HOWARD FAST (b. 1914)

Alan Wald, Univ. of Michigan

[from Buhle, Buhle, and Georgakas, eds., ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE AMERICAN LEFT, (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1992).]

A prolific author of historical novels, biographies, popular histories, children's stories, film scripts, plays, detective fiction, science fiction, and "Zen Stories," Fast also wrote "entertainments" under the pseudonym E. V. Cunningham. In the 1940s, and again in the 1970s and 1980s, he achieved best-seller status with novels explicitly promoting left-wing ideas.

Born the son of a factory worker in New York City, Fast dropped out of high school and published his first novel before he was twenty. Within a few years, he had issued more than half a dozen historical novels about the American Revolutionary War period, including Conceived in Liberty (1939), The Unvanquished (1942), and Citizen Tom Paine (1943). The Last Frontier (1941) was an impressive effort to view the effects of the colonization of the continent from the viewpoint of native peoples.

Fast was sympathetic to the antifascist movement and the Popular Front from the onset of his career. In 1943 he joined the Communist Party. In the years of his membership, his most successful books were Freedom Road (1944), a novel of the Reconstruction era; The American (1946), a fictionalized biography of Illinois governor John Peter Altgeld, who pardoned three of the Haymarket anarchists; and Spartacus (1951), a drama of the 71 B.C. slave revolt.

In addition, Fast wrote less successful and more explicitly radical novels such as Clarktown (1947), concerning a Massachusetts strike; Silas Timberman (1954), depicting an academic victim of McCarthyism; and The Story of Lola Gregg (1956), describing the FBI pursuit and capture of a Communist labor activist. Among his Communist nonfiction writings, Literature and Reality (1950) is a vulgar treatise on Marxist criticism, Peekskill, (I.S.A.: A Personal Experience (1951) describes the 1949 attack of anticommunist rioters on a Paul Robeson concert; and The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti (1953) eulogizes the martyred Italian anarchists.

In 1950 the House Committee on Un-American Activities ordered Fast to provide the names of all those who had contributed to the support of a hospital for Spanish Republicans in Toulouse, France, with which he had been associated during the Spanish Civil War. When he refused, he was thrown in jail for three months. Blacklisted upon his release, he initiated his own publishing company, the Blue Heron Press. In 1952 he ran for Congress on the American Labor Party ticket, and in 1954 he was awarded the Stalin Peace Prize.

Immediately following his sensational break with and public excoriation of the CP in The Naked God: The Writer and the Communist Party (1957), he moved to Hollywood to begin a new career as a scenarist. Nevertheless, by 1977 his popularity as a novelist was greater than ever when he wrote The Immigrants. The book was turned into a two-part television film and became the first of a pentalogy that was animated by left-liberal themes and traced an American family from the turn of the century through the Vietnam War era.

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Last modified: Monday, 02-Aug-2004 09:28:44 EDT