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Rideout, Walter B. 1956.
The Radical Novel in the United States, 1900-1954: Some Interrelations of Literature and Society.
Chapter 9: The Long Retreat, (section III, pp. 275-285).
If Sinclair's chief contribution to modern American fiction was to help establish the novel of contemporary history, Fast's has been to show how an already established form, the traditional historical novel, may be used for radical ends. The conception basic to most of his work is a dialectic of revolutionary development whereby certain past events are viewed as acts in the extended drama of mankind's struggle toward a classless society. Fast's type-story is that of a revolt of the oppressed against their oppressors – Washington and his starving troops against the power of England, Spartacus and the gladiators or the Maccabees and their people against the power of Rome. Each of these struggles, Fast implicitly or explicitly argues, helped bring mankind closer to its inevitable future, and he hopes to persuade the reader of the magnitude of what might he called the tradition of revolt. But the usability of this past has a second element particularly apparent in the latest books. If the past is seedbed of the future, it also affords parallel upon parallel with our own time, and Fast has always deliberately attempted "to link the trends" of a past revolutionary time "with the trends today.8 The reader is not only to admire the past; he is to profit from it in his own time.
Although Fast has written of the ancient and foreign times of Palestine under the Maccabees (My Glorious Brothers) and Rome of the late Republic (Spartacus), his main efforts have so far gone into reexamining American history, the current of which, he believes, "as expressed by the mass of American people is revolutionary." 9 Not including the three "straight" historical novels written prior to The Last Frontier (1941) – according to Fast this book was his first conscious attempt at radical fiction.10 – the books dealing with American history cluster around three different periods: the American Revolution, the second half of the nineteenth century, and the contemporary.
The contemporary novels – Clarkton (1947), The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti (1953), and Silas Timberman (1954) – are significantly enough the thinnest of his work. Silas Timberman, the most recent, is an angry attempt to expose the forces behind the current suppressions of academic freedom, but Fast concentrates so hard on demonstrating all parts of the Communist analysis of these forces that he skimps the details needed to make his characters seem alive and engaged in human relationships. The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti is the best of the three, for it at least gains a different and more successful kind of concentration by restricting itself in time to the twenty-four hours leading up to the execution of the Anarchists and by maintaining a consistent elegiac note, which even subdues the occasional bitterness of Fast's invective within an all-enveloping sorrow. Like any sensitive person Fast has responded to the final agony of these two men. In Clarkton, however, concentration is precisely what is lacking. Although only a little longer than the brief Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti, it attempts, by describing a postwar strike in a one-industry town of western Massachusetts, to present a group of Communists as human beings with quite human virtues and shortcomings. One is most struck by the shortcomings of all the characters. The owning class is represented by a cultivated "liberal," George Clark Lowell, who, finding himself less and less able to handle the developing strike situation, employs a professional strikebreaker and tries to benumb his conscience with drink and sexual promiscuity. Opposed to the disintegrating liberal are a group of Communists and their sympathizers, among them being a feckless strike organizer, a tired old lawyer, and, most important of all, a neurasthenic doctor named Elliott Abbott – the insistently New England names produce unconscious caricature – who is surprisingly friendly to Lowell but who maintains, with something less than scientific objectivity, that the Communist Party is "the only thing decent and good and real in this land." Unlike the strikes of so many proletarian novels, this one still holds as the book ends; yet even the class-conscious individuals on the workers' side are singularly cheerless in their conviction that the system they are fighting is a dying one. Like the other two novels, Clarkton is an ad hoc piece of work, and the weaknesses of all three suggest that, in order to speak out at once on contemporary issues, their overworked author is writing too fast and too abstractly.
Always Fast seems more at his ease with the novel about earlier times. The three dealing with the second half of the nineteenth century – The Last Frontier (1941), Freedom Road (1944), and The American (1946) – exhibit his technical versatility and as a group imply a conscious plan to cover as much of American society as possible. Geographically, for example, the first is concerned with the West, the second with the Reconstruction South, the third with the Midwest. (Clarkton and The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti were subsequently to bring in New England, while the novels of the American Revolution concentrated on the Middle Atlantic states.) Again, in each of these three novels the fate of a different American minority group is emphasized: Indians in The Last Frontier, Negroes in Freedom Road, the foreign-born in The American. If it were not for the insistence on the inevitable revolutionary triumph toward which all this history tends, one might describe Fast's work as an attempt to write a vast, many-faceted American tragedy, so brutally are the forces arrayed in each case against the minority; yet any defeat that the oppressor inflicts is only appearance. Ultimate victory for the oppressed, these novels argue, is the reality.
Of the three books, Freedom Road and The American now seem for differing reasons markedly weaker than The Last Frontier. As history Freedom Road, though not unquestionable, appears mainly accurate in its account of the temporarily successful attempt by the newly freed Negroes and the poor whites of Reconstruction South Carolina to join political forces against the planters. But in a novel historical accuracy is not enough; all the characters except the dead ones, as Mark Twain said so scathingly of Fenimore Cooper's people, must appear to be alive. Gideon Jackson, Fast's Negro hero, is impossibly virtuous, as to a lesser degree are most of the other representatives of the two oppressed groups, and the white planters are almost unmitigatedly evil. Furthermore, the form of the novel, a spurious kind of folk epic, requires that Jackson be kept rather vague as an individual; while the language of the novel, a pseudo-Biblical, pseudo-"folksy" diction, ends by blurring all the characters rather than illuminating any of them sharply. On the other hand, The American succeeds in its portrait of the tough-minded, iron-fibred, yet compassionate John Peter Altgeld, Governor of Illinois and "Eagle Forgotten," who opposed President Cleveland's probably unconstitutional act of sending Federal troops into Illinois in 1894 to break the strike of Debs's Railway Union against the Pullman Company and who bravely put his career in jeopardy by pardoning as innocent men the three remaining Anarchists from the Haymarket Affair. The success of his characterization of Altgeld results in part from the many-angled view of the man made possible by what is perhaps Fast's favorite technique for the novel: successive clusters of related scenes, the scenes presented to the reader through the subjective viewpoint of one or more different characters and linked, like the clusters themselves, either by ironic juxtaposition or by swiftly moving bridge passages of author's narrative. Unfortunately Fast is less successful in his ultimate purpose, to reveal through the career of Altgeld the major forces in American socioeconomic history from the Civil War to the opening years of the present century; for his reading of that history is a decidedly simplified one in which the great liberal protest movements are discounted as utterly useless and unproductive of political progress, while the tradition of extreme revolt is held up as the one true source of strength against an imperialist oligarchy. How he overlooks distinctions in order to shape history to his own purpose is most obvious in his explicit attempt to present the Anarchists as forerunners of the modern Communists. History, even for the writer of historical fiction, simply is not that ductile.
If Freedom Road fails mainly for literary reasons and The American mainly for historical ones, The Last Frontier succeeds in all ways. Here at the outset of his career as a radical novelist Fast found the perfect "objective correlative" for both his beliefs and his powers. The subject of this fine novel, to date his best, is an extraordinary actual event out of America's frontier past. Among the Indians who were exiled to Oklahoma Indian Territory in the 1870's because the white Americans coveted their lands was a small band of Cheyennes from the fertile Powder River country of Wyoming and Montana. In 1878 this band, numbering less than three hundred men, women, and children, began a break for freedom which ended months and hundreds of miles later with half the band killed and half back in their old homeland despite the bitter opposition of over ten thousand veteran U.S. Army troops. At the end of the 1930's Fast came across an account of this event in Struthers Burt's Powder River. Now committed intellectually to Marxism and desirous of an adequate subject for its literary expression, he saw the story as "an epic in man's desire for personal freedom," knew he had his subject, and set off for Oklahoma in 1939 to gather the facts, which had long since become obscured and falsified. The details, when he discovered them, gave so complete a pattern that he needed to add only one fully fictitious character, a cavalry captain in whom pursuit of the Cheyennes becomes an obsession because of his admiration for their courage and indomitable purpose.
The novel is not simply admirable as history, however; it is admirable as literature and as radical literature. This rather short book takes on the quality of its incident, and in its spare, usually understated prose achieves indeed the stripped grandeur of an epic. Quite wisely Fast reveals the action only through the eyes of a variety of white characters so that the heart of the mystery, the almost instinctive drive of the Indians for freedom, is never explained but only manifests itself, calmly and irresistibly, like a force of nature. Quite wisely also Fast avoids suggesting his real theme directly except for a few brief passages. Thus, when Carl Schurz, erstwhile fighter on the barricades for German freedom and now a colder-blooded American Secretary of the Interior, signs the order returning a captured group of the Cheyennes to Oklahoma, he is portrayed as possibly thinking that such rebellions by minorities must not recur and then as "sensing something of a future where it would occur again and again and again, where the trail would not be the trail of three hundred primitive horsemen over a thousand miles of green prairie, but of thousands and millions across the blackened and tear-wetted face of the earth." Here the voice of the author sounds through that of his character, but almost everywhere else the radical theme resides in the incident itself, which produces its symbolic quality unaided. A struggle for freedom in the past implies a greater struggle for freedom in the future. Image and idea coexist, and a moment in history becomes, for literary purposes at least, a prophecy.
It was when he began work on The Unvanquished (1942) that Fast resolved to prove that the major current of American history has been revolutionary and to attempt, as he said, "a one-man reformation of the historical novel in America." Such being his resolve, it is not surprising that three of his many books are concerned directly with the American Revolution itself. The Unvanquished scrupulously details Washington's New York campaign in the fall of 1776 from the disaster of Brooklyn Heights to the crucial Battle of Trenton and shows the development of Washington from the fox-hunting landed gentleman to the man of steadfast devotion to the revolutionary cause; while Citizen Tom Paine (1943) Fast's most popular book despite the inevitable falling off of its second half, pictures the Revolution through the eyes of America's first professional revolutionary. These first two books were attempts to rescue two famous but quite different men from historical falsification, from the hagiologists in one case and from the demonologists in the other. Both were consistent portraits, that of Washington being the more convincing, but the critical and popular success both achieved resulted in part, no doubt, from the intensified patriotism of wartime, which was also willing to accept a revolutionary past in order to prove present idealism in a world fight.
When The Proud and the Free appeared in 1950, World War II was over, and the sudden, tentative friendliness between the Soviet Union and the United States had passed into hatred and suspicion. This third volume concerned with the American Revolution did not deal with already famous figures but with men so obscure that the names of most have been lost; it was far more explicit even than Citizen Tom Paine in revealing the revolutionary commitment of its author; and it was received with marked reservations or with rage. One reviewer attacked it so severely for supposed historical inaccuracies that Fast felt required to reply at length in the Marxist-oriented Masses & Mainstream. In his "Reply to Critics" he demonstrates that, contrary to the charge, he had done much careful research to assemble his facts concerning the mutiny of the veteran troops of the Pennsylvania Line's foreign brigades on January 1, 1781; nevertheless, the book and the reply suggest that as opposition to his political views becomes more bitter, as his popularity decreases precisely because of those views, he may be forcing the ideological arguments of his books to greater and greater extremes. The point is worth Illustrating.
One may overlook the unimportant matter that Fast uses as his horrifying climactic episode a contemporary but second-hand account of the punishment of the leading mutineers even when that account is rejected as "fantastic" by Carl Van Doren in his Mutiny in January, a full-scale history of the little-known affair, one to which Fast himself quite properly assigns the major credit for establishing the facts.11 What is really important is his interpretation of the mutineers' motives. As long as he keeps within the bounds set by established facts, of course, any historical novelist, whether Fast or, say, Kenneth Roberts, has the right to interpret the facts according to his own beliefs; yet just as Roberts's attempts to reevaluate the character of Benedict Arnold ultimately smash up against the hard fact of his hero's subsequent treason, so Fast's attempts to make the mutineers a group of half-conscious Marxists smash up against other hard facts. The rebellious sergeants of the Pennsylvania Line's foreign brigades did throw off their officers, they did lead their troops in good order to Princeton, they did set up a well-conducted self-governrnent and refused to be bribed over to the British – and then they resubmitted themselves to their officers. Fast's explanation for this significant conclusion of the revolt is that the sergeants knew they were caught in their own objective situation. Although they knew themselves to be the concentrated spirit of the Revolution, the conditions that would have enabled them to step upward to a new historical level lay in the future and did not then exist. "Thus, in surrendering, the Committee of Sergeants acted less from choice than from the strong pressures of necessity."12
What are the facts? The Pennsylvania Line mutinied for very excellent, but very specific reasons – mistreatment by officers, lack of pay, a disagreement over the term of enlistment. When their officers promised rectification of these abuses, the Committee of Sergeants voluntarily ended their rebellion. Since the order of events seems to show true cause and effect here, to argue that necessity rather than choice motivated their final decision is both gratuitous and questionable. Of course Fast may only be "interpreting," but his interpretation fails to supply motivation for a subsequent event. If the men of the foreign brigades were so far along on the unaccustomed way to becoming professional revolutionaries, why did a majority of them take the proffered chance to leave military service entirely instead of remaining in the essential fight? Finally, the mutiny in the Pennsylvania Line must be considered in relation to other mutinies that took place in the Continental Army at or near the same time, particularly that of the Connecticut Line. Not only did the latter occur six months previous to that of the foreign brigades and among a predominantly native-born body of troops, but it resulted from exactly the same kind of specific grievances. Nor was this mutiny ended by pacific agreement; rather it was put down by the threat of the guns of the Pennsylvania Line itself. If, according to Fast, the foreign brigades were the spearhead of the Revolution in January, 1781, then the Connecticut Line must have been the spearhead in the previous summer – and the Pennsylvania Line, "objectively" speaking, must of necessity have been acting at that time as a counterrevolutionary force. Such a conclusion would hardly suit Fast's interests, but it is the conclusion to which his premises lead.
That Fast's interpretations are becoming more and more extreme, and less and less convincing, is shown by his tendency, steadily on the increase since the end of World War II, to point up his parallels between past and contemporary history, a tendency perhaps motivated by a psychological need to meet present attacks against the Left with ever greater defiance. In The American he had pictured the Anarchists quite incorrectly as proto-Communists. In The Proud and the Free he apparently was trying to make the foreign brigades of the Continental Army stand for the foreign brigades on the Loyalist side in the Spanish War. In Spartacus (1951), his insistence on parallels sometimes turns the book into an ideological anachronism.
The revolt of Spartacus and the gladiators against Rome, a revolt which became the Gladiatorial War of 73-71 B.C., was of course a subject that was a "natural" for Fast; for it gave wide scope to his real gifts – a command of swift narrative, the ability to suggest through concrete details the felt sensuous everyday life of the past, a particular skill (one wonders at its source) with scenes of physical torment or other forms of violence. Even more suitable was the nature of the revolt itself, a spontaneous outbreak by slaves against masters, which in Fast's treatment becomes an explicit prophecy of a future, successful revolution by the proletariat against capitalist domination. The slaves of Rome, it is pointed out several times, are the producers, those who built "the cities, the towers, the walls, the roads and the ships," and who are forced into the "comradeship of the oppressed" by the unthinking, unfeeling cruelty of their owners. Under the leadership of Spartacus the gladiators of Capua, trained by their deadly profession not to make friends with each other, fight off in good order successively larger detachments of Roman soldiery and learn in these acts a sense of community which enables them to band together in a primitive communism where all men are equal and share with one another. That their effort ends in the thousands of crucified gladiators along the Appian Way only indicates that history is not yet ready, as it will be, for so much freedom.
On the improbable chance that the constant parallelizing of revolts might be missed, Fast at one point produces a scene out of a proletarian novel. A group of aristocrats is conducted through a perfume factory where rich materials are processed in filthy surroundings by nearly naked "free" workers, not slaves. The Roman capitalist who operates the factory points out that the factory owners of the country have smashed the laborers' guilds (read "unions"), and he scoffs at the notion that the workers might rebel like Spartacus; yet one of the aristocrats is filled with an inexplicable uneasiness as he sees the men go silently and efficiently about their tasks. Clearly, between The Last Frontier and this book Fast has not developed in the direction of greater subtlety and restraint.
The temper of the book is revolutionary throughout, and it comes as no surprise that there are many echoes of the motifs made familiar by the proletarian novel of the Angry Thirties. Roman justice is merely a means of protecting wealth and power; the politician is a "magician" who makes the common people believe in the illusion that "the greatest fulfillment in life is to die for the rich"; the wealthy Romans themselves are decadent and sexually perverse, while the slaves are normal, moral, and of course dedicatcd to Life. The victorious gladiators insist on equal rights for women, as well as conjugal fidelity for the men, and they reject national differences with an easy internationalism. Nor are race and religion barriers among them; with the gladiators, black and white unite and fight. In this context appears once more a pattern of characters which has become a formula with Fast beginning at least as early as Clarkton (1947) and recurring as well in The Proud and the Free and The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti: always among the important figures are a Negro, a Jew, and a white Gentile. Though Fast's motive is certainly honorable, the repetition of the pattern becomes too glib and suggests that Fast's imagination is overly subjected to ideological habit.
Ideology certainly controls the characterization of Spartacus himself. Even through the hostile accounts of the Roman historians, one glimpses the man's genius and his humanity, but when Fast has filled in the gaps in his personality left by men who thought the deeds of slaves to be unimportant, what emerges is a kind of Soviet hero extrapolated into the first century B.C. The leader of the gladiators is brave, calm, upright, and dignified, possessed of a remarkable "wholeness" of personality, devoted to his followers and wife, who worship him, and to humanity as well. Such he might have been, though Fast has come a long way from his portrait of the admirable yet humanly limited George Washington in The Unvanquished. But real glibness appears when Spartacus is endowed with a preternatural consciousness of history. Not only does he agree with Marx that wealth is created solely by the workers, but he almost repeats, or creates, Marx's most famous appeal when he asserts to a Roman captive that the gladiators will build a new world of equality, justice, and peace after smashing down the brutal power of the owners: "The whole world, will hear the voice of the [slave] – and to the slaves of the world, we will cry out, Rise up and cast off your chains!"13 When Spartacus speaks with both the accents and the vocabulary of The Communist Manifesto, the reader no longer needs to believe in him as a character of his time.
In a note at the end of Spartacus, Fast explains that the novel was of necessity published by himself after he had learned that "no commercial publisher, due to the political temper of the times, would undertake the publication and distribution of the book." If such be indeed the reason for the refusal of the novel, it is not one that American publishing can be proud of; but even more serious for Fast the writer than having to print his own books is the probability that his defiant sense of crisis will impel him even farther along the way of Spartacus, the way to a skillfully done but essentially sterile melodrama of history. Then his best work will lie irrevocably behind him at the beginning of the forties, and a distinct, if limited, talent will be quite lost to American letters.
8 Howard Fast, "Reply to Critics," Masses & Mainstream, III (December, 1950), 53-64, pp. 62-63.