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CBS Radio 1984

Howard Fast: Interview with Don Swaim

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[Don Swaim:] I'm going to ask you a couple of things about you and your life, and your background. Have you ever done an autobiography?

[Howard Fast:] No, I've thought of it... not old enough yet.

Wow, what a life – so many fireworks and explosions in your life!

Several of them. Yes, I've lived at least five different lives.

All of those five lives worth writing about, too. In 1933, according to the chronology, you had 13 unpublished novels behind you when you sold your first book, Two Valleys, and you were 18. Thirteen novels?

That was an explosion of energy that I find terrifying to recollect. I began writing novels when I was 15, and I improved along the way. But I had tremendous energy, because, you know, I was working, working all the time – always had a job. I had to do this before 7:00 in the morning, or after 5:00 or 6:00 in the evening. And, for a good part of it, go to school at the same time. But this is something you can do at that age if you're filled with energy and vigor and a lust to conquer life, and to remove yourself from abject poverty...

Of course we say 13 novels – we're not talking necessarily about the quality of those novels... If you started at 15, they would obviously have to reflect your immaturity, although you must have been a terribly precocious young man...

They were not good. I suppose at the beginning they were terrible. Some of them were so terrible that I destroyed them – every bit of it – beyond any... you understand – Goodness, suppose I should be killed, which was never too far away in those days – and someone discovers these God-awful novels, how would I live through it after death, you know, it becomes a problem. But, I don't know. I saved one of them, I believe, and I still have not shown it to anyone. I began... the last three were shown around by an agent, so they probably had some quality.

What were the themes? ...

When you write at that age, you're writing about what you read [pres.]. You're reconstructing romances. You're taking your characters out of the stuff you've read. And I was an omnivorous reader in the New York Public Library. You know, years later I met Wolcott1, and we had a long talk and he mentioned Philpotts2. And I said, "I've read Philpotts." He drew himself up in such annoyance, he said "You haven't – no one has read Philpotts." Well, I explained to him how it came about. I worked in the New York Public Library as a page boy, and I used to read down the line from A to Z. I had no instruction, no direction, no conviction, so I always read the next book, right down the line. And in the Ps I got to Philpotts. Now years later, over North Africa, in a terrible flight, terrible, scary flight – the motor caught fire we thought we would have to come down in the desert – and there was one young G.I., a kid who – this was in a C-36 as people called it I believe – big cargo plane, no seats, and it had some tracks along the roof, for loading some kind of gun, and he was hanging on to one of these tracks, a tall, skinny kid, and he had a book up to the purple blackout light, and through all that happened, all this terrifying stuff, he was unconscious of it, he kept reading. And when we landed, I grabbed him, because I was a correspondent, I said "What... what are you reading that's so fascinating that it could keep you through all this?" He said, "Oh, just a book." Well, the book, I remember, was called "Lady and the Fox". But the interesting thing is that he had never read a book before he went in the Army, and he came up against the Armed Service Editions – they're little paperbacks to put in the soldier's blouse. This was what he lived for. He'd never read a book, never read anything but comic books. Now he read every one that came his way. From morning to night he read books, whenever he could find a moment, even doing whatever he was doing, this kid read books. And they were all wonderful. He liked Hemingway, he liked Dreiser, he liked Sinclair Lewis... loved them all, didn't discriminate. So I was educated the same way. Years later, I began to discriminate a bit, but not at that time.

I believe there's a story about Marilyn Monroe, when she was married to Arthur Miller, and she started to catch up on the great literature, starting with the As... and I don't think she got to the X, Ys and Zs... Tell me about this first book of yours, Two Valleys...

Well, before I do, you mentioned Marilyn Miller...


Marilyn Monroe, and I must put this in. The prototype of this lovely young rabbi in my new book is the man who gave instructions to Marilyn Monroe when she turned Jewish. And he came to me – he was quite young then too – he came to me and he said, "Howard, I'm in love for the first time. I've met an angel – an angel in human flesh." And I said, "Tell me, what angel have you met?" And he said, "She's – her name is Marilyn Monroe!" Now he felt that she had a kind of incredible beautiful innocence that no one else had touched or understood, and maybe she had.

Everybody seems to love Marilyn Monroe, even Ayn Rand, who mourned her death. Well, let's go back, because we don't have as much time as I would like to spend with you, and so I have to do some skipping and jumping, but let's go back to 1933, and tell me about that first book of yours...

I can't tell you much. It's a romance. I haven't read it in maybe, 40-50 years. And so I'm not too familiar with it... but a romantic love story and I suppose I drew the components for it out of other books... a good deal about woods. I was a city kid, who lived in great poverty but who had rich relatives in upstate New York, and an uncle up there who had a vast domain of some 3,000 acres. And when my mother died, as a tiny child, they would take my brother and myself – my two brothers and myself – up there for the summer months. And this was a great experience to me, great, valuable experience. So Two Valleys was more or less set in that kind of a setting, it was a romantic historical novel, and... I ought to read it again, so the next time I'm asked the question I'll have some sensible answer.

You've written some 50 books. Do you indeed go back and reread what you've written?



I don't. I never do. Why, I don't know. It's like returning to a place of your childhood. It's very bad, it's emotionally bad, and it's also a thing that's advised against in Zen practice. Don't try to go back.

A lot of writers that I've talked to, block out much of what they've written. Even in the recent books. I remember I was talking to William Manchester a while back – he'd written a memoir – and I asked him about an incident. This was only a couple of years ago. The book had just come out. I'd asked him about an incident in the book he'd written, and I cited a name of a character, which this incident was built around, and he looked at me blankly, and he said, "No, I don't remember anything – there's nothing like that in the book, there's no character–" And I switched to the page there, and I read him the paragraph and he went, "Oh, oh, that's right!" Because he hadn't read the book for a year, but for some reason his own work had been blotted out in his mind, he just could not remember. And indeed, the character wasn't created in it because he – although it was based on a real character, he changed the name, and he had forgotten what name he had used.

Well, you know, if truth be told, it may be the same process as lying. Very bad to lie if you're in a tight situation, because it's hard to remember a lie. You always remember the truth of what happens to you, or at least you remember it as you see it. But lies are very hard to remember.

The 1930s. You had published your first book... What were these mid- and late- 30s like for you, and what were you doing?

My first book, for you to go back there, Two Valleys, was published by Lincoln MacVeagh. Lincoln MacVeagh was the owner of the Dial Press, the old Dial Press that published the Dial magazine which was a very prestigious literary magazine at the time. He closed up, or sold his publishing house when Roosevelt, having been elected for the first time, made Lincoln MacVeagh his ambassador to Greece. So I was in the last publishing lists he ever brought out. And I thought "Well, this is very ominous, it's saying something to me." But anyway, he did get my book out. He paid me a hundred dollars advance, and since I never received any more from Dial Press, it may be that the sales never covered the advance. The next book was published by Dodd, Mead. It was called...

The old Manchester syndrome

Yes, Strange Yesterday. Yes. I think my advance was $250, so I was moving up very quickly. And it sold a little better, in that it seems to have earned back the advance. Published by Dodd, Mead. But I was growing and learning, and the next book I wrote was Conceived in Liberty3, which is still being published today, and that did very well. Simon & Schuster did that. But that is the only book I've ever had published by Simon & Schuster.

During this period were you able to write full-time, or were you still working?

No, no, I could not supp... Well, it's hard to say. I could not support myself by writing until after I'd got married, in 1937. And I supported myself writing articles and short stories. Novels, it was not until Freedom Road appeared that I could make enough money with a novel to support myself.

When did you get involved with the Communist Party?

Oh, if you lived in that time, if you lived in the 30s, you could not grow up in New York, grow up poor, and in the Depression, without becoming, in some sense, involved with the Communist Party. So I was, you might say, involved with the Communist Party almost since I could remember, in the sense that everyone I knew was more or less involved with the Communist Party. And this, of course, is what is so difficult for people to understand today. The generated, the carefully, artificially generated anti-Communist propaganda, which is now half a century old, has precluded any examination, any real, honest examination of those times. The first inkling of it was this picture Seeing Red, and that dealt, somewhat, with the experience of the 30s. But the accomplishments of the Communist Party in those years were incredible – forgotten today, but incredible struggles for civil rights, for trade unionism, for so many other things... So the involvement was a part of my youth, was a part of so many others...

Diane Johnson, who did a biography of Dashiell Hammett – Hammett never had too many convictions about too many things, deeply held convictions, according to Johnson – but her belief is that Hammett joined the Communist Party because he thought it was fashionable, it was the fashionable thing to do in his circle of friends at the time.

Oh, no. She is mistaken. Hammett joined the Communist Party because these were the only people he really respected, and this is why a lot of people joined the Communist Party. Hammett... Hammett was an interesting man, but also a man who never cleared his mind of alcohol. He spent most of his adult life drunk. And he was a bitter man, he grew up in this macho... a kind of macho thing that was very much a part of the 20s – because Hammett was a good deal older than I – and he came out of that as "the tough guy" – he was the tough guy. He found the only people he could really admire in terms of integrity and toughness, were the Communists. Now, he didn't join the Communist Party because it was fashionable... Fashionable? I can't imagine that it was ever fashionable.

In the 40s you turned out Citizen Tom Paine... It seems to me I read a Publisher's Weekly interview – wasn't Grove Press that was looking for a copy to reissue Citizen Tom Paine..

Which I gave to them

And couldn't find one?

That's so.

For some reason I had always thought that that book was always in print.

It was always in print in paperback. But if you're going to set up a book, you look for a hardcover book because the paperback imposes difficulties in resetting it.

So they wanted to use the book to photocopy the print.

I imagine that's what they did. I imagine they did it offset. And I gave them a book. But they had some trouble finding a hardcover book.

That was a very successful book for you, wasn't it?

Yes, I suppose that was the first really successful book. Before that I had The Last Frontier, which became quite successful, it was the choice of the Reader's Club, and I had The Unvanquished, which was quite successful too, and became a book club selection and all that. The Unvanquished, if I remember correctly, came out just as the war began. And Time magazine, in one of the last nice reviews it gave me, hailed it as "the best book yet written about World War II" – which it was not about at all, it was an historical novel about Washington.

You mentioned a moment ago that you were in a plane, flying over North Africa... What did you do during the war years?

I was a very minor correspondent. First, at the beginning of the war, I was with the Office of War Information. And I stayed with them until their operation moved overseas. And then I became a sort of correspondent for PM, Esquire, Coronet, wherever I could get to back me up a bit.

When did you go to California?

You mean the first time?

No, you were there I think, six years.

Oh, we moved there in 1970... I guess 1974. We were in Hawaii, my children were grown, we came back from Hawaii, I said, "Betty, let's stay here for awhile." So we bought a house and stayed six years!

After the war, were you living in New York?

In New York, but a lot of time in Connecticut. Our residence in Connecticut began in the 50s I think, and a lot of time in California.

Howard Fast, you were jailed in 1950. Can you tell me what happened that led to your imprisonment...

(Trying to find a whole biography, aren't you!) What happened was this. You know, if you read these Lavette books – more or less everything that happened is in there – we, as a group of people who formed the Spanish Refugee Appeal, after the Spanish Civil War. We financed a hospital in Toulouse, to take care of the families of the Spanish exiles who got across the Pyrenees, the anti-Franco exiles. That was a very good hospital – I'd been there at the time, a very good hospital, and we made a deal with the Quakers, with the Society of Friends, to operate the hospital, because they were already there doing refugee work, which they did very well. But we raised all the money here, to operate the hospital. We had a very wide appeal. Our appeal was so wide that we had contributions from Mrs. Roosevelt, from Mrs. Lehman, from right across the board, beyond what you what call "left" people to a spectrum of decent people, of people of good will. And the House Committee, the House Un-American Committee, in 1940... I believe in 1947, subpoenaed our records. The names – subpoenaed the names of every contributor. And we felt it would be a vast betrayal to do it, so we refused. And for this we went to prison. Twelve of us.

Where were you sent?

I was sent to Mill Point, West Virginia. It was a very nice Federal Prison, as prisons go.

How long were you there?

Just three months.

What was it like?

Well, prison is like prison. It's impossible to describe prison in any real sense, because the act of prison, the cruelty of prison, is that the door is locked. And no matter how horrible, or how decent the prison is, the door is locked. And when the door is locked, it means you can't get out, you can't go away. And this is the essence of prison. This has never changed, through the ages, no matter how good you make the prison. In all fairness, I must say that in line with all the contradictions America presents, the Federal prison system is unquestionably the best in the world. Extraordinary prison system. Years later, when I was writing about Barbara Lavette being punished for the same thing and sent to prison in Terminal Island in California, which is another Federal Prison, I got permission to go all through the prison. And went through the prison – it's in a beautiful place, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and the guard who was taking me through said, "How would you like to have lunch?" And I told her I'd be delighted. They took me into what could have passed as a very excellent college lunchroom, dinner room – tables for four people, prisoners sit anywhere they wanted, once they got their trays. I picked up a tray, knowing nothing was changed in advance, and there was the best meal – just about the best meal – I had ever seen institutionally. Marvelous combination of foods... but it was a prison. So this is a very interesting thing – this developed... you could go on with this for a long time, because this developed out of the theories of a remarkable man called James Bennett, who was the Federal Commissioner of Prisons at that time, and who developed this whole direction for the Federal Prison System.

Howard Fast, I'm going to have to skip ahead a little bit, or we are going to be running out of time... After you got out of prison, you found it difficult to get published. What happened?

What happened was... Remember this was the McCarthy period... But what actually happened was that Truman had released his Executive Order for Loyalty Oaths, and loyalty oaths spread across the country, and... a great deal has been written about this. We came into an era of great terror, fear, and every publisher was scared to death. My publisher was Little, Brown. J. Edgar Hoover actually sent an F.B.I. man to Little, Brown, with instructions to publish no more books by Howard Fast. As impossible as this sounds! And I had just written Spartacus, and Angus Cameron, the Vice-President and Editor-in-Chief at Little, Brown, loved the book, wrote me a glowing letter about it... said "This was the book they'd been waiting for." They had a meeting of the board, and the Directors of Little, Brown said "You don't publish Howard Fast's book," and Angus Cameron said "We do publish it!" And the result is that they forced Angus to resign as Editor-in-Chief and Vice-President. I presented the book, the manuscript, to about 11 other companies. Old Alfred Knopf, this great defender of freedom, returned it unopened, and said "I have no desire to read anything that you've written." Other people, tremendous arguments and divisions on the editorial boards, but in every case fear conquered. And a wonderful old guy who ran the Doubleday book shops, called me up after the discussion at Doubleday. It was presented to Doubleday, and he called me up and he said, "Look, those [dash-dash (I guess you don't swear on radio)] caved in under the threat of the Department of Justice, but I'll tell you what, publish it yourself, and I'll give you an initial order for 500 books. It was a wonderful thing for him to say. So I published it myself and it became a tremendous bestseller.

How did you go about doing that, publishing it yourself?

Well, everyone wanted to help me under cover. Nobody wanted to help me publicly, because then they'd incur the wrath and terror of the Justice Department. But under cover, everyone pitched in. The manufacturers sent people to show me how to manufacture, artists pitched in for the c– everyone pitched in. People did all sorts of favors for me. People distributed... so it... you know, the publishers were terrified, but at the same time, they were filled with guilt. So, it got published, and got all over the place, and then after the blacklist broke, I think it was Bantam Books, I'm pretty sure it was Bantam, made a deal for it, published it in paperback, and sold something like a million copies.

Spartacus was not your first self-publishing venture, was it?

No, it was the first. Yes.

It was... I mean it was your first but it wasn't your last.

No, I went on and lost all the money I made on Spartacus, and a lot more. You can't do it. I mean, Mark Twain proved you can't do it, a lot of other writers have proved you can't do it. No writer can afford to publish his own material.

Somewhere along the line, and although we're almost out of time I have to ask you this.. Somewhere along the line, you had to reconcile your own life as a Jew, with Zen Buddhism. Now how did this come about?

There's no reconciliation. Zen is not a religion in the sense of a Western religion. You can be a Catholic Zen Buddhist, Protestant Zen Buddhist. Zen is a way of meditating in a way of looking at life. There are no sins, there are no proscriptions, there's no dogma, there's nothing that marks Western religion. But, at the same time, it is a religion. It's... for my way of thinking, Buddhism is the only religion on earth that makes any sense, that never has given in to war, or to oppression, or to any of these things that are the substance of the lives, the history of people who've practiced other religions.

How do you apply it, Buddhism in your own life?

Well, you don't apply it in the sense, again, of a Western religion. You meditate, many people meditate, and you meditate in a certain way, which is a little different from Hindu meditation, and you change in the process. If – it's unthinkable – but if Ronald Reagan were to meditate in the Zen manner for six months, he would give up the Pentagon, he would give up his lunatic ideas about Nicaragua, he would begin the process of becoming a human being! And it's not what you do, it's a way of living that's somewhat different from the way we live here!

Howard Fast, also somewhere along the line, you repudiated Communism and you wrote a book doing that. Can you tell me why did you – you are still very much a man of the left – but why did you repudiate the Communist Party?

Well, I don't know if repudiate is the right word. I took a position and wrote about it rather extensively, that the Communist movement had lost all sight of the principles upon which the Socialist movement, throughout its rather brief history, has been based and founded. That the setting up of a dictatorship in the Soviet Union, which is not a dictatorship of the proletariat, or any such label as they like to give it, it's a dictatorship of a group of stubborn old men who refuse to look at reality, and who are so terrified, that they have lost sight of everything that Socialism or Communism stands for. But on the other hand, a Christian minister who is devout, does not give up Christianity, well, because of what... well, of what Mark Twain put best: Mark Twain said, "Christianity is a marvelous religion – the only trouble is it's never been tried." And you can say too that Communism is a marvelous idea, and its basic trouble is that it's never been tried.

Were you actually a Communist?

Well how are you actually a Communist?

Well, you hear the old, hackneyed phrase, "a card-carrying Communist". There were lot of people who believed in Communism, particularly in the 30s, but who weren't actual party members, as such.

Well, no one in those days in his right mind, carried a card saying "I am a Communist." I mean this is silly, this is television thinking. Yes, I was very close to the Communist Party, I was a part of the Communist movement, there's no question about it. And I would say that in those years, the best, the wisest, the bravest people I knew, also were. See, this is the thing that has been so obscured, because if ever the American media could admit, as they do all over Europe, that you can be a Communist and be a decent and worthy human being, then their cause against Nicaragua as well as the Soviet Union would begin to show cracks all over. And nobody wants such cracks to appear, as necessary as they are. So, yes, the answer to your question is yes, sure.

Howard Fast, a lot of the dust has died down, and I can perceive you as – I could be wrong about this, but I can perceive you as very quietly working on your novels, turning them out regularly, up in Connecticut, coming out almost every year, every other year...

I live a very quiet life.

A quiet life now, isn't that right?

A very quiet life. Well, you know at my age [70] a quiet life is almost imposed upon you. That's why Reagan has to sleep so much, and take so many vacations! I mean he's trying to pretend that he's in his 50s, but he isn't, he simply isn't. But it's been a fascinating life, I have nothing to complain of.

No regrets.

No regrets, and some achievement. I'm probably the most widely-read serious novelist of the 20th Century – I exist in 82 different languages, which is... No other writer of our time has achieved that. And I have nothing to complain about – It's as good a life as one could have at this strange time in human history.

You've written so many books you can't remember the titles!

That's true, although I think with a lot of effort I could name them all... but it would take a lot of effort.

Howard Fast, we're really out of time, but I want you just to give me a synopsis of The Outsider, which is your latest book, and just give my listeners just an idea of what this is all about...

Well, The Outsider is primarily an expression of my own witness of the fact that the great Peace Movement that has arisen in America has been led, not by workers, not by the poor, but by a compendium of religious leaders – priests, rabbis, and ministers. And I thought "This is an earth-shaking event," and I think in the future it will be regarded as such. So I wrote a book about a rabbi who had a wonderful record in World War II as a chaplain, a young man who takes a post in a tiny new synagogue, in a small Connecticut town, and who becomes the best friend and confidante of the Congregational minister in this town. And this is the story of these two men, in the 20 post-world-war years – actually in the 25 years after World War II, of their being drawn into the broad struggles against war, and of the role they played, of their marriages, of their attempt to live as good, decent human beings in a world where the quality was rather scarce, and of what they encountered, and what they met, and I think it's a rather interesting story. Certainly, for the first time in a half century of writing I have gotten reviews that go beyond simply reviews, but go into great spurts of enthusiasm and praise, quite unlike anything I have ever encountered before. And yet, I get the other kind too, in the anger at the book. So... it's hard to describe a book in brief... it's easier to say "Read the book for yourself!"

Certainly a very respectable review in the New York Times, about a week or two ago, and that was good news. And all the ones that I've seen have been good. Well, you've really lived a fascinating life and if you don't write about it yourself, you're going to have to find yourself an official biographer somewhere. You gotta do it!

Well, I hope to. Don't plan too far ahead.

We've only been talking about 35 minutes or so, and that certainly didn't do you justice in tracing your life, but I wanted to do that because I wanted to profile at least some of the highlights of what has happened to you over the years and some of the things you've done. Howard Fast, thank you very much for coming in. I've been looking forward... I've been wanting to talk with you for a long time and I'm glad I'm getting this chance. So thank you very much.

Thank you. It's been a good half hour.

And thank you.

1. Wolcott?
2. Probably Eden Philpotts [1862-1960].
3. Actually, his third book was Place in the City