Howard Fast, Best-Selling Novelist, Dies at 88

Jim Farmelant farmelantj at
Thu Mar 13 05:50:27 MST 2003

Howard Fast, Best-Selling Novelist, Dies at 88

March 13, 2003

Howard Fast, whose best-selling historical fiction often
featured the themes of freedom and human rights, elements
in his own tumultuous political journey through the
blacklisting of the 1950's, died yesterday at his home in
Old Greenwich, Conn. He was 88.

Mr. Fast was one of the 20th century's busiest writers,
turning out more than 80 books - plus short stories,
journalism, screenplays and poetry - in a career that began
in the early 1930's.

With novels like "Citizen Tom Paine" (1943), "Freedom Road"
(1944) and "Spartacus" (1953), Mr. Fast won popular acclaim
for authenticity and detail, creating stories that even his
critics admired as page-turners.

Mr. Fast's fiction was always didactic to a degree, opposed
to modernism, engaged in social struggle and insistent on
taking sides and teaching lessons of life's moral
significance, and he liked it that way.

"Since I believe that a person's philosophical point of
view has little meaning if it is not matched by being and
action, I found myself willingly wed to an endless series
of unpopular causes, experiences which I feel enriched my
writing as much as they depleted other aspects of my life,"
he said in a 1972 interview.

Despite the international popularity of historical novels
like "Paine," which glorified the professional
revolutionary, and the huge commercial success that Mr.
Fast's well-paced narratives achieved, his work tended to
succeed or fail as art to the extent that he distanced
himself from ideology.

At his best, in a novel like "The Last Frontier" (1941),
about the flight in 1878 of the Cheyenne Indians to their
Powder River home in Wyoming, he achieved powerful effects
through imaginative objectivity. At his less successful, in
novels like "Clarkton" (1947), about a textile-mill strike,
and "Silas Timberman" (1954), about an academic victim of
McCarthyism, he was sometimes faulted as being drawn toward
propagandistic sentimentality.

His output was slowed but not entirely interrupted by the
blacklisting he endured in the 1950's after it became known
that he had been a member of the Communist Party and then
refused to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities
Committee. He served three months in a federal prison in
1950 for contempt of Congress, a charge arising from his
refusal to produce the records of the Joint Anti-Fascist
Refugee Committee.

Mr. Fast joined the party in 1943, a decision he often said
was made at least in part because of the poverty he
experienced as a child growing up in Upper Manhattan. He
left the party in 1956, disillusioned by the Soviet Union's
own stunning revelations of Stalin's terror and the spread
of anti-Semitism there.

He wrote a book about his political experiences, "The Naked
God" (1957). "I was part of a generation that believed in
socialism and finally found that belief corroded and
destroyed," he said in an interview in 1981. "That is not
renouncing Communism or socialism. It's reaching a certain
degree of enlightenment about what the Soviet Union
practices. To be dogmatic about a cause you believe in at
the age of 20 or 30 is not unusual. But to be dogmatic at
age 55 or 60 shows a lack of any learning capacity."

Howard Melvin Fast was born Nov. 11, 1914, in Manhattan,
one of four children of a working-class couple. His father,
Barney, was first an ironworker, then a cable-car
conductor, then a garment worker. His mother, Ida, died
when he was a child. He often worked part-time jobs to help
make ends meet, and graduated from George Washington High

He sold his first story to Amazing Stories magazine when he
was 17. The next year he sold his first novel, a historical
romance called "Two Villages," to the Dial Press for a $100

In 1939, after he had published two more books, Simon &
Schuster published "Conceived in Liberty," a novel about
Valley Forge, which has sold about a million copies and has
been translated into more than a dozen languages. That was
followed by "The Last Frontier" and then "The Unvanquished"
(1942), about George Washington during the bleakest months
of the Revolution. The critic Carl Van Doren said "The
Unvanquished" was "the next thing to having been on the
scene at the time."

But Mr. Fast's breakthrough came in 1943 with "Citizen Tom
Paine," which the playwright Elmer Rice called, in a highly
favorable front-page review in The New York Times Book
Review, "a vivid portrait of one of the most extraordinary
figures of the 18th century."

Many critics and historians agreed that the book played a
significant role in restoring the reputation of Paine, the
pamphleteer who had been "greatly neglected and greatly
misunderstood," Rice wrote, "the victim both of a
conspiracy of silence and of a campaign of calumny."

In 1944 came the best-selling "Freedom Road," about a
former slave in the post-Civil War South who becomes a
United States senator and then fights for his life against
the Ku Klux Klan. In 1979 "Freedom Road" was made into a
television mini-series starring Muhammad Ali and Kris

>From the start, Mr. Fast said, "Freedom Road" was more than
a book with a black as the central character. "Its
viewpoint," he said, "was considered a shocking one for
either popular fiction or for history. In it, the
Reconstruction was seen as a time of black renaissance. The
carpetbaggers were not raping the South, as in the then
popularly held view, but were helping the blacks to
education and economic achievement."

During those years, Mr. Fast won the Stalin International
Peace Prize, in 1953, and "Spartacus," about a slave revolt
in ancient Rome, was published. Because of the blacklist,
the manuscript went from publisher to publisher without
success. Finally, a Doubleday executive said that Mr. Fast
should publish it himself but that Doubleday would order
600 copies for its bookstores. It became a best seller.

The stigma of the blacklist gradually faded after Mr.
Fast's repudiation of Communism. "Spartacus" was reprinted
as a paperback and in 1960 was made into a successful movie
starring Kirk Douglas. Many other successful novels
followed, including "April Morning" (1961) and a
best-selling multigenerational saga of the Lavette family
that began with "The Immigrants" (1977) and included
"Second Generation" (1978), "The Establishment" (1979) and
"The Legacy" (1981).

Mr. Fast's first wife, the former Bette Cohen, died in
1994. He is survived by their children, the novelist
Jonathan Fast of Greenwich and Rachel Ben Avi of Sarasota,
Fla., and three grandchildren. He is also survived by his
second wife, Mercedes O'Connor, whom he married in 1999,
and by her three sons, Connor Denis, of Old Greenwich,
Augustus Denis, of New Orleans, and James Denis, of Old

Mr. Fast also wrote a popular series of detective stories
under the name E. V. Cunningham. His hero was a nisei
detective, Masao Masuto, a member of the Beverly Hills
police force. Masuto was a Zen Buddhist, and Mr. Fast
himself was very much involved in Zen, "as a form of
meditation and a very nice way of looking at the world," as
he put it.

Mr. Fast continued to write into his 80's. His last novel,
"Greenwich," a story of a high-society dinner party in
Greenwich, Conn., and an exploration of guilt and
redemption in American society, was published in 2000.

"The only thing that infuriates me," he once commented, "is
that I have more unwritten stories in me than I can
conceivably write in a lifetime."

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company

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