Monday, July 29, 1946
Attack on Howard Fast's BookSamuel Sillen
ORDINARILY, the newspaper reviewers are all butter and honey when they approach a work that has been chosen by one or another of the big book clubs. A Literary Guild book or a Book-of-the-Month Club choice usually gets a front page spread and a big bouquet in the Sunday sections of the N.Y. Times and Herald Tribune, the most powerful book advertising media. This is an unwritten law--though for all an innocent reader knows it may be written down somewhere, just to make sure nobody slips up.
But Howard Fast's new novel The American, a Literary Guild selection, shattered these nicely-arranged patterns of the book pushing fraternity. The Sunday Times, for instance, buried the review by Allen Nevins in an inside page (the editors would have done better to bury it deep under the East River) while an adoring blurb on Bullitt's plea for world war three was splashed on the cover. The Herald Tribune Sunday book section, which usually takes pride in promptness, is still to be heard from at this writing. I strongly suspect that this is just as well.
For not in a long time have I read such an outpouring of unadulterated venom in the book review sections, commandeered by people famous for their charm and tact. Fast has been called every name in the book by some reviewers who long ago learned to live with themselves even though their job consists of puffing inanities, celebrating fourth-raters as budding Tolstoys, and whooping it up for the most transparent literary racketeers.
TIMES LEADS PACK
Orville Prescott of the Times led the pack by denouncing Fast as a diabolical Red, just like that nasty old anarchist-lover Altgeld that Fast writes about. The Chicago Sun reviewer lets go with a wild barrage of invective composed of equal parts of social backwardness and some very deep-down personal bitterness.
While Fast's novel has received some favorable comment in the commercial press, notably Newsweek and The Saturday Review of Literature, a good many of the reviews snort with indignation. These reviews cannot be written off as mere errors of judgment and taste. A man has a right not to like a book; that's a sacred privilege. But some of these reviews were not casual negatives. They were written with intent to kill.
The reason is given by the reviewers themselves. Almost invariably they acknowledge that they would have nothing against the book if only it didn't say anything. They agree that it is warm, intense, fluent, sincere, etc. What brings them to a boil is Fast's "interpretation" of John Peter Altgeld's career.
THE BASIC FACTS
But all this fury about "interpretation" deceives only stubbornly innocent people. The basic facts are exactly what Fast shows them to be. In 1886 a group of men were murdered by a Chicago court of justice. They were accused of tossing a bomb and killing a cop during a labor demonstration on Haymarket Square. This accusation was phony, and not a single reviewer dares explicitly question its phoniness. The real "crime" for which the men were hanged was that they were workers who fought to organize the working class against the robber barons.
Because Gov. Altgeld of Illinois had the decency and courage to expose these facts, he was hounded in his time. And because Howard Fast has recalled these facts so vividly and movingly today, he is also being attacked as everything from a second-story man to a subversive firebrand.
The treatment of The American, all the gutter sniping and hitting below the belt, should surprise nobody who has been reading the papers. The treatment of The American simply dramatizes the carry-over from the editorial pages to the review columns. The papers are fighting for keeps. They are dropping their thin pretense that they are guardians of art pure and undefiled. They respond to a truthful book exactly as they respond to a truthful analysis of imperialist war aims or a truthful depiction of how Negroes are lynched in this society which presumes to preach freedom to the world.
The new attitude toward Fast was already indicated in the reviews of his last book, Freedom Road. The critics thought Fast was still an "able writer" but wasn't his "direction" a bit dangerous? At that time we were still in the war, and the paladins of public taste didn't quite dare attack a sympathetic portrait of the Negro life and aspirations.
Today no holds are barred. It is pleasant, however, to remember that it is Fast who has come out on top with a mass audience for his books. This is no doubt what accounts for the special kind of frustrated fury that the reviewers have shown. Let them save some energy. I have a hunch that they ought to hoard some of their savage indignation for Fast's next book. He is not the kind of author that calls retreat.