1971 Ph.D. thesis, 580 pp.
University of Wisconsin. Madison.
(UMI Dissertation Services,
300 N. Zeeb Rd., Ann Arbor MI
Citizen Howard Fast: A Critical Biography
by Frank Campenni
Preface, Table of Contents, Chapter One: Early Years
Howard Fast's life and career seem filled with paradoxes. He was a precocious young author who spoke "gutter language"; he achieved fame as a writer and lost it as a man of action; his literary life reflected intense absorption in American themes, especially American liberty, and he was Jailed as an "un-American" in contempt of Congress. He became one of the most loved and then one of the most detested writers in America. His novels were used as texts in the public schools, and he became one of the world's best-selling authors; yet, later, he could not get a book published in his native country, though when he published it himself, it became a best-seller, perhaps the only instance of its kind. Moreover, though he wrote widely on Jewish history and its glories, and though he joined the Communist Party mainly because the Soviet Union was fighting the anti-Semitic regime of Hitler, he is rarely assigned more than a paragraph in any account of American Jewish writers.
The answers to these and other seeming-contradictions in Howard Fast's life and career lie in his lengthy attachment to the Communist Party, in his slum-ridden past and his non-religious background as a second generation Jew and, also, of course, in the people he met, the books he read, in his own personal make-up. But larger events -- conditions of the immigrant, New York working class in the 1920's, the economic condition of the entire nation in the 1930's, the rise of fascism and Nazism, the simultaneous growth of the American Communist Party, Soviet-American relations after World War II and the subsequent era of "McCarthyism" -- all these national and international trends and events shaped the mind and art of Fast as much as any immediate environment.
It would be absurd to try to capsulize forty years of American and world history here, or even to try to show how each of these events or movements personally impinged upon Fast and shaped his thinking and his writing in specific ways. Yet brief commentary is necessary along the way, on historic events as well as personal history, for both the man and his works were affected more by history than is commonly the case. Perhaps investigation would show an unusually close relationship between public events and personal development to be a characteristic of Communist intellectuals and writers; I should not be too surprised if that were so. At any event, this close relationship seems important to a study of the novels of Howard Fast, bearing always in mind his individuality and how that individuality reacted just as frequently in its peculiar way as it merely followed Communist ideology, policy or discipline. But above all, one must keep in mind a primary interest in Howard Fast as a literary artist rather than a public figure or an ideologue; whatever description of events or ideas is presented, its use should be to help understand and assess his novels.
One special caution may be helpful: in literary biographies and the histories of American literature, it is fashionable to speak of the poverty of writers, from Emerson to Frost, minimizing the Aunt Marys and the grandfathers who send them off to Harvard or Europe and help support their efforts, make their lives more comfortable or give them farms to live on. Howard Fast was really poor. That fact and a destroyed family situation, plus the special violence of slum life for a young Jew, had great significance during his formative, apprentice years.
Table of Contents
|Part One: Beginnings: 1914-1939||1|
|Chapter One: Early Years||1|
|Chapter Two: Starting Out in the Thirties, 1932-1939||25|
|Chapter Three: Apprentice Work, 1932-1939||65|
Part Two: Conquest and Commitment, 1941-1945
|Chapter Four: Biography, 1941-1942||120|
|Chapter Five: Biography, 1943-1945||170|
|Chapter Six: Major Historical Novels, 1941-1946||216|
Part Three: Cold War and Disillusion, 1946-1957
|Chapter Seven: The Fallen Angel, 1946-1949||274|
|Chapter Eight: Literature vs. Reality, 1950-1951||341|
|Chapter Nine: The Blue Heron Phase, 1952-1956||395|
|Chapter Ten: Getting Out||455|
Epilogue: No Mourning After, 1957-present
Part One: Beginnings: 1914-1939
Chapter One: Early Years
Howard Melvin Fast was born at Suydenham Hospital in Manhattan, New York City, on November 11, 1914, the fourth of five children born to Barney and Ida Miller Fast. His childhood was somewhat typical of the poor immigrants of the time, but it was a childhood further complicated and muddled by family tragedy, extreme poverty, the ambivalence of the Jew cut off from his tradition, and the difficulty of the young artist, unaided and unschooled, groping his way to what he must be.
The family name was derived from his father's roots in Fastuv, a small Russian village near Kiev. In 1884, at the age of nine, Barney Fast was taken to America by his father and a married older brother, Edward, along with another brother and a number of half brothers and a step-mother. According to Barney's recollections to his children years later, his father, Aaron Fast, had first been married to a Rabinowitz, supposedly Sholom Aleichem's sister, who had died in Europe, leaving him with several children. The migration to America did not make things much easier, for young Barney began working at the age of eleven -- the same age at which his son Howard would later go to work -- and shifted from job to job without ever leaving poverty behind until his death fifty years later.1
Howard Fast remembers his father as "a strong, well-knit, upright-standing man," who began his working life during the 1880's in a stable in downtown New York, currying horses, cleaning wagons and doing related chores. From there, he drifted into the iron sheds on the lower East and West sides of New York, running errands, dragging iron bars at the lowest level of apprenticeship, then graduating to "tongs-boy, permitted to hold and move the metal as the smith worked, and finally, to full-fledged smith in a leather apron, with his own hammer to beat and subdue the red-hot iron."2 But the vogue of wrought-iron, used functionally for fire-escapes and ornamentally for stoops, horse cars, wagons and furniture, slowly disappeared; the roaring charcoal fires and hissing bellows were quieted and the strong arms of the ironmongers turned to other tasks, which in turn lessened in demand with change. For a while, Barney Fast was a tin-worker in White Stone, Long Island, later a "gripper-man" on the cable cars that ran on Seventh Avenue below Forty-Second Street. Finally, he moved into one of the growing businesses, and became a cutter and pattern-maker in the garment trades.
In the earlier years of his working life, Barney had been shown a picture by a friend, Danny Miller. It was a small portrait-picture of Dan's sister Ida, who was still in England, from which some of the Miller family had migrated to America. Like Sam Clemens, Barney Fast fell in love with the picture-sister across the ocean, but in this immigrant parallel, Barney helped her to come to America. She had been born Ida Jerusalem in Lithuania and had passed her formative years in London, arriving in America at the age of fifteen to join those in the family who had preceded her. She found that immigration officials, in the fashion of the time, had "changed" the name to Miller, after her father's description of his old-country work with flour and bread.
A few years after Barney had helped Ida Miller to America in 1899, the two were married, the ten-year difference in their ages not being seriously regarded among struggling immigrant families. They began married life in New York's lower east-side slums and then moved to a slightly better neighborhood in upper Manhattan as their children arrived. She bore him five children, four of whom survived early childhood: Rena, born in 1904, Arthur (born in 1909, died in 1913 of diphtheria), then Jerome in 1912, Howard in 1914, and finally Julius in 1918. But only five years later Ida Miller Fast was dead, following a time of semi-invalidism, probably from pernicious anemia, or possibly from leukemia, then undiagnosed. Howard was only eight at the time of her death, but thirty-five years later he could still write of her as a very beautiful woman, and recall with tender remembrance the stories of her girlhood in England.3
Just two years after Ida Miller Fast's death, her only daughter, Rena, married, leaving Barney Fast to raise three boys as best he could. In that time and place, this situation meant largely the boys raising themselves, or each other, and they somehow survived. But the family of males, living in deep poverty, "unalleviated by a women's touch or management," had a difficult time, and Fast's recollections of childhood are permeated with sorrow and some bitterness:
I began to work when I was eleven years old, and the five years between the ages of eleven and sixteen are years which seemed to be full of indescribable weariness. However, without the work done by my older brother and myself, our family could not have survived.4
It had been necessary to start work early, for during most of Howard's childhood, his father, spent from years of heavy work, was either sick, unemployed or on strike (though usually he could not "afford" to be sick and reported if work was waiting). So Jerome and Howard, at 13 and 11, began delivering the Bronx Home News, which was also delivered in the northern Manhattan neighborhood where they lived. The seven or eight dollars a week the two boys brought home was a considerable help in 1926, and they held their routes for the next few years, slowly increasing their joint earnings to supplement the intermittent earnings of Barney Fast.
There was a time when he had been on strike for seven months and then, when the strike was broken, laid off for longer than I care to remember, and the burden of support for the family, of eating and drinking and paying some of the rent, so we would not be put out on the street, fell upon my older brother and myself.
Besides the work there were play and school, of course, and there were times of joy in the way that children can always manage to take pleasure in life. His first fourteen years were lived at 504 West 159th Street, an old building two doors in from Amsterdam Avenue on the south side of the street. Much of his time was spent in the streets, playing the universal street games of slum children: marbles or "immies," ring-a-leave-ee-yo, red-rover-come over, stick ball and a more involved "broomstick game" called "Cat," which Fast is proud of having introduced later to some "classy" summer camps for children. Affirmatively, there were childhood friendships, the future writer's reading and the world of imagination, and there was the encouragement of father and brothers when he first tried his hand at writing stories in his fourteenth year.
I was twelve then, and we had a newspaper route which brought in ten dollars a week for the both of us, and it meant that on Sundays we had to rise at three in the morning, in the cold darkness of night, dress, and drag our aching, over-used bodies to the collating station. My mother was long dead, and my father was father, mother, and guardian angel to three small boys -- with never enough to feed them or clothe them or to overcome his guilt at being able to do neither.
The only compensation was that strange communion of working people which bound us together, and on those Saturday nights he would rise a half hour before we did, prepare breakfast and watch us go -- all with that silent anguish in his face that only the poor know, and having once seen, the poor can never properly forget.5
But for all that, the childhood years were bitter, degrading and violent, remembered largely with distaste and recalled in print only with anger and sadness:
There was tremendous ethnic fighting, tremendous hate. The whole area was a milieu of unceasing hate. The Jews were the object of hate by the Irish and the Italians were the object of hate by the Irish, and the Irish hated the Italians, the Italians hated the Jews. The Jews hated both of them.... The Negroes hated everyone. It was literally a seething unending world full of hate, of anti-Semitism, and of every other nasty ghetto thing you could think of and no one took notice of it.... It was a jungle. Every Halloween there was a mass of gang fights, two, three, five, eight hundred Negro kids and teen-agers would jump out of the Harlem ghetto and then there would be a truce between the Jews, the Italians, and the Irish. They would all band together and they would fight with knives, with broken bottles, with socks filled with glass, brutal, terrible, bloody fights. And there would be dead. There would always be dead, two, three, ten dead, dead kids out of these fights. Never drew a line in the newspapers. Nobody cared then. What the poor did to the poor was the business of the poor, not the business of the proper people who ran the city, and of course today this is forgotten.6
Perhaps the worst of these witnessed incidents, the incessant race wars and the ghetto violence, involved the aftermath of a smaller gang fight which unpredictably turned into a lynching. The central episode of The Children, one of Fast's earliest novels, actually took place on McCoomb's Bluff, where Fast played as a child, near the shelves of woods and trees overlooking a speedway and the old Polo Grounds ballpark. Here, a group of ten year olds, imitating their elders, strung up a tough Negro boy whose spirit they could not subdue; even the vivid recapturing of the event in The Children never fully exorcised Howard's ghastly memory of fleeing from the spectacle and hiding afterwards.
But the newspaper delivery job, started a year or so afterward, had one important benefit besides salary, for it was here that Fast round some refuge from violence and racism:
They were Irish and Italian kids, a couple of Jewish kids besides us, but they were all decent, solid human beings. They were not the hoodlums and the bums. I learned a very important thing when I was eleven years old -- that there were Irish and Italian kids who delivered newspapers and brought the money home to their parents and were decent and warm and good as my own kind. So that I had something to set against the race war that went on in the block, And there was no racism, no, and this remained all my life. I've learned among people who work together there is no racism, there is no hate, there is none of these things.7
Grade school wasn't much better than the streets and apparently lacked the lessons young Howard learned to extract from delivering newspapers:
We had terrible teachers as I remember now, terrible, bigoted, racist teachers. And we were in a school in which ninety percent of the students were Jewish and Catholic, and ninety-nine percent of the teachers were Protestant... And these Protestant teachers mocked at us and we never gave it a second thought. We always thought it was a perfectly proper attitude for a teacher to demonstrate toward a student because we were all aware of what we were and we felt that these Protestant teachers had every right to do it. Protestant children we didn't know, we had never met. I never met Protestant children until I was in high school.
Actually, with the resilience and innocence of youth, Howard enjoyed public school 46, just a few blocks from the home where he spent his first fourteen years on the upper west side of Manhattan. The pre-Civil war school to which he trudged along St. Nicholas Avenue would have been an easy place for any boy who could read and wanted to:
I enjoyed school. We all seemed to enjoy school in a kind of Neanderthal manner, where the stupid kids were kept in an ungraded class and when they marched by everyone would yell at them, 'Dummies, dummies, dummies' and nobody thought any of the worse of you.
Tired of the slum existence and wanting to be nearer George Washington High School, high atop its hill on 191st Street, the boys persuaded their father to move further north to 197th Street, in what is known as the Inwood section of Manhattan. Even with a semester lost with "yellow fever" and "tuberculosis," the robust young Fast graduated without difficulty at the age of sixteen and, impatient with school -- college was out of the question in any event -- he looked about for what he could do. He had begun to write nearly two years before and he had experience at a great variety of part-time jobs, but after high school he was free, poor and responsible for himself.
Now I was skipped too rapidly in public school, and therefore I was graduated in public school when I was eleven and a half years old instead of fourteen... That put me into the ninth grade at the age of eleven and a half and it was too much for me... So after trying it for a couple of weeks I just gave up and my older brother and I wrote phony illness notes to the teachers and I had everything from TB to pneumonia to yellow fever and somehow we got through that first semester.
Even at this early age, Howard Fast had been exposed to some of the major influences upon his later career as a writer, and two of those related influences, poverty and violence, have been indicated in some detail. The desire to escape an oppressive environment would soon enough express itself in travel and in romantic fiction.
There were still other tributaries to a young mind in flux. For example, Fast's first two published novels dealt with the world of outdoors, the forests and mountains and streams of early America, and even where the history was vague and "roughed in," the feeling for the outdoors was clearly authentic. But where did the feeling and the facts about nature come from?
Shortly after the immigrant Fasts had arrived in America, Edward, the older brother of Barney, had begun to acquire land in low-priced Green county in upper New York State. From a small hotel and the adjoining land, he developed holdings of many thousands of acres of forest land and in 1919, he and his son, Sam, started one of the first "summer vacation camps" in the east. Young Howard went to this camp each summer from childhood to early manhood, and the impressions made upon him were mixed, deep and important:
...When I was six years old, my mother was dying; I had a sense of this terrible illness that was eating her up, and she simply could not cope with her three little boys. So two of us were taken away for the summer... this began when I was six and a half years old... by my aunt Jenny and my uncle Edward to this camp in the Catskills. Now in one way this was a great, great boon to us. They took two poverty stricken slum children and showed them a part of America that was clean and beautiful, some of the most beautiful mountain areas up around Hunter and Tannersville that exist in the East.
The pattern of poverty and violence followed him there too. The response of the young boy, and the ambivalent remembered feelings of the author decades later are worth noting:
But they [his aunt and uncle] were not kind to us. They treated us in a manner that was ludicrous, that would have been ludicrous to a discerning adult. They were right out of Dickens. They treated us the way Oliver Twist was treated in the orphanage. We were mistreated and pushed around and given no sustenance of love or compassion or even human decency. So I fell in love with the area, with all that, but two people, Sam and my aunt, became a terror in my life, particularly my cousin Sam, and then summer after summer I was brought up there and I spent the summers fleeing him and I fled into the woods and almost as a kind of infantile refugee I got to know the people who lived in those woods, the mountain people who were very poor, backwards people, but very kind and nice. I got a sense of America which was as alien and different to a slum kid... as anyone could get. So this in shaping my life was an enormous factor.... When I went there I was six and a half, and I had to be fifteen or sixteen to get to a point where I could successfully cope with him, you know, and I was a big strong kid and I could tell him, look, you lay off me or I'll break every bone in your body. Just cut it out, you've tortured me long enough and now no more of it... I continued there, I went up there on and off until I was twenty-one years old, because this place became very precious to me.
From sixteen to twenty-one Fast did manual labor at the camp from June to September, taking pleasure in the self-reliance that grows with being able to use a hammer and saw, muddle concrete and "make do." He learned also to handle a canoe and an axe, to know the trees and flowers and hills that remain strangers to city boys. Further, he picked up the speech rhythms and quiet ways of rural people, especially the "woodsy folk" who abound in his early novels and short stories. Despite the bullying and the slights and indignities to the "poor relation," the experience was undoubtedly of great benefit. It conditioned him physically -- he had been ill at birth and small and sickly in childhood. Though he never grew as robust as his over-six-feet-tall brothers, he became physically strong and energetic and confident he could hold his own in a tough world. Of even more benefit to both boys, but especially to a future artist, was the effect of suggesting broader possibilities and more interesting perspectives, a recurrent swing to sunshine and woodlands "which to a very poor ghetto child was a great blessing and conditioned our whole orientation toward the American countryside, toward mountains, and gave us a much wider viewpoint than a city slum can give anyone."
The work in the camp did not fill him with the "indescribable weariness" of the less healthy jobs in the city, the "violence" and bullying of his cousin was not as harmful as the slum gang-wars and street-terrors, the people he met and sights he saw broadened his experience. Yet he still needed more without knowing what it was that he needed or wanted -- intellectual stimulation, travel, a homelife and family, a vocation, a clearer vision of life's possibilities. He had become a steady if undiscriminating reader, was writing short stories in longhand on the kitchen table, worked at any number of pick-up city jobs, and upon graduation from George Washington High School at 16, tried unsuccessfully to join the Navy and was rejected as underage.
Because he was young and unsettled and because the depression made career-work hard to find in 1931, Fast enrolled as a scholarship student at the National Academy of Design, an art school on 110th Street in the Cathedral Heights Section of Manhattan. The scholarship suggests he had talent, and though he did not remain long at the school, he enjoyed his stay:
The National Academy of Design was one of the great art schools of America... where there was a series of, I believe, seven long low studios in which scholarship students, all of them very poor and very talented, were taught art in the old European manner and it was the most exciting place I've ever been in my life.... And they gave me a scholarship and I went there for one year after I graduated from high school. The reason I left there was that I saw no hope of ever earning a living out of this, because in those days there was no art world in America that sold paintings the way they do today.
The following April, in 1932, Fast and a young friend, Devery Freeman, whom he had met at his uncle's summer camp the year before, made a trip to "explore the South." Fast had been writing at every opportunity and had even had one story accepted (though not yet published). Freeman also wanted to be a writer (he is today still a friend of Fast and is a Hollywood television and film writer), and so the two boys may consciously have been trying to gather experience for future literary development:
He and I took off for Florida as hitchhikers. And when we hit Florida, on our way back he and I separated and I went through a series of very traumatic experiences for a kid in the Depression South, which ended up in my being picked up in Georgia. Well, not being able to get a hitch, anyway running out of money, decided to go up north by the freights and I began to ride the freights from Fort Lauderdale north, rode on and got thrown off in a series of ten different freights by the time I hit Jacksonville, got mixed in with a different group of about a thousand kids in the Jacksonville freight yards where these homeless, jobless kids could converge from all over the country. We went out of there on a train of oil cars that must have seen five or six hundred kids hanging onto the running boards of those oil cars. I don't think that a sight like it could be imaginable today. The strangest thing is that these incidents, so strange, so impossible, so suggestive of an utterly disintegrating society were commonplace in our lives. We accepted them without any thought.... Well, in the Georgia freight yards I was sidetracked and I tried to get out of Georgia on a passenger train, and I was picked up by the police there and they told me that they were going to send me to a chain gang which terrified me at the time -- I was just a kid -- but the judge let me off and my father sent me a few bucks and finally I ended up back in New York. This was a very rich and invaluable experience for me, only the whole thing was crammed into a matter of weeks; still it was a rich and invaluable experience.
Through a bewildering variety of the kind of jobs the are standard biographical fare for writers -- delivery boy, snow shoveler, shipping clerk, dam worker, fruit picker, camp councilor, library page and others -- Fast had recognized mindless tasks to be only the necessary work of those who must work at anything in order to eat. What he really wanted to do he had tried early and had continued to work at under discouraging conditions:
Do you know, I was writing stories before I could type. Sent them in first in handwriting. Rejected, of course. Then we hired a typewriter. I wrote by hand, and long into the evening; my older brother typed them. My father sat and watched. The simple joy of that man; his whole life had been his two hands and his strong back, but now he had a son who actually wrote stories. So he sat there in that wretched slum kitchen and watched, as did my younger brother. They loved me so -- it was only their love and faith that made any of it possible.8
Not surprisingly, there are minor contradictions in Fast's recollections of incidents at the very beginning -- whether stories were submitted in long-hand, how many rejection slips were acquired before the first acceptance, how long or discouraging the apprenticeship actually was. But the evidence available indicates that Fast must have possessed enormous vitality and a great drive to write; that the "endless flow of stories" included at least two dozen stories before the first acceptance and at least that number only shortly afterward; and that the date of his first published short story, "Wrath of the Purple," in Amazing Stories, was October, 1932, shortly before his eighteenth birthday:
The first short story that I ever wrote in my life... was called "To Be An Artist," and it was written in 1931.... Now that story was typed out and was sent at first to Cosmopolltan. I sent it to Cosmopolltan because my older sister read Cosmopolltan magazine and this seemed like some of the stories that we had read in it. It was a very sentimental story with enough material in it for two novels and the story took about ten typewritten pages.9
I was writing when at National Academy; I guess I was always writing. I suppose I got twenty or thirty rejection slips -- less than I was given to expect. I learned quickly.10
But in a later recollection:
Then after "To Be An Artist" I wrote an less flow of stories, not endless of course, I would say I must have followed that with forty or fifty short stories before I sold my first to Amazing Stories. Then I must have followed that with another fifteen or twenty stories; finally then I changed agents from Curtiss Brown to MacIntosh and Otis. I guess Curtiss Brown just got rid of me. I wasn't earning any money or doing anything....11
In addition to short stories, early novel writing efforts complicate matters of bibliography and chronology even more:
Somewhere in this I wrote a novel called The Puppet Show which first got the attention of Raymond Everett at Curtiss Brown.... And this means that The Puppet Show was written in my seventeenth year. If The Puppet Show was written in my seventeenth year, it was not my first novel. There must have been a couple of novels written in my sixteenth year or at the beginning of my seventeenth year.l2
"Wrath of the Purple" did not appear in Amazing Stories until October, 1932, but it had been sold earlier that same year. The twenty-five dollars it brought, enough to feed a depression family for a month, provided some directions and decisions for the young author:
The reason I left the National Academy was that I saw no hope of ever earning a living out of this, because in those days there was no art world in America that sold paintings the way they do today. This whole post-war thing with the painters wasn't even dreamed of then. It was in that period that I sold my story to Amazing Stories and said to myself, 'Well, this is the way to earn money. Who the hell wants to go to art school?'... I left the National Academy at the end of that single year and that whole year before I took off for the South I wrote day and night, and in that period between September and April when I took off for the South I must have written twenty short stories and a novel.13
The matter of Fast's radicalism was yet to come -- quite soon -- but there is one other major influence upon his life and work which is difficult to discuss in terms of his formative years: his Jewishness. Since, however, Jewish themes and characters pervade his work, both before and after his radical phase as well as during it, perfunctory mention must be made here and more extensive treatment given where appropriate.
His parents were non-practicing Jews, and Fast did not often attend a synagogue, temple or Hebrew school as a youngster. He was not much exposed to Jewish lore and history; he was not encouraged to follow "Jewish" occupations or studies as these were thought of then; he did not live among Jews:
No Jewish neighborhood. I grew up with the Irish -- God help me -- and with the Italians -- God bless them.14
The family was poor indeed, but his was not the environment described in Michael Gold's Jews Without Money or Samuel Ornitz's Haunch, Paunch and Jowl -- an abundance of interested Jewish uncles, old world customs and idiom, constant story-telling and joking, a noisy patriarchy of endless disputation about religion and justice and literature, along with volatile talk about money and work and marriage. At an early stage of his commitment to the Communist Party, Fast even seemed to disclaim any strong sense of Jewishness, except as the inevitable anti-Semitism links one to universal suffering.
...if a Jewish heritage consists of Jewish learning, Jewish tradition, Jewish religious influences, a Jewish historical memory, and a sense of my importance and insularity in this world as a Jew, I think I can say honestly and assuredly that my work bears no relationship to it...
Now, it is plain from the accounts given of the ethnic wars he experienced in childhood and the bigotry of ignorant teachers and classmates that no Jew could remain insensitive to his "Jewishness" in a non-Jewish working-class neighborhood of New York City in the 1920's. That he felt more than merely the negative side of Jewishness through the anti-Semitism of others is apparent, however, in the earliest of Fast's published fiction, from the fanciful if irrelevant mysticism of an early historical novel, Strange Yesterday, and the routine semi-autobiographical early study in The Children through virtually all his major work down to the present. The case will shortly appear even stronger for Judaism as the mayor life-influence upon Fast when we examine his works, including several unpublished early novels, and when we examine his life, especially the important years in the Communist Party.
Perhaps if I had been more with Jews I would have written more of them -- but even had that been the case, I don't think the direction of my writing would have been different....
For myself, I write as an American and a Jew, and I've found no contradiction. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending upon one's point of view, I was raised singularly free of religious prejudice or instruction; I escaped most or the Jewish mores and most of the fears.15
If, then, Howard Fast's long-term membership in the Communist Party is the biographical fact most known and which most often is used to categorize or dismiss his writing, we must examine him knowing that he became interested in radicalism as a Jew, he joined the Party as a Jew, he left the Party as a Jew -- and we might almost say, in each case, "because he was a Jew." One must not attempt to explain Howard Fast's writings or his behavior merely, or even mainly, in terms of his Jewishness; yet in his Jewishness we find one of the matrices of his mind. In his Jewishness, we find the interest in social Justice, the international outlook, the acceptance (almost a welcoming at times) of suffering, the predisposition to liberal or radical politics, the fondness for story-telling and other traits not exclusively Jewish but common to Jews. Even in his literary style, in the voice of the narrator he uses so often, we find, lifelong, the cadences, the intonations, the rhetoric and the idiom of Jewish speech. The point is of special interest here for two reasons: as Fast himself points out, he is almost never mentioned in any 11st of Jewish writers; secondly, though he is thought of mainly as a Communist or former Communist writer, it was when he faced a choice between the two, so long avoided and finally forced, that he stopped being a Communist and remained a Jew.
We find him, then, at seventeen, with a story sold but not yet a writer, still poor, alone and searching, waiting to serve an apprenticeship as a writer, then as a Communist -- In that order -- then as a Communist writer, and, finally, again as a writer. It was to be an amazing, violently-swinging, active life and career that can best be understood through a blend of approaches: partly through the personal history and influences mentioned; partly as the history of our times, including some of its "ruins and monuments"; partly as the interactlon of time and place and the biology of a man gifted with extraordinary energy and a deep commitment to life. All of these approaches, I believe, the biographical, the sociological and the esthetic, must be combined if we hope to see clearly and evaluate properly a writer who was both badly over-rated and badly under-rated in his time.
Footnotes: Chapter One, "Early Years"
1. The facts about Fast's early life and the lives of his family are not a matter of available record, except for the vital statistics and some meager details. Since nearly all the matter in this chapter is based on my private interviews with the author, I have troubled to footnote only passages of extended quotation from these interviews and, in one or two instances, letters and telephone conversations between Howard Fast and myself. Dates of this material range from initial communication in 1965 to the present; except in some minor particulars, the separate interviews and other correspondence are internally consistent and square with data available elsewhere. I have also checked these recollections with brief biographical notes written by Fast in previous years but not published (and now lent to me), with material deposited by him (including dated manuscripts) in the library of the University of Pennsylvania, with the recollections of some early acquaintances, and with most available material of, by or about him in newspapers, books, pamphlets and periodicals. In a few cases, I have made minor adjustment or corrections where abundance of evidence suggests that Fast's memory or the printed record is in error, but in every case these corrections will be indicated as such.
2. My Father," The Last Supper and Other Stories, N.Y., Blue Heron Press, 1955, p. 205.
3. The Naked God, N.Y., Frederick Praeger, 1957, p. 12.
4. "Something About My Life Briefly," typed biographical statement, 1952. Three years later, In "My Father," Last Supper, p. 206, Fast amplified his recollections:
"I suppose we were just as poor before my mother died, but she somehow had the skill to draw a mask over the naked face of poverty, and this my father alone could not do. Work as he would, twelve and fourteen hours a day, he still could not feed and clothe us; and he gave away our childhood the way millions of working class fathers in so many lands gave away the childhood of their children. My older brother went to work when he was twelve, myself when I was eleven -- the beginning of an ache, a weariness, a tiredness that came not only out of work done, but out of play and gladness passed by. Possibly it was then that my father became old; he had to sell our youth just as his own was sold, and his face became gray and tired, the life gone out of it."
In Naked God, p. 7, Fast again referred to "a series of dismal and underpaid jobs that I had held since, at the age of eleven, pressed by the need of our utter poverty, I went to work as a newspaper delivery boy. The fact that thereby I gave up all the joy and laughter of childhood to embark upon long years of physical and mental weariness -- the particular weariness of doomed children that Jack London has described so well -- is important only in its very broad sense."
Since Fast also makes this comparison of his own life and career with that of Jack London, elsewhere it may seem that he is embroidering on his own deprived childhood. But his remembrances, in private interviews, of childhood games, apply mostly to the first ten or eleven years; the abundance of jobs held, household chores, school and reading, plus a precocious and prodigious literary output -- before any success -- rule out much time spent at play and childhood friendships.
5. "My Father," Last Supper, pp. 203-4.
6. Interview with Frank Campenni, April 12, 1968. Hereafter, these interviews are labeled "Interview" and then dated; they exist on tape and in typewritten transcription, but page reference to transcription seems unnecessary.
7. Ibid. Further quotations below, referring to these years, are from the same source, until otherwise identified.
8. Letter to Frank Campennl, October 4, 1965. Hereafter "letter" will mean from Howard Fast to me unless otherwise indicated.
9. Interview, April 15, 1968.
10. Letter, October 4, 1965.
11. Interview, April 15, 1968.
12. Interview, April 12, 1968. In "Something About My Life Briefly," 1952, Fast says he began to write "when I was sixteen"; in an undated, unpublished biographical sketch, he says: "Began to write at age 14." Although he repeats the claim of 16 in interviews, the provable amount of output, as well as claims of unpublished stories, make 14 more likely.
13. Interview, April 12, 1968 .
14. Letter, October 4, 1965.
15. Howard Fast, Contemporary Jewish Record, vol. VII (February 1944), pp. 25-27.