Revising his life: Howard Fast

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Howard Fast

After leaving the Communist Party in 1957, writer Howard Fast went on to even greater professional success. The 1960 film version of his novel Spartacus was a huge hit and remains a classic. He wrote a series of highly popular historical novels. Even after he left the Party, his work continued to be shot through with heavy-handed politics. He wrote a draft screenplay for Spartacus, but Kirk Douglas, the star and producer, rejected it, calling it “a disaster, unusable” because “[i]t was just characters spouting ideas.”

Fast also published not one but two accounts of his involvement with Communism. What is striking are the differences between the two books. In his 1957 Saturday Review piece he had written that while the U.S. was not perfect, “it is a land where the individual, in his work and in his rights, is recognized and defended”; the Communist Party however, was “a prison for man’s best and boldest dreams.”

godIn his book The Naked God: The Writer and the Communist Party, published the same year, Fast continued to take this line, describing Communism as being rooted in “naked terror, awful brutality, and frightening ignorance” and saying that Communists had sold their souls when they joined the Party. Thirty-three years later, however, he wrote another book, Being Red, in which – to quote a review by Gerald Meyer – he covered “much of the same material, but from a very different perspective and for a very different purpose.”

red1That’s putting it mildly. As Meyer himself put it, “Being Red describes Fast’s membership in the Party as the best years of his life.” Dropping The Naked God down the memory hole, Fast “insisted that the Party was not dominated by the Soviet Union,” praised the USSR for having vanquished Hitler and saved “three million Polish and Ukrainian Jews,” maintained that the Daily Worker “never compromised with the truth as it saw the truth,” and resumed saying, as he had during his Party days, that he and his fellow Reds were “priests in the brotherhood of man” and members of “the company of the good.” Meyer summed it up this way: “Without ever mentioning The Naked God, in Being Red Fast refuted the damning criticisms of the Party he made in the earlier memoir.” He even made up at least one story out of whole cloth. (This was far from the only lie he told about his career in later years. At one point he even claimed that Ronald Reagan had applied to join the CPUSA in 1938 but had been rejected as “too stupid” – a tale that was sheer invention.) Significantly, the list of “Books by Howard Fast” in the front of Being Red omitted The Naked God. “Clearly,” wrote Meyer, “The Naked God is something Fast wanted to forget, and amazingly the reviewers of Being Red have allowed it to be forgotten.”

Why did Fast revise the story of his life? Meyer got it right: he was 85 (he would die three years later) and “wanted to be remembered as a man of the Left.” While The Naked God had been a good career move in 1957, enabling him to resuscitate his career as a mainstream novelist, Being Red was an equally good career move in 1990, when the most honorable items a writer could have on his CV, in the eyes of the literary establishment, were a stint in the CPUSA and a period on the Hollywood blacklist. Historian Ron Capshaw’s summation seems fair enough: “Howard Fast, among the writers attracted to communism, emerges as the worst example for the CPUSA: simultaneously dupe and careerist, a propaganda merchant and a groupie.”

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