Howard Fast on Spartacus
in Being Red
... However, without that prison term, I never would have written Spartacus, a book I began to brood over during that time at Mill Point, where I began more deeply than ever before to comprehend the full agony and hopelessness of the underclass. ... 
...yet there in prison I began to think of Spartacus the slave ... I read every scrap and thread of information about Spartacus that I could find in that small prison library. I read whatever there was about Rome precious little. I had been reading in ancient history for years, so I had a foundation there; but it was not until I got home that I began to read, from cover to cover I had read much of it before the wonderful two-volume history of the ancient working people, titled The Ancient Lowly, originally written in 1888 and, in the edition I have, republished in 1907 by Charles H. Kerr and Company in Chicago. The two books amount to a thousand-page history of slavery in ancient times ...
There, in these two books, I found the story of Spartacus and became convinced that there was a way to tell it so that it could at least approximate the truth. The truth of history is always lost; indeed, the truth of each day we live through is almost beyond recognition, and that old adage that the rich man's patriotism is the poor man's treason applies to most of our living; and the best a historical novelist can do is to find a sense of the time he writes about and convey it to the reader.
My own problems were manifold. There was ancient Rome how much could I read to give me a valid sense of it? My pickup education included no Latin. The poet Walter Lowenfels, a close friend, had a sister who taught Latin in a New York high school; I became her endured nuisance, demanding an instantaneous knowledge of Latin. Morning, noon, and night, I lived in ancient Rome. And finally I began to write, change, rewrite. ... [276-77]
I continued to work on Spartacus. It was not easy, and what made it very difficult was that I was denied a passport and could not go to Italy. There were dozens of situations as the story progressed that I wanted to check out personally, and years later I prowled through the ruins of Pompeii again and again, seeing what I should have seen when I wrote Spartacus. ... I studied Latin furiously. I spent hours with classical encyclopedias and I used whatever knowledge I could pluck out of others. I had, in one instance, Varinia the wife of Spartacus sing a lullaby to her baby, and I prodded Louis Untermeyer to give me the proper meter for the period. He told me to use the six-stress rhythm used in the ancient epics, but because it happened to be the same meter that Longfellow had used for Evangeline, a reviewer snottily condemned me for my ignorance, which in fact showed his ignorance. Somehow, the book was written, the story put down on paper, and for a second time, I told the story of a slave. The first time, it was the account of Gideon Jackson in Freedom Road, and now it was Spartacus. Strangely, both books sold millions of copies in the Third World and there has never been a year of my life since then when I have not had a request for a reprinting of Spartacus.
I finished the manuscript, read it and reread it, and then sent it off with whatever corrections I felt necessary to Angus Cameron of Little, Brown, which had published two of my novels and a book of short stories. That was at the beginning of June 1951, and a few weeks later Angus sent me the following report, part of which follows:
I haven't the slightest doubt but that if this novel had any other name on it than that of Howard Fast, it would become a best seller. It is endlessly engaging, most ingeniously put together, and, all in all, an entertaining and meaningful novel about Spartacus and the slave revolt he led. As a character, the slave leader never enters the story directly and the skill of the novel lies in the author's ability to make him not only a real man to the reader and to the other characters in the story but the epitome of the underdog with the courage to struggle for the truth in any society and at any time ...
The novel has suspense, excellent characterizations, a feeling of the times, and a profound comment on those times and, indeed, on any time of crisis. Fast, however, does not draw any analogies. As I say, without his name attached to it I am sure it would sell as a fine novel of the end of the Republic.
It is a novel we can publish with pride and with the gamble that it will do better than The Proud and the Free. This novel has more motion, more variety, more sex (a plenty of that both pure and profane), better drawn and more varied characters, and more maturity and meaningful comment.
This is a fine novel. [all here]
This above is a portion of the in-house report Angus Cameron sent to me. I quote it because it bears directly upon what followed a story of a book and its fate, unprecedented in all the literary history of this country. With the above report, Angus sent me a personal letter. Here is the first paragraph.
After I had written this report, I decided that I would send it along to you unedited. It tells briefly what I think of the book. It does not attempt to say all the things I feel about it and it does not do justice, really, to my admiration for the skillful technique of the telling. It shows the sure hand of a real artist, for the form you have selected is a difficult kind which, once it falters, is fatal to the illusion, but it never falters. You have told this on many levels and yet managed to find a unity in the telling of Spartacus' life.
I find it hard to relate my feelings at that time. For a writer to receive a report like the above under any conditions would be overwhelming; but to receive this report in the crazy atmosphere of fear and terror covering my world was just short of miraculous. Bette and I celebrated in proper fashion, certain that this would break through the sneering, hate-filled reviews that had become the book reviewers' obeisance to the ravings of Senator McCarthy and the stylish hatred of Communism.
And of course the courage of Angus Cameron, a man who was not a Communist but was firm enough in his American values to be disgusted by what was going around and to have none of it. That was like new wine and should have been an inspiration to the entire publishing world.
Unfortunately, it was not, and Cameron stood almost alone. For a week or so, Bette and I bathed in appreciation and hope; and then Angus telephoned and said he was coming to New York and would I have lunch with him, and the following day he told me an incredible story. J. Edgar Hoover had sent his personal emissary, a federal agent, to Boston, where he met with the president of Little, Brown. He told him that he was not to publish any more books by Howard Fast, that these were the express instructions of J. Edgar Hoover, and that if he continued to publish Howard Fast, action would be taken against his company. The details of the action were not specified.
An editorial meeting followed, during which Angus pointed out that this was a blow at the most basic constitutional freedom, the First Amendment, that it was utterly disgraceful, and that there was no precedent to this in all American history an appointed member of the federal government instructing a publisher not to publish a book under threat of dire consequences. I have no details of the debate that followed, except that it was hot and heavy, as Angus indicated, and that the majority of the editorial board sided with the president. Finally, Angus said that his basic self-respect, his ability to live with himself, led him to this conclusion. Either they published Spartacus, or he would have to resign as vice president and editor in
chief. They refused to undertake publication, and thereupon Angus resigned; he was without a job and I without a publisher.
Under ordinary circumstances, this would have been a newsbreak of national importance; under the conditions that prevailed in July of 1951, The Daily Worker was one of the few papers that took notice of what had happened.
Of course, this was an awful blow to Angus Cameron. In ordinary times it would have been different; an editor of Angus's intellect, skill, and experience, for years the successful editor in chief at Little, Brown, a man respected and honored throughout the industry, would not have gone a single day without work, but because of the fear that had blanketed both the publishing and the film industries, no one would hire him, and it was years before he could once again find work in a publishing house.
I believed that my own position was better, and I had to deal with a lot of guilt over what I felt was Angus's sacrifice. He made it easier by telling me that he had done it not for me but for himself and his own need to live with himself. But I had other publishers to go to, and while I would miss the guidance and help of Angus as my editor, there were publishers aplenty, and one or another would be delighted to have my book. Or so I thought.
I chose Viking Press for my first approach and sent them the manuscript. A week passed. They sent it back with a polite note that it did not fit into their publishing schedule. Well, that could be. Why not? Probably they had their season filled.
I then sent it to Scribner's. They sent it back with a note saying that they were glad to have had a chance to see it, but it was not for them.
Harper was my next choice. Harper sent it back with a note informing me that they accepted only manuscripts from literary agents. This was almost twenty years after the publication of my first novel. I was already one of the most widely read serious writers on earth, with my books translated into eighty-two languages. But Harper read only books submitted by literary agents.
This was before the time of multiple submissions. One submitted a manuscript to one publisher at a time. The summer was going by and I had no publisher. The next on my list was Alfred A. Knopf, for whose publishing house I had long had great respect. And the courageous Mr. Knopf sent the manuscript back unopened with a note attached to it saying that he would not dirty his hands by opening a manuscript sent to him by Howard Fast. I do not know whether he sent a carbon copy of the letter to J. Edgar Hoover.
It becomes repetitive and increasingly disgusting. The next submission was to Simon and Schuster. They had published Conceived in Liberty, one of my earliest books. They had granted me an advance of $1200 to write The Last Frontier. When I decided to give the manuscript to Sam Sloan at Duell, Sloan and Pearce, I had paid back the advance in full. They then sent me a letter of surprise and delight, and begged me to return to them if I changed my mind about Sam Sloan. Now they returned the manuscript of Spartacus without a word, with not even a printed rejection slip. Careful people.
All this increased my understanding. I would never again fulminate against the German people for not defying Adolf Hitler. He, at least, had firing squads and concentration camps. Here, it was simply the threat of J. Edgar Hoover and his FBI, for the story of what had happened at Little, Brown was all over the industry, and no "brave" publisher wanted to be Horatius, standing at the bridge.
By now, I was determined to see how deeply this cowardice had pervaded the publishing industry, and I made my sixth submission to Doubleday. And here, indeed, something very different happened: I received a call a week or so after my submission to Doubleday from a man named George Hecht. He was the president of the Doubleday chain of bookstores and here is what he said to me on the telephone. I put it down for the record.
"Mr. Fast," George Hecht said, "I have just experienced a sickening two hours with a group of yellow-bellied crumbs who constitute the editorial board of Doubleday. They spent an hour talking about how great your Spartacus is and how they have no hope of seeing another book like it, and then they spent the second hour talking about why they were not going to publish it. The hell with that lousy bunch of cowards. I've read the book, and I tell you this right now. Publish the book yourself, and I hereby give you an order for six hundred copies for the bookstores. If you ask around, they'll tell you what my word is worth. So publish it yourself and God bless you."
To this day, I have never met George Hecht. I don't know whether he lives or has passed on. We made several appointments, but they had to be broken. But his word was good and he kept it. I salute him. He was a man of courage and dignity at a time when courage was in very short supply.
"Publish it yourself ... " Fine. Swim around Manhattan Island; it had been done, but was I a candidate? With all the books I had written, I had never inquired into the process of publication. I wrote the book; a publisher published it. I knew the steps: the manuscript was pored over by an editor; he made suggestions and pointed out blunders, gross or otherwise. Then it was returned to the writer, who was to brood over the suggested changes. Then back to the editor, who reviewed the writer's changes; then to the copy editor, who was supposed to pick up and rectify misspellings, gross errors of grammar, and errors of fact, date, and place. Then it went back to the writer again, to agree or disagree with the copy editor. Then back to the copy editor for final adjustments, and then to the typesetter, the printer at his Linotype machine. (That was still in the days of Linotype.) Then the type was set and proofs were drawn. The proofs were read again by a proofreader, then sent to the author for a final reading, then cast and sent to the printer and then to the binder.
Well, I had an order for six hundred books and I might as well set about making them. I rented Post Office Box 171, at the Planetarium Station. Now I had an address. But the basic problem was that we were broke. Bette and I had enough to pay the mortgage and keep food on the table, but there was nothing put away that would enable me to start a publishing business. Friends reminded me of Mark Twain's awful fate when he became his own publisher, but I had no alternative. Certainly I was not going to continue the wretched process of sending my manuscript to one terrified publisher after another. Bette and I discussed it at length. I had meanwhile heard from two British publishers who were eager to publish the book, but I felt that having it published first in England would be a degrading surrender, and Bette agreed with me. I was constantly surprised by the strength of purpose of this slender woman I had married. The book must be published here, in the United States. Suppose we sent a letter to a group of people, telling them of the circumstances and asking them to subscribe to the book in advance? The general price of a novel at that time varied between three and six dollars. My last novel before Spartacus, The Proud and the Free, had been priced at three dollars. We decided that we would offer the novel a third longer than The Proud and the Free at three dollars for the regular edition and five dollars for a special autographed edition, bound in excellent cloth and with gold lettering on the spine, hoping that people who were avid readers of mine might go for the special edition. I had already spoken to Mel Freedman, one of the executive salesmen at the American Book Company, and had gotten prices from him, and I felt that at three and five dollars, I might make out without debt.
I went out on a limb with whatever savings we had. We painted the basement of our house and turned it into a storeroom and shipping room for the books providing that we had books to ship. I engaged Charles Humboldt, a fine editor who had been on the staff of The New Masses, to do editorial and copy reading, and an old friend, Bert Clark, one of the industry's most gifted book designers, to lay out the pages and design the book. I could in no way pay them what their going rate would have been; they did it out of their feeling for Bette and me, as did that splendid black artist Charles White, who drew the picture for the dust jacket, a drawing I still have and treasure. We stretched our small store of money desperately. I wrote the letter. I bought names from The Nation, The New Republic, and The New Masses and then the orders began to come in. First a handful, then more and more, and then word got around beyond the mailings, and the orders poured in. I had paid orders for over three thousand books, and suddenly I was in the publishing business. And not only was I in the publishing business, but as impossible as it might have been considered a few weeks earlier, I was paying my own way.
Bette and I and a secretary worked long hours, and bit by bit everything fell into place. The book was edited, copy edited, printed, and bound, and one astonishing morning cartons of books began to arrive at 43 West Ninety-fourth Street. I asked Mel Freedman to have six hundred books shipped from the bindery to the Doubleday bookstore warehouse. This was done, the books were paid for promptly, and not one copy was ever returned. Morris Sorkin and Philip Foner, the historian, owned a small, left-of-center publishing house called Citadel. I suppose my own arrogance had kept me from submitting the manuscript to them; certainly they would have published it. But I was insistent that it be published by a major publisher.
Now Morris Sorkin got in touch with me and asked me what I intended to do about sales to bookstores. I replied that I didn't know, and so far, the only bookstores that were carrying the book were the Doubleday stores. He told me that they had salesmen in the major book territories, and if I so desired, and for a reasonable charge, his salesmen would sell Spartacus.
I was absolutely overwhelmed by the runaway success of Spartacus. I took the production out of my home and rented an office. Bette drew a sketch for a full-page advertisement in The New York Times Book Review. I tried a couple of advertising agencies, but neither of them wanted anything to do with me, whereupon I took the layout down to The Times, where I had an appointment to see the censor. I never knew that they had a censor of advertising at The Times, but here he was, an elderly gentleman who studied my sketch thoughtfully. "Doesn't appear to be anything demonic in it," he said. "What about the book? Anything about the overthrow of the government by force and violence?"
"Not this government. Ancient Rome."
"We'll take a chance on that."
The full-page advertisement ran in the Sunday Times Book Review. It cost somewhere around $5000, reducing my bank account to practically nothing. But Spartacus was still selling. For the most part, the reviewers ignored it, but here and there a reviewer took it seriously. In the small-circulation publications of the left, the book was praised to the skies, but the mass-circulation, important papers of America brushed it off, saying that no publisher could be blamed for refusing a book by a red like Howard Fast. I had become a notorious symbol of the Communist Party. The film people had been totally blacklisted. Albert Maltz, Dalton Trumbo, Ring Lardner, and a dozen other talented screenwriters were no longer working; no films of theirs appeared, except those which were written under other names, so in a sense they were beyond attack; but the book reviewers had their day, and almost every one of them went on record to show that their hatred of Communism and of Howard Fast was second to none. In time, Spartacus would be praised and millions of copies would be sold, but that was years in the future.
Meanwhile, I had no right to complain about sales. I had ordered a first printing of five thousand copies, and then I ordered a second printing and then a third and a fourth printing. My having broken through in this manner became an increasing irritation to the media, and the book was treated with petulant nastiness, particularly by The New York Times. In the issue of February 3, 1952, a certain Melville Heath recalled The Unvanquished, which I wrote at age twenty-five. Of Spartacus he wrote, "It is a far cry from such notable books as The Unvanquished, a dreary proof that polemics and fiction cannot mix." Then this curious Mr. Heath (I have no idea who he was) went on to say, "Every schoolboy knows by now that Roman civilization began to suffer from dry rot long before the advent of the Caesars. That same schoolboy can understand how and why the serfdom that cemented a power-drunk empire would also spell its eventual doom."
It would be a safe bet to say that before the appearance of my book and the film that Kirk Douglas made from it ten years later, not one schoolboy in ten thousand had ever heard of Spartacus. I don't know where Mr. Heath met his schoolboys, but they were a rare lot. The review went on to sneer and castigate and brush me off a pattern for every book I published from then on.
All told, I printed fifty thousand copies of Spartacus, of which forty-eight thousand were sold within three months of publication by the Citadel salesmen and my direct-mail effort. I plowed back almost all of my profits into advertising, yet it was not a losing proposition. I had about $2000 in the company bank account. Of course, I had not taken anything for myself ; we were surviving decently enough on my foreign royalties. The appearance of the book in Great Britain was greeted with enthusiasm and quite a few outright raves. I received about six hundred letters from England and Ireland and over four thousand letters_ from American readers an experience I never had either before or since, and from what I learned, almost unheard-of in American letters. I discovered through the years often from the children of those who had bought the book that reading it became an act of defiance by people who loathed the climate of the time. I do think that, considering that so many bookstores and chain stores Doubleday exempted, of course would not carry the book, forty-eight thousand copies was a respectable sale indeed.
Curiously enough, at forty-eight thousand, the sales slowed almost to nothing, just a few books a week, but the returns were very light, and I never reached a point where I had to remainder Spartacus.
Eventually, all but some twenty copies of my edition were sold, and today, so many years later, I still have half a dozen copies of my edition. I have tried to calculate how many editions of Spartacus have been printed since then, and worldwide the figure is almost a hundred. As to how many were printed in Third World countries without license, I could not even guess. When the blacklist vanished, it was reprinted in America in hard cover by Crown Publishers, and many hundreds of thousands more were printed as paperbacks. It must be said that the right to publish was maintained through those years, and that J. Edgar Hoover and his troops were unable to destroy the gift of the First Amendment to the Constitution. Not that they didn't try.