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Radical History, 17, 1983
in: Alan M. Wald,
The Responsibility of Intellectuals: Selected Essays on Marxist Traditions in Cultural Commitment
Humanities Press, 1992 (pbk 1995), p. 92-101
The Legacy of Howard Fast
Alan M. Wald
Such a career might be cause for celebration among those who would like to see fiction with a radical perspective reach a broader audience. What is discomforting is that none of Fast's books has earned a reputation as a truly distinguished work of art. One can recall some stirring episodes and vivid portraits, but, when compared to outstanding political novels such as Dostoyevski's The Possessed, Silone's Bread and Wine, and Gordimer's Burger's Daughter, much of his writing appears two-dimensional and lacking in subtlety. The sometimes crude political messages embedded in many of Fast's novels may elicit discomfort as well. While the notion of a direct correlation between political line and literary quality has long been discredited among serious Marxists, Fast's career suggests to me the importance of recognizing that an author's relation to particular kinds of ideology may in certain instances enhance or narrow the scope and complexity of artistic vision.
Fast's literary career began to take shape mainly while he was a supporter of the liberal-Communist Popular Front in the latter half of the 1930s; he joined the Party during World War II, when the Popular Front was once more in full swing. The cultural orientation of the Popular Front was distinct from the Proletarian literary line that prevailed during Communism's "Third Period" before 1935; it celebrated "little people" instead of workers and waved the flag of idealized patriotism instead of socialist internationalism. In technique, radicalism's traditional ties with the avant-garde were definitively broken during the Popular Front. What we now call Modernism (typified by Eliot and Joyce) was condemned as antipeople and protofascist, and replaced by Hollywood and Broadway. At one time endorsement lists for Communist-initiated cultural activities were headed by John Dos Passos and Edmund Wilson; in the Popular Front days they were replaced by Rex Stout, Donald Ogden Stewart, Dashiell Hammett and eventually Howard Fast, whom Leslie Fiedler characterized as the Communist movement's "most faithful middlebrow servant in the arts."
However, the young Fast made an individual contribution to this development. While he tended to choose famous subjects and historical events as the topics for his novels, he frequently focused on lesser-known episodes, taking an unusual angle of presentation or even telling the story from the reverse of the conventional point of view. He also refused to idealize many of his historical portraits – frankly depicting George Washington as troubled, Tom Paine as a drunk and a braggart, and John Peter Altgeld as having ascended to power through corrupt means. Furthermore, the books frequently had a clear thesis that had more to do with his own political philosophy than with the fashions of the moment. Most often Fast wanted to make some point about the universal nature of the struggle for freedom. As a literary technician, he was frequently praised for his narrative skill and flair for characterization – important qualities in any writer.
Nevertheless, from the start of his career there were some commentators who noted an affinity between Fast's technique and the conventions of mass culture. For example, Conceived in Liberty (1939) was said to be "like all other great war stories that people have been reading for twenty years, only the setting is different." In the 1940s several critics noted that Fast gave his short stories happy endings that were a "concession" to the magazines where they first appeared. In the following decades his work was observed to have the "flavor of a movie spectacular," with much of the dialogue "escaped from the women's magazines or daytime television." The novelist Harvey Swados argued that "Mr. Fast's conception of history is really not that much different from that of Cecil B. De Mille."
To these negative observations we can add that there are facets of his career that have elicited the charge of opportunism. While in the Party his books were sold widely in Soviet-bloc countries were he was vastly overpraised, which may have been a factor in the longevity of his membership. In fact, the USSR, where he was regarded as a world-class novelist, awarded him the Stalin Peace Prize in 1954. Immediately following his sensational break with and public excoriation of the Party in The Naked God: The Writer and the Communist Party, he dashed off to Hollywood to become a scenarist for Universal, Paramount, Pennybaker, and Hitchcock studios. Finally, even though historical novels have been the center of his work, he gives an appearance of having swamped his major efforts in a deluge of stories for children and adolescents, simple history books with photographs and drawings, science fiction stories, mysteries, Zen stories, and a score of books that he himself calls "entertainments."
Yet the view of Fast as an opportunist money-maker hardly explains why he produced explicitly Communist books such as Silas Timberman, The Story of Lola Gregg, and The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti, published by his own press and paid for by his own resources, during the height of the Cold War when no commercial publisher would touch him. In 1950 the House Committee on Un-American Activities ordered him to provide the names of all those who had contributed to the support of a hospital for Spanish Republicans in Toulouse, France, with which he had been associated during the Spanish Civil War. When he refused, he was thrown in jail for three months, during which he wrote most of the novel Spartacus. Blacklisted upon his release, he initiated his own Blue Herron [sic] Press and turned the novel into the only self-published best-seller in recent history.
The point is that during the Cold War, Fast was not writing on fashionable topics but produced according to the social and political convictions that were both the inspiration for and objective of his creative drive. Had American mass culture in subsequent decades become dominated by right-wing sentiments, he might well have drifted into obscurity. Instead, the shift in our culture to the more democratic, antiracist, and antiwar moods of the 1960s and 1970s made possible his return to the best-seller charts on a more regular basis. Even the series of books about "wise, brave and gallant women" he has issued under the pseudonym "E. V. Cunningham" – such as Phyllis, Alice, Shirley, Lydia, Penelope, Helen, Sally, Samantha, Cynthia, and Millie – and his detective novels about a Nisei cop, Massao [sic] Masuto, working out of the Beverly Hills Police Department, contain social criticism that would be unacceptable in a less liberal cultural environment. So the reason for Fast's new success is not simply that he accommodated his art; American culture changed as well.
The manner in which Fast dramatizes his political ideas in fiction is clearly demonstrated in the plot of his newest series of best sellers that traces the rise to fortune and power of the fictional character Daniel Lavette. Lavette is the son of Franco-ltalian immigrants who settle in San Francisco in the late nineteenth century. Orphaned by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, he uses his fishing boat to create a financial empire during World War I. His personal life is torn between his wife, a Nob Hill socialite, and his mistress, the librarian daughter of his Chinese bookkeeper. The mistress finally becomes his second wife at the end of the first volume, The Immigrants, allowing Fast to sustain throughout the rest of the novels a contrast between Lavette's two sets of relatives – the snobbish and bigoted WASPS and the decent and hardworking Chinese.
Although Lavette loses his fortune at the start of the Great Depression, he returns in the second volume, Second Generation, to his millionaire status through another windfall of war profits, made this time through World War II. However, May Ling, his second wife, is killed by stray bullets while visiting Hawaii during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Lavette then remarries his WASP wife and the focus thereafter shifts to their daughter, Barbara, a novelist and journalist.
Barbara never subscribes to any radical ideology, but she breaks from her mother's elitist bigotry and her father's cynicism about social reform by aiding longshoremen in the period just before and during the 1934 San Francisco General Strike. Harry Bridges appears in the novel as a minor character. Then she moves to Paris, where she falls in love with a French journalist who dies of wounds incurred in the Spanish Civil War. At the end of Second Generation she marries Bernie Cohen, a Jew who resembles her father in every way except that Cohen's passions are abetting Zionism and killing Nazis instead of aggrandizing wealth.
At the start of the third volume, The Establishment, Cohen becomes a gun-runner in Palestine at the time of Israel's formation and is killed in combat with Arab troops. Meanwhile, Barbara is framed before HUAC [House Un-American Activities Committee] and eventually serves a prison sentence for refusing to divulge the names of people who gave donations to the Toulouse hospital where her French lover died.
The final volume, The Legacy, takes us into the 1960s where, after a brief marriage to a Los Angeles publisher rendered sexually impotent by his inability to break free of his conservative family, Barbara overcomes a writer's block by researching an historical novel about the wife of an American president. She watches her son, Sammy, and his cousins and friends, become active in the new political movements against racism and the Vietnam War. Barbara herself becomes a feminist and the founder of Mothers for Peace.
The Lavette novels have a number of features that render them hard to take very seriously. Their structure – the large cast of characters with interconnecting lives and the large number of short scenes – is reminiscent of a television soap opera; indeed, one reviewer referred to The Immigrants as "soap history." While the didactic quality of the books is nothing new in Fast, the lessons here seem unusually trite and aimed at an audience that watches soaps. In the concluding volume, Barbara learns the social lesson that "there was no happiness in the legacy of the rich," and the personal lesson that the abused notion of love must be replaced by "trust," which is the knowledge that someone will "be there when you need him."
However, it would be simplistic to conclude that Fast has merely tried to dope out what a mass audience is willing to buy and then churned out the requisite product. Fast is trying to reach a large number of people with his values, and there is nothing reprehensible in that. But the very way he conceives of his medium restricts the possibilities of his craft. From the time of the Popular Front to the present, Fast has retained a notion that in order to reach a large audience one's novels must resemble a Hollywood spectacular, and that the typical reader has the sensibilities of a rather unreflective movie fan; this most recent effort amounts to sugarcoating his messages in a big, splashy, sentimental story. We like to think that authentic artists simply write their best in the hope that readers will eventually respond to such an effort on its own terms. Of course, the truth is that most artists probably have to struggle somewhat before making a few necessary compromises with publishers and the expected audience; but Fast gives the impression that such struggles are far in his past, and that his medium now controls him as much as he controls it.
The result is not only that his art can hardly be assessed outside of the terms one would use in treating mass media, but also that his unique contribution – the left-liberal doctrine with which he infuses his books – is not just simplified but fatally trivialized. He consistently refuses to complicate any matter that he thinks might confuse the reader or distract from the action. For example, Fast is eager to extract just one simple meaning from the witch-hunt years: that the McCarthyites framed people as Communist dupes in order to manufacture headlines. And so he fails to address the civil rights of those who were real "subversives" in the eyes of the witch-hunters. Thereby he makes it possible for readers to conclude that it is only the excesses and abuses of the HUAC hearings that should be condemned, rather than the entire process. Since Fast's nonfiction writings show that it was the process itself that he abhorred, his attempt to write down to the imagined level of his readers has betrayed his own values.
Further, the social and political essences of the antiwar and women's movements of the 1960s are embarrassingly trivialized when Barbara becomes a pacifist and feminist leader. Her naive view, as revealed in a major political speech at a women's rally, is that war would cease if women played a more prominent role in society – because women are mothers and wouldn't allow their children to be killed. Barbara's political opposition never transcends this pseudo-analysis. She thinks that the Vietnam War has nothing to do with the right of colonial people to self-determination. Similarly, in her capacity as a feminist leader she denies that feminism involves a basic critique of the family as a social institution in class society. The problem here is not that Barbara's ideas are politically "incorrect"; it is that Fast's attempt to simplify them for consumption by a mass audience renders them banal to the point of falsifying the historical movements which she leads.
The result, ironically, is that Fast, who has been influenced by Marxism and no doubt seeks to disclose the "real" meaning of history in his novels, writes books that bear a striking resemblance to the kind of literature that the Marxist critic Georg Lukács stigmatized as "naturalist," as a means of distinguishing it from authentic "realist" literature. By naturalist, Lukács meant a work that, regardless of the subjective intentions of the author, only captures the superficial features of reality, as in a photograph or mirror, missing the true complexities of humanity in its dynamic interaction with class and social institutions. Lukács was not opposed to experimental techniques, difficulty, or ambiguity, as long as artistic goals didn't obfuscate the depiction of social truth in all its complexity.
As an example of naturalist simplicity, Lukács pointed to Zola, a socialist who produced his books according to a theory of scientific determinism; as a realist counterpart, he cited Balzac, a reactionary monarchist whose artistic grasp of character and social reality brought truths to the pages of his books that his own philosophy would deny. If the character of Barbara Lavette, who was born in the same year as Fast (1914) and who shares so many of his experiences, was intended to reveal the political dimensions of his life with more candor and subtlety that can be found in his non-fiction writing, the results are disappointingly "naturalist." The multi-layered human drama of being a member of a corrupt Communist Party in a corrupt capitalist society is evaded by depicting Barbara as an innocent non-Party member victimized by unscrupulous right-wing politicians. The social truth of the McCarthy era is only superficially captured.
Part of the explanation for Fast's inability to develop more fully as a "realist" in Lukács' sense may be that, despite several phases in his political and philosophical evolution, he has never outgrown a constricting style of thought and some erroneous assumptions about the functions of art that he acquired from the ideology in which he was immersed during his formative period. Even today, with his Communist Party membership twenty-five years behind him, this latest quartet of books, especially The Legacy, still exudes the Popular Front sensibility of the late 1930s and World War II years. It does so first of all in its promulgation of a simple "progressive" program of peace and liberal reform that will appeal to "the masses," but also in its promotion of relationships among good people of all classes and races and in its absence of precise ideas and emotional candor. It is intriguing that Fast has changed so little, and also that the public is so responsive. That this orientation, first championed by the Left five decades ago, could be reborn in a national best-selling series of novels in the 1970s and 1980s, impressively testifies to the real power of Popular Front ideology; it also seems to confirm Harold Rosenberg's observation that "collapsed ideologies are not blown away by the winds. On the contrary, they spread throughout our society and take the form of popular culture."
This shrewd observation, about the ideological origins of ostensibly unsystematized popular thought, was part of a polemic against the "middlebrow" – a type of writer with which Fast is sometimes identified. The middlebrow is usually depicted as one who is posing as a mediator between the complexities of high culture and a mass audience intellectually unprepared for those complexities – although in truth the middlebrow is operating on the principle that culture is a commodity to be sold for profit. The argument that Fast is a middlebrow in spite of his radical politics is largely based on the interpretation of Popular Front culture itself as a middlebrow phenomenon.
It is true that after World War II the Popular Front collapsed and Party chairman Earl Browder was expelled. But Fast never felt very comfortable with the subsequent shift in cultural policy from celebrating an idealized American democratic tradition to excoriating the defects of the same tradition. In fact, when he eventually broke with the Party he was in sympathy with John Gates and other "neo-Browderites" who sought in large measure to return the Party's politics to the old Popular Front days. In 1957, shortly after Fast made public his resignation, Irving Howe predicted that, since middlebrow values are "pervasive to our time . . . the middlebrow in Fast may yet survive the old Stalinist, bringing him success of a kind parallel to that which he has enjoyed during the past two decades."
This astute prediction, striking as it is, stems from a rather simple notion that the middlebrow writer fabricates his or her books to respond to whatever standard is set by public demand – which is the only standard that interests one who sees all literary subjects as commodities to be exchanged for money. But this formulation and its assumptions do not embody an adequate appreciation of the nature of the creative process (how easy is it for a writer to consciously and successfully write beneath his or her genuine talents?) and of the legitimate desire of some artists to exploit conventional forms and themes in order to influence a wider milieu. Furthermore, Howe's prediction does not anticipate that the ideas promoted by the Popular Front of the 1930s and 1940s might percolate down into popular culture at a future time, as they apparently have.
The point is that the dismissal of Fast by Howe and other critics as merely a middlebrow – that is, as one who pretends to respect the standards of serious art but who actually waters them down, vulgarizing them for profit – is too constricting and unfair to be the last word about his achievement, even though it does disclose some important features of his technique. His early works in particular display strengths of craft and creativity that, under other circumstances, might have enabled him to develop into a novelist of greater distinction. In the 1940s he made a unique mark on our literary history that ought not to be undervalued. Furthermore, there is nothing in money-making activities, extreme productivity, or widespread popularity that inherently discredits Fast as an artist. Edgar Allen Poe was an unabashed money-maker, Balzac was incredibly prolific, and The Education of Henry Adams was a leading best-seller in 1919.
Of course, no one has yet suggested that Fast is an author of the same importance as Poe, Balzac, or Adams. In his case one can legitimately question whether something has been sacrificed because of his emphasis on quantity and by his total devotion to the exploitation of almost every opportunity that arises in the commercial arena. No doubt Fast received a good deal of monetary and psychological benefit from his U.S. and Soviet fame, but it also seems likely that he paid a heavy price for his machine-like production of books and screenplays. In a 1945 critical essay Granville Hicks showed distress that Fast was writing so fervently that he was unable to reflect sufficiently to recognize that some qualities of his work were declining after the high point of Conceived in Liberty, The Last Frontier, and The Unvanquished. He warned Fast that "the creative imagination refuses to be hurried" and pointed out ways in which Fast's haste was already bringing about carelessness and lack of attentiveness. The problem has only grown worse since then.
Exacerbating this weakness is the shallow eclecticism and lack of clarity reflected in his political thought. He shares this trait with other writers, many of them artistically successful, but it is a special handicap in an author like Fast who puts so much emphasis on the rather simple lessons he programs into his books. Hicks' 1945 essay correctly noted that Fast's "naiveté on the intellectual level" rendered him especially inept in treating ideas, pointing out that Fast "only half understands" his revolutionary formulas. Since the 1940s his formulas have become less revolutionary, but he still proceeds at times as if he were sketching in scenes somewhat mechanically on the basis of a simplistic broad thesis. A truly first-rate political novelist ought to give the sense that an active imagination is operating throughout his or her works, which is not incompatible with the transmission of a precise political vision.
In the United States at present, we don't have to look back to the classical novelists such as Balzac to demonstrate the kinds of qualities that seem absent from so much of Fast's work and that Lukács honorifically calls realism. The books of writers such as Maxine Hong Kingston, Toni Morrison, and Leslie Silko aim to recreate historical consciousness through the perception of history as a concrete totality and complex process – not, like Fast, by simply depicting the immediacy of historical experience from one person's liberal or radical perspective. While Fast's admirable concern with racial oppression led him to oversimplification and abstraction (his black characters in Freedom Road, for example, have been criticized as being virtuous beyond believability), Kingston, Morrison, and Silko dramatize in Asian-American, Afro-American, and Native American Indian settings what Raymond Williams has described as the dialectic between the domination of cultural hegemony and the resistance of residual and emergent cultures. Their protagonists are neither idealized not artificially "balanced"; they are fully human in Lukács's realistic sense of being typical yet individualized. Furthermore, these three authors have achieved some degree of popularity through their integration of "difficult" ideas – the kind usually identified with "serious" art or high culture – with quite accessible narrative and vivid characterization. This suggests that the old theory of a schism among mass culture, middlebrow culture, and high culture is no longer so relevant today. It may even raise the question of whether it ever was a sound and comprehensive approach to understanding cultural phenomena, rather than a mechanism for legitimizing the elitism generated by the prejudices of a society divided by class, gender, and race.
Based on what we know about Fast, it would be an overreaction to conclude that politically committed writers should turn their backs on the possibility of reaching a mass audience for fear that their ideas will become trivialized. Such a strategy would run the risk of returning to a form of elitism like High Modernism that no longer has the revolutionary impact on our culture that it had in the 1920s and 1930s. Furthermore, one might question whether it is useful to judge Fast's books according to the same standard one would use in discussing a novel by Balzac, Silko, or Morrison, especially when their artistic strategies and objectives seem so markedly different. Isn't there room in our society for a frankly popular kind of writing – a genre of lightweight page turners that provides entertainment and escape along with mild doses of history and politics? If so, shouldn't we be grateful simply for the existence of a writer like Fast who brings relatively enlightened values to a mass-market audience that might otherwise be reading Harold Robbins and Rosemary Rogers?
There are significant problems with this line of argument, but I think it is the most effective way we have at present of responding to the elitism of a single standard for evaluating diverse cultural phenomena. Where I feel it may not do justice to Fast is in regard to the ambiguous promise of his early work. If he had been formed in a different period of American culture or been subject to different influences after achieving his initial success in the 1940s, he might have made a contribution to our literature that commanded more respect even if it had resulted in fewer sales. Simply put, the ideology of the Popular Front inculcated Fast with the notion that radical politics could be transmitted to a large audience in the garb of liberal sentiments and idealized patriotism, all aimed at a reader imagined to represent the "common man." That Fast achieved considerable success in this genre constitutes an important chapter in radical cultural history; that he was unable to develop as an artist or even to sustain the quality of his work is testimony to the inadequacies of this approach.
As it stands now, the legacy of Howard Fast is an ambiguous one. But so are the legacies of many of his predecessors in the history of American literary radicalism, such as Jack London and John Dos Passos. The dilemma of the radical artist's relationship to mass culture in fiction, as well as in film, music, and the other arts, is not one that can be resolved through blueprints, formulas, or precise models. More effective might be an uninhibited and wide-ranging dialogue between young artists and politically active workers and intellectuals about the cultural problems of late capitalism. In isolation, artists seeking a mass audience may well revert to worn-out conventions that may subvert their radical intentions; in the ferment produced by the creative exchange of ideas, at least there is the hope of assimilating the best from the past and forging new pathways to the future.