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Chicago Sun Times, Sunday, February 22, 1987, p.27

A 54-year career

The Fast way to prolific, populist prose


NEW YORK – For more then 50 years, Howard Fast has combined the creation of a steady stream of popular novels with passionate political activism. Beginning with his first book in 1933, when he was only 19, Fast has written more than 50 novels, including such best sellers as Citizen Tom Paine and Freedom Rood in the 1940s, Spartacus in the '50s, the recent five-volume Lavette family series (The Immigrants, Second Generation, The Establishment, The Legacy and The Immigrant's Daughter) and a group of murder mysteries under the pseudonym E. V. Cunningham.

The subjects of his novels – the difficult assimilation of immigrants into American society, the painful years of Reconstruction and especially the American Revolution, about which he has written repeatedly – reflect Fast's fascination with the social and political movements that have shaped our nation

His new novel, The Dinner Party (Houghton Mifflin, $17 .95), continues that trend. Within the story of 24 hours in the life of a fictional U. S. senator and his family, Fast tackles such real life issues as the controversial trial of a group of religious workers who gave sanctuary to Central American refugees and the ongoing tragedy of young men afflicted with AIDS.

Fast himself has participated in many major social struggles. A Marxist in the '30s and '40s, he went to jail in 1950 for refusing to testify to the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Although disillusioned with the Communist Party in the '50s, he has remained active in left wing causes. Today, deeply opposed to war of any kind, he is committed to the effort to rid the world of nuclear weapons which he considers "the great problem – everything else can be fixed."

In the warmer months, Fast and his wife, Bette, live in rural Connecticut, and in the winter on Fifth Ave. in New York City. He is a trim man in his early 70s whose soft spoken demeanor belies the controversy his life and works have sometimes aroused. He proudly points out sculptures by Bette Fast that decorate the room, which also boasts handsome antique American furniture – one of the rewards of a half century of bestsellerdom.

There may be a few authors who sell more books than Fast, but probably none who have been as consistently popular with both American and foreign readers for so many years. "Why this should be so I don't know," he says. "To a point it must be because I entertain people. But I think it's more than that: People have a desperate need to believe that there are some decent people in the world, and I write about decent people. Very few writers do nowadays.

"Also, although I almost never speak about it, I'm very religious (Fast is a practicing Buddhist), and my books are essentially religious books that cling to a faith in human beings and their destiny. And I think in this country most people are still deeply religious, and while this feeling can be turned to the most vicious purposes – such as by our friends the TV preachers – on the other hand the churches of America were instrumental in organizing to end the war in Vietnam, and today the great Peace center for the United State is the Cathedral of St. John the Divine."

Although Fast feels that he touches a chord in people simply by expressing his emotions – "it's a matter of instinct, of saying to yourself, 'The way I feel is the way the human race feels'" – he realizes that many people who enjoy his books don't share his opinions "I was at a dinner party with William Buckley and his wife Pat, and she was telling me she'd read everything I wrote. I said, 'How can you read what I write when everything I believe in is the total opposite of what you believe in?' She said, 'Oh, I don't care about that; I love your books.'"

The combination of literary popularity and political ostracism is not new to Fast. Spartacus sold almost 50,000 copies in hardcover, but it had to be printed and distributed by the author when his publisher dropped him, apparently in response to pressure from the FBI. Fast is philosophical about the difficulties he suffered in the 1950s: "It was an ugly time in every way. For a while [Sen. Joseph] McCarthy and the people around him were running the whole show; you had to wait things out, be patient But eventually the wheel turns and the people reassert themselves."

His deep love of history given Fast a sense of perspective. "It's a way of extending your life backwards, to go right back to the beginning of time. You can't think ahead, because nobody knows what's going to happen tomorrow, but you can think back. We think of our own lives as far back as we can remember, and the study of history extends that. Of course, history is also for the most part the study of crazy people who vie against each other in the process of killing, but that, too, is fascinating."

Not only do Fast's many historical novels vividly evoke the sights and sounds and even the smells of the past, they also invite the reader's sympathy and understanding for the political passions of bygone centuries. A famous New Yorker cartoon, published after Fast's books were banned from school libraries, showed a schoolboy sneaking a look at Citizen Tom Paine behind the cover of an American history textbook.

His two favorite books are April Morning and The Hessian, both set during the American Revolution. "April Morning came about because I was visiting Sturbridge Village and bought a facsimile of the newspaper that was printed in Worcester, Mass., the day after the battle of Concord and Lexington. While I was driving back to New York my wife read it to me, and we found ourselves in tears just from listening to the accounts of these men in the newspaper, because they were different from any history I had ever read. I decided to write the story of that day just from the newspaper. I never opened a book. Everything that went into the story came out of the newspaper, so it put a totally different slant on everything." The book continues to be used as a textbook.

About The Hessian Fast says simply, "Once in your lifetime you're given the right to do a perfect book. It's the one thing I've ever done that came out exactly as I dreamed it should."

For a while, Fast enjoyed expressing his antiwar convictions in a newspaper column. "It was for the local newspaper in Greenwich Conn., which means the wealthiest audience in the world. It was way over to the left of Gorbachev, saying everything I wanted to say, and the people there loved it – they were rich enough not to be bothered by it. But I found I couldn't do anything else, because I spent the whole week figuring out what I was going to write in the column.

"I always work that way; I have to put things together in my head for a long time before I sit down and write them. I'm putting together a couple of things now, but I'm not to the point where I can outline it and know where I'm going. Writing is easy, but figuring it out is very hard."

Yet he's been so prolific, his interviewer points out. "That's because I'm old, darling," he replies, laughing. "You can do a lot over 50 years! And yet it's not enough, because to learn an art properly is more than a lifetime. Do you know what Shaw said? We get old too quick and smart too slow."