Masses & Mainstream
January, 1955, pp 52-55
review by Sillen Sillen
by Howard Fast.
Blue Heron, Press. $3.
TURNING to a contemporary American theme in Silas Timberman, Howard Fast infuses his story with the same passion for freedom that has distinguished his many historical novels. Actually there is no rigid division in Fast's work between the "historical" and the "contemporary." Fast's driving concern is always an illumination of the great moral issues that face people today. With a powerful sense of the continuity of man's long struggle for liberty, extending from Spartacus to Tom Paine, and from the Gideon Jackson of Freedom Road to Sacco and Vanzetti, Howard Fast has given a noble perspective to our own conflict. He has created living and eloquent images of the past not in order to evade the troubles of the present, but to quicken our courage and hope and resolution.
Still, many of his devoted readers looked forward to a novel by Fast dealing directly with the issues generated by the Cold War. For American writing today is so notably lacking in the real drama of American life. Never in our history, I am sure, was the gulf so great between the artistic image and the social fact. How many writers seem to work in an increasingly narrow pocket of existence! Little themes and meaningless lives dominate the literary scene, and who can disagree that "Too much of the new fiction is a quest for reality outside the social world, in an effective vacuum," as Malcolm Cowley observes in The Literary Situation? Cowley goes on to say: "In these days of investigations run wild, Americans are learning to be timid about expressing their opinions, especially if these are in the least heretical. The result is that we are now reading novels by intellectuals, for intellectuals, about supposedly intellectual or at least well-educated characters, in which not a single intelligent notion is expressed about the world in which we live."
So it is a welcome thing indeed that Howard Fast's latest novel not only deals with present-day reality, but with this very theme of "investigations run wild," the corrosive thought-control that is central to any understanding of what is happening in America and to America. Fast has deliberately avoided the spectacular in this book. He is not here dealing, as in the works of history, with the makers and shakers of the world, the towering figures and epochal crises of the past. In his story of a witch-hunt on a midwestern university campus in 1950-1951, he is showing the lives of ordinary Americans in an extraordinary time.
"In its beginning, it was ordinary." That is the keynote, and the central character, Silas Timberman, a professor of American literature at Clemington, is introduced as a man leading a comfortable life with its own routines and habits. In another time, the fact that Silas built his courses around the democratic ideas of Mark Twain might perhaps not have aroused the fears of the university administration. But this is the time of the Cold War, a war that had just been heated up in Korea, and Mark Twain is suspect, along with Jack London, Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis. When Silas balked at "volunteering" for the university's alarm-mongering civil defense organization, the trouble started. And when it came out that he and some other faculty members had signed a peace petition, the sluices of suspicion and calumny were opened wide. Step by step, quiet-loving, academic Silas Timberman and his wife Myra find themselves in the center of a storm. Because Silas would not renounce Mark Twain or his own conviction that atomic warfare would be calamitous, he is fired from his job, hauled up before the Brannigan committee, and imprisoned for perjury on the testimony of a lying stoolpigeon .
With quick strokes, Fast has sketched the life of a mid-west campus: the divisions of feeling in the student body, the calculating president who wants to be a Senator, the pompous, petty-minded Department chairman, the timid teachers as well as those who stand up for sanity, like the elderly and caustic Ike Amsterdam, the Jewish professor Lawrence Kaplin, Edna Crawford, the Communist history teacher Alec Brady. The fired teachers are among the top figures in their various fields - and therefore all the more appropriate targets for the witch-hunters.
Unspectacular though they be, they emerge as heroes as they stick together to defend their right to think and speak. Fast, who has of course gone through the mill himself, has given a particularly lucid and convincing picture of the Senate committee inquisition. He shows the sadistic, warped souls who preside over the witch-hunt: Senator Brannigan ("the body and face of a thug combined oddly with the eyes and attitude of a dreamer or a madman" - a picture that TV-viewers will have no difficulty recognizing), and Brannigan's strutting, sneering boy-wonder counsel who is here portrayed with the contempt that is his due. And we get a persuasive answer to the question that so many ask: "Why do they invoke the Fifth?" The alternative, Fast shows, is to be led on to name other names (Contempt, if you don't), or to open oneself to faked perjury charges, as happened to Silas. At the same time, Fast of course treats with full respect those who prefer to stand on the First Amendment by itself, as Silas did despite the advice of his attorney McAllister.
At the climax of the hearing ex-professor Timberman reflects:
"...Brannigan who had never read a book or pondered over a poem or heard the first cry of his own child coming into the world, or wondered where his next dollar to feed children was coming from - Brannigan was lord over power and saintly in his hatred of the Soviet Union, a new sublimity; and there was Brannigan and here was he Silas Timberman, somehow and fantastically, occupying the center of the stage in this mad comedy, plucked out of a sleepy little village in the midlands and brought here on wings to be confronted by Brannigan.... Look at me, gentlemen, a scholar. The house I live in was also of paper - manuscript paper, so as to speak. I wanted to find out and write down why Mark Twain was what he was and the way he was; but I never thought it necessary to find out why Silas Timberman was what he was or the way he was - "
This necessity to confront the reality of one's own life in an America where McCarthyism rides high is the main theme of Fast's novel. Silas Timberman is on the way to an answer; he hasn't worked it out. But he is at grips with the real issues in the country: the overriding need to defend America from fascism and ruinous war. Fast has boldly tackled the big job before progressive writers. That is the job of helping more and more Americans to see the truth that reaction threatens not radicals alone but all people who don't have a vested interest in bigotry and the lunacies of atomic slaughter. Fast shows that it is the country itself, the land and the people we love, which is at stake. This book is a powerful blow against the fascists. Reading it makes you want urgently to get it into the hands of people.
True, one could wish it even better and stronger than it is. I feel in Silas Timberman that not enough is given us of the characters, their inner-relationships, their backgrounds. Howard Fast is a masterful storyteller. His narrative is marvelously clear; it sings; the reader is quickly and tenaciously involved in the story. But is not this wonderful quality sometimes achieved without at the same time developing that density of characterization which the reader needs to possess fully the individuals portrayed? One wants to linger a little more, to get the lights and shadows. When Fast tells us at the end that Silas and his wife Myra are more closely knit together as the result of the inquisition, we accept the truth of this as an idea but we don't have enough of the dramatic substance of the relationship. The contrast between the Communist Brady and the stoolpigeon Allen is clear in broad terms, but the fabric of their clashing lives is not closely enough woven.
To suggest the possibilities of such deepening is not to dampen one's enthusiasm for a work which so firmly points a direction for writers in our time. In a period of disordered retreats, Fast addresses himself squarely to a major living theme. The appeal of this book is broad. It is potentially that of the millions whom Fast reached before he was boycotted by the big publishers and newspapers. And at the same time its statement is unequivocal. It meshes with reality. Fast's tireless, militant concern for the happiness and safety of the American people, his ardent defense of our finest inheritance as a nation, has nobly asserted itself in many books and many public deeds. In Silas Timberman it again achieves triumphant expression. The book belongs to the great tradition in our national literature.