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Howard Fast: Life and Literature in the Left Lane

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Howard Fast's life, from a rough-and-tumble Jewish New York street kid to the rich and famous author of close to 100 books, rivals the Horatio Alger myth. Author of bestsellers such as Citizen Tom Paine, Freedom Road, My Glorious Brothers, and Spartacus, Fast joined the American Communist Party in 1943 and remained a loyal member until 1957, despite being imprisoned for contempt of Congress. Gerald Sorin illuminates the connections among Fast's Jewishness, his writings, and his left-wing politics and explains Fast’s attraction to the Party and the reasons he stayed in it as long as he did. Recounting the story of his private and public life with its adventure and risk, love and pain, struggle, failure, and success, Sorin also addresses questions such as the relationship between modern Jewish identity and radical movements, the consequences of political myopia, and the complex interaction of art, popular culture, and politics in 20th-century America.

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1 Paradise Postponed

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On July 20, 1948, a month after the United States Supreme Court refused to review Howard Fast’s conviction for contempt of Congress, he wrote to screenwriter Albert Maltz in California complaining about the “cold fear” sweeping America. Those “bastards in Washington,” Fast said, had purposefully “singled out” and “attacked” leftist writers such as him and Maltz and the Hollywood Ten. But “once we do go to prison,” Fast said, “I think the whole nature of the campaign will . . . change.” He and the other writers, Fast believed, would then have an “extraordinary distinction” and “a responsibility we cannot fail.”1

Despite Fast’s belief, neither he nor the Hollywood Ten were going to prison for what they had written. They had been called to testify by HUAC in 1946 and 1947 for what they had allegedly done, or had seen done by others, that could be considered “subversive.” Their refusal to answer potentially incriminating questions or to “name names” earned them their contempt citations and convictions. HUAC did not ask or say anything about Fast’s books, which numbered nine in 1946. The congressmen focused instead on the account books of the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee (JAFRC), an allegedly pro-Communist organization to which Fast belonged and which had founded and continued to support a hospital in France for wounded antifascist veterans of the Spanish Civil War. Fast ended up in prison not because he wrote books, but because he refused to turn over books that contained the names of donors supportive of the work of JAFRC.

 

2 The War against Fascism

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Four days before the attack on Pearl Harbor, Howard Fast spoke at the annual book fair in Scarborough, Maine, where he was introduced as the “next really important historical novelist.”1 But only a short time after the entrance of the United States into WWII, Fast claimed to have “dismissed” the writing period of his life and to have “moved into the anti-fascist effort with all [his] being.”2 From mid-1942 to early 1944, Fast was certainly more active politically, and even expressed a desire to fight fascism physically; but in that same period, unable to put an “abrupt end” to his enduring ambition to become a successful writer of meaningful and marketable fiction, he also produced two of his most substantial novels, Citizen Tom Paine and Freedom Road.

Howard’s younger brother, Julie, had already enlisted in the armed forces, and Fast, with a very low draft number, waited, thinking he’d be conscripted soon. In the meantime, mainly because of Bette’s anxiety over Howie’s impending military future, the Fasts put the two-bedroom cottage they had built and furnished into the hands of a real-estate agent, and moved back to New York. They never returned to Old Stony Hollow Road in Tarrytown. They searched for a new apartment in the city while they lived in a cheap hotel room, which only added to Bette’s gloom over the loss of her baby. Assuming that Howie would soon be away “for the duration” (a phrase heard often during WWII) and fearing the possibility of years home alone, Bette joined the Signal Corps as a civilian artist making animated training films.3

 

3 The Life of the Party

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After less than a year in the Party, Fast had encapsulated himself in a new world that would become increasingly difficult to leave without disruptive psychological consequences. As time went on, he would continue to obey the Party line, although his own instincts sometimes said otherwise. In yielding to Communist “political necessity,” Fast also would give up part of his American idealism, including the defense of civil liberties, and he would drop his idea of an exceptionalist American socialism in favor of a Soviet-type revolutionary model.

By admitting to the “error” of his ways as a writer, Fast was able to get Freedom Road past the CPs “gatekeepers”—narrowly. Others in the Party were more enthusiastic about the book, and not only because it finally got the Cultural Section’s reluctant imprimatur. Even Dashiell Hammett, who hadn’t liked Freedom Road, told Lillian Hellman that Fast’s “sort of stuff does have a place. . . . I know at least a couple of readers whose . . . eyes were opened by the book, and who at least think they’d like to know more about what actually went on down there in the old South.”1

 

4 Cold War, Hot Seat

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The uneasy wartime alliance between the United States and the Soviet Union dissolved in 1945 with the coming of peace, exposing longstanding hostilities between the two new superpowers. Dangerous confrontations, especially over the division of Germany and the future of Eastern Europe, intensified the hostilities and morphed into the “Cold War.” American Communists, including Howard Fast, and hundreds of fellow travelers—those on the periphery of a Party so closely associated with the USSR—found themselves subject to increased suspicion, investigation, and harassment.1

In the face of amplified anti-Communism, Fast began losing faith in the United States as a natural home for socialism. Moving faster and further away from American mainstream left-liberalism, he concluded, as did the CPUSA generally, that trying to reform capitalism would only sustain the system and bring defeat for Communism. While still not publicly acknowledging his membership in the Party, Fast recommitted himself as an openly leftist writer and a radically partisan citizen to the political conflicts of his times.2

 

5 Banned, Barred, and Besieged

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In the year between Howard Fast’s citation for contempt of Congress in April 1946 and his conviction in June 1947, he had faced not only a plagiarism suit, but incessant harassment by the FBI and the beginning of a series of attempts to ban his books. And by late 1947, after the publication of Clarkton, he would be embattled with college administrators who tried to keep him from speaking on their campuses.

J. Edgar Hoover never ordered the tap removed from Fast’s phone. It made little difference in any case, Fast said. After all, “what could we have talked about” that would interest the FBI.“We never did anything illegal, we never considered [doing] anything illegal.” To give a sense of it all, Fast told a story about two men, one a “spy” and the other a self-identified “Party member,” who had come to his home to sell him a map of “the newest battleship in the American fleet.” This foolishness, Fast insisted, was an attempt by the FBI to entrap him. “I immediately called the cops,” Fast said, but by the time they came, “both men were gone.” But at the World Peace Conference in Paris in 1949, Fast “saw the same FBI agent who brought the spy to me.” Howard had real enemies, of course, but with more than a touch of paranoia he added, “I knew his mission was to get me—to kill me, and I let everyone know. I accused him to his face.”1

 

6 The Myopia of American Communism

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With the disastrous Wallace campaign behind him, and imprisonment ahead of him, Howard Fast spent less time writing fiction and more time writing columns, pro bono, for various Communist periodicals.1 His pieces were often a running commentary, mostly ironic, on issues of immediate interest in the news: the firing of college professors accused of Communist affiliations; Red-baiting in the union movement; the imprisonment of HUAC chair J. Parnell Thomas for fraud; lynching in the American South and racial injustice in every region; biting ad homonym essays eviscerating Louis Budenz, Fast’s favorite professional ex-Communist informer; attacks on Paul Gallico, award-winning writer of the novella The Snow Goose, but also an antisemite and virulent anti-Communist; and fierce criticism of New York’s Francis Cardinal Spellman, whose hatred of Communism was boundless. Fast’s targets were most often well chosen, but his language was venomous, riddled with words like “filth,” “swine,” “lunatic,” “monstrous,” and of course “fascist.” There were also a small number of tributes to fellow Communists and friends such as the writer and film director Carl Marzani.

 

7 Literature and Reality

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A prisoner of his own ambition and of his unwavering loyalty to Communist orthodoxy, Fast on June 7, 1950, became a prisoner of the state. The U.S. Supreme Court, on May 29 had dashed Fast’s last chance at reprieve by denying for a second time in two years a review of his appeal lost at lower levels. Fast and the other convicted members of the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee had known for many months that their chances were exceedingly slim, and this last attempt at a review by the highest court was little more than a formality on their part.1

But in the months preceding what Fast now saw as his inevitable imprisonment, he continued to speak, write, and correspond with supporters. In October 1949, in a letter to his Welsh friend, novelist Gwyn Thomas, Fast said he was convinced that the Truman government had “gone truly berserk,” and that “gibbering idiots” were running the nation. He went on in a bizarre non sequitur to say that the atom bomb “which the Russians so innocently exploded has shown up the utter insanity and bankruptcy” of Washington, “a city sick with terror and paralyzed with fear.” Fast, who hadn’t been in D.C. since October 1947, told Thomas that “there are spies, informers, and various kinds of touts at every street corner” of the capital. And although he had never been to Germany, Fast told Thomas that he agreed with a Czech associate who had recently remarked that “Berlin at its worst was not quite as bad” as Washington. Fascism, Fast concluded, has come to America as anti-Communism “in the name of democracy.”2

 

8 Free! But Not at Last

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At the end of August 1950, Howard Fast was out of jail but not out of the clutches of the CPUSA or free of his own inclination to obey the Party line. That he could still be intimidated into acquiescence by the power of the American Communist Party was demonstrated in the first week of September when Howard and Bette attended a rehearsal of The Hammer several days before its official opening.1

In the audience with the Fasts for the run-through were Howard’s friends Barney Rubin, a Spanish Civil War veteran, a machine-gunner in WWII, and a columnist for Stars and Stripes; and Herb Tank, a merchant seaman turned writer. Both men, along with Fast and a handful of other writers and actors, had recently formed New Playwrights, a progressive theater group, and The Hammer was Fast’s contribution to the endeavor. Also in attendance were Al Saxe, the notable People’s Theatre director whose works included productions of Odets’s Waiting for Lefty, and Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars. Lionel Berman, who had been instrumental in recruiting the Fasts for the Party, was there along with a half-dozen other members of the Cultural Section.

 

9 Trials and Tribulations

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Throughout the mid-fifties Howard Fast, certain he was in possession of the truth, fully supported the USSR and remained genuinely committed to the goals of the Communist Party of the USA. At the same time he persisted in his indefatigable quest for fame and fortune through writing. Fast never stopped working at his craft, even as he continued organizing, traveling, fundraising, and speaking for the Party. Albert Maltz was “constantly astonish[ed]” at Howard’s “enormous productivity,” and his “great gift of combining solid writing with so many other activities.”1

In 1952 Fast published Tony and the Wonderful Door, a book for school-age children, and in 1953, The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti: A New England Legend, even during a grueling, but unsuccessful, run for Congress in 1952, significant, direct involvement in the Steve Nelson sedition case, a careful following of the trials of the Smith Act defendants, and rapt immersion in the international effort to save Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Early in 1953, even as he was writing his novel about the Italian immigrant anarchists, he also squared off with Joe McCarthy’s Senate subcommittee.

 

10 McCarthyism, Stalinism, and the World according to Fast

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On the day after Fast’s session with the subcommittee, G. David Schine, who was appointed to McCarthy’s staff by Roy Cohn and would later become a central figure in the Army-McCarthy Hearings of 1954, summarized the novelist’s testimony. But he added what he called “new findings” relevant to Fast, including two memos indicating that the State Department, on the recommendation of writers, critics, and educators, had authorized—“in the interests of balance,” Schine claimed—the inclusion of materials and books by leftists in VOA broadcasts and in the overseas libraries of the United States.1

The memos, however, contained nothing about “balance.” Instead the key paragraphs said that the “reputation” of an author as a democrat would determine the use of his material and pretty much repeated the earlier statement made by the State Department: “If he is widely and favorably known abroad as a champion of democratic causes, his creditability and utility may be enhanced,” and if “like Howard Fast, he is known as a Soviet-endorsed author, materials favorable to the United States in some of his works may thereby be given a special creditability,” indeed, would “carry double the weight” of influence among “selected audiences” behind the Iron Curtain.2

 

11 Culture and the Cold War

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That the VFW wanted to pack Fast off to the Soviet Union was symptomatic of the anti-Communist mood of some Americans in the postwar period; but whether the Cold War between the United States and the USSR and the anti-Communist and conformist attitudes it helped reinforce were the main ingredients of the American cultural stew of the 1950s is an open question. Fast, however, was convinced that the repressive anti-Communism of the McCarthy period had a powerful chilling effect that kept novelists in line and “kill[ed] social writing in America.”1

Certainly McCarthyism continued at important levels throughout the decade. The Smith Act cases in which Fast was directly involved as a journalist and an unofficial advisor to the defense were ongoing; and the Communist Control Act of 1954, incorporating President Eisenhower’s call for outlawing the Communist Party altogether, was signed in August, instilling worry in many, including Fast, who feared being imprisoned a second time.

 

12 Things Fall Apart; the Left Cannot Hold

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In his very last column for the Daily Worker, on June 12, 1956, several days after the full text of Khrushchev’s speech had been published in English, Fast was still saying he was not an enemy of the Soviet Union. He did finally admit, however, that while “I have written . . . bluntly and consistently of the injustice that exists” in America, “I failed miserably . . . in not exercising the same judgment toward the Soviet Union.” He had learned as early as 1949 “that Jewish culture had been wiped out in Russia.” This, he confessed, “I did not challenge.” He had also known “that artists . . . writers and scientists were intimidated, but [had] accepted this as a necessity of Socialism.”1

Fast’s mea culpa was significantly compromised, however, by his continuing to argue that unlike what the Soviets did, “no similar . . . injustices carried out by capitalist governments . . . have been publicly admitted and corrected.”2 Moreover, he contended that any evils committed in the USSR were to be blamed not on the inherent nature of Marxist-Leninism, Communism, or totalitarianism, but on the “madness and weakness of a handful of Soviet leaders,” including Khrushchev, who to Fast’s great dismay and disgust continued Stalin’s brutal policy of executing his political enemies.

 

13 Fast Forward

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In late 1957, a letter to Masses and Mainstream from a loyal American Communist Party official responding to Fast’s “My Decision” accused Howard of sins worse even than those attributed to him by his former Soviet admirers. “Continuing his psychotic conduct of wallowing in his own retchings in public print,” James Jackson said, Fast “is heard from again.” A “chicken-hearted” defiler, wielding a “copiously filled” pen “dripping of his own enormous gall,” Fast, according to Jackson, was trying to enter “into the lush ‘guts and gore’ market” in “which such ‘titans’ of the moral low-key lumpen literati as Mickey Spillane play it up for bucks.” Hysterical and reductionist, Jackson nonetheless had a point.1

After leaving the Party Howard Fast lost little time resuming his career writing for the American market. Less than three months after publication of The Naked God, he signed a contract with Broadway producer Joe Hyman to deliver a “comedy-drama” based on an extension of his 1942 novel, The Unvanquished. Fast had already written a play along these lines called George Washington and the Water Witch, which had been performed in the early 1950s in several Communist countries; but the newly liberated, ex-Communist Fast rewrote the entire script in 1958 and again in 1959, as The Crossing, completely omitting a crucial scene in which the scheming Revolutionary War general, Horatio Gates, morphs into the villainous Joe McCarthy. Fast was taking no chances that his reentry into the American literary mainstream would be spoiled by a perception that he was still pro-Communist.2

 

14 Life in the Fast Lane

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Howard and Bette bought a large house in Beverly Hills with a “private pool right outside the bedroom window” and a patio overlooking “the whole city and basin of Los Angeles . . . which is like a sparkling jewel with a million facets.” Fast looked upon the pool, he told Rachel, “less as a luxury” than as a “means” of staying alive and healthy “on my own account.” Mortality was very much on Howard’s mind. His brother Jerry died of a massive heart attack in March 1974, only two weeks after his sixty-first birthday; and Howard was so burdened by cluster headaches at that time, “truly sicker than I have been in many years,” he said, that he did not fly east for the funeral. He complained to Rachel that he had had “a desperate necessity” to share his grief with his family; and being “alone out here, three thousand miles away,” he said, “was one of the most terrible things I have ever endured.”1

Fast could make everything, including his brother’s death, about himself; but Howard genuinely loved Jerry, and he thanked Rachel effusively for her having “rallied round the family” during the mourning period. “Aside from loving you as much as a father can love a daughter,” Fast told thirty-year-old Rachel, as if she were still fourteen, “I am also filled with admiration for your capabilities and your sense of responsibility.”2 Worse, he felt compelled to tell her that he was disappointed that she didn’t write to him often enough, and he let her know that in nearly every other letter.

 

15 Fast and Loose

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Two months after Being Red came out, Howard told an apparently credulous journalist from People’s Weekly, “Ideally, I would prefer to spend my life on the third floor of a tenement in a run-down neighborhood surrounded by left-wing lunatics.” Fast, however, was making this pronouncement from his splendid seven-figure home in Greenwich. And he admitted that his house in that affluent Connecticut suburb was a “form of exile from the gritty life of an urban activist.”1

In speaking earlier with another journalist from Bridgeport Newsday, Fast had begun to contrast the plight of the poor during the Great Depression with what he called the “Easy Street” now provided by public welfare, but then broke off—apparently having realized that he sounded further to the right than he had intended. “I’m not against welfare,” he protested mightily.2 And later with the same degree of defiance he said that the $3 million he was worth was mostly in Treasury bonds. “Not a penny in unearned wealth. Just the sweat of my own labor,” Fast said, again missing an opportunity to have a serious discussion in the media about the nature and causes of poverty and the wide gap between rich and poor in post-Reagan America, and perhaps to remind himself and his wealthy Connecticut neighbors that Marx had once said, quite correctly, that poverty was a political condition and not an economic inevitability.3

 

16 Fall and Decline

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By 2001, Howard Fast, at age eighty-seven, could no longer write. On vacation with Mimi in the Caribbean near the end of 2000, Fast fell and suffered a concussion. He told Jonathan it “seemed to be the beginning of his end.” He also experienced a series of transient ischemic attacks, or “minor strokes,” which resulted in slurred speech and “diminished functioning of the executive parts of the brain.” Fast also developed congestive heart failure, which made it impossible for him to walk more than one hundred feet. Soon thereafter he became incontinent and began to suffer recurrent panic attacks.

Later, because he had started smoking cigars again in the late seventies when his books were best sellers, he developed emphysema. His doctor told Howard that with so little time left to him, he could continue to smoke. Mimi agreed. The emphysema was aggravated to a point Jonathan “found unbearable to watch.” And sadly, Howard Fast, one of the twentieth century’s most widely read writers, lost the ability to think abstractly. He denied this, but the condition was quite apparent to Jonathan when his father tried to discuss concepts or use metaphors.1

 

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