Howard Fast: Two Memoirs, One Life

Being Red (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1990), Howard Fast’s account of his association with the Communist Party USA, of which he was a member from 1943 until 1956, is a valuable addition to the growing list of memoirs and historical studies about the CPUSA. Unfortunately, in Being Red Fast was unable to separate his profession as a novelist from his less familiar role as memoirist. The tendentiousness of Being Red is made clear once its content is compared with The Naked God: The Writer and the Communist Party (New York: Praeger, 1957), a memoir that covers much of the same material, but from a very different perspective and for a very different purpose.

Fast was an exceptionally prolific writer: He published more than 80 books, including 50 novels, ten plays, and 20 nonfiction books. Worldwide sales of his novels have exceeded 80 million. His writings have been translated into 82 languages and many observers—including Fast—have insisted that he may be the most widely read writer of the 20th century.

In Being Red, Fast presents vivid and often touching descriptions of his early life, a life which could logically lead a thinking person toward the Communist movement. He ascribed his “sense of identity with the poor and oppressed of all the earth” to his working-class father, a Jewish immigrant from the Ukraine. Howard and his brothers grew up in extreme poverty; they sensed they could only overcome this disadvantage through their own cooperative efforts. This likely led him to believe in the possibilities of collaboration among the oppressed.

While still a member, the CPUSA and indeed the world Communist movement lionized Fast. The protagonists of his popular historical novels – a radical craftsman, in Citizen Tom Paine; a progressive political leader of immigrant origins, in The American; the common foot soldiers at Valley Forge, in The Unvanquished; newly freed slaves, in Freedom Road; Native Americans, in The Last Frontier; and rebellious gladiators from the oppressed classes, in Spartacus – dramatized the class struggle, which with all its tragic setbacks somehow foreshadowing ultimate victory. He is remembered as the writer who refitted the genre of the historical novel to the requirements of Popular Front culture. The themes of his works – the accomplishment and destruction of Radical Reconstruction (Freedom Road); the steadfast support of the common people for the American Revolution (The Unvanquished); the neglected giant of the American Revolution (Citizen Tom Paine); Governor John Peter Altgeld’s issuing of writs of clemency for the three Haymarket Martyrs (The American) – encapsulated the Party’s General Secretary Earl Browder’s understanding that if Communism was to become twentieth-century Americanism it had to have historical antecedents. Fast was a major figure in the Party’s remarkable enterprise of encouraging the creation of a complex and almost complete popular “progressive” American culture. It was during this period that the vast circulation of Fast’s books occurred.

As a result of Fast’s celebrity and his ability to translate the Party’s general outlook into literature, the Party enshrined him, along with Paul Robeson and W.E.B. Du Bois, on the highest pedestal in its pantheon of intellectuals. Fast’s Communist Party status also entailed international recognition. In December 1949, when he traveled to the World Peace Conference in Paris, Fast remembered entering “a world where Communists were honored, not hunted down and imprisoned.” Concretely this meant: Fast sat on the stage next to Louis Aragon; Pablo Picasso kissed him on the mouth and offered him any painting he chose; later, Pablo Neruda would write a poem to him. In 1954, Fast received the Stalin Peace Prize.

It would be entirely unfair, however, to portray Howard Fast as a Red Mandarin. In 1949, Fast emceed a Paul Robeson concert at a campground near Peekskill, New York, sponsored by the Civil Rights Congress. In what Fast would later describe as “the opening shot of American fascism,” mobs of rock-hurling youths screaming “Kill a Commie for Christ” prevented the event from happening. One week later, 15,000 Leftists attended the rescheduled concert, protected by 3,000 Red trade unionists, many of whom had fought in Spain and in larger numbers in World War II. After a memorably successful concert, many of the concert-goers incurred severe injuries when mobs (mobilized by veterans’ and Catholic groups) attacked their cars and buses, which had been routed by police through narrow back roads. While interviewing an elderly woman who had been present at the ill-fated concert, I mentioned that I was writing this review. With great vehemence she said: “Don’t you go and say anything bad about Howard Fast. I saw him in Peekskill with a Coke bottle in each hand fighting back.” Fast took on any number of less heroic Party assignments. He wrote Party-published pamphlets on topics ranging from telling the story of the Peekskill concert to promoting the reelection of Vito Marcantonio; served as editor of The Daily Worker from 1952 to 1954, when the paper’s circulation and influence were in precipitous decline; and ran on the American Labor ticket for a Congressional seat in the East Bronx during the height of the Korean War in 1952.

McCarthyism visited on Howard Fast every conceivable punishment it had devised to persecute and obliterate the Communist movement. In April 1946, the House Committee on Un-American Activities demanded the names of the 30,000 donors to the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee, an organization supporting Spanish Republican refugees living in Southern France. Fast and fifteen other members of the organization’s Executive Board (which Fast tells us, at various times, included Eleanor Roosevelt, José Ferrer, Ruth Gordon, Stella Adler, Leonard Bernstein, Van Wyck Brooks, Mark Van Doren, and Lucille Ball) refused to cooperate with the Congressional inquisition. They became the first in a long line of a distinguished Americans punished for refusing to cooperate when by a lopsided vote of 262 to 56, the House voted to cite them for contempt. In 1950, after the Supreme Court refused to issue a writ of certiorari, Fast and ten other members of the executive board were imprisoned for three months. While in jail, he began writing his most famous novel, Spartacus, the story of a slave rebel leader in the Roman Empire.

As the anti-Communist repression intensified, Fast was subjected to increasingly damaging attacks. In 1949 Citizen Tom Paine was removed from New York City’s libraries. Fast was barred from speaking at City College and many other campuses. He was under constant surveillance by the FBI (his file ultimately reached 1100 pages), and he was refused a passport until 1961 (five years after he resigned from the Party). Publisher after publisher (Little Brown, Viking, Scribner’s, Harper, Knopf, Simon & Schuster, Doubleday) rejected Spartacus. When Spartacus was finally published privately in 1951, it ultimately sold 50,000 copies. Ironically, the most significant literary event in Fast’s career after leaving the Party was his 1960 collaboration with Dalton Trumbo (one of the Hollywood Ten) on the screenplay for Spartacus, which represented a major breakthrough in overcoming the Hollywood blacklisting.

Being Red describes Fast’s membership in the Party as the best years of his life. “I don’t know anything in life so satisfying and nourishing as the sense that you are doing what you were put on earth to do, fighting for things you believe, for the poor, the oppressed and against racism. It gives one a feeling of being, of consciousness, and connection.” In this new work, he insisted that the Party was not dominated by the Soviet Union and, in any case, that it was “Russia [which] had paid a price of twenty-million human lives to destroy the Nazis… and moved three million Polish and Ukrainian Jews eastward beyond the reach of the Nazis.” He also stated that the Daily Worker never compromised with the truth as it saw the truth....” Repeatedly, he returned to the theme that the Communists were “priests in the brotherhood of man. When I joined the Communist Party, I joined the company of the good.” Fast also reminded the reader that the Party was the group which best knew how to conduct the anti-Fascist struggle, and that they “fought and often enough died for black freedom.” He spoke of the renowned artists and writers who joined its ranks, including Sherwood Anderson who has not been so identified elsewhere. He also recalls the Party’s leading role in the organization of the Progressive Party in 1948. This is what Fast remembered finding in the Party. Without ever mentioning The Naked God, in Being Red Fast refuted the damning criticisms of the Party he made in the earlier memoir.

Unfortunately, Fast’s need to justify and glorify his past prevented him from accurately recording a number of critical events in Being Red. Most egregious is his fictitious account of an incident at the 1949World Peace Conference in Paris. Fast reported he carried instructions given him by Paul Novick, leader of the Jewish Commission of the Party, from the Central Committee of the Communist Party, USA. Fast claims he was instructed to inform the head of the Soviet delegation that the CPUSA was bringing charges against the Communist Party of the USSR because of anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union! Even a faulty memory for events from long ago cannot excuse his telling this far-fetched tale. The implausibility of this story is total. Nowhere in the public record is there any instance of the CPUSA criticizing any aspect of Soviet policy, much less “levying charges” against its Communist Party. Moreover, none of the many memoirs of or interviews with Party or ex-Party leaders has ever corroborated Fast’s purported mission. One feels compelled to believe, that consciously or unconsciously, Fast concocted this story as a means of exculpating himself for complicity from anti-Jewish acts being committed at that time in the Soviet Union. Even more significantly, Fast himself never mentioned this episode in his earlier memoir, The Naked God; in fact, in Being Red, Fast never acknowledged The Naked God’s existence. Indeed, he even omitted it from “Books by Howard Fast,” listed in Being Red’s front matter. Clearly, The Naked God is something Fast wanted to forget, and amazingly the reviewers of Being Red have allowed it to be forgotten.

Being Red is the autobiography of an eighty-five-year old man (he died in 2003 at the age of eight-eight), who wanted to be remembered as a man of the Left. After all, everything that happened to him before joining the Communist Party seemed to lead to that decision and his fame and feelings of self-worth were at their height while he was a Party member. After resigning from the Communist Party, Fast never again attained the status of an important American writer. It was not until 1977 that Fast found a new audience and a new identity with the publication for The Immigrants, the first in a highly successful series that has been characterized as a San Francisco family saga. One critic noted: “I’m sure [The Immigrants] has some overriding social purpose, but happily it never gets in front of the relentless pace of events. In short, you can enjoy this book without a thought in your head....” Concurrently with the publication of Being Red, Fast reestablished his connections with the Left by becoming a columnist for the New York Observer, writing trenchant and militant critiques from a strongly left perspective. Fast realized that drawing attention to The Naked God would not contribute to his efforts at self-rehabilitation as a leftist.

The Naked God had served as a questionable passport for Fast to gain re-entry into the commercial publishing world. Its account of many events greatly contrasts with those in Being Red, which was a document designed to ensure his re-entry into the ranks of brave once-young artists who risked so much for what they could reasonably have believed was a great cause. The Naked God stated that communism was based on “naked terror, awful brutality, and frightening ignorance.” It goes on to say that the evil Communism did “was to accept the degradation of our own soul,” and that in joining the Party “one sells his own soul.” At the same time, the book underplays Fast’s own persecution by the United States government. To be sure, The Naked God also contains glowing descriptions of Party members: “Never in so small a group have I seen so many pure souls, so many gentle and good people. So many men and women of utter integrity.” In stark contrast to this description is The Naked God’s leitmotif is that the CP was an “oriental temple of organization [led by a] dogma-ridden priesthood....” Although all his best work was written during his Party years, Fast wrote about the Party’s destruction of his muse, claiming he had to leave the Party in order to become a better writer.

Fast’s resignation from the Party was announced in a front-page New York Times interview with the avidly anti-Soviet reporter, Harry Schwartz. And while there is no record that Fast ever named names, Natalie Robins reports in Alien Ink: The FBI’s War on Freedom of Expression that Fast’s FBI file indicates he contacted the FBI to report that his just completed book would assist the anti-Communist cause; he also gave its agents a set of galleys.

After the publication of The Naked God, intellectuals remaining within and close to the Communist Party filled the pages of Mainstream, the Party’s cultural journal, with angry and sad comments. Walter Lowenfels, perhaps the best poet remaining in the Part’s ranks, queried: “Where are your wound stripes? Your torn and battered uniform? Your badge in the fight for the clean word?... I expected a battle-scarred front-line dispatch from you. Instead, you give us a political report on the Russian situation. What I was expecting was not your farewell to Russia but your salute to the people of the U.S.A.” However, it was Joseph Starobin, a New York City York City-based Party leader, who drew the most blood. He depicted Fast as the Party’s Frankenstein: In the CP Fast found adulation.... And he reveled in what he should have resisted.... For Howard became in the CP the oracle on every issue from Negro rights to socialist realism… he headed every conceivable committee, took the floor each time without saying too much, refused the pleas of his best editors to revise his first drafts, published the best novel of the year every year… But throughout it all he neither grew as a writer nor gained wisdom as a man.... [He lived] in a Left which had lost all sense of proportion about Howard Fast.

It is understandable that Fast had wanted to forget all this, but Being Red is finally only as important as it is accurate. It would seem that Fast invented his mission to the 1949 Paris Conference, in order to bury the memory of his uncritical support of a movement, which at that time glorified a régime seemingly determined on obliterating Yiddish culture. Similarly, in Being Red Fast accused Morris U. Schappes, the editor of Jewish Currents, a monthly with attenuated roots in the Communist Party, of having threatened to bring him up for expulsion from the Party on charges of “Jewish nationalism” because of the publication of My Glorious Brothers, a novel about the Maccabees. Schappes refuted Fast’s allegations. The veracity of Fast’s version of this incident is undercut by his failure to mention it in The Naked God; there he never connected Schappes to this report of a threatened expulsion. In a somewhat similar way, Angus Cameron denied the story that he had resigned as editor-in-chief and long-time vice president of Little, Brown in protest against its refusal to publish Spartacus. Cameron exposed Fast’s narcissism by pointing out that the question of Spartacus was only peripheral to his decision, which was prompted more by the general retreat of the company acquiesced to the blacklisting of Left authors generally.

Despite these serious weaknesses, Being Red deserves wide attention. Fast’s account of his Dickensian childhood is memorable. It helps the reader to understand the attractions of the Communist Party in the 1930s and 40s, as well as its many accomplishments. More immediately, the injuries of Fast’s childhood may explain the neediness of his personality. Being Red has lasting importance for its documentation of the as yet not fully acknowledged depredations of what has become known as the McCarthy Era. Unfortunately, Being Red fails as autobiography, because Fast chose self-aggrandizement and evasion over the truth. There remains a discontinuity, which must always be unexplained as long as it is unacknowledged.

--An earlier version of this essay was published in Science & Society (Spring 1993): pp. 86-91.