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Howard Fast's The American was the August 1946 Literary Guild selection, featured in Wings, the Literary Guild Review....

 

John Beechcroft presents

The August Selection

The AMERICAN

By Howard Fast

A new novel of great distinction -
the story of a passionate liberal

HOWARD FAST is considered one of the few young writers of present-day America who will win lasting fame; some critics consider him the most important of the new writers. Interest in his work has increased steadily with each book. Though he is only thirty-two years old, he has a number of critical and popular successes. Conceived in Liberty was well received by critics. The Last Frontier reached a wider audience. The Unvanquished may become a classic historical novel. Freedom Road and Citizen Tom Paine were Guild bonus books. But it is The American will be hailed from coast to coast as his best book, and it is with The America that Howard Fast will become known to a multitude of readers who will share in the enthusiasm critics have felt for this rising new star in our national literature.

Howard Fast's stories have all been about America. The men who made our history have furnished him his subjects - the Revolutionary War, the Civil War have been the backgrounds against which his stories have unfolded. Now in The American he has written about a man who seems fated to become a great figure in our history - John Peter Altgeld, an American who could not be president.

Through the first two decades of this century, only a few people remembered the fascinating story of Altgeld, but those few preserved the kernel of a new national legend celebrating a new American hero, whose story is rapidly catching the imagination of the people of this country. Howard Fast compares the growth of the Altgeld legend to the stories - truths and half truths - that are told about Washington and Lincoln, John Brown and Andrew Jackson, Billy the Kid and Jesse James. Because Howard Fast believed John Altgeld was a man of heroic purpose, because he believed in the greatness of his subject - he had such sympathetic understanding of his character. His readers cannot fail to be moved by the close picture they get of a rare man.

John Peter Altgeld, though born a poor farmer's son, rose to power and riches. His life proved - as have the lives of others of our great - that a man can better himself limitlessly in America. He worked for his education in a little Mid-Western town, he bore the arrogance of that town`s rich with dignity if not humility and he chose the daughter of the foremost citizen as his future wife. When he went away to make his fortune he took a hand in building the railroads westward after the Civil War. He read law - that traditional wedge in the opening door of opportunity - and saw success shining within his grasp.

He returned to the little town and found the girl still waiting. She became his loyal wife, the prop upon which he could lean in the battles of his future life. Emma Altgeld may not have fully understood her husband, but she loved and cherished him, she made for him a retreat where he could rest and gain fresh strength and go forth to fight again.

For this man was a fighter for truth and man's freedom. A successful lawyer, a judge, a man of property and finally the governor of a great state - none of these were enough for John Peter Altgeld. He possessed a conscience which allowed him no rest. At early middle age he had every comfort, he could look forward to a happy and easy life. He had power in state and national politics, he had everything that most men desire. But he also had his conscience, his sense of right and wrong, his driving love for his fellow men.

So he could not rest, he could not sit back with folded hands and winking eyes. He fought for the people of America. Even if he sacrificed his position, his power, his wealth and finally his health, there was a task that he must undertake and carry through. Altgeld has been described as a latter-day Lincoln. He had in him the same quality of human valor which drove both men to tell compelling truths about life and society in their times. Altgeld was a man capable of saying "No," and in so doing has seemingly written his name in water.

The American - a novel written with the urgency of sincere purpose, the story of a new American hero - is a book that will be a revelation to America of today. It has far deeper emotional appeal than a mere romance, a greater message than many religious novels, more understanding than a simple biography. The American is one of the most distinguished books we have ever had the privilege to offer Guild members.


THE AMERICAN will be on sale in the publisher's edition to non-Guild members at $3 00. The Guild edition will be available at the members' exclusive price of only $2.00.

Why I Wrote THE AMERICAN

By Howard Fast

IT IS A NOTION of mine that a man`s country becomes more understandable, more easily describable, and certainly more dear to him when he is a long, long distance away. In the hundreds of hours during the war that I spent in the forward gun tub of a merchant ship, thinking about many things I had never enough time to consider before, The American took shape and form. I dropped the idea I had had of making the Altgeld story into a huge tome of about a thousand pages, and saw it as a legend in the classical sense, perhaps the American legend, a tale into which I could put all that my native land meant to me, a vehicle through which I could project as indigenous an American as might be found.

It is worth looking into the factors that turned the story of a man, or incident, or movement into a legend. Let us say that a battle is fought; on the one hand it is told in the official chronicles, on the other, a different version grows by word of mouth among the people. And if the battle was fought over an issue close to the people, vital to them, and meaningful to them, it will in time assume the heroic proportions of a legend.

Much the same process happens with a man who fights the people's fight - and who thereby is taken to the people's heart. In the case of Altgeld, this was most clearly demonstrated. A whole folklore arose around him and a legend began, paralleling in its growth such outstanding examples as the Washington and Lincoln legends or the similar if less widely promulgated legends that have grown up around John Brown, Andrew Jackson, Billy the Kid, Jesse James and hundreds of others.

In Chicago, Altgeld is still very much alive, especially with the old timers, who speak of "the Judge" as if they had had lunch with him only the day before. Vachel Lindsay, Edgar Lee Masters, Brand Whitlock, Clarence Darrow, and hundreds of other young men of the time were inspired by Altgeld. To them, he represented some of the best things we know as American.

The impression Altgeld made on all of these men was lasting and indelible. Joe Martin, a close friend of Altgeld's, spent much of his life and fortune perpetuating the memory of the Governor of Illinois. Two of Vachel Lindsay's finest poems speak of Altgeld. Edgar Lee Masters not only wrote recollections of him but calls him up on the lips of various characters in the Spoon River Anthology. In Brand Whitlock's fine book, Forty Years of It, Altgeld stands forth as a firm inspiration in the young man's life - and is also sewn through the theme of the book like a strong, clean thread. Clarence Darrow was Altgeld's law partner in the latter years of the Governor`s life; he wrote much about Altgeld and his funeral oration over Altgeld's grave is one of the classics of the day.

This is the way legends are made - and I think that that was the way Altgeld's life became a legend in America's Middle West. In writing this book, I attempted to preserve the feeling and the quality of that legend. Without distorting the man's life, I attempted to find a common mean between the hero - and sometimes the villain - of the official biographies and the hero - always the hero - of the common people.

From the beginning, when I first thought of this story, it was the essential splendor of Altgeld's problem and decision that attracted me. Now and then, fairly ordinary men are called upon to make momentous decisions; sometimes, the decision is to stand by a principle, and sometimes the cost of such a decision is very great. But in these times, when men are bought too cheaply, personal integrity and honesty are becoming as precious as they are rare. Yet there is hardly a case of a man making such a decision and not growing in the process; occasionally, the growth reaches heroic proportions, and the man gains, in another way, far more than he lost. That was the case with John Altgeld; he took a stand, made a decision, and fought a battle in the best traditions of our land; he emerged as a truly heroic figure, and for that reason, in my opinion, the story of him and the men around him is timeless, as much and more for today than for two generations ago.

That was the story I set out to tell, the story of a man who came to understand that no life was very much worth living without democracy and personal freedom as the basic theme of it - the story of a man who paid the price that is always asked for freedom.


The Author

HOWARD
FAST

FEW WRITERS know their country, present and past, as well as Howard Fast, or care so much about it. From the time he left the National Academy of Design in the midst of the depression, the author of The American has trekked all over the country, traveling when he had money, working at all sorts of jobs when he didn't. He has been a library messenger in New York, a bean picker in the Florida Everglades, and he once talked his way out of a stint on a Georgia chain gang. In other parts of the country he has been a concrete muddler, a ten-dollar-a-week shipping clerk and a farmhand. Ever one to see things at first hand, he went over the three-hundred-mile journey the Cheyenne Indians made from Oklahoma to Wyoming before writing that memorable novel about it, The Last Frontier, Mr. Fast's own favorite among his works. It was in Chicago, of course, that he learned about Altgeld as he explains in the foregoing article.

The great figures and periods in American history are equally familiar and real to this citizen-author. Critics hailed his portrayal of George Washington in The Unvanquished as one of the few live fiction portraits of this famous gentleman. The same was said for Tom Paine, the main figure in Citizen Tom Paine, an affecting novel about the troubled author of Common Sense. In Freedom Road, Mr. Fast wrote an indignant novel about Reconstruction days. His eloquent story of Altgeld betrays his deep love of democracy as well as his thorough knowledge of a fascinating period in American politics.

Howard Fact was born in New York City in 1914, and is the author of seven novels and several juveniles, though still only thirty-two. During the war, he worked for the OWI and the Signal Corps, and later he went to the Far-East.