknowledged depredations of what has become known as the McCarthy Era. But it fails as autobiography, because Fast is still unable to integrate not only his leaving the Communist Party but also the nature of his attacks on it in his earlier book, with his life as he now chooses to remember it. There remains a discontinuity, which must always be unexplained as long as it is unacknowledged.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6298
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 read Being Red. There seems to many of us to be a big difference between the two books and it is also noticed by some of us that in your long list of books in front of Being Red you don't mention The Naked God, and in Being Redyou don't talk about The Naked God. So we are wondering whether or not Being Red is sort of a new version of the past that is appropriate for some reason. Is there something inadequate, perhaps, about the earlier version or some political need now to rethink and reform your ideas? What are the differences between the two books? Why did you write the second?
[Howard Fast]: The chief difference is thirty-five years—which is a big difference. When I wrote The Naked God, I was very angry. I was furious with what I considered a betrayal of people of good will by a large part of the leadership of the Communist Party. You see, I do not look upon the destruction of the Soviet Union and the careers of the men who led the Soviet Union as an attempt to establish a tyranny. I look upon it as a betrayal of the long struggle of man to create an equitable society. If, if—and like all “ifs” it is rather unthinkable—but if the leadership of the struggle of the Soviet Union had not fallen into the hands of Stalin and the people around him, would it have been any different?
Well, after an experience of twelve years as a member of the Communist Party of the United States, I can say it would have been no different. The structure—Leninist concept—of a party that was incorruptible was as fallible as all other dreams. All parties are corruptible, and Lenin created a form of party that was even more corruptible than any of the capitalist parties. So, when I wrote The Naked God, everything had come up to hit me in the face, and particularly the report of Khrushchev to the 20th Congress of the Soviet Union. Now people said to us—by us I mean people in the Communist movement, the many, indeed hundreds of thousands of people who were associated, with it as fellow travelers and friends—they said to me and to all of us: “How could you not know what was happening?” The answer is that at least half of the people who were gathered in the hall of the Supreme Soviet listening to Khrushchev also did not know what was going on. There was a cloak of secrecy that had never been penetrated until Khrushchev made his speech.
The list of people who saw in the Soviet Union the salvation of mankind goes from George Bernard Shaw and Sean O'Casey and Bertrand Russell to so many others. All of us believed that the torrent of anti-Soviet propaganda was without foundation. This is something that will be studied by future scholars, and they will ask how is it possible that you were willing to die? And so many of us did die, and so many of the boys I knew who went to Spain died there, all of them believing what Lincoln Steffens had said was true, “I have seen the future and it works.” Was that the future?
It did not work. And when we saw it collapse, our anger was enormous. In those few weeks … by the way I should say that I hope you know what I am referring to when I speak about the Khrushchev speech to the 20th Congress of the Soviet Union. It was a twenty-thousand-word document read in a secret session to representatives of the Communist Party from all over the world. And, as a matter of fact, in historical hindsight, it is the Khrushchev speech at the 20th Congress that destroyed the world organization of the Leninist Party as it existed. Now, there was a Hungarian delegate there who took his copy of the speech (they were all given copies) and sold it to the CIA. The CIA had it translated and gave it to the New York Times. The editorial board of the Times called us at the Daily Worker and said, “Look, we have a copy of Khrushchev's speech to the 20th Congress. We are satisfied, totally satisfied, that this is a verbatim and totally honest copy.” (Which as it turns out it was.) “Do you want it?” We said, “Send it right over.” So the Times copied it and sent it right over to us.
There was a meeting in the editorial rooms of the Daily Worker that somehow has not been mentioned here this afternoon, but I must mention that in its thirty-five-year history this paper never retreated, never hesitated. It printed the truth as we saw the truth for every one of those thirty-five years. Every measure of force and legality that the United States could garner was used against us. I say “us” because, on and off through a period of twelve years, I worked without pay as both a correspondent and a columnist for the Daily Worker. We gathered there in the editorial rooms and for the next several hours listened to the collapse of our world, the collapse of our dreams, the collapse of what people who are beloved of us, our dearest friends had died for. And willingly died for. All of it crumbling there. Then we did what no other Communist newspaper in the world did. We published the entire text of the Khrushchev speech in the Daily Worker. It took a whole expanded edition to do it. We were the only Communist Party in the world that had the courage to do that. For the next two weeks, we launched a series of attacks on the Soviet leadership. Not the kind of attacks that a capitalist press had been launching against them in the past half-century. We said, “You have betrayed us. You have betrayed the human race. You have betrayed everything that man believed in.”
[Wald]: So one of the big differences—to you—between the two books [The Naked God] and [Being Red] is that the first is written in the anger of betrayal?
In rage. Being Red is written in reflection.
[Wald]: There is something here in this version that you see in the past that you want to pass on to the younger generation as positive. Is that more than rage?
Perhaps more that is positive. Perhaps less that is rage. Because when I wrote The Naked God there was no perspective. We did not understand. How could men who accepted the brotherhood of man—how could such men betray us? How could they do it?
[Alan Filreis]: In that era of frustration and anger, you wrote a letter, which I have here, in which you said, “I guess I am over the worst of it.” This is after you left the Party. It is dated October 1, 1957: “All of those with just a few exceptions whom I loved and honored in the Party have left it. Many of us keep thinking how lucky we are. I know I often have that thought. There were many nights of heartsickness and fear but that is mostly done with now. The problem now is not to hate out of a subjective sense of tragedy, but I suppose that has always been the problem with those who left.”
Can you tell us a little more about the “heartsickness and fear”?
The Communist Party ran a training school up on the Hudson River. It was in a summer hotel. They would take fifteen or twenty—most of us veterans, people who had come out of World War II—and subject us to a fantastically compressed course of philosophy and socialism and Marxism, and the whole rest of it. It was a great experience for me. It lasted only two weeks, but the people I met there, all of them, were steelworkers and coal miners. It was just a marvelous experience to be with them for those two weeks. All of them veterans and at least a half-dozen of them veterans of the Spanish [Civil] War. And a question came up that sounds completely cynical: “Suppose the Party instructed you to go to the top of the Empire State Building and jump off? What would you do?” My answer was I'd tell them to go to hell. But there were people there—working people there—who said, “If it was necessary for the victory of the working class I would do it.” And they would. And they believed it. So when you ask about the heartsickness, think about what these men would do.
[Wald]: This raises an important question for us. If it's true, as you and as many other people have written about the Communist Party say, that the flaw in the American Communist Party was its dependence on and delusions in regard to the Soviet Union, how much of the heroism and self-sacrifice were dependent on that belief? Would all those people—such as the three thousand Americans who went to Spain to fight, with two thousand of them dying because they had very few weapons and so on—have made great sacrifices if they had not really believed that the Soviet Union was the first step forward? Would people have resisted McCarthyism so heroically if they had not believed that somewhere people had really created socialism?
That's a good question. Think of what the position of the Soviet Union was. If you know the history of the Spanish War, you know that to some extent—and I think to a very large extent—the Soviet Union betrayed the Spanish Republic, because Hitler sent his dive bombers and Mussolini sent his Blackshirts, and all sorts of aid was given to the Franco forces, but the Soviet aid to the Republic was minimal. And yet it was not enough to shake us. We made excuses. The Soviet Union had to do this. They were in a position where they could not give us the aid that the Republic needed to be victorious, even though a victory in Spain would have changed the whole course of events that led to World War II.
On the other hand, I have to say this: We had the best party in the world. We had the best of America, the best of American know-how. With this little party, we worked wonders. And if the Soviet Union had not been there, there still would have been a working-class party, but it would have taken a different direction and would have been a different kind of a party. There has always been a socialist movement of sorts in America going way back to the middle of the 19th Century. No such measures were taken against the socialist forces in Europe or England, for example. Why this sudden outburst of murderous fury against the Communist Party of the United States?
[Filreis]: One of the things that Alan's [Alan Wald's] work has led me to is an enormous appreciation of the Left's antiracism activities and policy in this period. One of your most remarkable activities was the “We Charge Genocide” petition to the United Nations for “relief from crime of the U.S. government against the Negro people.”
It was my idea.
[Filreis]: It was your idea. It's astonishing when you think about it. A number of Americans appealed to the United Nations for “relief from crimes of the U.S. government against the Negro people.” I would like you to think about how that looks to you now—years later—after the Khrushchev revelations [that] a party that did or did not know what is going on in the Soviet Union was charging genocide that was perpetrated by the United States against some of its own people. How complicated is that?
The Soviet Union, the leaders of the Soviet Union—and this I know from personal experience—never understood “the Negro question” and in those days we called it “the Negro question.” This was a very pertinent focus, a chief focus of the Communist Party here. I will get to that in a moment. There was a man called Willy McGee who was unjustly sentenced to life imprisonment, I believe, or perhaps death …
[Wald]: He was executed.
He was executed. My memory goes. Just before he was executed, the Party asked for volunteers to go to Washington, D.C., and make a rather unique protest. So this group went to Washington and I went with them to write about it for the Daily Worker. They went to the Lincoln Memorial. Half of the men there were Spanish vets. They chained themselves to the Lincoln Memorial—to the pillars of the Lincoln Memorial. I think there were about ten men chained in a circle around each pillar. Fortunately I was not chained. I was standing at the side with my little notebook—which is always an advantage a reporter has—to be out of the direct line of fire. We had every expectation that the Washington police would simply come and open fire against these men. They didn't. They came and cut the chains and they didn't even put us in jail.
But to get back to your question. Afterwards I was discussing this with Bill Patterson, who was one of the leading black Communists at the time. This was when the drive of the Negro people was integration, not separation, and the drive of the Party was toward integration. We were discussing what had happened in Europe—the Holocaust. I said, “Bill, if we put together every unjustified murder—the death of a black in the South—you would have a Holocaust. You would have the material for it. Could you get the records?” He thought he could. That is how the book appeared which was titled We Charge Genocide. Then I said, “Let's take it to the United Nations.”
[Wald]: I want to ask you something about the cultural activity in the 1950s. Again, I don't ask these questions merely out of curiosity about the past, but many young people today would like to be cultural workers who participate in antiracist struggles and pro-union struggles, and use their talents to forward our contemporary socialist values, but they are uncertain as cultural workers how they can relate to a political party. So I want to look back at the Communist experience about what is recuperable and what could be rejected. You talk in both Being Red and in The Naked God about the cultural section of the Party. You talk about your relations with [Lionel] Berman and [V.J.] Jerome. And you describe a situation in which it seems that you are continually being watched for the possible misuse of a word or for writing something that could be misinterpreted, or for creating an ending of Spartacus that is not quite right. And yet you have a lot of freedom, too, because no one is forcing you to submit your manuscripts in advance and no one is telling you what to write in advance, but there is a feeling of somebody watching over your shoulder. I think you gained a lot of freedom from having a connection with the radical movement in terms of giving you themes and inspiration, but there are constraints at the same time. What can we learn today in terms of the relationship of the artist to political struggle and political organizations?
Well, to begin with, aside from my rage and grief and anger, there is also part of me that was very happy that the Communist Party of the United States came to its end. It was constructed as the Soviet Party was constructed. I understood everything that happened in Russia because I saw the same thing happening in a minuscule fashion in our Party. And here you heard some nice things said about V. J. Jerome. I always looked upon V. J. Jerome—who was the cultural czar of the Communist Party—as a horrible, rigid little monster who never knew what he was doing. In the Soviet Union, the things I did would have been, I suppose, punishable by death or by being put away in one of the camps or whatever. But, here, the Party lacked the power. They lacked the power to inflict any punishment on a member of the Party except expulsion from the Party. They would have liked to have expelled me on many occasions, but they were afraid to because so many had left. I was one of the few remaining. On one occasion, I wrote a piece about a meeting in Boston and I said there were white boys and black boys and white girls and black girls. And, for this, they brought me up on expulsion for using the term girl in connection with a black person. They were rigid. They were stupid. And I am talking now about the top leadership of the Party. When I wrote My Glorious Brothers in 1948, they brought me up for expulsion. Jewish nationalism. Thank God there was a man in the leadership named Jack Statchel who said any Jew here in 1948 who is not a Jewish nationalist is an idiot. So they dropped that.
Now, the cultural things we did as individuals, we did. There was very little the Party could do about it except to criticize it. And I am not talking in this sense about the great proletarian, the great anti-institutional novelist writers we have in this country: a man like [Samuel] Ornitz writing Haunch, Paunch and Jowl as a Communist, Mike Gold writing Jews Without Money, or Cliff Odets writing Awake and Sing. These were not subject in any sense to the Party. The Party had enough sense to know that they had to keep hands off. But in certain cases where the Party made something possible, they thought that they had the right to have hands on.
[Wald]: You tend to use “they” to refer to officials such as Jerome, yet in the case of Albert Maltz, who wrote about the need for more freedom, you yourself were one of the people who jumped on Maltz.
Yes, yes I did.
[Wald]: And you would not regard yourself as one of the “idiots” at the top?
At the time, yes. Jack Lawson—John Howard Lawson—who was the cultural commissar of the Party on the West Coast was writing a history of Western culture and, when certain things happened in terms of World War II, he began to revise it. Maltz attacked him severely and Maltz was a beloved friend of mine. (It was one of the consolations of being in prison that I was in prison with him.) When [Lawson] felt that events forced him to change much of what he had written, Maltz said, “No, if you write honestly and truly, you should not have to change it.” And, in a sense, Maltz was right. I thought Maltz was all wrong because at that time I believed wholly in anything that John Howard Lawson or V. J. Jerome would say.
[Wald]: But the article that Maltz wrote—“What Shall We Ask of Writers?”—was not about Lawson. It was arguing that we cannot judge writers by their political commitments. He particularly pointed to James T. Farrell, whom you yourself admired very much, as an example of a writer whose writing was criticized because he had gone over to Trotskyism.
Maltz was right.
[Wald]: You and others such as [Samuel] Sillen and Gold—even though Sillen is a very nice man and Gold is a charming loveable guy—jumped on Maltz viciously until he finally capitulated and said he was wrong and that art is a weapon and people have to be judged by their politics.
That is absolutely true.
[Wald]: So there was something more than stupid guys at the top. There must have been some kind of culture that encouraged the judgment of art by political positions.
It was more than a culture. It was a dogmatic part of the Party's existence. Let me give you an even more horrible example—where, thank God, I was at that point where you grow and you change unless you have a rock mind. I wrote a play [The Hammer] about a family that had three sons and one became a wealthy businessman and war profiteer. It was a Jewish family, obviously. An actor, Michael Lewin, a skinny little guy with thin red hair and one of those pasty white skins, played the father. And this was to be a great surprise for me when I came out of prison. I come out of prison. I go down with my wife to watch. And who do I see walk onto stage as the third son, but James Earl Jones. With a voice that shook the place. Six feet tall, built like a mountain.
“Oy!” I said, “Herb! What the hell are you doing? This is a Jewish family.1 The father is a skinny, little redheaded Jew. What are you doing?”
He said, “We are carrying out a decision of the Party that the validity of what the theater calls the suspension of disbelief is more valid than casting according to type.”
I said, “But everyone is going to see Jimmy Jones. They will not see the suspension of disbelief. Nobody has that much suspension of disbelief.”
They came down on me with great force and either I accepted it or all sorts of things would lead up to my expulsion—which was always the case. The first night—the opening night—was sold out to an organization that no longer exists, a Jewish garmentworkers organization called the Jewish People's Organization or something of that sort.2 It was one of those working-class mutual-insurance groups. And they filled the theater. Everything is going nicely and all of a sudden Jones walks onto the stage. And I hear all over, in Yiddish, “Was tut de shvartze?” Well, the rest of the show was a nightmare. And the Herald Tribune critic who was there came to me afterward and said, “Fast, I admire you and I'm gonna do you a favor and not review this.”
[Filreis]: This is an example of unintentional Party high hilarity. In Being Red,you describe at least one story that I found wonderful, which suggested intentional Party high hilarity. Something that you did that was outrageous and funny to you and part of some kind of protest activity. I am recalling the story where you and a friend rented a room, put up a speaker, locked the door on the way out. You had moments like that which were not moments of super seriousness that were creative and innovative.
When Truman recalled MacArthur, they were going to have a great parade up Park Avenue for MacArthur. One of my friends who was a Lincoln [Brigade] veteran, Irv Goff, a wonderful man, came to me and said, “Look, I talked the Party into it. We will rent a room in the Waldorf and put so much magnification in there and we'll play a record that can be heard all over Manhattan Island denouncing MacArthur, denouncing Truman: ‘Bring the boys back! Why did you bring MacArthur back?!’” So I wrote this thing, a very passionate little piece, and I recorded it. I had a friend who was a bond salesman who used to sell phony bonds, but in his heart he was all left-wing. And he rented a room in the Waldorf facing Park Avenue. Then there were electricians and radio men in the Party. They got these giant speakers that we had to fold up to put into suitcases, and all sorts of amplifying material put into suitcases.
There were fifty secret service men and over a hundred G-men, not to mention five hundred New York cops around that building and in every floor of it, and we had to walk about a thousand pounds of electronic material through them. If ever there was a testimony of the stupidity of the Secret Service and the Justice Department! We brought it all into this room and we set it all up there and we were ready to go. We closed the door and worked the key back and forth and snapped the key in the lock, so the only way to open the door was to take the lock out. After that, we discovered that the Waldorf had direct current—they did not have alternating current.
So, Goff went down to the Party headquarters on 13th Street and explained the situation. They asked him, “How do we know that you and Fast aren't government agents and deliberately screwed it up? There is only one way to prove you're not. That's two thousand dollars worth of material that the Party put out for. You've gotta go up there and bring it out.” You have to explain to fifty secret service, G-men, and cops … They said, “Either do that or you're both out.” Then we had to find a locksmith who was a Communist, and we found him. He took the lock off, Secret Service and all. And we put two thousand dollars worth of amplifying machinery back into the suitcases and took it out of the Waldorf. And no one was caught and no one was punished for it.
[Wald]: I would like to ask a question about the literary impact of the Cold War in terms of your writing style and strategy. One of the most remarkable novels you ever wrote is The Proud and the Free, which came out just as you were going to prison. It is a remarkable novel for me because, as someone who follows the New Left revisions of U.S. history, I have noticed all the revisions about slavery and the Civil War. But you take up the American Revolution and argue that in fact there was a class struggle within the American Revolution between what you call the foreign brigades, the Pennsylvania Line, made up of basically poor people—children of indentured servants, blacks, Jews, and so on—and the gentry officers. When I look at all the revisionist historians of the New Left generation, I do not see anybody else who has yet to take up that question. I think you were way ahead. I wonder whether the crisis of the Cold War forced you to go more deeply and critically into U.S. history than you had before. Did the Cold War force you to take up new literary tasks and projects that you might not have?
Actually not. The story of The Proud and the Free begins with Carl Van Doren. He had taken me under his wing before I ever joined the Party. Carl Van Doren wrote a marvelous book called Mutiny in January, and he suggested that I write a novel about [the American Revolution] years back and finally I got around to it and I wrote this novel about the Foreign Brigades of the Pennsylvania Line. This was the beginning of the enlistment of Irish immigrants, blacks, some Hungarian and Polish immigrants, a handful of Jews, into what were called the Pennsylvania Foreign Brigades. They became the backbone of the struggle. They were the best troops in the American Revolution and they were actually removed from history—taken out of history—and, until Carl Van Doren dug this up, there was no mention of them in any history course taught in North American schools.
But I don't think [my interest in history] was a result of the Cold War. It has been a passion of my life to try to dig out the truth about the American past. I did it in The Last Frontier. I did it again in the book called Unvanquished and Tom Paine. And, in October, a new book of mine is being published called Seven Days in June. I am telling the truth in this book of what we call the Battle of Bunker Hill. It is the first time any book I know of has told the truth about what happened there. So, I have always been intrigued by the past. This is what happened with Freedom Road, too—why I became so fascinated by Freedom Road.
[Wald]: In Literature and Reality, you argue that the interpretation of the past is something that is always conditioned on the present moment. You wrote The Proud and the Freein 1950-51, so surely the form and focus and emphases might have been influenced by 1951.
That is absolutely true. We reinterpret the past according to this moment and someday there will be a reinterpretation—I say very softly so as to speak of the role of Abraham Lincoln and it would be very difficult because gods are hard to destroy. But these things go on when you reach a part of history that clarifies a certain issue. When we take up the question—“Should there have been a Civil War (the bloodiest war in the history of the world up to that time) or should there not have been a Civil War?”—people will write books about the Civil War that have never been written before.
[Filreis]: You endured bitter poverty as a child and I wonder if you would tell us a little about that and its effects on your subsequent politics, your attitudes about writers and American literature, and its effect on your career as a radical writer.
I can say a great deal about that. I am one of the few American writers who achieved prominence—Jack London is another one; there are not too many more—who came from the working class. My father was an ordinary working man. He started life—his great dream was to be an ironworker—because in those days when he was a kid the city was festooned with rolled iron. If you had been in New York in my childhood, you would have seen this twisted, rolled iron everywhere you looked: balconies, fences, millions of tons of it all through New York. It's mostly gone today. So, at the age of fifteen—sixteen, he became an ironworker. When that gave out, he got a job as a crimper on a cable car running south from 42nd Street on Seventh Avenue. Then he went to work in a tin factory in Long Island. He and all the other young Jewish workers there trained with an officer of the Civil War who was going to lead them as a Cavalry Regiment in the war in 1898 to avenge themselves on Ferdinand and Isabella for expelling them from Spain! They put half their salary into the kitty to buy horses, and of course the Civil War guy walked away with the kitty and no horses and they never got there.
This was a man who married a wonderful woman who grew up in England, and for the first eight years of my life I lived under the aegis of this marvelous woman. She died leaving three little boys. And my father, all his life, was a wonderful man with two feet firmly planted in midair—and it was a terrible time: it was the Depression. He tried to keep a job as a cutter or something in the garment factories. He was always out of work, on strike, or something else. I went to work at age eleven with my brother selling newspapers. We always worked and very often the family kept alive on what we brought home. My brother and I said to my father, “We are not going to live in this filthy, miserable slum apartment anymore.” My father said, “I can't move. I do not know where to go.” So we rented another apartment. We moved him out of there. We adored him. We worshipped him. But, after my mother died, he could never take hold of anything. It was a hellish, terrible, hungry existence. For some reason—my brother and I—we supported each other and got through it.
The thing that got me through it was the New York Public Library, where I read everything passionately. Over the weekend when I wasn't working, I would read from morning to night. And so I came to [writing and politics] on my own in the public library—with some guidance from a wonderful librarian there. When I became a teenager, she gave me George Bernard Shaw's Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism. It's a wonderful book. Much better than Karl Marx's Capital, I think it is the best book on socialism that has ever been written. Then I began to read Shelley, who is a tremendous revolutionary influence. Men of England is one of the most passionate revolutionary songs ever written. Here and there, I was being restructured into a socialist, eventually into a Communist.
People ask, “Would you do it all over again?” Of course I would do it all over again. There is no question about it. It was a point in my life when I did not feel that a decent person had any right to exist in this society if he were not a member of the Communist Party. Today, I think very differently. Now I am eighty years old next November, so you learn, and you think, and you change. But that was my only childhood. It was a bitter childhood. My only joy was when it ended, when I finally realized that we could take something into our own hands.
[From the audience (Eric Cheyfitz)]: Since you talk about changing and you talk about your own critique of the Communist Party and its failures, I wonder what you see today in the United States and the world that might represent or coalesce into a progressive social politics?
You see, the destruction of the American Communist Party, as I said, was a deliberate thing. I don't think the ruling class ever acts unintelligently. They will act unintelligently in every way except the maintenance of their own power. And they certainly knew that the trade union movement in America, the Congress of Industrial Organizations was … well, it could not have been possible without the Communist Party. The Communist Party lived for that and they created it. The Communist Party created trade unions and built that great sixteen-million person force. So when they killed the Communist Party, and they killed it dead (I should say, they created the situation for its destruction—and it also destroyed itself). Then they went after the trade unions.
Up to the point where Ronald Reagan did something that was astonishing and horrible. He fired the entire union of plane guidance workers (PATCO). When he did that, it struck the death knell to the American labor movement. After that, one by one, every union in this country is being broken, and the unions that still survive—great unions like the municipal unions in New York, the teachers' union, and certain industrial unions—they are going to be broken too. This is death battle that the American ruling class is fighting. They are “leaning down” as they say, making themselves cleaner, more productive, more profitable, and they are firing thousands of people. They are cutting down the sustenance level of the working class. With all of the intelligence, the brilliant advice of John Maynard Keynes, they have cast Keynes aside, and they are back to what Marx described as “the relative and absolute impoverishment of the working class.” And this impoverishment is taking place all over America. Executives, vice-presidents, second vice-presidents. I live in Greenwich, Connecticut. Our town is filling up with the CEOs of various industries who are now out of a job, with no hope, no future, nowhere to turn—cast down from the upper middle class to working-class stature. Good luck if they can get a job in one of the supermarkets or one of the big general stores that are opening up all over.
So what do I see in the future? I see a worsening of this, because this is a process that is shipping our work out to the Far East, to other countries, to cheap labor. The latest thing—cheap labor in Mexico—shipping work to Mexico. They have forgotten a simple proposition than you cannot manufacture anything unless you have someone to buy what you manufacture. We are racing into a condition where the American working class—or what is left of it—the American working people—cannot buy back what the industries here are making. It does not matter whether they make it in China or Japan. The American people cannot buy it back. And what will come next? I cannot forecast it, but it will come. It will be the most explosive thing in the next twenty years.
Thanks to Dan Traitser and Beth Wenger for editing advice and to Jason Busch for research assistance.
Fast refers here to Herb Tank, co-founder of New Playwrights with Howard Fast, who produced Fast's The Hammer.
Jewish Workingmen's Circle—ed.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8698
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 1914.) In 1995, The Bridge Builder's Story, the most recent of Howard Fast's novels, appeared.1 Sixty-two years lie between Two Valleys and The Bridge Builder's Story.
During this interval, Fast has produced an uncommonly large oeuvre for an American writer with claims on serious attention. He has written books in several genres; stories equally varied and numerous; plays; scripts for radio, television, and the screen; and much occasional prose, journalistic and otherwise. Some of this productivity results, no doubt, from sheer longevity. But Fast has also written with a rapidity and a level of energy that were remarked upon even relatively early in his career.2 Many of his works were published to considerable acclaim, had excellent sales, and quickly entered public consciousness. Several—among them, The Last Frontier (1941), The Unvanquished (1942), Citizen Tom Paine (1943), Freedom Road (1944), Spartacus (1951), and April Morning (1961)—still retain whatever place in popular awareness is reserved for books widely assigned as texts in high schools and universities.
Almost as uncommonly for a serious American writer, Fast has also followed an active public career. He has been, among other things, a wartime and, later, political journalist and activist; foreign correspondent; candidate for public office; publisher; worker for the government's Office of War Information; newspaper columnist; and inmate at a federal penitentiary. Fast has actually lived what, for many people, has seemed one of the great literary myths of our time: he is the artist as l'homme engagé. On the other hand, of course, his politics have been distinguished not only by his leftist orientation but also by actual Communist Party membership, complicated by a very public 1957 withdrawal from the Party. He has been engaged, in short, on the “wrong,” indeed, the losing, side of one of our century's great political wars.
Fast's politics, his productivity, and his popularity all combined to do his reputation little good. America's critical establishments have been predisposed to mistrust Fast himself for his political activities, his works for their political stance,3 or (on occasion) both for their subsequent departure from those activities and that stance. These establishments tend also to suspect books that are produced as quickly and sell as well as his. Perhaps this generalized distrust explains the almost complete lack of attention paid Fast by the literary historical and critical communities.4 No matter that he is highly prolific; no matter that his books, often popular with readers, are also often taught; and no matter that he is, finally, someone who has been (if nothing else) part of America's literary and political scene for a period of time longer than most people have been alive. Fast is nonetheless very nearly invisible. Alan Wald's extremely brief article in the Encyclopedia of the American Left summarizes Fast's career. He has also written a short critical review of Fast as a writer. These are among the very few studies that try to offer anything resembling an overview of either the man or his career. The present essay offers a somewhat fuller survey than Wald has provided and suggests that both Fast and his work deserve new attention. In passing, as it were, it also indicates a few specific topics to which attention might profitably be paid.
The essay is based largely on a reading of many (but by no means all) of Fast's own works and on the criticism and history cited herein. I have also relied heavily on the resources of the Howard Fast Collection. Housed in the Department of Special Collections, Van Pelt-Dietrich Library, at the University of Pennsylvania, the Fast Collection contains Fast's literary works in printed form (in the English language, in reprints, and in foreign-language translations); manuscript notes and drafts of published and unpublished works; printers' galleys, many with revisions that reveal how Fast worked on his books; his political and journalistic writings; his children's, genre, and pseudonymous works; and family, public, and political photographs and ephemera. The collection is still growing, thanks to assistance from Fast and his family, and continues to add such examples of his literary, personal, business, and political correspondence and papers as survive. It documents the literary and public career of a writer both read and red whose very considerable presence in American letters, from the 1930s through the present, has yet to be assessed. Indeed, it seems not yet even to have been noticed.
II. STARTING OUT
The 1933 publication of Fast's Two Valleys announced the arrival of a new American writer of real interest. By the time The Unvanquished appeared nine years later, Fast was an established presence in the American literary firmament. The Unvanquished was quickly reprinted for Bennett Cerf and Donald Klopfer's Modern Library (1945), then the commercial equivalent of admission to literary canonization. (The Modern Library also published The Selected Work of Tom Paine and Citizen Tom Paine as a Modern Library Giant .) Fast's books were not only praised, they also sold well. As a result, Fast found ready and frequent access as a writer of short stories to such pulp magazine markets as Romance and to such slicks as the Saturday Evening Post and Women's Day. He was able to earn a living sufficient to marry and start a family.
Fast was writing his way out of a background that he remembered as impoverished both financially and emotionally. On the one hand, he could recall, with some pride, a friend once telling him that, “since Jack London, I was the first American writer to emerge from the working class” (Being Red 63). On the other hand, however, the anguish with which Fast described his background when he tried to evoke it (and he tried at some length for readers of Being Red) is palpable. That anguish may help to explain why, from the very outset of his career, he wrote as much and as quickly as he has. The painful memory of early poverty seems to have been a prod to exertion for Fast, just as it was for others whose memories of poverty were formed later, during the Depression. Perhaps Fast would have agreed (as Hicks, Rideout, and Wald have all argued [see note 2]) that haste had unfortunate consequences for the artistic success of many of his individual works. Nonetheless, in fleeing an impoverished background, he may have felt unable to worry about artistry as an end in itself. He may instead have felt that no individual work mattered as much as the economic cushion they were, all together, placing between him and the dread memories of the conditions of his own past.
The Children was first published as a very long short story in Whit Burnett's Story (March, 1937) and appeared ten years later as a short novel.5 It evokes Fast's background as clearly—and as bleakly—as anything else he was ever to write (including Being Red). Concise, powerful, and grim, the book seems never to have found an audience (not, at any rate, since its initial appearance; I find no evidence that it has affected anyone's estimation of Fast's career). The Children deals with a lynching. It is set, not in some distant, imagined, and benighted South, but in Fast's own well-known and well-remembered Manhattan. The lynching it depicts, racially directed but complexly motivated, is perpetrated not by warped and horrifying adults but by deprived and thoughtless urban street children, very much the sort of children among whom Fast recalled himself as having grown up. Indeed, the plot is based on an incident that has gnawed at Fast all his life. He would retell the story yet again, but as memoir rather than fiction, in Being Red, where he also recalled that he got the idea for the voice he used in the story from Henry Roth's 1934 novel, Call It Sleep (Being Red, 42-43, 64).
Fast's fame and reputation, such as they are, now rest largely on his historical novels, the most frequently adopted for classroom use of all his books; and on his various evocations of immigrant and American Jewish life, best-sellers in the 1970s and 1980s. The Children, however, is quite a different kind of work. Its first enthusiastic reception by Whit Burnett and by Story—at least as Fast, many years later, was to remember that reception (Being Red, 65-68)—must have contributed to the writer's early reputation; it surely seemed a work of real importance when it originally appeared. Despite its present neglect, it provides evidence that at least something of Fast's early critical reputation depended on work that (like Roth's Call It Sleep) could be valued as proletarian fiction. Alan Wald has criticized Fast for “the shallow eclecticism and lack of clarity reflected in his political thought” (“Legacy,” 99). Relying on the difference between realism and naturalism, as these approaches are distinguished by George Luk cs, Wald finds Fast “disappointingly” naturalistic, evasive of complex and multilayered human drama, and the victim of a Popular Front approach to the creation of a progressive literature for “the masses” (“Legacy,” 97-98). These strictures may seem valid to current readers as generalizations about Fast's best-known works, yet The Children represents a different aspect of Fast's early work. Here, at least, Fast crafts a fiction that evades many if not all of the limitations to which Wald points.6
During the late thirties and early forties, claims on Fast's time increased. Some resulted from his marriage to Bette Cohen and the start of their family, others from the governmental and journalistic positions that he took up after the United States entered World War II, and still others from his increasingly complicated political activities. Yet Fast produced numerous books during this period, and they continued to receive good notices and were frequently reprinted both in hardbound and paperback editions. Some even appeared in Armed Services editions for distribution during and immediately after the war to American servicemen and servicewomen. Not only his well-known novels but also some less well-known shorter works circulated in this manner.7 They spread Fast's name to a vast potential readership. All of these books and reprints helped to solidify and extend a literary reputation that, moving from success to success, appeared to have nowhere to go but up.
On the dust jacket of the 1943 first edition of Citizen Tom Paine, his publisher wrote that Fast “has long been a name on the critics' lips.” The blurb goes on to say that, with this book, Fast becomes “one of the few major American novelists.” Any of Fast's readers in that year possessed of even a modicum of cynicism might well have paused over this phrase to consider the promotional nature of a publisher's puff, yet few of even the most cynical would ultimately have found much hyperbole in these laudatory words. They appeared to be but the sober truth. They were soon to seem, however, quite wrong.
Fast has told and retold stories about his engagement in the political battles of his time. Being Red, his 1990 autobiography, is the most recent version of this tale. He has also written others, such as The Naked God (1957).8 Several of them reveal his anger and lingering pain.
Fast lavished time from his working life as a writer on leftist causes in general and the Communist Party (which he joined in 1943) specifically. He helped staff the Daily Worker. He wrote for the Masses and other leftist or Party journals. He attended various world congresses called to consider one issue or another. He worked for Henry Wallace's 1948 presidential campaign. He was tried on federal charges and then imprisoned in 1950 after failing to overturn his conviction. Two years later, he ran for public office in his own name. In addition to works of literary imagination, he also wrote political journalism, articles, and tracts. The differences between these forms were not always vast. Novels about strikes (Clarkton ) or about The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti(1953) appeared more or less concurrently with books of reportage such as Peekskill, U.S.A.: A Personal Experience (1951), about the riot when Paul Robeson tried to perform. Fast wrote many short political pieces, as well. A pamphlet about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising illustrated by William Gropper appeared the year after the war ended (Never to Forget: The Battle of the Warsaw Ghetto ). An article about the Peekskill riot—an event that affected him deeply—appeared in the Masses of October, 1949, two years before his book on the same subject was published. He published a barrage of articles and pamphlets opposing the Korean War. A tract about literature—Literature and Reality (1950)—tried to connect his literary and political ideals; it appeared the same year he went to prison.9 All of this reportage—articles, pamphlets, and tracts—was a major part of his output during the forties and fifties. Not often collected or reprinted, it is, nowadays, almost completely unread. Even without reference to this enormous amount of writing, however, it would be difficult to overestimate the time, energy, and commitment that Fast gave to leftist, Party, and Party-related causes. It would be equally difficult to overestimate the effect of such commitments upon his work as a writer of imaginative fictions.
The two great political traumas he experienced were, of course, first, his trial and imprisonment, and, second, his later resignation from the Party. Unwilling to provide the House Committee on Un-American Activities with the names of contributors of financial support for a hospital caring for wounded Spanish Republicans, Fast lost several appeals of his subsequent conviction for contempt of Congress. In 1950, he served a three-month sentence in a federal penitentiary.10 With the energy that he seems always to have shown, he was able to work on Spartacus while he was in prison. Within two years of his release, Fast ran for a Bronx Congressional seat as an American Labor Party candidate (1952). He remained a member of the Communist Party for several more years, until, in 1957, he finally broke from it in a public departure that caused considerable public stir. Many newspapers and magazines took note; Fast himself commented in several media, explaining his disenchantment with the Party and resignation from it.11
This resignation cost Fast several friendships, and some regard, from former colleagues on the Left, while bringing him no new companionship or regard from the Right. Following his public resignation, he had (also publicly) to forge a new and independent political stance. Simultaneously, he faced widespread opprobrium and serious threats to his ability to pursue his livelihood, to neither of which, of course, he was by this time a stranger. Since the later 1940s while he was still in the Party, as well as in the late 1950s after he had left it, such problems had made supporting himself and his family a much more pressing issue than Fast must have expected to encounter during the days of his early successes. He saw his problems as a consequence of his involvement with a Party which, he now felt, had betrayed the very ideals that had originally attracted him to it. His sense of betrayal parallels the feeling of many in his generation who, once able idealistically to view their own leftist political activities as a search for social justice, saw themselves instead as dupes whose idealism had allowed them to be manipulated by people for whom “social justice” was a fig leaf covering up other, less noble goals. Unlike numbers of his contemporaries, however, Fast, even after leaving the Communist Party, continued to proclaim that such justice could only be sought from a politics of the Left. Nonetheless, he was himself seen as a betrayer by some who regarded his departure from the Party and subsequent activities as a sellout. Both his memoir, The Naked God, and its numerous journalistic relatives, and his immediate move to Hollywood and screenwriting, could be seen in this light, and were.12 The Right had never trusted Fast; it did not now begin to do so. The Left, despite his protestations of ongoing commitment to leftist ideals, ceased doing so.
Several of Fast's novels—Silas Timberman (1954) and The Story of Lola Gregg (1956) are among the most powerful13—represent issues that dominated this period of Fast's life. Silas Timberman concerns an academic community under attack by people who seek to purify the university of carriers of tainted thoughts. A non-Communist English teacher at a mid-Western state university, Silas Timberman winds up in prison as the result of his disinclination to support local civil defense measures. His institution's leadership and the majority of its personnel do not assist Timberman to fight the charges of Communism to which this disinclination gives rise. Instead, the majority collapse ignobly and cooperate with those who seek, first, Timberman's dismissal and prosecution, and, second, evisceration of the practices of intellectual freedom for which a university supposedly stands.14Lola Gregg, a closely related novel, also looks at what happened to ordinary people caught in the swirl of political emotionalism as America entered the Cold War and “the Great Fear.” Lola Gregg's husband is, only slightly less than Silas Timberman, a political naïf. Both his world and, ultimately, his life, are disrupted beyond repair.
Since his emergence from the political wars of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, Fast's distance from organized politics has increased, yet his concerns for the political life of the society in which he lives show no corresponding tendency to decrease. Sixty years after his first novel appeared, Fast published not only another novel but also a collection of newspaper columns, War and Peace: Observations on Our Times (1993).15 He began to write these columns in December of 1988, originally for the New York Observer, and then for subscribers to the newspaper syndicate that picked up the column for national distribution. They have continued his lifelong critical engagement with American society through their author's eightieth year. So, of course, do the fictions he continues to write.
IV. TROUBLED TIMES
THE BLUE HERON PRESS
In Being Red, Fast describes how, as the 1940s drew to a close, his normal trade publishing outlets also closed down. Publishers rejected his new books, despite the critical and popular acclaim his earlier works had received—and despite the sales those earlier works continued to attain. This turnabout was a result, in part, of the relatively poor sales of his postwar books.16 More importantly, Fast felt, it reflected pressures analogous to those simultaneously affecting the broadcasting, screen, and theatrical media and known collectively as “the blacklist.” Fast cites the direct intervention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation as a major source of this blow to his career (e.g., Being Red, 246).
After the manuscript of Fast's novel Spartacus had received multiple rejections, including some from publishers who had published earlier books he had written, a person at Doubleday urged Fast to publish it himself. George Hecht felt strongly that Doubleday had rejected a major commercial prospect. He guaranteed to purchase numerous copies of any edition of the book that Fast published for distribution through Doubleday's chain of bookstores. Thus discouraged, on the one hand, and encouraged, on the other, Fast responded by turning himself into the self-publisher of Spartacus at the Blue Heron Press, the imprint he established in order to follow Hecht's advice. Operating out of their home—then at 43 West 94th Street in Manhattan—Fast and his wife published the book and sold (as he recalled) more than 48,000 copies of it in three months (Being Red, 294). Its sales made it “the only self-published best-seller in recent history” (Wald, “Legacy,” 94).17
Other books followed over Fast's Blue Heron imprint. Among them were his own Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti, Silas Timberman, and Lola Gregg. The press also published other writers who, in the peculiar atmosphere of that time, were unable to receive normal publication and distribution in the United States. W.E.B. Du Bois's classic The Souls of Black Folk and a work by radical poet Walter Lowenfels were among the books by writers other than Fast that Blue Heron printed and distributed in both hard and paper covers. Fast's own books, however, were Blue Heron's staples for both new publications and the backlist.
Fast has written fictions in a great variety of genres. If we except his novels with generally “contemporary” settings, the genre for which he is best known is the historical novel. Within that rubric, some of his historical tales—most notably The Last Frontier—have Western settings and themes. So do a few of Fast's short stories, some of which have been anthologized in collections of Western tales. Fast seems, however, less a writer of Westerns than of historical fictions, some of which are set in the old West. He has also written for children since the 1930s, but these books seem a relatively minor part of his output. Neither the books set in the West nor his children's books give Fast the appearance of anything other than the author of mainstream fictions. Historical novels, themselves generally regarded either as a subset of mainstream fictions or indistinguishable from them, are rarely marginalized in quite the same consistent way that some other fictional genres routinely experience.
In fact, however, Fast has also published fictions in two very conventional, generically ghettoized literary forms—mystery and science fiction—although his work in these kinds remains less well known than his mainstream historical novels and best-sellers. Yet these works are by no means a minor nor even a numerically insignificant part of his literary output. The mysteries appeared with two pseudonyms:18 Walter Ericson and E. V. Cunningham. Some of the Cunningham titles have recently begun to reappear over Fast's own name. Sylvia, for instance, was republished in 1992. It now has a dust jacket that not only names Fast as its author but also tells prospective readers that “Fast … had written the book at a time when he was hounded by J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI for his then radical views. … But Fast could not stop writing.” As a science fiction writer, Fast was able to use his own name.
Clearly, Fast turned to both forms for a variety of reasons. He had begun to write science fiction as early as the late 1930s—that is, at a time well before his “then radical views” were out of fashion. After the end of World War II, however—as the Sylvia dust jacket remarks—among the most important reasons he wrote works of science fiction was that his ability to publish books of the kind through which he had first established his reputation was severely hampered by the political interdiction beneath which he had fallen. But Fast also needed to work in forms that gave him latitude to try things that would have taxed the limits of more ordinary novels. (His interest in Zen meditative techniques, for example, plays an important role in one of his mystery series.)
Science fiction, as a highly marginalized literary form, has also been traditionally less conservative than mainstream fiction. Both its formal properties and its range of permissible political points of view vary far from what is ordinarily allowed in popular fictions—and these variations were particularly characteristic of the genre during the 1950s. Science fiction editors also offered Fast outlets that enabled him to keep his own name when he published stories with them. Indeed, several magazines in which his stories appeared made much of his turn to science fiction, using his name and what they supposed to be its literary and status associations to raise the status of their own venture.19 More importantly, they enabled Fast a venue in which he could explore political themes. The self-consciously speculative nature of the science fiction genre has long enabled the presentation even of oppositional viewpoints with only slight allegorical protective coloration.
Popularity and good sales are a serious writer's dream—but they may also prove a curse. Many of Fast's books have become best-sellers. Many have been adopted for use in schools. Many have attained notable paperback sales. Many have enjoyed considerable foreign and foreign-language sales. In all these ways, they demonstrated Fast's power to win audiences.
Fast achieved such success with relative speed. Two Valleys, his first novel, appeared in 1933. An English edition appeared that same year. It signified critical rather than financial benefits for the young writer. (When, a few years ago—as Fast has told me in conversation—he saw a copy of the first American edition for sale for five hundred dollars, he told the bookseller that five hundred dollars was more than he had earned for writing the book.) But by 1942, only nine years after the publication of Two Valleys, Fast writes, “I was sitting right on top of eighteen pots of honey.” He continues, “My third novel, The Last Frontier, … had been greeted as a ‘masterpiece’ … and my new novel, just published, called The Unvanquished, a story of the Continental Army's most desperate moment, had been called, by Time magazine who found in it a parallel for the grim present, ‘the best book about World War II.’ … [At this time, too,] I finished writing a book I would call Citizen Tom Paine”—a book that would bring Fast even more praise and high (and still ongoing) sales (Being Red, 2).
Other major historical fictions, such as Freedom Road and April Morning, would also prove to be popular with the general public. As school texts, they would become, as they remain, consistent sources of income for their author. Between these two books, the self-published Spartacus would bring Fast still more success. Eventually, through its 1960 release as a movie, it would also help to puncture the pretensions of the Hollywood Blacklist. Its success would help Fast return to ordinary commercial publishing venues. Slighter works, such as The Winston Affair (1959), would yield income from both their various printed and their movie versions. The Winston Affair became Man in the Middle (1964), with Robert Mitchum and Trevor Howard.
Fast's extensive publications in foreign-language translations offer a specific instance of his broad popularity for which the evidence is almost more overwhelming than that of his English-language sales. Worldwide interest in Fast's work developed rapidly. His political views, of course, were well suited to the Depression era in which he began to write. Moreover, his books were exceedingly popular in the Soviet Union and the satellite nations of Eastern Europe. Walter Felscher, now a professor at Tübingen but raised as a youth in East Germany, from which he eventually fled, remembers (without the slightest bit of pleasure) Fast's works as ubiquitous in bookstore windows in East Germany.20 A prominent American Communist Party member, Fast attained to a popularity in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe that, occasionally, translated not only into sales but also into royalties—somewhat unusual for Americans whose works were published in those places. (It was a popularity that also translated itself into the award of a Stalin Prize in 1954.)
In fact, however, his works had attained transatlantic interest, and not only in the Communist-dominated East, from the very first. Two Valleys, published in England in the same year it first appeared in this country, established a pattern of English interest in Fast's work that continues to this day. His books have also appeared in French, Italian, Rumanian, German, Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese, Greek, Czech, Croat, Hebrew, Bengali, Chinese, and Japanese, among many other languages. He was and remains proud of this evidence of popularity. The 1953 Blue Heron reprint of Fast's own Last Frontier lists on its title-page verso the twenty languages into which that novel had, by then, been translated.
The range and variety of foreign editions and translations of Fast's works, as well as their sales, indicate that Fast is among the most widely read of living American authors. So geographically widespread a readership is itself another reason for paying Fast increased critical attention. In addition, however, even as he was being ignored at home, Fast represented “American literature” to millions of readers throughout the world. How he was presented to them and how they received him are both questions that need investigation. Such inquiries will help us better to understand the complexities of how the idea of America and its literature have been constructed in our time.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Fast continues to attract audiences, as sales of his series of novels on the American immigrant experience attest, but he rarely finds the critical acclaim, or even the notice, that his earlier works achieved (see note 4). This change may result from ordinary shifts in literary taste and fashion. It may result from an aversion to Fast's perceived or actual political views and behavior, or it may result from a general mistrust of broad popularity itself, Fast's or anyone else's. Whatever the explanation, Fast continues to write and to be read despite this context of general lack of attention or outright critical dismissal. His books continue to be used in classrooms and to sell well in bookstores, yet scholars and critics routinely notice other contemporary writers while ignoring Fast. Best-seller status is not always its own reward.
VI. LATER WORK
Blacklisting, political disillusionment, imprisonment: there seem few modern public pitfalls, including popularity, that Fast has not encountered. Yet his ability to keep on writing and to produce at a prolific pace has, from all outward signs, not been affected by these difficulties in ways an ordinary reader would notice. He has produced successful books despite the most awkward personal situations. The first of the novels that his postwar circumstances required him to self-publish, Spartacus, became a huge seller, despite its mode of publication and the general dismissal or utter lack of notice accorded the book by the media. Freedom Road, a fictional introduction to the experience of African Americans in the Reconstruction era, appeared while Fast was still working his way out of the aftereffects of his 1957 resignation from the Party. It became another of his hugely successful historical novels and, like several of its predecessors, entered numerous classrooms.
Fast's series of novels concerned with the immigrant experience in America began with The Immigrants (1977) and continued through Second Generation (1978), The Establishment (1979), The Legacy (1981), and The Immigrant's Daughter (1985). Using immigration and subsequent successful acclimatization to the United States as its frame, the series—a “family saga dramatizing both personal and epoch-making struggles against white supremacy, war, fascism, anti-Semitism, industrial exploitation, McCarthyism, and the subjugation of women”—achieved consistent bestsellerdom (Murolo, “History,” 23). The Jewish-American experience, long a major theme for Fast, is heavily emphasized in this series. Fast had previously published several nonfiction historical essays about Jewish history, including the 1942 armed forces pamphlet on U.S. Jewry mentioned previously and a more broadly focused history, The Jews, of 1968. Even as he was finishing The Immigrants series, he revisited Jewish themes in another novel, The Outsider (1984). This book concerned a rabbi's experiences in a small Connecticut town. Both The Immigrants series and his books on Jewish themes brought Fast considerable financial but few critical rewards.
Unnoticed among the books of his later period—Murolo, in fact, writes that Fast “did not … return to the historical novel” and adds that, as a writer of “historical epics,” he “dropped out of sight” (“History,” 23)—is The Hessian (1972), the novel that Fast himself once called (in conversation with the author) his best. The Hessian appeared when Fast was well beyond the initial period of working his way through the personal and political difficulties that resignation from the Party had raised for him. He had once again resumed a commercially successful career, but he had not returned to critical favor. Perhaps as a result of critical inattention, The Hessian—in this respect very much like The Children—has never found an audience. Quintessential Fast, it seems a pure historical tale, yet the relationship of its purely historical tale to current issues is strikingly clear. Fast imagines a tiny military incident and its aftermath during the American Revolution. The book begins with the killing of an American by a band of Hessian mercenaries traveling inland from Long Island Sound on Connecticut's High Ridge Road. (Fast lived for many years in Greenwich, not far from High Ridge Road, which can still be found in Fairfield County.) The Hessians take the American, who follows them, for a spy. No spy, the American they kill is instead a local simpleton whose death inspires the neighborhood to revenge. The Americans ambush the Hessians, killing all but one of them. What happens to the one whom they do not kill, a boy, is the burden of the rest of the novel, which is beautifully realized. Fast views his characters with clear-sighted sympathy and objectivity. The novel itself is utterly rooted in its time and place, yet few of its first readers could have failed to relate The Hessian to the defining political problem of the moment when it was published, the American war in Vietnam. The power of this book, by itself, reveals a writer who deserves critical reevaluation.21
The Dinner Party (1987), The Pledge (1988), and The Confession of Joe Cullen (1989) are among Fast's later overtly political novels. Each is highly critical of certain aspects of American life. The Pledge, for example, finds the older Fast meditating upon some of his own youthful public experiences—experiences whose personal nature Fast has indicated elsewhere (Being Red, 120-28, 131-32). In The Pledge, Fast recalls how, as a war correspondent, he encountered British misrule in India and American attitudes toward a wartime, and then Cold War, ally that made disclosure of British brutality impossible. A few years later, in The Trial of Abigail Goodman (1993), Fast looked with a dubious eye upon efforts to restrict women's right to abortion.
One might have expected an aging Fast to have slowed his pace of writing or moderated the critical perspective from which he views American public life. True, the stridency of some of his earlier work is gone, yet Fast had never really adopted a “root-and-branch” critical stance in his fictions, perhaps as a result of his early acceptance of a Popular Front aesthetic. This is the aesthetic which, Wald argues, vitiated much of his radical potential (see “Legacy” generally and note 13). Fast continues on as he has always done, dramatizing “excesses and abuses” but looking only obliquely, if at all, at “process.” By and large, Fast writes anything but “analytical” fictions. Not only does he seem not to have slowed his pace of production, but also he shows few signs in his later work of having moderated his critical perspective.
VII. BEING RED
Being Red (1990) is a remarkable memoir. In many ways, although Fast claims otherwise (Being Red, 63), it is his political “Apologia pro vita sua.” Like many of his novels and short stories, it is available in paperback. (A second paperback edition has recently appeared.) Like many of those other works, it, too, has quickly achieved a classroom career. It is eminently readable. And it is worth reading.
It is true that Being Red goes over some of the same ground Fast had earlier traversed in The Naked God. In that book, Fast had similarly dealt with the impact of his involvement with the Communist Party. In 1957, however, his perspective was perhaps not yet quite distant or calm enough.22 Fast therefore gave its concerns a second try, after thirty-odd years of additional reflection. In the later book, his tone has become more moderate and his range broader than either had been in 1957, yet, in Being Red, Fast still conceives of his life and the shape his career has taken in terms of the Party. Its ideals, its betrayal of those ideals, and his own entry into, work for, and departure from it: all these remain among the determinants of the life Fast depicts. But Being Red is more than political self-exploration. A much longer book than The Naked God, it also has a range that the first book cannot match. It provides an unusually detailed entree into the life and work, as well as the political activities, of an American author. This author's career took him into several fields, in addition to politics, that most of his contemporaries rarely experienced; even those who experienced some of them, almost never experienced as many of them as Fast. Notable among these, as it would be for any novelist and writer, is self-publication. Journalism; investigation, trial, and jail; a political candidacy: these, too, are notable. But, more generally, Being Red illuminates the experiences, the issues, and the perspectives (the worldview, if you will) in terms of which Fast chose to adapt and tell the stories that constitute the bulk of his work throughout his long and highly productive career. The record his book provides is all the more important because so many of his contemporaries, if they had similar experiences (perhaps especially if they had similar experiences), tried as hard as they could deliberately to forget them.
Being Red is far from a perfect history of its time (as if any such thing could be imagined). Its frequent omissions, distortions, and lapses—even, in fact, its tone—are, nonetheless, often as significant as what Fast deliberately and accurately includes, at least, for any reader interested in recovering the temper of the period through which its author lived and wrote. Its view of the impact of one of the great intellectual and political movements of our time on a sensitive, responsive, prolific, and influential American writer, however partial that view necessarily is, makes its documentary value incalculable. Being Red sheds a bright and a raking light on Fast's career and on his era. Because of its self-absorption and partiality, it cannot be the last word on either. But insofar as it provokes its readers to further recovery of hitherto suppressed memories, it is certainly a propaeduetic to thought about both.
If Fast had written nothing else, this one book would give him an abiding claim on our attention. In fact, he has written much more that begs for renewed attention to his career and his work. A survey such as this one succeeds insofar as it encourages just such a second look.
I quote the publisher's comment about Fast's youth from the dust wrapper preserved on a copy of the first edition of Two Valleys in the Howard Fast Collection, Department of Special Collections, Van Pelt-Dietrich Library, University of Pennsylvania. This collection is described briefly below. M.E. Sharpe (Armonk, NY) published The Bridge Builder's Story.
For a brief survey of Fast's career, see the article (s.v. “Fast, Howard [b. 1914]”) by Alan Wald, in Encyclopedia of the American Left, ed. Mari Jo Buhle, Paul Buhle, and Dan Georgakas (New York: Garland, 1990), 219-20; hereafter cited as Encyclopedia. I have also used Fast's own autobiographical writings, especially Being Red (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990). As my text makes clear, I have also benefited from the opportunity of speaking about his life and career on several occasions with Fast.
Alan Wald comments on this productivity, but not warmly, in “The Legacy of Howard Fast.” Fast, he writes, “paid a heavy price for his machine-like production of books and screenplays.” This essay appeared originally in Radical America 17 (1983); it is reprinted in Alan M. Wald, The Responsibility of Intellectuals: Selected Essays on Marxist Traditions in Cultural Commitment (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities, 1992), 92-101. I quote from the later text (99) and cite this essay hereafter as “Legacy.” Wald recalls that Granville Hicks wrote in 1945 to warn Fast that high-speed productivity might well depend on a degree of carelessness and inattentiveness from which his work would suffer. In 1956, Walter B. Rideout also spoke of the same problem (with somewhat more sympathy) in The Radical Novel in the United States, 1900-1954: Some Interrelations of Literature and Society (rept. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992), 275-85.
The general disinclination of American literary historians and critics not only to valorize but even to pay attention to writers emerging from the political Left is discussed by Cary Nelson. See his Repression and Recovery: Modern American Poetry and the Politics of Cultural Memory, 1910-1945, Wisconsin Project on American Writers (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989). Yet even those for whom such a generalization seems valid may, perhaps, doubt its specific applicability to a writer such as Fast, whose prolific approach to his writing career has produced works of distinctly uneven quality. In any event, it is difficult at best to propose an explanation for neglect; there are so many possibilities. But consider the exemplary diction of Mark Shechner, writing that “the emergence of Jews as major contemporary writers had to await the 1940s, when a prevailing fiction of documentary realism and proletarian romance, produced by the likes of Cahan, Fuchs, Gold, Howard Fast, and Albert Halper, gave way to the subtler and more evocative writing of Delmore Schwartz, Saul Bellow, Isaac Rosenfeld, and Norman Mailer, and a significant advance in articulateness, power, and modernity appeared to be at hand” (“Jewish Writers,” in Harvard Guide to Contemporary American Writing, ed. Daniel Hoffman [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979], 193). I suppose some readers may not feel that anything other than the “mere” passing of literary judgments—and certainly nothing that might, perhaps, be thought political (“the likes of”)—is at work in this passage even when they encounter the names of the five writers whom Shechner defenestrates. In truth, however, I fail to have an imagination capacious enough to envisage such readers.
Priscilla Murolo writes that the “rave reviews” accorded the book in which Fast first explained his departure from the Communist Party, The Naked God, in 1957 “signalled … [Fast's] reacceptance by the cultural establishment” (“History in the Fast Lane,” Radical History Review no. 31 : 23; cited hereafter as “History”). I cannot agree, seeing no evidence that Fast has been “reaccepted” by any “cultural establishment” whatsoever. The Modern Language Association of America (MLA) maintains an online database that records scholarly and critical work undertaken by those who teach literature in our colleges and universities (and who, in current political mythology, are mostly demonized as the sort of left-wing subverters of accepted cultural norms for whom the Fasts of this world ought to be bread and butter). A search of this database for works that have Howard Fast as their subject yields, as of February, 1995, seven items. The database is retrospective and presently extends back to 1963. To put this figure into some perspective, contrast it with the number of scholarly books and articles that the same database lists that, published during the same thirty-two-year period, concern other modern American writers of varied stature and status: for example, Flannery O'Connor, 850; John Crowe Ransom, 146; Stephen King, 120; Isaac Asimov, 60; and Ross Macdonald, 52. Macdonald, a popular mystery writer and the least studied member of this group, is the subject of more than seven times the number of publications devoted to Fast. In fairness, I should note that the MLA database does not turn up the articles on Fast by Wald or Murolo published in history journals that MLA does not index. Nonetheless, these figures reliably indicate the degree of “reacceptance”—that is, virtually none—Fast has attained since he left the Party.
Alan Wald notices this lapse of scholarly attention when he comments in passing that “we have not even made a rudimentary beginning of an examination of the major contributions of leftist writers to the historical novel (for example, … Howard Fast)” (Writing from the Left: New Essays on Radical Culture and Politics [London: Verso, 1994], 79).
As a novel, The Children appeared over the Duell, Sloan and Pearce imprint (New York, 1947). It was reprinted once again in The Howard Fast Reader: A Collection of Stories and Novels (New York: Crown, 1960).
This is a view that deserves expansion; I hope to expand it in a different framework than that permitted by a survey such as this one. One might nonetheless note that, in Being Red, Fast bathes the book in false and partly misleading bathos. In the memoir, he writes that The Children “was the only time, in all my long life as a writer, that I wrote of my childhood”; but since then, he concludes, and “even in a dispassionate telling in my old age, I find that walls separate me from the intensity of the suffering of those three more or less abandoned children, myself and my brothers” (43). Readers who know no more of The Children than what the self-absorbed memoirist says of it here may decide on this basis that it sounds like a book they can easily live without. If so, they will miss a book at once more coldblooded, dispassionate, yet attuned to others, than its own author remembered in 1990.
See, for instance, Howard Fast, The Story of the Jews in the United States, Jewish Information Series, no. 1 (New York, 1942), “for Jews in the Armed Forces of the United States”; and his Patrick Henry and the Frigate's Keel (n.p., 1945; the Armed Services edition reprint).
Daniel Aaron writes, briefly and perceptively, about some of the limitations of The Naked God in his Writers on the Left: Episodes in American Literary Communism (1961; rept. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992), 311.
Wald calls this work simply “a vulgar treatise on Marxist criticism” (Encyclopedia, 219). That may well be a justified criticism. Nonetheless, anyone who, considering the small number of representative articles, pamphlets, and tracts cited in the text as examples of Fast's occasional writings (and among which this reference to Literature and Reality is found), and who has even a slight sense of the vast number of other such ephemeral pieces Fast produced, may well suppose that, however vulgar any of these pieces may be, getting them controlled bibliographically would benefit all students of leftist thought in Fast's era. A serious bibliography of Fast's entire output would be even more valuable; he used many names and published in an enormous variety of venues. Questions such as the one Wald asks (see note 4) about the reception of Fast's historical fictions simply cannot receive a serious answer without this preliminary basic information.
Walter Goodman provides a brief overview of the background to this affair in The Committee: The Extraordinary Career of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1968), 176-81, as does David Caute, The Great Fear: The Anti-Communist Purge Under Truman and Eisenhower (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978), 177-78.
Fast wrote several times to explain his resignation from the Communist Party: see, for example, “An Exchange with Howard Fast,” Mainstream 10; 3 (March 1957): 29-47 (Fast's “My Decision” followed by the Editors' “Comment”); “On Leaving the Communist Party,” Saturday Review 40; 46 (November 16, 1957): 15-17, 55-58; and “The Writer and the Commissar,” Prospectus 1; 1 (November 1957): 31-57.
The resentments that Fast's conversion elicited among his former comrades on the Left must have been at least slightly exacerbated because of his former and fairly prominent role as a sort of “enforcer” of Party discipline. His participation in the correction of Albert Maltz, who fell into ideological error with respect to the question of the potential independence of the artist from adherence to political orthodoxy, is an oft-told tale (see, for example, Aaron, Writers on the Left, 386-90). This affair took place in 1946. Earlier still, Fast played a role in keeping Joseph Freeman's 1943 novel Never Call Retreat from being filmed because Freeman, who had broken with the Party in 1939, was regarded as a renegade; this matter is mentioned in Joseph R. Starobin, American Communism in Crisis, 1943-1957 (1972; rept. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975), 253-54 (n. 32).
Wald (“Legacy,” 96) notes that the “left-liberal doctrine” with which Fast infuses these books “is not just simplified but fatally trivialized” by Fast's failure “to address the civil rights of those who were real ‘subversives’ in the eyes of the witch-hunters.” Instead, he portrays only simple innocents who are framed by McCarthyites. Fast criticizes “excesses and abuses,” not “the entire process.”
Fast was no academic; but neither were the issues he raised in Silas Timberman matters he could afford to find “purely academic.” Ellen W. Schrecker usefully recalls Fast's experiences as a speaker barred from appearances at various universities in No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 91-93.
One of these columns provided an occasion for one of the relatively rare bits of knuckle-rapping notice Fast can still attract from the right (Being Red was to provide another occasion, of course). See William F. Buckley, Jr., “Mr. Fast Explains,” National Review 41; 3 (February 24, 1989), 62-63, where Buckley explains how Fast, writing about abortion, fails to grasp significant distinctions between a fetus's right to life and the forfeiture of claims to the same right by a person convicted of a capital crime.
Wald writes that books such as Clarkton, Silas Timberman, and Lola Gregg were “less successful and … explicitly more radical” than Fast's earlier novels. He says that Freedom Road, The American (1946), and Spartacus were the “most successful” of Fast's books while he was a Party member (Encyclopedia, 219).
Since Wald wrote these words in 1983, a few other self-published bestsellers have appeared. They remain uncommon enough to warrant notice in the New York Times (see, for example, Edwin McDowell, “The Rise of the Self-Published Best Seller,” July 9, 1990, D6).
Fast used other pseudonyms, as well. In Being Red (159-61), for instance, he tells of his use of the name Simon Kent for a story whose title he remembered as “A Child is Lost,” published and then often reprinted under that name at a time when his own name would have killed sales. “The Day Our Child Was Lost,” by Simon Kent, appears—“Condensed from This Week magazine”—in Catholic Digest 15; 4 (February 1951): 38-40 at a time when that magazine would have reprinted nothing “by Howard Fast.”
See my comment at the end of note 9. Until Fast's vast output has been given basic bibliographical attention, we remain unclear about both its extent and its reception, even when (perhaps especially when) those who were “receiving” it were uncertain or simply wrong about whose work they were reading.
Thus they unwittingly betrayed their vast distance from the arenas in which literary status was conferred—arenas where, for all practical purposes, Fast no longer had any reputation proximity to which could enhance the status of their own product. Nonetheless—to cite three literally random examples—Fast is prominently named on the covers of the March, 1959; November, 1959; and February, 1960, Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction; two of those covers also give the title of the story to be found within.
I owe this recollection to a private communication from Professor Felscher.
Like The Children, this is a book to which I hope to return on another occasion. I would, however, draw attention, if to nothing else, at least to the restraint Fast shows in developing the characters in this novel. His use of ellipsis, his refusal to “explain” them, is masterful. Fast never opens up the relationship of his narrator—a Roman Catholic physician—to his Puritan neighbors (and his Puritan wife) or to the Quakers also resident in the neighborhood. These relationships, and that between the narrator and his wife especially, remain among many sources of fruitful mystery in this book—and, I think, among the sources of its power.
As Wald, among others, has noticed (see note 2), Fast is too prolific. He is thus easy to underestimate. Not only has he written too much (who has read it all?), but also his most interesting books are not always his best-known books. The reader who concentrates on the latter may not invariably meet the former. On the other hand, of course, the ways in which Fast's various books have been received is itself a topic that would repay further study; it might by itself offer a kind of roadmap to U.S. literary politics over a large chunk of the 20th Century.
Barbara Foley is not alone in distinguishing between Fast's earlier and his later versions of this tale of disengagement. See her Radical Representations: Politics and Form in U.S. Proletarian Fiction, 1929-1941 (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), 220 n. 6.
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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 noblest achievement of the human race on this planet—which was called the United States of America.
—Howard Fast, quoted by Mervyn Rothstein in “Howard Fast in a New Mode,” New York Times, March 10, 1987.
All writers create out of their life experiences, and their biographies—biographies in the larger sense of what they read, thought about, and learned, as well as what events happened to them—are vital to our understanding of what shaped their fictional work. The influence of life experience clearly varies from writer to writer, with some using the fictional world as an escape from a grim past or present, some following the events of their own lives as a general guide, and others indulging in virtual autobiography disguised as fiction. In the case of a writer like Howard Fast, much of whose early and best work was based on historical research, biographical information may seem beside the point, for surely the overwhelming weight of historical fact and the inescapable patterns of verifiable event must guide the fiction. What chance can the writer's own experience have against the known circumstances of, say, the American Revolutionary War?
In fact, although Fast has said he is “too close” to the incidents of his life “to be able to separate the important from the unimportant” (Something about the Author 81), much of his work, even the historical fiction, is autobiographical. When Fast writes from research, he chooses his central characters with great care; protagonists such as Tom Paine, whose life and work have been well established in documented sources, parallel elements in Fast's own personality and worldview, elements clearly related to his personal history. The historical figures thus provide a kind of psychological biography of Fast, a duplication and validation of his own philosophy and personal leanings in someone known to have existed earlier. When the protagonist of a Fast historical novel is purely fictional—an amalgam of real figures, perhaps, but not a historical personality—Fast again puts together a character who is recognizably a product of forces familiar to Fast from his own life. The central figures from books such as Conceived in Liberty and April Morning, for example, though fictional and very different from their creator in age, education, religion, geographic origin, vocation, and so on, nevertheless share key values, attitudes, and assumptions that firmly link Fast, the urban New York literary figure and political activist, with rural farm boy or uneducated soldier.
In addition, some nonhistorical Fast works are thinly disguised autobiographies. The Pledge, a straightforward account of a young journalist's experience in post-World War II India and the United States, culminating in a jail term for contempt of Congress, is virtually true, at least if Fast's accounts of his own experiences are to be trusted. More commonly, echoes and parallels of Fast's life occur throughout the novels—reminders of real characters encountered, locations visited, events and situations experienced, political and social happenings confronted. The lines between biography and fiction are often parallel but at times diverge, depending on the kind of fiction being written, but the lines generally move in the same direction, as we would expect. It is thus helpful to know the shaping factors of Fast's long and event-filled life, an exciting and very American life that tells us much about what it was like to be in the thick of things politically and socially in the mid- to late-twentieth century, the period of America's greatest power and influence.
This is not to say that the value of Fast's work lies in conscious or unconscious revelations about his own life. Biographical readings are useful when we know enough about a writer's life to see what has been done to turn reality into art; our emphasis should be on Fast's fiction, on the patterns, themes, and characters that have intrigued and captivated several generations of readers who know nothing of the writer's history. For that reason, the biographical material in this chapter should be seen as a guide to what motivated Fast rather than as a key to unlocking meaning.
The discussion is based mainly on Fast's excellent 1990 memoir, Being Red. A second, less detailed source for the discussion is The Naked God: The Writer and the Communist Party, published in 1957; this book began as a magazine article about Fast's departure from the Communist party and focuses almost entirely on his political life. Apart from incidental facts culled from various standard references, the final source of material for this chapter is Howard Fast himself, in the form of brief discussions with me.
Fast's entrance on the American scene in November 1914 was uneventful enough, probably hardly noticed outside his own family, for he was the son of working-class, first-generation immigrants, Barney Fastov, the name shortened to “Fast” by immigration officials, and Ida Miller. His parents were from the Ukraine and Lithuania, respectively. Barney Fast seems to have been something of a romantic rebel before marriage to Ida, apparently seriously planning to join a cavalry regiment invading Cuba in 1898 during the Spanish-American War as a means of revenge for the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. The military escapade never materialized, however, and after five children were born, Howard being the fourth, Ida Fast died in 1923, when the author-to-be was eight and a half years old.
His mother's death left Howard's father with four children (Arthur, the second child, died of diphtheria in 1912) and a limited means of earning a living, as his original trade as a wrought-iron worker disappeared because of changing construction methods and his second livelihood as a gripper man on a cable car fell prey to new means of transportation in New York. The elder Fast became a dress factory cutter, a dead-end job never paying more than forty dollars a week. The eldest child, Rena, left to marry soon after her mother's death, and the three younger boys were thrown, according to Being Red, pretty much on their own resources as their father slipped in and out of depression and employment, a distant parent who left at eight in the morning and returned to their tenement as late as midnight. Jerome, known as Jerry, was one year older than Howard, and the two took over the household. Fast says their poverty, both financial and emotional, was unchanging. Significantly, what did change, the author says in Being Red, was his “ability to face and alter circumstances. I ceased to be wholly a victim” (31).
One need not be a Freudian analyst to see in this grim childhood history patterns later emphasized in Fast's work: the distant, somewhat unreliable father/authority figure, well meaning but ineffectual; the mother figure, absent and possibly idealized by childhood memory; the need to confront all problems actively; the power of brotherhood, as Jerry and Howard, almost the same age, confronted the hostile world of the ghetto and paid their own way with a constantly changing series of jobs, beginning at age ten for Howard. Throughout the Fast canon, we see protagonists in rebellion against authority, often an authority unaware of and uninvolved with the main characters, who soon learn to depend on themselves and on their own true “brothers,” always a limited group against the world. Brotherhood abounds in Fast's books, both literal, as in My Glorious Brothers, about the rebellious Jewish brothers who become leaders of ancient Israel, or metaphorical, as in the union of mine workers in Power. And until a notable change in the 1960s when Fast turned to novels about women, the group is male, for women, though often well drawn, are subsidiary in the early works. Perhaps paralleling his mother's “desertion” of Fast and his brothers through her death and then his sister Rena's escape into marriage, the elegant, somewhat older female figure who is either distant or unreachable and sometimes leaves the protagonist is a familiar figure in the earlier works.
Fast's childhood also inculcated two formidable though contrasting shaping elements: the anti-Semitism of his rough immigrant neighborhoods and the uplifting power of the written word, the latter located most conveniently in the New York Public Library. After leaving the East Side Jewish ghetto, Fast's family moved to 159th Street, just west of Amsterdam Avenue, where Italian and Irish immigrants predominated. This was young Howard's introduction to racial and religious hatred, and although the Fasts had never kept a kosher household or felt any particular Jewish identity, the accusations of “Christ-killing” by the neighborhood children helped create a new unity among Howard and his brothers, a closed circle against hostile outsiders. Thus, in spite of his lack of early training in Judaism as religion or culture, Fast came, presumably beginning at this point, to entertain a lifelong interest in his heritage, even writing a novel, The Outsider, about a rabbi married to a nonpracticing Jew and struggling with his role in a Christian-majority society. Apart from Moses, Prince of Egypt, and My Glorious Brothers, both wholly on Jewish history, many Fast novels include Jewish characters, often in contexts such as the American Revolution or Reconstruction in which Judaism is usually given little or no credit for having a role. In Citizen Tom Paine, for example, it is a Jewish moneylender who finances one of Paine's revolutionary screeds, while in Freedom Road, Gideon Jackson's first mentor is Jewish. Doctor Gonzales, a Jewish physician, accompanies the main character of Seven Days in June. A Jewish family, the Levys, figures importantly in The Immigrants series. The struggles of Bernie Cohen, and later of his son Sam, over the proper place of a Jewish heritage in an “American” identity become important in the later novels of the family saga.
Apart from summer vacations in the Catskill Mountains when young Howard spent time with his aunt and uncle in Hunter, New York, childhood provided few pleasures. Even these escapes from big city poverty were tempered by family conflict with aunt and cousins, although Fast loved the mountains, forests, and wild animals, an appreciation of nature we see again throughout his work, even in the fictional descriptions of Mill Point Prison in West Virginia in The Pledge, where Fast in reality served time for contempt of Congress. We see a big city boy's love of open spaces in Max, whose hero, like Fast, moves from New York to California, and again in incidental descriptions of the American landscape, from Freedom Road to Power to more recent works like The Immigrants series, where the Napa Valley near San Francisco receives loving description. But New York did have one overwhelming formative influence: the availability of free books from the New York Public Library.
Fast reports reading everything and anything from the shelves of this wondrous collection of texts, and any serious reader of his novels believes him. Fast is complimentary enough about the public education he received, acknowledging that for all its rigidity and lack of imagination—he was forced to write with his right hand though he was born left handed—it might have been superior to more modern approaches that produce poor or few results. However, it is clear that his real education came through omnivorous reading—of the classics of American literature, of fiction that was mentioned or recommended, of whatever else took the fancy of the boy and the young man. We can imagine Fast's remembering himself when he wrote about Gideon Jackson, the semiliterate slave of Freedom Road, discovering books and the huge new world they offered, of Tom Paine's similar self-taught odyssey, and of myriad other scholars and readers who pull themselves up in his novels. Again and again the point is made that nonreaders are confined to the experiences of their own place and time. For the ambitious who are excluded from formal education, books are like wondrous time travel and space travel devices, machines that permit local experience to be compared to universal human practice. Education, always the key to the city on the hill for immigrants, came to Fast through a library card.
The evidence reveals varying experiences in Fast's early life—some very harsh, some, as in his relationship with his brothers, less so. His biography speaks of poverty and a fierce struggle for a decent life in a ghetto, of brutal street toughs and gangs that had to be fought for survival. Yet there must have been good times as well. A photograph of Howard at age three in Being Red shows a solemn straw-hatted and bespectacled toddler with toy spade and pail, on holiday in Hunter, New York, an image a bit at odds with the grim self-portrait in words of the same book. The photograph of his father, Barney Fast, shows a fairly well-dressed, even dapper man at ease, and the photos of brothers Jerome and Julius, as well as of Howard at twenty-one, show healthy and vigorous- looking young men of their time, looking out at the camera with adolescent confidence. The depression years were grim and New York street life violent, of course, and it would be churlish to question memories held so firmly, but it is at least clear that Fast's intellectual development as a child and youngster were completely out of character with the tenement housing, the street victimization, and the generally gritty physical environment he describes surrounding him. In this intellectual development, books from the New York Public Library played an important role in producing a writer, but Fast was also lucky in his teachers and in his literary models and influences. Even for poor boys from the ghetto, the times were rich with stimulants to the artistic and intellectual sensibility.
Fast's career as an author began with a number of different factors shaping his imagination. Jack London's prose was a recurring pleasure (now Fast finds it too flowery and mannered), and from London's The Iron Heel, Fast learned how the “wild word” bolshevik could be used to condemn a work of art even when the librarian in question had not read the book, a lesson of great importance later in his life when Communist party censors attacked his own works. An English teacher from Texas named Hallie Jamison is remembered fondly, a one-time friend of O. Henry who imbued Fast with a love of the lore of the American West and praised his gift for writing. She urged him to read Robert Louis Stevenson, George Bernard Shaw, and Shakespeare; Shaw's The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism was a Pandora's box, leading Fast to Thorstein Veblen's The Theory of the Leisure Class, Bellamy's Looking Backward, and Engel's The Origin of the Family. The movement away from the narrow world of poverty and provincialism had begun.
Captivated by these models of rigorous thought, Fast decided to become a writer at age fifteen, not so much by conscious decision but by default, for other avenues were closed to him due to his indifference to academic subjects other than literature and ideas. He describes himself as neither quiet nor contemplative as a child, but as “one of those irritating, impossible, doubting, questioning mavericks, full of anger and invention and wild notions, accepting nothing, driving … peers to bitter arguments and … elders to annoyance, rage, and despair” (Being Red 48). He says dryly that he probably had some good points as well, and then seriously and significantly claims that he and his brothers, in spite of their rough upbringing, had no hate of others different from themselves, hate being something picked up along the way, surely a key to understanding his later work. From this perspective, hatred is not part of the innocent young human but rather “picked up,” learned or acquired from society as one grows older; human nature, he implies, is a blank tablet written on by experience, at least as far as this destructive emotion goes, with youthful decency poisoned by environment. The suggestion is of human perfectibility. Hatred, simply one of the characteristics of social organization, can be eliminated by reorganizing society, much as one could eliminate smoking or drinking by doing away with opportunities to learn about them. This question of the origin of hatred and prejudice is wrestled with throughout the canon.
The fledgling literary man was unenrollable in most colleges because of his spotty academic record, and at age seventeen he chose the National Academy, a prestigious New York City art school, to instruct him in how to illustrate his own writing. Each morning he would arise at 6:00 A.M. and write for two hours before art school. After learning two-fingered typing (which he still uses) and banging out a few dozen stories, he finally sold one, “Wrath of the Purple,” to Amazing Stories magazine for thirty-seven dollars, a good deal of money in 1931. Now working for the public library, Fast was assigned to pick up overdue books checked out by prostitutes at a huge nearby brothel, an experience with temptation overcome by fear of syphilis that shows up in Max. In spite of such distractions, Fast still managed to write two novels, to try to read Das Kapital, to read The Communist Manifesto and John Reed's Ten Days That Shook the World with pleasure, to drop out of art studies at the National Academy, to fall in and out of love with various young women his age, to resign from the public library job, to begin to meet other intellectuals and political folk interested in leftist ideas, and to work for a hat maker. None of these activities necessarily had any causal relation with the others, but he was learning that he was a writer and a thinker, not a student, that he enjoyed the company of women, and that his great interest was in the politics of the left. One young woman, Sarah Kunitz, was a member of the Communist party but discouraged the seventeen-year-old Fast from joining as well, and his designs on both Sarah and party membership gradually faded.
Next, in 1933, footloose and unencumbered by any formal obligations, Fast joined a friend on a hitchhiking tour of the South, catching rides down the eastern part of the country, through Richmond, Winston-Salem, Savannah, Tampa, and Fort Lauderdale all the way to Miami. These southern experiences gave him good background for Freedom Road, he says, and, one suspects, colored his attitudes toward that whole section of the country thereafter, since most of his contacts with southern officialdom and the general populace were negative—“jails and guns,” he remembers—although a few individuals and the picturesque and romantic scenery are recalled fondly. On return to New York, the young Howard went to work as a shipping clerk and wrote six to eight hours a day, completing novels number four and five, both, like the first three, unpublishable. Then he wrote his sixth novel, Two Valleys, and found a publisher, Dial Press, in 1933. At nineteen he received the Bread Loaf Writers Conference Award. His next works were the novels Strange Yesterday (1934) and Place in the City (1937), but though he was being published, Sarah Kunitz, with whom Fast had stayed in contact, criticized his work, pointing out that his stories were “fairy tales” written by a legitimate working-class writer, while middle-class writers were writing about the depression and the life of the poor. In reaction, Fast tried a story about a street boy from his neighborhood, which he found so painful to write about that after publishing it as The Children he turned to research on the American Revolution, in part to “try to find out what had actually happened” and to avoid another “fairy tale” or the pain of writing about his own life (Being Red 65).
The scorn of Sarah Kunitz for his escapist tales was a watershed event, for Fast thereafter relied on research, to greater or lesser degrees to be sure, but for the most part avoiding “fairy tales” coming purely out of his own imagination until much later in his career. He was also temporarily lionized by the left and the John Reed Society for The Children, whose politics agreed with their own. Fast, however, was put off by the show trials and executions of old bolsheviks in Russia in 1936, and he had no further contact with the Communist party until the end of World War II. What he describes as the most important event of his young life occurred at about this time: his meeting with Bette Cohen, a young woman from New Jersey with whom Fast fell immediately in love and who became his wife. Their life as a young married couple was one of poverty, for Fast gave up factory work to write freelance for magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post and the Ladies Home Companion. A jaunt in an old jalopy to Valley Forge, then undergoing historical reconstruction, led to Conceived in Liberty, an interesting if harrowing book written in the realistic style of Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front. The Revolutionary War had never been approached in this way, and Conceived in Liberty was well received, including a very positive review in the New York Times by the American realist author James T. Farrell.
A trip to the American West, including Oklahoma, Arizona, New Mexico, the Rockies, and Mexico, led to an enthusiasm for the history and lore of the American Indian, and especially the Cheyenne. Fast, a quarter of a century before it became fashionable, was interested in telling the American Indian story from the Indian point of view. The Last Frontier (1941) received particular praise as a taut and moving story of the abuse and extermination of three hundred Cheyenne. The manuscript was ill received precisely because of its innovative viewpoint, but after a lengthy revision, it was published and praised by critics, including Alexander Woollcott, Rex Stout, and the eminent Carl Van Doren.
The early 1940s were eventful years for Howard and Bette Fast. The Tall Hunter came out in 1942, followed by The Unvanquished, in the same year, about the lowest point for the Continental army, and Time magazine called it the “best book about World War Two,” seeing in it a parallel to the current struggle. Also in 1942, at the suggestion of Louis Untermeyer, Fast joined the Office of War Information (OWI) and worked for the Voice of America. He began to write Freedom Road and received, through a work colleague, an invitation to stay with an anti-Semitic family of southern aristocrats in Charleston, South Carolina, to do background research. Fast's visit shows up in Freedom Road in his evocative descriptions of old Charleston mansions and the waterfront, and especially in the descriptions of the dinner parties his central character Gideon Jackson attends, social gatherings equally notable for elegance and bigotry.
In this same period Fast and Bette were slowly drawn into the circle of New York communists. Fast is somewhat defensive about his ignorance of the true face of Stalin (he admits to being disturbed by the Non-Aggression Pact with Hitler), and he points out the stalwart Americanism of his Communist party compatriots, their decency and integrity. Fast asserts that the American Communist party led the struggle for the unemployed, the hungry, the homeless, and the oppressed, and he offers as evidence the known names of the best and the brightest who were party members, an honor roll of writers and thinkers of the time: W.E.B. Du Bois, Albert Maltz, John Howard Lawson, and Dalton Trumbo. (Much later, Trumbo would write the screenplay for the film version of Fast's novel Spartacus.) Many others were secret members of the party, and, of course, were trapped by their “premature anti-Fascism,” in the euphemism of the McCarthy years, when U.S. policy shifted quickly from embracing the Soviet Union as an ally to defining itself against the U.S.S.R. as its mortal enemy.
These years leading to Fast's identification as a “card-carrying member of the Communist party,” as the rhetoric of the time termed it, were clearly painful and difficult for him to deal with, even decades later. He was a successful writer, with both critics and the public, now financially secure and newly married. But with the war, all carefully laid plans for the future were disrupted. Bette Fast miscarried their first child, and there were apparently strains in the marriage over her depression and the prospect of Howard's possibly serving abroad; however, a job with the OWI offered a compromise in which Fast could help the war effort yet remain in New York. His work with the OWI turned out to be not just a temporary stopgap but rather another turning point; he would become ever more involved in politics, and his novels based on wartime and postwar experiences would eventually take him in new political and artistic directions.
Fast's OWI work was writing propaganda. Initially hired because he knew something about the American Revolution and might therefore produce patriotic pamphlets, he was recommended as a newswriter by the eminent theater producer John Houseman, who had read the proofs for Citizen Tom Paine and thought Fast could write good, clean political prose. The young novelist, still in his late twenties, became the wordsmith for the still-forming Voice of America, writing daily fifteen-minute scripts to be read by actors in English and a wide variety of European languages. The irony of the future communist's being chosen as mouthpiece of the U.S. government and the army is not lost on Fast's retrospective view of his work. Millions of Europeans of different nations enslaved by the Nazis heard Fast's words and formed their mental images of the United States on that basis. Generals, bureaucrats, representatives of shipbuilders and the State Department, of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Merchant Marine: a full contingent of unlikely folk beat a path to Fast's office trying to get their story told on the Voice of America. The opening words to his news show, “Good morning, this is the Voice of America, and here is the situation today,” still deeply affect Fast: “this is the voice of mankind's hope and salvation, the voice of my wonderful, beautiful country, which will put an end to fascism and remake the world” (Being Red 14). Fast's political beliefs brought him to many criticisms of American culture, yet the pure and idealistic patriotism expressed here is consistent throughout his long career as an author.
A measure of how innocent the future communist was about things Russian is captured in an amusing Voice of America story. One day the State Department told Fast that President Roosevelt wanted the entire broadcast for that evening—and it was already 6.00 P.M.—devoted to the virtues of a Russian soldier, an Ivan Ivanovich. Roosevelt assumed that Fast knew that “Ivan Ivanovich” was the nickname for the typical Russian infantryman, the counterpart to the American G.I. Joe, but Fast and his staff, in blithe ignorance, spent two hours calling around trying to find information about this particular Soviet before learning from the Russian news agency TASS that there was no such individual. Far more troubling was the necessity of watching battlefield film clips from the Allies and enemy forces in order to make the radio reports realistic; the films made war real and hateful to Fast in a way that prose could not, and he found his early antiwar sentiments reconfirmed. We might note also that throughout his seventy-odd novels, scenes of war are always realistic, engrossing, and horrifying; the wartime battle footage he viewed, unedited for the public, must have shaped his later descriptions.
Under Fast's direction, the Voice of America broadcasts became polished and successful, and during this period of fourteen months or so of broadcasting, Citizen Tom Paine came out and garnered rave reviews. Fast applied for the overseas VOA position in North Africa but was told that the State Department, on the advice of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, would not issue him a passport because of his communist sympathies and Communist party connections. Fast says that he had neither, only a fair-minded appreciation of the sufferings of the Soviet Union in its struggle against Nazism and a refusal to advance the anticommunist agenda. In January 1944 Fast resigned angrily, admitting much later to intemperance in his speech (a lifelong characteristic) but never in his actions, which were entirely loyal and proper.
At this time, Fast took his first trip to California to discuss a possible film of Citizen Tom Paine. (Images of California in this era abound in Max.) The deal fell through, as have most other arrangements to film Fast's works, but he met many movie people, including Paul Robeson, the African-American singer and actor. He discovered in the Hollywood community a number of communist sympathizers, and, when again in New York, he and Bette were asked to join the party. They did so that year, 1944, and he says that there were no party cards involved, simply a self- identification: we are with you.
Ironically, this was also the moment of Fast's greatest success as a novelist, for Freedom Road had won enthusiastic adherents, including Eleanor Roosevelt and W.E.B. Du Bois. A Soviet bibliography counted its publication abroad at eighty-two languages; another Soviet estimate called it the most widely printed and read book of the twentieth century. Fast was receiving requests for publication forty-six years after the original publication, and pirated editions were in the millions at least. One African scholar was inspired by the book to create a written language for his tribe, in which the first work printed was Freedom Road. During this period Fast received the Schomburg Race Relations Award (1944), the Newspaper Guild Award (1947), and the Jewish Book Council of America Award (1948). But irony abounded: as soon as word of Fast's communism began to spread, his literary reputation began to disintegrate, just as, over a decade later, his name was obliterated from Soviet literary journals and courses once he quit the party.
Fast's memories of the party in the postwar period are of a benign, almost mainstream group, one very much in the American socialist tradition dating back to the Levelers in colonial days, through the labor movement of the nineteenth century, the International Workers of the World (the Wobblies), and on into the Socialist party of Eugene V. Debs. Fast claims the party did believe in violent revolution in the nineteenth century but gave it up for labor and community organizing in the twentieth, a position in accord with party dogma but in dispute among historians. In fact, Fast's descriptions of his first party meeting, held in the New York brownstone of an upper-class aristocrat, make it sound like a discussion group sponsored by the Democratic party: how could the participants help reelect Franklin Delano Roosevelt? Fast insists that he never heard a single call for the overthrow of the government by violence. Of the sixty thousand or so party members in the United States at the time, Fast asserts that the vast majority were decent, honorable people of great talent and idealism. In fact, Fast met Harry Truman, then vice president, and later was invited with his reelection committee to the White House for lunch with the Roosevelts. Mrs. Roosevelt chatted with Fast about Freedom Road.
The next great adventure shaped a number of novels. Fast received an offer from Coronet magazine to go to the China-Burma-India theater as a war correspondent. In fact, the war was virtually over, and Fast was moved from one public relations office to another in places where the battles had been won long before. In Casablanca he was impressed by the easy, luxurious life led by officers and troops far from the front lines, the palatial quarters and picnics at the beach with champagne and caviar. In contrast, in Benghazi, he was taken into the desert to see miles of wrecked military vehicles—German, American, and British tanks, jeeps, and so on—piled together in testimony of the enormous waste of war. The experience, says Fast, made him a pacifist at that moment. (In fact, he has made this statement about a number of experiences.) In Cairo he saw human misery unparalleled even by that in Calcutta, which he was to see later. He flew over the Negev and Sinai, then over Iraq, Iran, Abadan, Bahrain Island, and Palestine, absorbing images of the “terrible mountains and desert” that would show up in My Glorious Brothers. In Saudi Arabia his huge C-46 cargo plane put down to pick up empty Coca Cola bottles in a desert airstrip where the thermometer read 157 degrees Fahrenheit. The plane lumbered back into the air but could not gain altitude in the desert heat because of its load of empty soft drink bottles. Fast yelled for the crew to dump cases out to save all their lives, but they refused, explaining that while military equipment might be sacrificed, they would be in deep trouble for “messing around with Coca Cola.” The plane, flying just above the ground, landed on its belly at an emergency air field with no loss of life and no broken bottles, but was ruined. Both Coronet and Esquire refused to write the story, which eventually appeared in The Howard Fast Reader, where most readers took it as fiction.
In India, Fast encountered the British, a people who generally come off very negatively in all his writing, from Citizen Tom Paine to The Pledge, the fictional version of this trip. A severe critic of colonialism, Fast blames the British for their toleration and perhaps encouragement of Indian poverty under the raj, the rule by the British empire, and, even worse, their personal indifference to the humanity of their colonial subjects. Two events from this trip sum up this dehumanizing attitude, both of which show up as incidents in The Pledge, in slightly different form. First, Fast sees two British officers being dried after a shower, their Indian servants toweling off their private parts to the complete indifference of the officers, as if the servants were not human. A second story was told to Fast, that when the British high commissioner at New Delhi learned that poor people were using a lamppost as an open air night school to learn reading, the commissioner acted quickly to help this literacy effort: he had a larger light bulb installed!
Fast saw Gandhi from a distance at a train station, but the greatest influence on him, apart from the negative effect of the snobbish, class-conscious British officers and officialdom and the self-indulgence of the American military in essentially peacetime circumstances (the front-line fighting was far away), was the Indian communists and their seriousness about fighting poverty and misery among their people. The chief of the Delhi Communist party sent a message through Fast to his opposite number in the United States: four hundred million Indians have been learning to spit together, and they will wash the British into the sea. A journey from Delhi to Calcutta by train revealed all the wonders and horrors of India, including unknown tribes, a man dying of starvation, wild exoticism, and appalling poverty—topics too alien for the conventional Coronet magazine, which had sent Fast. Many of these impressions would end up in The Pledge, observed by his character Bruce Bacon, a stand-in for Fast. Barbara Lavette of The Immigrants series also serves as a correspondent in Calcutta, as depicted in Second Generation. Being Red and the two fictional works describe the huge numbers of the homeless—people living outdoors permanently, with streets set aside for sleeping and possibly for dying from starvation. Fast was told that six million people had died, at least in part because the British authorities had arranged with Muslim rice dealers to withhold food in order to weaken the will of Indians who might support the Japanese.
This story is central to the plot of The Pledge, and as in the fictional version, Fast gets second-hand confirmations but never enough direct evidence to break the scandal into the mainstream media. Again as in The Pledge, Fast met with Indian communists and dined at a Jewish restaurant founded in Calcutta two hundred years before the birth of Christ. He traveled by bicycle with a communist organizer into neighborhoods so poor that the organizer would read the one-page party newspaper to residents, who would pay, if they could, with a single grain of rice—scenes of poverty so wretched that Fast compares them to Dante's Inferno. This is one of the most affecting portions of The Pledge and makes understandable Fast's belief in the self-denial and commitment to the poor of the party. Fast was well aware that change was unlikely and that ordinary human common sense leads people the way of self-protection and self-interest. Yet the “saintliness” of Sind, the Communist party organizer, remains shimmering in the memory, his gestures toward reform perhaps absurd and futile, but clearly the only right thing to do.
Back in the United States, Fast delivered the message from the Delhi party secretary to Gene Dennis, head of the American party, and was very let down by the man's coldness and lack of interest in his Indian colleagues. As in The Pledge, no mainstream American paper would touch Fast's story on the British-caused famine, not even the leftist New Masses. In Fast's mind the allegations of British culpability constituted proof, and the issue ended there. The twice-told famine story (thrice told, if we count Barbara Lavette's version) is a window on Fast's strength, his ability to feel the suffering of others deeply and to render their misery in dramatic example and detail, but also on his weakness, a tendency to shoot from the hip that can deny moral complexity and varying shades of responsibility. To call the British action the moral equivalent of Hitler's Holocaust, a charge made by the Indian communists that Fast repeats without comment, was sure to provoke counterclaims and countercharges at a time when the British were firm U.S. allies. In a self-revealing anecdote in Being Red, Fast is talking with a sympathetic lawyer when a professional red baiter walks by. Fast calls the anticommunist a “sonofabitch,” and the Philadelphia lawyer chides him, “Come on, Howard, you only hate him because he's their sonofabitch. If he were our sonofabitch, you'd cover him with roses” (28).
Fast's trip to India served him well as a writer, for it resulted in a powerful novel and a good repertoire of story material. As a reporter, however, Fast made a good advocate but not an objective investigator ferreting out evidence of the truth, an activity that was perhaps denied him by circumstances but that also seemed to interest him less. Coronet may well have been correct in rejecting some of his reports (some were later written up as effective stories). We should note, of course, that these versions of events, in Being Red, The Pledge, and Second Generation, were published long after the fact, when the distorting mirror of time and memory must have had some effect. Their consistency with each other, however, suggests that Fast is sure in his own mind about his experiences and has, with all his skill as a storyteller, shaped them for maximum effect. And this, of course, is his forte.
Fast met and got along well with Jean-Paul Sartre, then visiting New York, and found much in common with the French philosopher and party member. Both were ignorant of the atrocities of Stalin and the party in Russia. Fast notes the excesses and contradictions of the American Communist party in these postwar years but also its distinguished membership and good intentions. In a way, the U.S. government's increasing intolerance of the left in general and of communists in particular caused Fast to harden his position and to explain away the antidemocratic and arbitrary practices he saw in the party as simply responses to oppression.
And the left was increasingly being isolated and persecuted in the immediate postwar years. The House Un-American Activities Committee, known later as HUAC, and Senator Joseph McCarthy's Senate committee were particular goads and tormentors, with their listing of communists and leftists in various institutions and their requiring of loyalty oaths as a condition for membership or employment, as the Taft-Hartley Labor Act of 1947 had done for labor union leaders. Fast was called up before HUAC because of his support of the Spanish Refugee Appeal, an innocuous enough organization raising money for food and medical supplies for displaced persons in Spain. Nervous (the eminent Clark Clifford had abased himself before the committee for sending out fifty copies of Citizen Tom Paine to friends, claiming he did not know it was “communist propaganda”) but convinced that Congress did not send people to jail for their beliefs, Fast testified along with other members of the Appeal executive committee and was called back alone to answer charges that the record shows were clearly trumped up. The record does show, however, that Fast was impolitic in the extreme, calling the committee members names and pointing out their stupidities to them.
Tolerance of any views outside the mainstream was shrinking. While living under the threat of a jail term, Fast wrote a play, Thirty Pieces of Silver, about a White House staff member who betrays a colleague; it was never produced in the United States but was successful in Europe and Australia. Another event indicated the changing climate in the postwar years. A friend's temporarily lost child stimulated a Fast story, “A Child Is Lost,” scheduled to be published in This Week, a nationally distributed Sunday newspaper supplement, but Fast's literary agent asked that he publish under a pseudonym, since his own name would not be acceptable. A movie deal for this short story failed for the same reason, as the witch hunt for communists infected Hollywood, led in part by actor Ronald Reagan. A measure of the increasing attention from the government was that Fast's FBI file eventually reached eleven hundred pages, costing over $10 million to compile; he says that he is proud of every incident reported, none being immoral, illegal, or indecent but rather just the opposite. After a trial in 1947, Fast and other members of the board of the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee were found guilty of contempt of Congress for refusing to name the contributors to their cause. Appeals delayed the serving of Fast's three-month prison sentence until the spring of 1950.
In 1948, Fast became involved in the rebirth of the Progressive party, with Henry Wallace as presidential nominee. At pains to show the Progressive party as centrist, Fast traces its history back to Theodore Roosevelt through the Farmer-Labor party of 1924 led by Robert La Follette of Wisconsin. However, at the Philadelphia party convention, Fast was sought out by H. L. Mencken, who, after praising Fast's recent book about Altgeld, The American, asked Fast bluntly “what in hell” he was doing with the “gang” that formed the Progressive party (Being Red 192). Fast, a great admirer of the iconoclastic Baltimore journalist and scholar, mumbled in reply that he did not have a better place to be in the Republican or Democratic parties. Mencken answered that there was indeed a better place—“with yourself”—adding that he, Mencken, was a “party of one,” an observer rather than a participant, and that Fast should be too. Fast should not join the party, for if he did, “these clowns will destroy you as surely as the sun rises and sets” (Being Red 193).
These were prophetic words, for the Progressive party failed, winning only 2 million votes nationwide in 1948, marking, as Fast points out with great accuracy, the end of the left-liberal-labor alliance that had been a major force in American politics since Eugene V. Debs before the turn of the nineteenth century. Labor distanced itself from the left in order to prove its patriotism and “Americanism”; liberal intellectuals were cowed and defensive, both groups defeated by the anticommunist fervor of Richard M. Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI. The Communist party shrank steadily until by the end of the 1950s, it numbered only ten thousand or so members and had lost all its previous influence with movers and thinkers. Fast kept publishing, with Clarkton coming out in 1947, but his next book brought him trouble on two fronts. My Glorious Brothers, about the heroic Jewish Maccabee brothers in biblical times, appeared in 1948; it received the Jewish Book Council of America annual award, but Fast's name was removed from all subsequent lists of the award. Fast was banned from speaking at fifteen colleges and universities. In 1949, J. Edgar Hoover tried to remove Citizen Tom Paine from New York school and public libraries, as well as from libraries in other cities.
Fast blames almost all of these shameful happenings on the FBI, HUAC, and the generally conservative (and cowardly) times, but even his own testimony shows some culpability on the part of the party itself. As the U.S. government moved to censor ideas it disliked, so too did the party. For example, My Glorious Brothers was widely read in the just-formed state of Israel as a well-told historical parallel to Jewish aspirations for freedom but was panned by some party members as “Jewish nationalism.” The party enforced political correctness thirty years before the term became current: Fast was criticized widely for using the word wolfish to describe a nonwhite, and for other linguistic offenses. Fast dutifully covered the trials of the party leadership for the Daily Worker but admits that many individuals were “arrogant” and “thick-headed”; he uses these words to describe his own “stupid” behavior in driving off his own nonparty friends because of the party's dictates, including the eminent Moss Hart.
Yet even forty years after the fact, Fast's testimony in Being Red reveals conflict about the true nature of the Communist party. He defends his assertion about the decent and principled nature of most party members he knew, listing a series of outstanding luminaries who participated in the Scientific and Cultural Conference for World Peace, a meeting rejected by the party leadership but promoted by Fast and others to support the ideas of the left. Participants included poet and critic Louis Untermeyer; poet Langston Hughes; writers John Lardner, Dalton Trumbo, Dashiell Hammett, and Thomas Mann; composer Leonard Bernstein; and other notables of the time (including writers Mary McCarthy and Norman Mailer as rump speakers). But while many of these figures surely had motives above reproach and while Fast states unequivocally that there was no Soviet money or influence on the conference, the role of the Russians in the American left in general remains murky, at least if recent information from KGB archives is to be trusted. The final chapter is yet to be written about these years.
At the International Peace Congress in Paris where he was embraced by everyone from taxi drivers to Chilean poet Pablo Neruda and Pablo Picasso (who kissed Fast full on the mouth, he notes), Fast secretly delivered a charge of anti-Semitism against the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, a charge made by the American Party. Alexander Fadeyev, the head of the Soviet delegation, repeated over and over, even in the face of Fast's listing of facts and evidence, that there was no anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union. Fast found himself irritated and angry but even in the retelling tries to explain away Fadeyev's stonewalling as honest ignorance. He never fully acknowledges the deep corruption that suffused the Soviet system not just in the party leadership but also the winked-at anti-Semitism that was so much of the normal way of doing things, and the inherent dishonesty that it created in those who could see beyond the Potemkin village of ethnic, religious, and racial harmony. Like one of his own literary characters—Tom Paine, or Ely and Jacob in Conceived in Liberty, or the Maccabee brothers—Fast's compass points stubbornly in one direction only, and he refuses even forty years after the event to admit wholeheartedly that this commitment was wrong. (In some ways the angry denunciations of ideological betrayal in The Naked God are more revealing than the sometimes defensive autobiographical explanations four decades later.) Yet literary commitments to truth are easy; real-life relationships to organizations are shaded in all the grays of ambiguity. As always, Fast wrote the plots of his stories far more neatly than the sometimes messy scripts of his own life.
A watershed event occurred when Bette Fast took a trip to Europe, and Howard, with a newly hired nanny to replace the Japanese woman who had taken care of the children in the past, repaired to Mt. Airy in Croton, New York, for some weeks in the country. The singer Pete Seeger contacted him about a peace meeting near Peekskill in Westchester Country, New York, including a concert by the great Paul Robeson. The event was a disaster, with rural hoodlums surrounding the entrance and yelling, “Kill a Commie for Christ” and “white niggers” at the concert-goers, then attacking them with fists, clubs, rocks, and even knives. Fast organized, the forty-two men and boys among the peace contingent into a defense force, which held off repeated charges by hundreds of drunken tormentors. He reports that the experience was important to him, and it is easy to see the Peekskill defense as a metaphor for Fast's view of his relation to society: a band of diverse believers, bonded into brotherhood by an ideal, holding off superior forces and triumphing by enduring. My Glorious Brothers fits this pattern, but so do all the books about the American Revolutionary army, and a number of other works as well. Peekskill had all the elements that define the Fast hero, his immediate surroundings, and society at large. Shortly after retelling the Peekskill story, Fast even says that people in the Cultural Section of the Communist party felt, because of their persecution, an identity with the early Christians!
In June 1950, after all appeals had failed, Fast began to serve his prison sentence, an experience told vividly in fictional form in The Pledge. (Barbara Lavette also goes to jail for contempt of Congress, but on Terminal Island, not far from Los Angeles.) After being held briefly in a Washington jail, Fast was transferred to a federal prison in West Virginia, Mill Point Prison, a minimum security institution where he lived with moonshiners from the Kentucky mountains and blacks convicted of relatively minor crimes. This “prison without walls” was established by Franklin Roosevelt and run by Kenneth Thieman, a civilized and humane man, and while it would be a distortion to say that Fast talks of his time there with pleasure, he calls the prison the best-run institution he had ever seen, prison or otherwise, and views his three months there as less a punishment than an indignity. Fast gave reading lessons and provided Bible exegesis for the moonshiners, met novelist-screenwriter Albert Maltz and director Edward Dmytryk there, both victims of the purge of Hollywood by HUAC, taught himself to cast a concrete statue (of a little boy urinating), began to think about his plan for Spartacus, one of his best-known novels, and in general fared a lot better than he expected to.
Back in New York, friends had produced a Fast play called The Hammer, about a Jewish man with three sons. The Communist party Cultural Section leader had arranged for James Earl Jones, the physically imposing black actor with the booming voice, to play one of the sons. When Fast saw the father, played by a slight, pale, fair-haired man and the huge Jones playing his son on the same stage, he reacted in horror: the audience would be confused at best by this genetic unlikelihood and might even think it comic. The cultural commissar accused Fast of white chauvinism, an absurdity Fast thinks indicates precisely what was wrong with the party: its inability to deal with reality in place of its elaborate theory. Fast also criticized the party for its unwillingness to defend the Rosenbergs in the famous spy case, and he pushed party officials to take action.
Fast by this time had finished Spartacus, a controversial treatment of the great slave revolt of 71 B.C. as a metaphor for all oppressed people's struggle to throw off the shackles of their inhuman oppressors. Though it was well reviewed by Little, Brown Publishing, J. Edgar Hoover had given express directions to the president of the company not to publish any books by Fast. One by one other publishing houses rejected the book: Viking, Scribner's, Harper, Knopf, Simon and Schuster. Finally, Doubleday, though afraid to publish the novel, agreed to sell copies through its bookstore chain if Fast published it himself. This led him into the adventure of self-publishing, which began the slow process of making Spartacus a success; he sold 48,000 self-published copies and untold numbers abroad, both legal and pirated. By the end of the 1950s,hundreds of thousands of paperback copies were sold. Spartacus won Fast the Screenwriters Award in 1960. From 1952 to 1957, still unable to find a publisher, he founded the Blue Heron Press (a word play on a friend's suggestion that he call it the Red Herring Press) and published The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti, Silas Timberman, and a collection of short stories. During this controversial period in the 1950s, Fast founded the World Peace Movement and served as a member of the World Peace Council. While denied the freedom to publish under his own name by the blacklist, he began to write under the pseudonym of Walter Ericson, first with a detective thriller, The Fallen Angel, which was later made into a film, Mirage, starring Gregory Peck as the amnesiac hero.
Ever since Mill Point Prison, Fast had experienced cluster headaches, an excruciating condition then untreatable. While vacationing at White Lake resort, owned by the Fur and Leather Workers Union, a friend suggested that the headaches resulted from frustration about his inability to strike back and that Fast should take drastic action to relieve this stress: he should run for Congress. Thus began Fast's quixotic run for office in the Twenty-third Congressional District on the American Labor party ticket, an experience reflected long after in The Immigrant's Daughter. Fast amusingly calls his affliction candidatitus: the conviction that one can win office against impossible odds. An incident with another symbolic candidate, a rich man's son, illustrates what Fast thinks of as an almost unbridgeable gap between wealth and poverty, a chasm of understanding that divides so completely that the rich can never think or understand life as the poor do. His fellow candidate invited him over for dinner and allowed a full gallon of ice cream to melt away while they talked, oblivious as the nervous Fast agitated over the waste of food. The incident appears in several Fast novels as a touchstone of the difference between rich and poor. In the election, Fast polled only two thousand votes, to over forty thousand for the Democratic candidate, but he clearly enjoyed the experience of running for office.
Fast's cluster headaches worsened, and he took oxygen for partial relief, and learned mediation that would eventually take him to the study of Zen Buddhism. He was awarded the Stalin International Peace Prize in 1953 (later renamed the Soviet International Peace Prize; he and Paul Robeson were the only Americans over to receive it) and reports that the Russians frequently consulted him because of their ignorance of and bewilderment about the United States, Pravda reporters believing that, for example, in the American South any person disapproved of by the majority would be hanged. As with Fadeyev, Fast seems to take straight these assertions of Soviet ingenuousness, but the reader can be forgiven some skepticism: why would Russian reporters with access to superb KGB sources of information go to a New York novelist for advice? Fast had always viewed the American South negatively, and one must wonder about the motives of journalists' asking tendentious questions. For all his growing frustrations with party discipline, Fast seemed to give too much credence to the purity of Soviet intentions, which were no doubt less than absolutely pure.
The Fasts spent two months in Cuernavaca, Mexico, as a temporary refuge from the red-baiting and harassment by FBI phone tap and surveillance that were becoming more and more oppressive. He met the famous artist Diego Rivera, who told him that artists must offend, a sentiment Fast definitely agreed with. Significantly, though Fast loved the sensual and beautiful landscape of Mexico, the Mexican people, and the American communist exiles from Hollywood and the rest of the United States, he quickly grew bored, unable to write or even to live fully without the opposition that had been so long a part of his daily life. Cutting short their intended three-month stay, the Fasts planned to return to the United States, only to face the newly passed Communist Control Act, a piece of legislation he claims turned America into a police state. As Fast points out with considerable self-understanding, creative artists (and others) living abroad, separated from their country and culture, lose all perspective. They begin to think like refugees and therefore frequently exaggerate their oppression to justify their new lives as refugees. The Soviet ambassador to Mexico offered refugee status in Russia, which Fast turned down, remarking later to Albert Maltz, his old colleague from Mill Point Prison who had exiled himself to Mexico, that they had no roots in the country and they did not have their native language: “Our lives are our language” (Being Red 342).
The Communist Control Act was never used or even much noticed. Back in America, the Fasts lived in the suburbs, in Teaneck, New Jersey, and Howard joined the Daily Worker as a permanent staff member. By 1956 the stories of life under Stalin had become undeniable, and a conflicted Fast struggled to maintain his ideological faith. When Nikita Khrushchev's secret speech detailing his predecessor's horrors became public, as John Gates, executive editor of the Daily Worker, notes in The Story of an American Communist (1958), Howard Fast, “the only literary figure of note left in the Communist Party,” was one of those most shaken. Gates points out that Fast had gone to jail for his beliefs and had stuck his neck out more than most others, defending everything communist and attacking everything capitalist “in the most extravagant terms.” He adds, “It was to be expected that he would react to the Khrushchev revelations in a highly emotional manner, and I know of no one who went through a greater moral anguish and torture” (Being Red 351-352). Gates goes on to describe party leaders leaping on Fast like a “pack of wolves” when he formally quit the party, though no leader bothered to discuss the problem with Fast when it might have done some good. He also went from being one of the foremost American writers read and taught in the Soviet Union to being a nonentity, his literary reputation ruined almost overnight by his change in politics.
Although Being Red was published in 1990, it ends with this leave-taking from the Communist party in 1957, when Fast was forty-two. He clearly feels that a major phase of his life ended here, though in the next thirty-odd years he published scores of books, pushing his total number of publications to somewhere around one hundred, most of them substantial. (Even Fast is not completely sure of the total number of publications; title changes and his own pseudonyms have confused the issue. Given the huge number of his books that have been translated and published abroad, many without benefit of legal permission, the total number of sales may be as high as 80 million copies.) In the midst of this phenomenal production, Fast also became a writer of detective stories and novels about strong women, completed a highly successful series of popular novels (The Immigrants series), moved to California and back to the East Coast, to Connecticut, traveled the country and the world, studied Zen Buddhism, and, as always, wrote. He has kept these decades out of the newspaper headlines and lived privately, enjoying a life free from government and media harassment. He gives occasional interviews but has generally stayed out of public notice. Writing under the pseudonym of Walter Ericson and later as E. V. Cunningham, under which name he produced twenty books, Fast reinvented himself as a writer of detective fiction, creating the character of the Japanese-American detective Masao Masuto and enjoying the writing of this form of popular fiction immensely. As he says in Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, he underwent what he calls an “explosion” of creativity repressed until after he left the Communist party; and his bibliography shows he does not exaggerate. He has published almost sixty novels and major works since his departure. The Fasts moved to Los Angeles in 1974, where they lived until 1980; although only one of his screenplays from this period was eve produced, residence in California paid off in The Immigrants series, especially in the unforgettable portrayals of Los Angeles, San Francisco, and, in particular, the fictional Napa Valley winery called Higate.
Despite his comparative reticence about this period, his writing reveals much about his interests. In the 1960s, Fast built a series of novels around extraordinary women, some criminal, some instigators of crime, and others co-investigators with a male detective. This was a new emphasis; apart from Agrippa's Daughter (1964) and a handful of characters in other early works, Fast had focused on male protagonists. The potential had always existed, for female characters in even the earliest novels were consistently well drawn. These later books, however, constitute a near full turn in perspective: they are tributes to the intelligence, courage, resourcefulness, and wit of women and a reprimand to the husbands, lovers, and friends who underestimate their capabilities and pluck. Shirley (Shirley 1964) is a tough, wise-cracking Bronx diamond-in-the-rough, who exasperates the tough cops she deals with, while Sylvia (Sylvia 1960), once an abused child and then a teenage prostitute, has, through sheer guts and determination, read voraciously, taught herself several languages, and fought her way into polite society. Penelope (Penelope 1965), an independently wealthy socialite, bored by male pretensions and her banker husband's arrogant complacency, plays Robin Hood to the local parish and associated charities, stealing from rich acquaintances whose sentiments and values offend; even when the police commissioner and district attorney confront irrefutable evidence of her activities, their preconceptions prevent their accepting the truth of her wit and professionalism. The unflappable Margie (Margie 1966) is an innocent mistaken for a thief and then for an oil-rich countess, her whole adventures comic and resolvable despite serious negative possibilities. Other heroines from this set of novels face more sinister dangers and threats. For instance, Phyllis's mother is brutally beaten to death (Phyllis 1962), Lydia's father is forced into suicide (Lydia 1964), and Alice's child is kidnapped and terrorized (Alice 1963). Helen (Helen 1966) faces sexual sadists, as does Samantha (Samantha 1967), a would-be star, who is raped by a half-dozen young men on a Hollywood set and seeks bloody revenge, while Sally (Sally 1967), thinking she is dying of an incurable disease, hires a professional gunman to end her pain quickly, only to learn the original diagnosis was incorrect and to have to battle an assassin she herself is paying. Some of Fast's usual villains show up in these works: German ex-Nazis, still loyal to Hitler's memory, hypocritical military and political leaders (a general and a senator heading a heroin smuggling operation), and international terrorists. However, the main thrust of these novels, whether comic or deadly serious, is a paean to women. Although their characters move around a great deal in familiar Fast settings, a number of these books have a California setting. Fast clearly became fascinated by the state, the new goal for immigrants searching for the American dream, and much of his best work in the 1970s and after has a California setting or at least includes a few scenes in the West. The tension between the new lifestyles and personal philosophies on the coast, summed up by the competition between Los Angeles and San Francisco, was clearly a deeply felt personal issue, and its working out in fiction, sometimes as tragedy, sometimes as high comedy, constitutes much of the pleasure in the works of this period.
In The Immigrants series, Los Angeles comes off comparatively badly, a diffuse Johnny-come-lately town, offering opportunities and excitement of a kind but also being a place populated by con men and vulgarians. Fast's depiction of the movie industry is especially caustic: Martha Levy commits suicide as a result of exploitation by a sleazy producer; Sally Levy finds one honest man, her director and mentor, but no emotional satisfaction from movie industry life; the filmscript of Barbara Lavette's first novel is taken out of her hands though she has been hired as a screenwriter. Portraits in other books, such as the Masao Masuto series and Max, Fast's novel about the development of the movie industry, depict Los Angeles more positively, or at least neutrally. But the contrast remains: Los Angeles can be summed up by the powerful Devron family, opportunists who trace themselves back to frontiersman Kit Carson. San Francisco has the Lavettes, perhaps just as opportunistic, but driven by nobler motives than the struggle for filthy lucre. The Devrons watch their fiscal bottom line; the Lavettes know the value of a dollar but are also capable of the grand gesture, such as when Dan supports Bernie Cohen's quixotic trek to Israel or Jean gives a huge amount of money to Barbara in support of a cause Jean has no part in. Los Angeles is driven by profit, in other words, while San Francisco, for all its gold rush origins, has a romance and a nobility of style that Fast regards with approval.
Even the contrasting climates show Fast's preference for the Bay Area. For all the perfections of the southern California weather as described in Second Generation, The Legacy, and The Immigrant's Daughter, readers will almost certainly retain stronger impressions of San Francisco's bracing chills or of its fogs cut through with rays of bright sunshine. The tactile imagery—of color and light, smell and temperature, the texture of daily life—in The Immigrants series is the most pronounced and effective in Fast's extensive canon. Readers of these glowing portraits of San Francisco and the Napa Valley might assume that Fast lived in the Bay Area, for the descriptions seen through the eyes of Barbara and others suggest a longing for home, the nostalgic ache for the place that defines normality of climate, of sight, smell, and sound. In fact, the Fasts were simply visitors to the area, taking driving tours of Napa, with San Francisco as a temporary base for travel. Perhaps the six years Fast spent in Los Angeles account for his ambivalence about that city, and especially for his dislike of the hypocrisies of the movie industry. However, Fast insists that a writer's personal setting is irrelevant to his work; where he lived, he says, had little or no effect on his fiction. During the Los Angeles period Fast wrote screenplays for three films, only one of which was produced; he turned his novel Citizen Tom Paine into a theatrical play (produced in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and later at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., in 1987, starring Richard Thomas), and he wrote a charming, intuitive play, The Novelist, which was based on the life of Jane Austen and was staged at Williamstown, at Theater West in Springfield, Massachusetts, in Mamaroneck, New York, and in New York City. The Novelist postulates a Ms. Bennett-Mr. Darcy style encounter between the British writer Jane Austen and a dashing, vigorous, but also highly intelligent navy captain, who has fallen in love with her through reading her books and who sees beneath the quick-witted and distancing repartee to find the strong but romantic woman behind the facade.
While much of Fast's work includes settings he has known intimately from residence in them, the Bay Area portraits, seemingly so personal and complex in their links of character and setting, give credence to his assertion: a good writer simply needs the appropriate mental imagery and an understanding of how people live in a place and what they feel about it in order to describe their lives credibly. Readers of The Immigrants series may be forgiven for identifying Fast and California, but his comparatively brief residence in Los Angeles and his brief excursions in the Bay Area are in fact typical of his other travels earlier in his career to the Middle East and India, travels that produced a whole series of books notable for their sense of place. Throughout his career, Fast has absorbed information through research and setting through travel, fusing both into convincing stages and backdrops for his characters.
The post-Communist party years were not simply characterized by a retreat from the newspaper headlines into private family and professional life for the Fasts. Although the California years were clearly enjoyable and stimulating at the time, Fast recently remarked that he has never missed the West Coast because the California he knew then is dead and gone; in fact, every time he has visited there since leaving, he has disliked it more, a result of overpopulation, pollution, and a rape of the natural beauty and purity that attracted people there in the first place. But one influence has remained with Fast, and it is related to his split with the party: the influence of Zen Buddhism.
After rejecting communism, Fast studied Zen formally for eight years. That philosophy, of course, is not necessarily related to a particular place, but the Masao Masuto books illustrate the connection of the discipline with California. Fast calls his study “very important” even now, living long after in the environs of New York City. Zen provides a context for the moral issues that have consumed Fast's attention all his life. Also, Zen stresses a form of unconventionality—the student of Zen is not allowed to give an expected or conventional answer to an assigned koan, or puzzle—that is an obvious Fast characteristic. But Fast stresses that after living much of his adult life with the socialist framework providing direction and answers to the puzzling questions of existence, one does not simply give it over and move on easily. Zen provided an “ability to focus, to center … [his] life” that was invaluable then, in the difficult years after the party, and now. Fast clearly still believes in the humanist principles that underlie a good deal of socialist thought, but the loss of party discipline and structure must have involved a true crisis for a writer fond of clarity and order. Zen provided such a focus, and we may not be reading too much into the Masao Masuto books if we think of both their hero (a lean, six-foot-tall Nisei attached to the Beverly Hills Police Department) and their author as outsiders, somewhat alienated by perspective from the majority culture in which they must operate, but finding their center through Zen meditation.
Masuto, like Fast, finds in the Zen meditative philosophy the calm, the self-assurance, and the introspective insights necessary to carry out his work, and, again like Fast, he empathizes with the common worker, despite the wealthy environment in which he works. Like Fast, Masuto cultivates the yin and the yang, loves roses and the exquisite calm of the tea ceremony, and has fond memories of the peaceful and productive farm life of the San Fernando of bygone years, the romantic agrarianism that runs through so many of Fast's books. Like his creator, Masuto has an American maverick streak beneath his surface Zen serenity: his independent thinking and contempt for overbearing authority. Reflecting his creator, Masuto says, “I try not to respond to fools” (The Case of the Russian Diplomat 65). Masuto speaks Spanish as well as Japanese (Fast does not), and he sometimes faces cruel taunts about his nisei heritage, but just as Fast survived similar attacks because of his Jewish background, he has learned to cope with the crass lifestyles and acid tongues of southern Californians.
Fast says that he enjoyed writing the Masuto detective novels because the use of a pseudonym (E. V. Cunningham, a name suggested by his agent, Paul Reynolds) gave him a sense of freedom that allowed him to toy with ideas for pleasure and to write in a style and with a focus quite different from what he had done before; he describes the experience as “captivating” and his results “half-serious.” He could have his hero share his pet peeves (for instance, California funeral homes in The Case of the Murdered Mackenzie), battle his favorite villains (the S.S. in The Case of the One-Penny Orange, former Nazis in The Case of the Russian Diplomat, and the CIA, which fixes evidence and phony charges and condones double murder, in The Case of the Murdered Mackenzie), and reflect values dear to him, including a deep distrust of any group that tries to repress the individual, force the human into mechanical categories, or deny genuine emotion.
The detective hero Masuto combines Buddhist meditation with Holmesian ratiocination to make intuitive leaps of both reason and imagination that leave his colleagues and superiors puzzling over the assumptions that further investigation, physical evidence, and testimony confirm. The close observation that allows the Buddhist in Masuto to see beauty where others see ugliness also allows him to see the mundane, the corrupt, and the repulsive behind the beautiful facade of Beverly Hills. These stories look at the wealthy California scene from the perspective of an outsider, racially, culturally, and economically. Masuto can bring Asian perceptions to unraveling the mysteries of his adopted community and counters the mainstream disintegration of family values with his own deep-seated commitment to home and family. His son and daughter are quiet, obedient, and respectful, and his Japanese-American wife, Kati, though at times truly Californian (she participates in consciousness-raising sessions), observes traditional Japanese customs and rituals (providing hot baths, fine cuisine, and soothing solace) to help him recuperate from the conflicts of his job.
Fast's mystery plots, which occupied his thoughts throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s, are amusing puzzles, but they have political undercurrents. In The Case of the One-Penny Orange, for example, Masuto penetrates the link between seemingly unconnected events (a local burglary, a murdered stamp dealer, and a missing S.S. commander) with an 1847 Mauritius one-penny stamp worth half a million dollars and a revenge ritual that originated in the bitterness of the Holocaust, while in The Case of the Russian Diplomat, fascistic Arab and East German terrorists assassinate a Russian diplomat and plan to sabotage an airplane full of Soviet agronomists, all to undermine the Jewish Defense League. In The Case of the Sliding Pool, powerful financial and industrial speculators play games with people's lives, impede Masuto's investigation, and break rules with impunity, while The Case of the Poisoned Eclairs explores the uglier costs of wealth in marriage and divorce. Fast's Masuto believes that crime encapsulates the general illnesses of humanity and is an affront to human dignity and conscience. A Buddhist involved with humanity but faced with the materialism, corruption, and inhumanity of the Beverly Hills rich, he must constantly battle external political pressure to limit or even end his investigation and the internal hatred that discovering evil makes him feel. His family is vital to providing the moral and emotional foundation necessary for Masuto to carry on in a society and culture that attacks his values.
Fast's later life has not all been Zen meditative calm. When asked about his key interests in the mid-1970s, Fast cited, “my home, my family, the theater, the film, and the proper study of ancient history. And the follies of human kind” (Something about the Author 82). It is the “follies of human kind” that have dominated his journalism and writing in general. For instance, Fast calls The Dinner Party a “direct result” of his being unable to get over his “problem of indignation” (Rothstein 16). He brooded over the question of sanctuary, particularly as related to helping illegal Central American aliens enter the country, and the moral questions involved in sending a wired informer into a church to record conversations that could later be used to threaten priests, a minister, a nun, and others with five years of imprisonment. And he found himself posing questions about the responses of an honest man, particularly one who might have a certain amount of clout from a position of authority, like that of U.S. senator. The Dinner Party is an exploration of such questions of responsibility and duty, infused and driven by righteous indignation. Critics compared it to a well-made play. This is an appropriate comparison, for Fast's strengths as a writer often involve dramatic confrontations. His political essays written for the New York Observer include provocative attacks on drug dealers, political hacks, anti-Semites, racists, arms traffickers, women bashers, and presidents Reagan and Bush. In other words, he has used his political commentary to carry on the liberal politics that have consumed his interest all his adult life.
The Fasts moved back to the East Coast in 1980 and lived quietly, with Fast still producing on the average about one major work every year through the 1990s. He wrote a weekly column for the New York Observer from 1989 until his wife's illness in 1994 and collected a number of these essays in a book entitled War and Peace. The Fasts moved to Connecticut in the early 1990s. Bette Fast pursued sculpture and art until she died in 1994. Fast's tribute to Jane Austen in his play The Novelist is to a great degree also a tribute to the charm, intelligence, and talent of Bette Fast, with whom Fast fell in love at age twenty, with whom he had two children and three grandchildren, and to whom he was married for over fifty-six years.
Fast resides in Connecticut not far from his native New York, living the life of a writer, with Seven Days in June published in 1994. Seven Days represents five years of work, and though the novel was not marketed effectively, it marks a return to Fast's earliest successes, the Revolutionary War works. Fast says of his reasons for this reprise that “so much of our early history is pure invention, pure lies.” The fire of the reformer still burns hot: Fast writes a column on politics for a local newspaper and takes vigorous daily walks, preferably in company that will stimulate lively conversation. Fast believes that books “open a thousand doors, they shape lives and answer questions, they widen horizons, they offer hope for the heart and food for the soul.” Another novel, The Bridge Builder's Story, concerning the Holocaust, was published in 1995.
Modern criticism teaches that every biographer is also a creative artist, and Fast's memoir, Being Red, is a good example, for his autobiography sometimes reads like one of his own novels. His indisputably modest beginnings were the start of a very American life, with a child of recent immigrants fitting the mythic American model of pulling oneself up by one's bootstraps; he is a kind of bad boy Horatio Alger hero, an unsentimentalized rags-to-riches character and a member of the loyal (in the eyes of the House Un-American Activities Committee, disloyal) opposition. In this sense Fast was a generation or two ahead of his time, for his jaundiced but pro-American point of view would not become common until the last decades of the twentieth century. As with his pro-and anti-Americanism, contradictions abound: while he values working-class heroes, his own life has been lived as a creative writer and as an intellectual commentator, under varying but apparently comfortable material circumstances. The best model for Fast is the newsman in Power, a sympathetic observer of the labor movement rather than a constantly involved participant.
But his story is American in other ways, a conflict between the big city urbanism of his youth and the California mellowness of his later years, between the lure of success and wealth and the call of conscience, between writing what the public wants and saying what one feels must be said. Fast says of himself, “No matter what direction my writing took, I could never give up a social outlook and a position against hypocrisy and oppression. This has been a theme that runs through all of my writing” (Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series 184).
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 91
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 Modules: Novelists; and Something About the Author, Vol. 7.
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