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Symposium Examines Howard Fast's Life and Work

A writer's life in the Cold War: a talk with Howard Fast, and more

By Kirby F. Smith

What was it like to be a writer during the Cold War, when the chilling political climate had an impact on who was published and who was read? Next week, interested members of the Penn community will have an opportunity to learn about the matter both in general terms and from the perspective of one of the writers most profoundly affected by the political currents of the time, Howard Fast.

On March 23rd [1994], the University's Library and the Departments of English and History will host a symposium called "The Politics of Culture in the Cold War Era." In this half-day event, scholars will explore the political context of cultural production in a postwar America that was confronting a new adversary, the Soviet Union. Concentrating on literature and popular culture, the scholars will discuss some of the implications a new and more wary political climate had for writers and artists as well as for their audiences. What was written? What was produced? And what was not written? Which artists and what types of culture thrived and which did not during the 1950s? The speakers will revisit the literary and artistic canons that emerged in the '50s, arguing for a thorough reappraisal of the culture of the period.

Chaired by Dr. Thomas Sugrue, assistant professor of history at Penn, the symposium features Dr. Barbara Foley of Rutgers University (Newark), who will speak on prewar contexts of radical literature; Dr. Alan Wald of the University of Michigan, who will talk about writers on the Left during the 1950s; and Dr. Paul Buhle of the University of Rhode Island, who will explore forms and expressions of popular culture in the '50s. The symposium will conclude with a conversation with Howard Fast, led by Dr. Alan Filreis, associate professor of English at Penn, and Wald.

The symposium marks the opening of a major new exhibition, "Being Read: The Career of Howard Fast." Based on the Fast archive in the University of Pennsylvania Library, the exhibit chronicles the turbulent career of one of America's most acclaimed writers, best known for such historical novels as Citizen Tom Paine, Freedom Road, and Spartacus.

"Fast is lively, gregarious, contentious, and articulate," says Filreis. "Those who come to the symposium will encounter someone who's been in the middle of many controversies and political battles." Filreis mentions an event in 1949, when Fast "was literally in the middle of the Peekskill, N. Y., riots." Back then, the singer Paul Robeson was to perform at an outdoor concert, but local anticommunists appeared and beat up the people trying to get to the concert.

Fast is also the author of more recent bestsellers, notably novels, that relate the story of modern Jewish immigration to the United States.

Yet, as recounted in his 1990 memoir, Being Red, Fast's career has been anything but conventional. A government servant in the Office of War Information during the early days of World War II, foreign correspondent later in the war, candidate for public office, and prisoner for his political beliefs in a federal penitentiary, Fast has also been his own publisher when his politics made it difficult to publish with established houses.

The Howard Fast Collection contains the novelist's literary works, including foreign-language translations that show his worldwide reception; printers' galleys, many with revisions that reveal how Fast worked on his books; his political and journalistic writings; works for children; and photographs.

Dr. Daniel H. Traister, curator of Penn's Special Collections, writes in his introduction to the exhibition catalogue that the Howard Fast Collection documents the literary and public career of a writer whose "considerable presence in American letters, from the 1930s through the present, has yet to be understood, assessed, or even recognized." In fact, writes Traister, "Readers and critics both may ultimately award him a higher stature than current fashions allow. Even were this expectation to prove false, however, so representative a twentieth-century American political writer and figure as Fast will continue to elicit interest and demand study." According to Traister, Fast, who was "once easy to ignore for `being red,' will go on `being read' for some time to come."

"Penn's interest in this tradition and in its archival embodiments is a deeply rooted one among our faculty," says Michael Ryan, acting director of the library's Special Collections." Going back to Arthur Hobson Quinn early in this century and continuing through E. Sculley Bradley and Robert E. Spiller, professors in the University's English and American Civilization departments have worked closely with library staff to build collections that document this particular trajectory of American letters. Those collections now include the works and papers of Theodore Dreiser, James T. Farrell, and others.

The symposium, free and open to the public, will run on March 23 from 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. in the Dietrich Reading Room on the first floor of the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center. A photo I.D. is required for admission to the library. A reception will follow the symposium, during which members of the audience will have a chance to view the exhibition and talk with the speakers and with Howard Fast.

The symposium is made possible by the Thomas S. Gates Fund. For more information, contact either Michael Ryan or Daniel Traister at 898-7088.