Akron Beacon Journal
Sunday, August 10, 1997
Life Style section, p. G5
Books & Authors
New Love, New Novel:
At 82, Howard Fast is as Prolific as Ever
By Jocelyn McClurg, Hartford Courant
Howard Fast, whose novels Freedom Road, Citizen Tom Paine and April Morning have educated generations of school kids about American history, is 82 now. He walks with a cane because of an arthritic leg. As he slowly eases into a chair in his Greenwich, Conn., home, he politely inquires if he can light up a cigar. Mimi Denis, the 47-year-old woman who has given Fast, in his words, "surcease from sorrow, great hope, a great desire to live," affectionately squeezes his shoulder.
There are many chapters in Fast's long, colorful life, including the time he spent in prison and the years he was blacklisted by the publishing industry for being a Communist. He was forced to publish one of his most famous books, Spartacus, with his own money in 1951.
The prolific novelist -- he may be one of the most widely read authors of the 20th century, and his works have been translated into 82 languages -- has written steadily since his first novel, Two Valleys, was published when he was 18. In the early 1990s, he wrote several novels and a memoir, Being Red, about his years as a Communist.
Then, nearly three years ago, Fast's wife died of cancer. Bette Fast, a sculptor, had been married to Howard Fast for 57 years, and they had two children. Depressed, Fast thought he would never write another book.
But life is full of surprises, even after eight decades, and now Fast has a new woman in his life, and a new novel, An Independent Woman (Harcourt Brace, $25). The book, which concludes Fast's best-selling Immigrants saga, has allowed him to bring some closure to the loss of his wife.
An Independent Woman continues the story of Barbara Lavette, the liberal heroine of Second Generation, The Establishment, The Legacy and The Immigrant's Daughter. The matriarch of a California winemaking clan is 68 as An Independent Woman begins. When Fast last wrote about her, in 1985, Barbara had lost a run for Congress as a Democrat and had gone to El Salvador to write a series of articles. Now, in An Independent Woman, Barbara is back in San Francisco. After finding happiness late in life by marrying a minister, Barbara learns that she has cancer.
"Barbara's life was in a sense my own life," Fast says, referring to Barbara's liberal views. In other ways, her life was Bette Fast's life, and An Independent Woman is Fast's tribute to his late wife. (The book is dedicated to her.)
"My wife was a sculptor. That is her sculpture," he says, pointing to the sensuous pieces of artwork that decorate his living room. "She was a very independent woman, a very strong woman, which I'm afraid she had to be simply to survive living with me," he says.
After his wife's death, Fast struggled with his grief. Finally he decided that he had to leave the house they had shared in Greenwich. "She was everywhere I looked, and I was living with a dead person," he says.
"I had a bottle of 50 morphine pills that she was given for the pain of chemotherapy, and I kept thinking how easy it would be to just take them. I was almost 80 years old; what difference did it make? But then one night I washed them down the toilet and decided I would sell the house, and so I bought this house about 2½ years ago."
'WRITE ANOTHER BOOK'
One night he went out to dinner with Denis, a former investment banker.
"After a year and a half of living alone, this lovely woman appeared," Fast says, looking at Denis. "She worked with me and did everything in the world for me. She said, 'Write another book.'"
The grandson of Ukrainian immigrants who grew up poor in New York City, Fast was a voracious reader who began writing stories as a teen-ager. He jokes that he wrote because he needed to make a living. But when pressed about why he writes, Fast says:
"A good shoemaker makes good shoes, and a good writer writes good stories if he's a storyteller, and I'm a storyteller."
He developed a sympathy for socialism early on, and stories of the downtrodden attracted him, as did American history. Fiction offered a forum for his political views.
"All the fiction I write is in some way tendentious," Fast says. "But I think all great fiction is tendentious. Even Jane Austen."
He writes about America, he says, "because this is the most remarkable country on Earth. This is the only country on the face of the Earth which has been able to deal with ethnic diversity -- whether good or bad, we deal with it."
By the 1940s, Fast was a best-selling novelist, thanks to books like Freedom Road, which depicted the struggle by black people for dignity after the Civil War. It won the Shomburg Award for race relations in 1944.
Racial issues are still important to Fast. In An Independent Woman, Barbara is confronted by a black burglar, whom she realizes is well-educated but desperate. Instead of testifying against the burglar and sending him to prison, she tells the police she gave the man her jewelry.
"I feel that our system of justice destroys far more people than it punishes," says Fast.
PERSONS OF CONSCIENCE
In 1944, at the peak of his career, Fast joined the Communist Party.
"It was all that was available in terms of protest, in terms of peace," he says. "I knew no person of conscience -- and there are exceptions, but I would say almost no person of conscience -- who wasn't a Communist or closely associated with Communists."
As the Cold War began, Fast was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee, and in 1950 he received a three-month jail sentence for contempt of Congress. During this period, no mainstream publisher would touch Fast's work, and he formed his own publishing house, Blue Heron Press.
By 1957 Fast renounced the Communist Party, as he learned of Stalin's reign of terror. He says now he has no regrets about those years, and no bitterness toward the publishing industry.
"I cannot blame anyone for being afraid," he says. "That's human. For 75 years the only ideology taught in America was that communism is evil."
Is the man who wrote of Tom Paine and the American Revolution, and yet was a Communist, a patriot?
"What is patriotic? The best definition of patriotism is the last resort of scoundrels," Fast says. "I love this country. I love what it stands for. I think it's one of the noblest experiments in the history of the world."
During his lifetime as a writer, there was never a time when he suffered from writing block. "There was too much to write about," he says. "Today, it's a bit harder for me to write. Where I could do four pages in a day, if I do one today I'm doing well."
He started a new novel on his 1956 Olympia typewriter a few weeks ago. He wouldn't mind if An Independent Woman put him back on the best-seller list, after six and a half decades as a writer.
"Every writer," he says, "dreams about being on the best-seller list."
Photo Caption: Author Howard Fast poses next to one of his late wife's sculptures at his home in Old Greenwich, Conn. His new novel is a tribute to her.