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The Daily Worker - May 21, 1956
The Current Scene

Petty Villainy

Howard Fast

Evil is not admirable, even when monumental; and if we tend to be impressed by the enormity of wickedness, it is only because we are part of a culture that bases much of itself on the wrong, the swindle, the fraud, and the payoff. But so much of what is American policy today is petty villainy that it lacks even the corrupt "stature" of large misdeeds. It is a shameful and despicable business from beginning to end.
Anyone who has been witness to one or another of the many Smith Act trials can testify to this. The accusations that underlie the indictments are of such a nature – this one mailed a letter, that one went to a meeting, this one was seen talking to that one; and the "evidence" to support the accusations has the same dreary quality, an endless repetition of petty lies, nasty, uninspired inventions – small, messy bits of falsehood built up to make a lopsided and crazy structure.
The vindictiveness is sick and childish, and the world is treated to the spectacle of the greatest nation on earth behaving like a neurotic partner in a sad and hopeless marriage. Wounded veterans are deprived of the few dollars of their benefits; old men and old women have their social security rescinded; and the parliament of the most powerful nation on earth behaves like a paranoid, coursing here and there to have this one and that one hounded from his job.
The pattern is not limited to the lawmakers, the courts, and the various arms of the Senate and the House of Representatives; like a virus, it has permeated the body of the nation, and the wretched lunacy of the "great" is imitated by ordinary and ordinarily decent people. A case in point happened to me a few days ago, and while it is a small matter, petty and cheap in all of its detail, it should not go entirely unnoticed. If we are to return to sanity – and it seems likely that we shall – then it is worth examining the nature of our insanity; and the malady seems much more understandable when it is not confused with all the high and phony pronouncements of "security" that have been used to justify it.

* * *

In this case, the business began about nine years ago, when World Publishing Company, who had undertaken the reprinting of Theodore Dreiser's books, asked me to select the best of his short stories. Mrs. Dreiser sent me all the material she had, and I carefully read all the short material that Dreiser had written. It was a task I took seriously, not only because I loved the man Dreiser, but because I admired him as one of the greatest of our writers. When I had made my selection and written a preface, the book was published under the title "The Best Short Stories of Theodore Dreiser, edited and with an introduction by Howard Fast."
It was a time when the Cold War had only just begun, and World Publishing Company was selling thousands of my books as reprints. The future was as unresolved to them as to me, and there was no way for them to know that nine years later a book with Howard Fast's name on it would encounter certain difficulties. A few months ago, however, they solved the problem neatly. The took the very same book, jacket and design unchanged, and simply substituted James T. Farrell's name for mine. They had him write a new introduction and then sent the book out for review, just as if it had sprung from the inspiration of the moment.

* * *

Of course, the whole thing is laughable – but the pettiness of the action does not make it less despicable. Cowardice is a large word to dignify a procedure so mean and small, but the degrading aspects of the incident cannot be ignored, and in a way it is more illuminating that the more heartbreaking acts of cheap indecency.
The World Publishing Company argues that all they were doing was to see that the book had currency. They did, after all, have an investment in plates, and the editor I spoke to saw nothing wrong in the change of name. He intimated that since the world changed, why should not names also change? What Mr. Farrell's reasoning was, I do not know. Mr. Farrell has spared no pains to make plain to the world, over a long period of years and at every opportunity, that his hatred of communism and communists, is second to none. Apparently, it did not matter to him that Theodore Dreiser was a proud and public member of the Communist Party, U.S.A.
The World Publishing Company, on the other hand, probably felt that they were doing sufficient honor to Theodore Dreiser by keeping his short stories in print as best they knew – even though they hired an enemy of all Dreiser loved and lived for to introduce the stories.

* * *

As I said, it is not a matter of earth-shaking consequence; but the whole business is contemptible. It shares the same shoddy, dirty quality that pervades every manifestation of the "anti-communist crusade" in America this past decade, and the villainy and duplicity involved is petty beyond belief.
The hungry man will steal a crust of bread, and in his act there is a terrible and wonderful logic and need; but the millionaire who roots and grubs in garbage is something else entirely. This past 10 years of strange life in America has cost us a great deal – of which not the least is our pride; and perhaps the worst part of that lies in the fact that while the rest of the world is arising in new dignity, we are moving heaven and earth to condition a generation in the ignominious, the mean and the contemptible. The people of the world are in no mood today to accept any new ruling caste – much less one in the image of and with the manners of an American Legion convention.