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The New York TimesThe New York Times ObituariesMarch 13, 2003

Howard Fast, Best-Selling Novelist, Dies at 88


Judith Pszenica
Howard Fast in 2000.

oward 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 School.

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 Valleys," to the Dial Press for a $100 advance.

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 Kristofferson.

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 Greenwich.

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."