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Friday March 14, 2003
Obituary - Howard Fast
Prolific radical novelist who championed the cause of America's common people
The writer Howard Fast, who has died aged 88, was the last surviving American recipient of the Stalin peace prize. His first novel appeared at the height of the depression, and he was still publishing bestsellers in the 1980s.
Fast was a literary phenomenon of a recognisable American kind. Untouched by the ugly racism of Jack London, and certainly more skilled at the delineation of character and the crafting of a readable plot than Upton Sinclair, he was the champion of the progressive novel in the United States.
For a decade after the second world war, he moved in the upper strata of international anti-fascism and communist propaganda. His historical novels, which ranged from portraits of slave revolts in antiquity, as with Spartacus (1953), to the American revolution, won him a broad readership across the world. In the Soviet Union, his print runs were substantial.
Having refused to cooperate with the House un-American activities committee and provide records of the Joint Anti-fascist Refugee Committee, he was convicted of contempt of Congress in 1950, and served three months in jail it was in effect a congressional imprimatur of his leftwing credentials and integrity. It also meant that, overnight, his books became unpublishable. He was blacklisted. Angus Cameron (obituary, November 30 2002), the editor-in-chief at his publishers, Little Brown, came under fire in 1951 for publishing avowed or secret communist authors, and was forced to resign.
Fast was driven to publishing his own books including the bestselling Spartacus until he broke with the American Communist party, which he had joined in 1943. Despite his misgivings about the party, he regarded the rising tide of McCarthyism as a more immediate threat to American liberties. He ran for Congress on the American Labour party ticket in 1952, after it had come under the CP's covert control. He wrote a eulogy of the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, who had been executed during the 1920s red scare. The party had played a key role in the worldwide campaign against the American legal system.
For this and other services, Fast was awarded the Stalin peace prize in 1954. He was the one truly popular American writer to remain loyal to the Communist party until 1956, when Khrushchev's so-called "secret speech" on Stalin's crimes, and the Red army's crushing of the Hungarian revolution, led three-quarters of the membership of the American Communist party to quit.
In the ideological ruins that followed, Fast remade himself as the author of slick, efficient thrillers, written under the pseudonym of EV Cunningham, featuring a Japanese-American detective. He was also the author of firmly researched novels about the Lavette family, turn-of-the-century immigrants to San Francisco. Beginning with The Immigrants (1977), he published seven novels over the next decade, continuing the family story over several generations to the struggles of Vietnam and feminism.
They successfully combined progressive mythology the struggle of the individual against the establishment and skilled social and political reportage. As in Upton Sinclair's Lanny Budd novels, Fast could never resist the temptation to have his fictional characters on hand when history-making events took place; he had been doing it, with considerable skill, from his earliest novels about the American revolution.
Fast wrote largely without the benefit of an academic education. His father worked in the New York garment industry. Following the death of his mother Ida, in Fast's childhood, he worked in assorted part-time jobs before graduating from George Washington high school, New York, in 1931. That year, he sold a story to the magazine Amazing Stories. At the age of 18, his first novel, Two Valleys, was published. He then attended the National Academy of Design in New York, before resuming his career as a novelist.
His fourth book, Conceived In Liberty (1939), set during the American war of independence, gave Fast a new subject matter - the heroism of the ordinary American. It became a million seller. Citizen Tom Paine (1943) enshrined his reputation. The historian Allan Nevins admired the novel, but wished that the finer shades of historical truth, and the more delicate effects of art, had not been sacrificed to the speed and energy of the narrative.
Harvey Swados made the terrible insult that Fast's conception of history was rather like that of Cecil B DeMille. There is an uncomfortable truth in this observation, and for several reasons.
The first is that Fast, like virtually every American writer from the 1920s on, wrote cinematically. The chapter was not his natural structural device, but rather the scene, envisaged in terms of a direct conflict between characters, or structured around an image which would convey the essence of the story. His books show a writer hungry for the speed of a quick procession of scenes, who uses flashbacks, and sharply defined visual images conveyed through montage, to make palatable the needed amount of historical explanation. There is nothing in Fast like the studied disconnections between scene and character which John Dos Passos made his own, and which DH Lawrence joyously parodied: "Broadway at night whizz! gone! a quick-lunch counter! gone a house on Riverside Drive, the Palisades, night gone!"
Fast was much easier on his readers, and certainly enjoyed a readership vastly larger than that of Dos Passos. He wrote prolifically, publishing more than 40 novels under his own name, and 20 as EV Cunningham. He wrote plays, screenplays, television plays, poetry, non-fiction books for children (Haym Salomon, Son Of Liberty, 1941), popular political biographies (two books on Yugoslavia's President Tito), a history of the Jews, and two accounts of his political itinerary - The Naked God: The Writer And The Communist Party (1957), and Being Red: A Memoir (1990).
He seldom wrote autobiographically; the nearest he came to a self-portrait was in Citizen Tom Paine. For Paine, the greatest revolutionary propagandist of the 18th century, the likely fate of the American revolution of 1776, as well as of the French of 1789, was betrayal and defeat. Paine knew the vicious attacks of enemies in America and abandonment by his friends, as well as persecution and imprisonment in France under the Jacobins.
And, indeed, Fast's novel is a portrait of the writer as revolutionary. It is also a singularly harsh portrayal of the nature of revolution itself, and of the terrible fate awaiting its creators; it belongs on the same shelf as Arthur Koestler's novel of the fate of an old Bolshevik, Darkness At Noon (1940).
It was while writing Citizen Tom Paine that Fast joined the Communist party. The wartime love affair with the Soviet Union and the Red army was at its peak. Fast later showed himself to be an insightful diagnostician of the way good people, worthy of affection and respect, were degraded, humiliated, lied to and betrayed by Stalin and his conscienceless henchmen in the American party.
The title for his 1957 study, The Naked God: The Writer And Communism, was drawn from a brief, brilliant passage reflecting on the East German Stalinist leader Walther Ulbricht: "He has lost touch with humankind. For him are no more hopes or visions or high dreams only the caress of power over his righteousness."
It was not only Communist politicians about whom such words seemed appropriate. Wearing the robes of Ulbricht's party righteousness, such a man served at the altar of a naked god. Fast's departure from the party, and his writings on the party, inevitably attracted the broadsides of party polemicists, well-skilled in the savage denunciation of renegades.
He knew what to expect, for he was himself a professional at such ritual denunciations; they were part of the stock and trade of party life. He had delighted in the comradeship of leftwing writers, whom he largely imagined to be men of the people, like himself. The Chilean communist poet Pablo Neruda dedicated a poem to Fast, and he was warmly greeted in Paris in 1949 by another high-profile Communist party member, Pablo Picasso.
Visiting Soviet writers were entertained at the home he shared with his first wife Bette. He believed in the kinship that united all men of goodwill and progressive sentiments in the struggle against fascist aggression.
It was when Fast learned that the Soviet writer Boris Polovoy had lied to him about the whereabouts of an admired Jewish writer (who had, in fact, been shot), and when he learned that Alexander Fadeyev had lied to Mary McCarthy in 1949 about other "silent" Soviet writers, that Fast saw the moral bankruptcy that was international communism's final legacy. Others, like Dos Passos, had seen it earlier; some never saw it at all. For Fast, Khrushchev's 1956 speech was a final cherry on the cake, when he finally felt able to say much of what he had felt.
But he never became a professional anti-communist. There were too many novels and books to write, and too much to say about freedom. Some of his work was filmed, notably, in 1960, Spartacus, with a screenplay by another blacklisted writer, Dalton Trumbo. In 1979, the 1944 novel, Freedom Road, became a TV mini-series, starring Muhammad Ali as a former slave who becomes a senator after the American civil war.
Fast's last novel, Greenwich, was published in 2000. Bette died in 1994. He is survived by their son and daughter, his second wife Mercedes, whom he married in 1999, and her three sons.
• Howard Melvin Fast, writer, born November 11 1914; died March 12 2003