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The Moscow News
March 2003

A Talent for All Times
Ilya Baranikas

Howard Fast, an American classic and "anti-American" element,
Communist and a Soviet critic, dies at 88

News of the death of American classic Howard Fast passed almost unnoticed in Russia. Yet at one time millions of Russian students were taking exams on his novels while his name was known to millions of people. We had arranged for an interview, but on March 12, 2003, the 88-year-old writer died suddenly in his home in Greenwich, Connecticut, where he had been living with his wife, Mimi.

I met him last year through Vladimir Kartsev, a publisher. I was struck by the man's vitality and perspicacity. I remember him saying that Russia is not Tsar Nicholas or Stalin or Gorbachev or Putin. Not autocracy or democracy. Russia is a nation that gave the world Tolstoy, Rachmaninoff, Mendeleev, Chagall, the first satellite, and the first cosmonaut.

Once the Soviet Union had been to Howard Fast (who was a member of the U.S. Communist Party from 1943 until 1957) a beacon in the struggle of nations for social justice. Born to a poor New York working class family, he devoted his literary talent to a subject matter that was classified by Soviet ideologues as "progressive." He wrote novels about the struggle of slaves for freedom (Spartacus, Freedom Road), striking textile workers (Clarkton), the struggle of American Indians against invaders/oppressors (The Last Frontier), victims of McCarthyism (Silas Timberman), and fighters for America's independence from British rule (Citizen Tom Paine, The Unvanquished). He loved the "cradle of the world revolution" and the "cradle" returned his love: In 1953, he won a Stalin Peace Prize which a year earlier had been awarded to yet another American and a close friend of Fast's: singer Paul Robeson.

Yet Fast's romance with Moscow was short-lived. In his worldview, leftist, Communist convictions were secondary: He was above all a humanist. Exposure of crimes committed by the Stalin regime, combined with a ruthless suppression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956, turned Fast off the Soviet "beacon of freedom." In 1957, he wrote a book called The Naked God, offering the following explanation of his metamorphosis: "That is not renouncing Communism or socialism. It's reaching a certain degree of enlightenment about what the Soviet Union practices."

Fast's relationship with America was even more complex. Although his writing talent was so powerful that at age 17 he was able to beat his own path to literature, later in life he became in effect an outcast in his own country. During the years of McCarthyism, his books were stigmatized as Communist propaganda while he himself was blacklisted. In 1950, when Howard Fast refused to testify to the House Un-American Activities Committee, he was sent to jail for three months while his books were removed from public libraries.

Nonetheless Fast continued to write: He was one of the most prolific authors of the 20th century, writing 80 novels plus short stories, poems, film scripts, and endless articles (he also was a staff writer for The Daily Worker, a publication of the U.S. Communist Party). In addition, he wrote thrillers under the nom de plume of E.V. Cunningham. Although harshly attacking him for his revolutionary subject matter, his critics could not – did not even try to – deny Fast's outstanding talent as a writer. His books – mainly history novels – were written with such plausible minutiae as though he himself had been, say, near Judas Maccabee, when the latter led the Jews' uprising against Greek oppressors (My Glorious Brothers, a novel written in the first person singular).

He had never been dependent on anyone. When, in the 1950s, publishers, one after another, rejected his Spartacus, he published it himself. Doubleday publishers bought 600 copies of the book that immediately sold out, leading to thousands more being printed. Later on, in 1960, the book was made into a film, Spartacus, with Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier and Charles Laughton – yet another bestseller. While he was persecuted in America, he was greatly admired in other countries. Pablo Neruda, Pablo Picasso and Diego Rivera were among his admirers.

He was only subject to time. "The only thing that infuriates me, is that I have more unwritten stories in me than I can conceivably write in a lifetime," Fast said. His last work, Greenwich, came out in 2000.

Thus far nothing is known about how the writer's legacy is going to be divided up (he died a well-to-do man). His first wife, Bette Cohen, died in 1994, the marriage producing two children and three grandchildren. In 1999, Howard Fast married Mercedes O'Connor, who has three children by her first husband. It is not yet known what the writer has bequeathed to whom.