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The Call of Fife and Drum: Three Novels of the Revolution


BACK IN 1938, soon after my wife and I were married, we bought a two-seater 1931 Ford, and set off to see America. In the course of this trip, we spent a day at Valley Forge, where a national park had been established and where General Washington's winter encampment had been reconstructed. I don't know what Valley Forge looks like today, almost a half century later, but at that time, the replicated encampment was crude enough to give one a sensation of how it might have been when the Continental Army wintered there.

I was deeply touched. We bought all the available historical literature available at the spot, and when we came home, I immersed myself in whatever I could find on Valley Forge. Since that time, there has been an enormous amount of serious scholarship and publication on the American Revolution. At that time, there was surprisingly little. As it appeared to me then, the Revolution was a dimly remembered incident of minor importance and major confusion. Being as poorly educated in American history as most of the population then--and now--I found myself putting together a long list of questions and very few answers.

I think I felt that writing a story of what had happened might clarify it for me, whereupon I sat down to produce a book which eventually became Conceived in Liberty. I was twenty-three at the time, and I already had behind me three novels, none particularly distinguished and none of which struck a spark to the literary world, much less setting it on fire. With Conceived in Liberty, reviewers took serious notice for the first time that here was a young writer called Howard Fast, and that his work might eventually have possibilities. "At least it explodes with life," a reviewer said. The novel was reviewed in The New York Times literary section and in the Herald-Tribune literary section, and if the reviews were not raves, they were at least generous.

On my part, I had found a subject that was to intrigue me for years to come, in the course of which I would publish five more books on the period, each of them examining another aspect of the American Revolution. I must say that to my delight, two of these books have been used as school texts, so that several generations of Americans have been able to participate, at least in their imagination, in that extraordinary event that brought this country into being. Of the six books I wrote on the subject of the Revolution, five were novels and the sixth a history of the Battle of Trenton and the events leading up to it, the first detailed examination of that event in the past hundred years.*

Here, in this volume, are three novels out of the five. The first, in order of publication, was, as I say above, Conceived in Liberty. Even as it was published, the events that led to the United States' involvement in World War II were taking place, and shortly after Pearl Harbor, my second book on the subject, a study of George Washington and his conduct of the retreat from New York City in 1776, was published. That was titled The Unvanquished, and it was published in 1942. Time Magazine said it was indirectly the most important book yet published on World War II, since it went to the roots of what was to be America's supreme effort.
Eight years passed before the third volume in this collection saw print--eight years during which the country, having destroyed Hitlerism in conjunction with the Soviet Union, turned from the hot war to a cold war that would go on interminably. The passionate patriotism expressed in The Unvanquished, the will of a small band of rebels to make a decent world for themselves, preached a song of hope and survival at the time of Pearl Harbor. Twelve years later, when I wrote The Proud and the Free, the situation had changed. McCarthyism was the rule of the time, and a kind of fear never known in the past now stalked America. So much of what we believed in twelve years before had been turned on its head; yet at this moment of terror and despair in America, the seeds of the great civil rights movement were being sown. Thus, I turned my attention to another part of the American Revolution, the months before the final victory at Yorktown. By this date, the small, ragged band of volunteers who were the subject of my first two novels had swelled into a large, war-hardened army, the backbone of which was the Pennsylvania Line, as it was called. Victory was in the air, and the unity that had cemented the various regions and classes of America no longer prevailed. The Proud and the Free was written during what is remembered as the lowest moment of American democracy in the twentieth century. While I feel that the book is a valid picture of the incident it portrays, it is history seen from a specific moment of the future. But this, indeed, is the case of all history.

I think that the three books will give the reader some new insights as to the origin of America. They will certainly not bore you.

--Howard Fast

*In fact, Fast had written seven books on the American Revolution by 1987, when this introduction was written:
    Conceived in Liberty (1939)
    The Unvanquished (1942)
    Citizen Tom Paine (1943)
    The Proud and the Free (1950)
    April Morning (1961)
    The Crossing (1971)
    The Hessian (1972)
The Crossing, the non-fiction book referred to, includes notes, bibliography and index. Citizen Tom Paine was used as a school textbook, and was banned from use in New York City schools in 1947, during the furor over Fast's connection with the Communist Party. The other is probably April Morning. In 1994 he published his eighth book on the revolution, Seven Days in June.

from the introduction to the 1987 Citadel Press edition