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Howard Fast, 1914–2003

The newspaper obituaries of novelist Howard Fast — who died on March 12 at the age of 88 — were all very respectful; cautious, but respectful. For the most part, Fast has been remembered as a writer rather than a rabble-rouser. His best-known work was the 1953 novel Spartacus, upon which Stanley Kubrick’s notable 1960 film was based. The prolific Fast also authored a best-selling five-volume multigenerational saga that traced the Lavette family from the turn-of-the-century in The Immigrants (1977) to the Vietnam era in The Independent Woman (1981). From 1931 to 2000 he wrote more than 80 novels (24 of them mysteries under the pen name E.V. Cunningham), 18 children’s books, 24 plays, and hundreds of short stories.

But Howard Fast was less famous for being a writer than for being a public political figure: a Communist and then an ex-Communist. Even when his literary work made headlines — as did his best-selling 1943 novel Citizen Tom Paine (a book that brought the Revolutionary War–era pamphleteer into the American pantheon of heroes) — it was because of the book’s leftist political message. There was no doubt about it — Howard Fast was an old-fashioned, dyed-(red)-in the-wool, old-fashioned American radical. The theme of fighting against oppressive, unlawful power ran through all of his novels — Freedom Road (1944) is the story of an ex-slave who becomes a senator during Reconstruction; Clarkton (1947) is set during a strike at a textile mill; Spartacus is about a famous slave revolt again the Roman Empire, and Silas Timberman (1954) is about a professor who is the victim of McCarthyism. But it was Fast’s own political fortunes that captured the public imagination.

Born in extreme poverty in the Bronx in 1914, he joined the Communist Party in 1943, largely because of the party’s stand on labor, US race relations, and the Soviet Union’s fight against fascism. After the war he was one of many American progressives labeled " premature-anti-fascists " — i.e., they supported anti-Franco forces during the Spanish Civil War — and by the late 1940s he had been blacklisted because of his known party membership. In 1950, he refused to give the House Un-American Activities Committee the names of people who had helped support a hospital for Spanish Republicans in Toulouse, France, with which he had been associated during the Spanish Civil War.

For refusing to cooperate, Fast was held in contempt of Congress and sent to federal prison for three months. But by 1956 he had left the party (because of the exposé of the horrors of Stalinism and the rise of Soviet anti-Semitism ) and wrote extensively about his new political consciousness in The Naked God (1957). Unlike many " fellow travelers, " Fast did not retreat into neoconservatism, however, but stuck to his progressive ideals: " I was part of a generation that believed in socialism and finally found that belief corroded and destroyed. That is not renouncing Communism or socialism. It’s reaching a certain degree of enlightenment about what the Soviet Union practices, " he noted in an 1981 interview.

But the blacklist was effective. In the early 1950s, conservative groups such as the Legionnaires, the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution, and the Minutemen pressured librarians to remove Fast’s books from their shelves. In 1952, school officials in New York City, who formerly required high-school students to read Citizen Tom Paine, now banned the book from all school libraries. This was also the year he ran for Congress on the American Labor Party ticket. And even though he had been a successful novelist for two decades, no publisher would take the chance of acquiring and publishing Spartacus, which prompted Fast to start Blue Heron Press, his own publishing house, in 1953. By the early 1960s, Fast was once again being published by mainstream publishing houses.

Howard Fast occupied not simply a unique position in American literature — that of the popular novelist who was overtly leftist — but he stood at a complicated intersection. He was an intrinsic part of a tradition of Jewish-American progressive political literature that includes such diverse books as Michael Gold's hyper-realistic Jews without Money (1930) and Joseph Heller’s absurdist, Marx Brothers– influenced Catch-22 (1958). He was also an unabashed radical activist who never shied from standing up for what he thought was right and, even more rare, who was not afraid to change his mind publicly when he was wrong. He was a public intellectual who understood that the best way to convey political ideas was through popular culture, and a working writer who knew that the average American reader was worthy of books that had intellectual content as well as great plots and characters. He was, like many of the people about whom he wrote — including Tom Paine — a citizen not only of the United States, but of the world. In our current political climate, it is any wonder his obituaries expressed the cautious respect they did?


Issue Date: March 20 - 27, 2003
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