The Heavy Hand of Politics and the Historical Novels of Howard Fast


Gerald Sorin, Distinguished University Professor of American and Jewish Studies, and Director, Louis and Mildred Resnick Institute for the Study of Modern Jewish Life at the State University of New York New Paltz, is the author of the recently published book, "Howard Fast: Life and Literature in the Left Lane" (Indiana, 2012) now available in hardback, kindle, nook, and e-book.

Howard Fast, resilient, resourceful, and inexhaustible, endured unpromising beginnings as a poor orphan in Jewish immigrant New York and went on to become a prolific writer of significant renown. Between 1932, when he was 18, and the year 2000, he produced more than 80 works, including dozens of historical novels, several selling in the tens of millions of copies. Conceived in Liberty (1939) and The Unvanquished (1942), both of which depict George Washington in humanist but reverential terms; Citizen Tom Paine (1943), a fictionalized biography of the most radical of the founding fathers; Freedom Road, a mostly invented but inspiring story about former slaves during Reconstruction, My Glorious Brothers (1948), a novelized history of the Maccabean revolt in ancient Israel; and Spartacus (1951), an epic retelling of a legendary slave uprising, were among Fast’s most significant contributions, helping to shape public consciousness about important historical episodes.

Fast was well on his to fame and wealth when he joined the American Communist Party (CP). His motives were exceedingly complex. Here, however, I want only to provide some examples of how and why Fast's writing degenerated and his reputation as America's “next really important historical novelist,” went into rapid decline after his having become a Communist.

That decline was not a function of the anti-Communist bias of American readers, nor was it the result of Fast's newly adopted Marxism which actually helped move him toward the tough-minded historically credible fiction he published between 1939 and 1944. It was only after Fast's Marxist perspective hardened into Party orthodoxy and apologetics for the Soviet Union that his writing suffered and his literary reputation began to slide.

Fast thought he 'd be able to remain an autonomous writer of historical novels while a member of the CP. He was wrong. Almost immediately he began to feel as if at his typewriter, he was encircled by a group of sharp-eyed censors on the look-out for "political incorrectness." The pressure on Fast, as on other writers was to follow "the Party line," to work in the interest of the proletariat; to use art primarily as a weapon in the service of "the Revolution." The negative reaction to Fast's Freedom Road, completed in 1944 near the very beginning of his tenure in the CP, and his pliant response to the criticisms of the Party's Cultural Section are a case in point.

The "literary commissars" determined that the entire interpretive thrust of Freedom Road was in conflict with several arcane and ever-changing Party policies about blacks. These "deviations" and Fast's "error" in using the "N" word throughout the novel, were grave enough to warrant "disciplinary action." But Fast promised to mend his ways, and was soon convinced that literature and politics were inextricably intertwined, and that as a writer, he must produce work in support of a particular political and social ideology. The result: most of the historical novels Fast wrote while in the Party, constituting the bulk of his literary output for more than a decade, including The American (1946), Clarkton (1947), The Proud and the Free (1951), and The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti (1953), were by his own later admission, sophomoric and painful to read. Indeed, in the late 1940s and 1950s, with the exception of some sections of My Glorious Brothers and Spartacus, Fast's work was one-dimensional, and fatally flawed by dogma. Little of it equaled the literary quality or popular appeal of the four or five minor classics of historical fiction Fast had written in his pre-Party period, nor did any of it equal the quality of his post-Party historical novels about the American Revolution such as the award-winning April Morning (1961) or The Hessian (1972).

In The Proud and the Free for example, Fast had argued that in the aftermath of their mutiny, the common soldiers of the Pennsylvania Line, an allegedly foreign brigade in the War for Independence, came to see that going beyond the bourgeois democratic revolution would put them in unchartered territory; therefore, the worker and farmer soldiers backed away from their efforts to take the revolutionary process further, and united with the merchant and planter classes to preserve what had already been won. The intra-Party squabbles elicited by his interpretation was far less important than Fast's conscious distortion of the historical sources. There were no purely foreign brigades of common soldiers on the Pennsylvania Line. As historian Carl Van Doren's Mutiny in January had earlier shown, all units included significant numbers of indigenous Americans. Nor did Van Doren claim as Fast did that class-conscious soldiers ever contemplated an attempt at revolution within the Revolution.

In reply to his critics, left and right, Fast put himself into a almost indefensible position by claiming, oddly, that the “little-known narrative I have told through [a] soldier in the Continental Army, would hardly be... justified... if it were an invention." But the quality of historical novels inhere precisely in their authors' ability to invent, to exercise their creative imaginations, and to build alternative stories on a nucleus of actual incident. Fast insisted that in The Proud and the Free, as in his other historical novels, he had adhered closely to the facts, and invented people and events only when necessary to present a coherent narrative. It is in Fast's desire to be taken seriously as a novelist and a historian (not an impossible synthesis) that one of his problems as a writer lies. Had he believed with Andre Gide that "fiction is history that might have taken place" and made clear that he was exercising literary license to stimulate thinking about what might be possible in human affairs, Fast would have been on safer ground. But he opened himself to attack by refusing to say as many fiction writers do, that it is necessary to "lie" in order to tell "larger truths." And so he was forced to defend himself by unsuccessfully flailing around in the historical literature.

Fast's present-mindedness and ideological proclivities also damaged Spartacus, his most famous historical novel. While writing the book, Fast was focused on what he called the "wonderful continuity between that first class war, " the largest slave rebellion in Western history, "and all the times that followed." Fast's political goal was clear from his epigraph: "I wrote [Spartacus] so that those who read it.. may take strength for our own troubled future and that they may struggle against oppression and wrong -- so that the dream of Spartacus may come to be in our own time." For Fast, Ancient Rome with its slaves and "factory workers," was a capitalist society, and like the United States, an unjust imperial society in the last stages of decay.

Fast imagines the slave uprising as a war of grossly exploited, but unfailingly noble and heroic, "proletarians" against a decadent, debauched, brutal, and seemingly unredeemable ruling class of patricians, plebeian-gangster politicians, and lawyers from the "money-grubbing middle-class." Other anachronisms seriously mar Spartacus, including references to "capitalists," "enemies of the state," and direct allusions to Marx such as "To the slaves of the world we will cry out, Rise up and cast off your chains."

The book was read by millions who no doubt recognized the misery of chattel slavery. But those readers were unlikely to see the story as Fast intended -- a parable "illuminating" the "class struggles" of the mid-twentieth century. Nor would they have gained much substantive understanding of Roman society. The narrative was often forceful, fast- moving and entertaining, but it taught little history. Indeed, eight years before the book became a film, left-liberal writer and critic Harvey Swados rather presciently called Spartacus, with its spectacular grand-scale entertainments, a popular "epic in technicolor "; and he saw the behavior of Fast's heroes and heroines, as what "we have come to expect from the movie[s]." By 1951, after eight years as a member of the Communist Party, Fast's conception of history, Swados said, with substantial accuracy, is free of nuance and subtlety and "not very different from Cecile B. DeMille's."

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