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Fast, Howard Melvin

Fast, Howard Melvin

(b. 11 November 1914 in New York City; d. 12 March 2003 in Old Greenwich, Connecticut), novelist, war correspondent, film writer, controversial political and social critic, and one of the most widely read twentieth-century writers in the world.

Fast was one of four sons born to Barney Fast, an ironworker, cable car operator, worker in a tin factory, and dress cutter, and Ida (Miller) Fast, a homemaker. The family struggled with poverty, living in the unhealthy conditions of New York’s tenements. Fast’s mother died before he turned ten. He later recalled begging, stealing food, and working at a number of odd jobs as a child. Half-orphaned, he was reared by a succession of different relatives.

Fast, however, was passionate about writing from his earliest days, selling his first story to Amazing Stories magazine when he was just seventeen. He later maintained that it was his experience of poverty that motivated him to write and publish at a high rate of speed throughout his life. He graduated in 1931 from George Washington High School in New York City. Although Fast did not attend college, he credited the New York Public Library with opening the world of books to him, especially literature and history. He published his first book, a historical romance titled Two Valleys (1933), at the age of eighteen. When the Dial Press, a publishing house founded by a literary magazine in 1924, advanced him $100, Fast’s career as a paid writer began. Two Valleys was a colorful historical novel based on careful research into the American colonial frontier. It had a remarkably mature prose style for a writer only two years out of high school. Fast’s next two novels, published in 1934 and 1937, were less successful than Two Valleys.

On 6 June 1937 Fast married Bette Cohen, a painter and sculptor who shared many of her husband’s enthusiasms and adventures. Their long and successful marriage produced two children. Domestic stability clearly agreed with Fast, who became even more prolific as a writer, publishing a series of remarkable historical novels that sold well even as they attempted to change the perceptions Americans had of their own history. Fast’s particular gift as a writer was his ability to tell a story from the perspective of ordinary people or members of oppressed groups rather than from the viewpoint of the privileged.

Fast’s interest in retelling history from the bottom up, so to speak, helped make his next book, Conceived in Liberty: A Novel of Valley Forge (1939), a popular success. The novel depicted a turning point in the American Revolutionary War told from the perspective of ordinary soldiers. Fast’s historical research was painstaking—he and Betty actually walked over the area of Washington’s winter encampment—but the shift in the story’s point of view made it even more appealing to readers. Fast asked a new set of questions: How did ordinary soldiers survive the cold? What did they eat? How did they clothe themselves in the absence of uniforms? What was their relationship to their distant superior officers?

Fast’s next novel, The Last Frontier (1941), was set in the nineteenth century. It was an innovative reconstruction of the true story of three hundred Cheyenne Indians who escaped from their Oklahoma reservation in 1878 to return to their ancestral homes in Wyoming and Montana, harassed and tormented by troops and government authorities along the way. Once again Fast retraced the actual route of the journey, basing his narrative on contemporary newspaper accounts and interviews with tribal chieftains. Fast’s restrained account of events that undeniably took place but were not recorded by conventional historians still has a powerful impact on later generations of readers.

Fast returned to the period of the Revolutionary War for the historical novels that followed The Last Frontier. The Unvanquished (1942) treated George Washington as a real human being rather than as a distant father of his country, tracing his transformation into a general who knew how to yield in battle without losing a war. Citizen Tom Paine (1943), a novel still assigned in high school classes, rehabilitated another historical figure—the propagandist for revolution who, at the age of thirty-seven, became one of the leading spokesmen for the American republic. Rather than focusing on one of the aristocratic leaders of the struggle for independence, Fast put Paine in the foreground of his historical canvas, showing Paine’s indisputable importance as the voice of the common people.

Less successful artistically but still important was Freedom Road (1944), which traced the rise of an African-American senator from South Carolina during the Reconstruction period. Fast interpreted the years following the Civil War as a time of equality and opportunity for blacks and poor whites rather than an era of corruption. The African-American scholar and civil rights leader W. E. B. DuBois wrote a foreword for Fast’s book, which won the Schomburg Award for Race Relations for 1944. Although the novel was widely viewed as unrealistic, it was a popular success, marking the nation’s emerging consciousness of the need for black liberation.

In the period between Conceived in Liberty and Freedom Road, Fast published ten other books. He also worked for the Office of War Information as a scriptwriter for Voice of America broadcasts from 1942 to 1943, for the Army Film Project in 1944, and as a war correspondent in the Far East for Esquire and Coronet magazines in 1945.

Fast had been committed to leftist social causes from his adolescence but did not join the American Communist Party until 1943. While his writing output remained high, the quality of his novels suffered after the mid-1940s, partly because of censorship by Communist Party apparatchiks and partly from reluctance to provoke his new companions. Fast also wrote a column for the Communist Party newspaper, the Daily Worker, and was the most prominent of the Party’s literary stars in the late 1940s. His fiction was enthusiastically promoted in the Soviet Union as giving a “true” picture of the capitalist United States. Fast’s best fiction from his Communist period was his historical novel about the Maccabees, My Glorious Brothers (1948). In this account of the Jewish struggle for independence from the successors of Alexander the Great, Fast was able to showcase his talent for gripping storytelling about morally uplifting heroes without hewing to the political ideology of the Communist Party.

A watershed event occurred in 1950, when Fast was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee and refused to name his political colleagues. He served three months for contempt of Congress at a West Virginia prison, where he wrote the major portion of Spartacus, a novel about a slave revolt in ancient Rome. The book’s publication, however, was forestalled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Blacklisted by mainstream publishers, Fast started his own publishing house, the Blue Heron Press, and published Spartacus himself in 1951. At that time, too, he began to use the pseudonym Walter Ericson (sometimes spelled “Erickson”), under which name he wrote Fallen Angel (1951), an “anti-fascist mystery,” as he termed it. But his income dropped rapidly as his books were purged from school libraries and invitations to write for magazines were withdrawn. He was awarded the Stalin International Peace Prize in 1953, which did not help his reputation with the major publishing houses. In addition to his financial problems, Fast felt that he and his family were under constant surveillance; his file at the Federal Bureau of Investigation reputedly ran to over one thousand pages. Despite the pressure he was under, however, Fast ran for Congress on the American Labor Party ticket in 1952.

In the meantime, Fast had become disillusioned with Communism. In 1957, after the Russian premier, Nikita Khrushchev, had openly acknowledged Stalin’s atrocities, Fast broke with the American Communist Party. He described the reasons for his resignation in The Naked God: The Writer and the Communist Party (1957). The recantation had little effect on the publishers’ blacklist, however, and Fast had to reinvent himself as a writer. He moved to California, where he first found success under the pen name of E. V. Cunningham as the writer of detective stories about Masao Masuto, a Japanese-American detective in the Beverly Hills Police Department. The Masuto stories were witty and apolitical, but they nevertheless allowed Fast to make pointed observations about race, class, and wealth as well as to explore his newfound interest in Zen Buddhism. A second series of mystery novels, many titled with women’s names—Sylvia (1960), Phyllis (1962), Alice (1963)—led Fast into writing screenplays for films, as did other blacklisted writers working under assumed names. Ironically, the 1960 film version of Spartacus, directed by Stanley Kubrick, credited Dalton Trumbo as a screenwriter, while Fast, who also worked on the screenplay, was listed only as the author of the novel on which the film was based. The success of the film helped to promote sales of Fast’s novel, however.

Fast continued to write historical novels after his break with the Communist Party. Notable novels from his immediate post-Communist years include Moses, Prince of Egypt (1958), an exploration of early Jewish identity; Agrippa’s Daughter (1964), another opportunity for Fast to examine his Jewish faith; The Crossing (1971), about George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River in 1776, filmed as a television miniseries; The Hessian (1972), a fine, spare novel about wartime atrocities during the Revolutionary War; and April Morning (1961), sometimes considered Fast’s best book. It depicts Lexington, the first battle of the American Revolution, through the eyes of an adolescent boy, capturing not only the horrors of battle—always Fast’s strong suit—but also the appealing innocence and freshness of its young narrator.

Fast reinvented himself twice more, once as the author of a best-selling series on the lives of Italian, Jewish, and Asian immigrants in California. The series began with The Immigrants in 1977 and traced the families’ saga through five more volumes, ending with An Independent Woman in 1997. More page-turners than political pieces, these family novels showed Fast’s knowledge of California history to good effect but sometimes also descended into melodrama, particularly in the later volumes. At their best they captured the West Coast’s clash of cultures and economic interests.

The final chapter of Fast’s life unfolded on the East Coast, however. In 1980, he moved to Connecticut, where he wrote novels about the early days of the film industry in New York and Hollywood (Max, 1982), the American Revolution (Seven Days in June, 1994), the town of Greenwich (Greenwich, 2000), and numerous other social and political issues that interested him. Fast’s first wife died in 1994; he married his second wife, Mercedes O’Connor, in 1999. Fast died of natural causes at the age of eighty-eight in Old Greenwich, Connecticut.

Fast once expressed frustration that he had many more stories to tell than he could possibly write in one lifetime, even his very long one. But it is not simply the volume of work (over eighty novels) that makes his contribution memorable but also his ability to reintroduce Americans to their own culture from a populist perspective. Although Fast stood in the tradition of Theodore Dreiser and other American realists, his was a unique voice, continually redefining the meaning of “American” and telling a good story as he did so.

The largest source of original materials is the collection of Howard Fast’s writings in the Department of Special Collections of the Van Pelt–Dietrich Library at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. The collection includes Fast’s novels and other literary works (short stories, plays, poems), journalistic and political writings, children’s books, nonfiction publications, photographs, and printer’s galleys, some with the author’s revisions. Fast wrote two major autobiographical accounts: The Naked God: The Writer and the Communist Party (1957), which was Fast’s public renunciation of his membership in the Communist Party; and Being Red (1990), which is as close to a full autobiography as he ever came. The only book-length study of Fast as of the early 2000s is Andrew Macdonald, Howard Fast: A Critical Companion (1996). Other works that contain biographical information about Fast include Leon Straus, Howard Fast (1952), published by the Independent Citizens Committee for the Election of Howard Fast; Alan Wald’s entry on Fast in the Encyclopedia of the American Left (1992); Gerald Meyer, “Howard Fast: An American Leftist Reinterprets His Life,” in Science and Society (Spring 1993): 86–89; and Daniel Traister, Being Read: The Career of Howard Fast (1994). Eric Homberger’s obituary in the Guardian (14 Mar. 2003) was one of many but captures some essential elements of Fast’s technique, while Bernard Gonźlez Solano’s “El marcartismo nunca acalló el voz de Howard Fast” [McCarthyism Never Silenced the Voice of Howard Fast] in Siempre (13 Apr. 2003) is a paean to Fast’s revolutionary spirit.

Andrew Macdonald

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