September 24, 1947, p. 11
Howard Fast's New Novel 'Clarkton'
Story of Labor Struggles Today
by Howard Fast.
Duell, Sloan & Pearce, $2.75.
With his new novel Howard Fast turns to history in the making - the clash of social forces during a strike in a Massachusetts factory town at the end of 1945.
In previous works, the distinguished author of Citizen Tom Paine, Freedom Road, The American and other novels, vividly brought to life the freedom fight of the American people in the past. In Clarkton, he deals with the contemporary form of the same struggle for human rights that enlisted Paine, Gideon Jackson, Altgeld and Parsons. Thus the new book logically continues Fast's earlier work at the same time that it marks a significant transition in his career as a novelist.
Increasingly, Fast's novels have earned the wrath of the regimented critics who resent the truth about America as "propaganda." These critics will no doubt howl with rage at Clarkton. For at a time of violent Red-baiting, Fast has placed Communist characters in the center of his story and defied the stale stereotypes of a whipped-up hysteria. While Clarkton reveals a number of shortcomings as fiction, one is grateful to its author for having plunged into urgent issues of American life with a directness all to uncommon in literature today.
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The action is concentrated into a few days in the life of a one-plant town, Clarkton, with a population of around 22,000. The millionaire factory owner is George Clark Lowell, who until now has had little taste for the business he inherited five years ago from his father, a rugged enterpriser of the old school. Management of the plant has been in the hands of tough-minded Tom Wilson, whom Lowell despised and at the same time envied for his drive and sense of security. Lowell hires a couple of professional strikebreakers, and he now becomes personally implicated in the bloodshed and murder of Clarkton's labor battle.
And he degenerates as a human being. His relations grow more and more twisted with his frustrated wife Lois and his rootless, light-headed daughter Fern, recently expelled from Bennington College for an escapade. He has an unsavory affair with a factory girl, Rose Antonini, who had been the friend of his own son killed in the war.
Most interesting of Lowell's new associates is the veteran strikebreaker of the thirties, Hamilton Gelb, now a high-class "industrial consultant" who as a scientific student of his trade tries not to underestimate his opponents, especially the Communists. Gelb scorns the "old wives' tales" of Kremlin-control mouthed by his younger accomplice Frank Norman. The novel uses an interesting device in presenting the professional anti-labor agent, ironically, to undercut the official slanders of the Red-baiters - though some of Gelb's own ideas about what the Communists think are fairly weird.
The Communist characters include both workers at the mill and other citizens of the town. There is Danny Ryan, father of five, ex-Catholic who knows how to hold his ground in debate with Father O'Malley, and a dynamo in the strike. There is the Negro worker, Joey Raye, a big man who in a very effective scene gives the stool-pigeon Freddy Butler a solid piece of his mind.
Elliott Abbott, the small-town doctor who with his wife Ruth had served in Loyalist Spain, is a man of patience and understanding; he has retained his friendship with Lowell from Amherst days. Other Communists include the philosophical barber Joe Santana who can use both Dante and the New York Times as social texts; the section organizer from Springfield, Mike Sawyer; the Yankee Jewish lawyer, Max Goldstein, warmly portrayed victim of boss violence.
In presenting such characters sympathetically against the background of the strike, Fast has shown the true courage and integrity of the artist who will not be browbeaten away from reality. And he has broken the conspiracy of silence which for nearly a decade has surrounded the labor theme in American fiction.
But with all its positive qualities, Clarkton has serious weaknesses that limit its impact as a work of fiction. One feels that Fast has not in this novel permitted himself sufficient time to probe and deepen the exciting materials with which he is dealing. His sense of the urgency of this theme is understandable - one wishes more writers would share it - but he has nevertheless hurried the blow.
Tackling a large theme, Fast has projected a large number of characters and drawn them too sketchily, in rapid outline which blurs motivations and leaves certain key relationships undeveloped. For example, the friendship between Lowell and Dr. Abbott, with its strong inner contradictions, needs more patient exploration if we are fully to understand these two central figures. Rose Antonini, in the absence of any real explanation of how she feels and thinks, becomes a conventional foil for Lowell's lust, and her existence as a factory worker in this strike situation is drained of genuine meaning. The Communist organizer Mike Sawyer vaguely moves in and out of the action with an ineffectuality that seems unconvincing in view of his background.
Because the characters are given too little room to develop and come into conflict, the novel does not achieve the tension implicit in its materials.
In dwelling on the Communists in the strike situation, a positive feature of the novel, Fast has at the same time oversimplified the relation of this small group to the 5,000 workers in the plant, whose only real representative in the novel, outside the Communists is the labor leader Noska. The organic relation between the mass of workers and the members of this mass who are Communists - a key problem in a novel dealing with this theme - is only partly solved here.
These are some of the shortcoming in a novel which, while it does not have the stature of Howard Fast's best books, significantly heralds his entry as a novelist into the arena of the contemporary. He has defied the critics who were ready to ticket him as the novelist of a genre, the historic novel. In Clarkton, Fast is breaking new ground, and not only for himself but for other writers as well.