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Howard Fast, 88; Novels Included 'Spartacus'

March 14, 2003|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Howard Fast, the best-selling author of "Freedom Road," "Spartacus" and a string of other novels that focused on history's downtrodden, has died. He was 88.

Fast, a former member of the American Communist Party who was imprisoned and blacklisted during the McCarthy era, died of natural causes Wednesday at his home in Old Greenwich, Conn.

In a writing career that began in the early 1930s and spanned seven decades, Fast wrote -- in addition to novels -- short stories, poetry, journalism, essays, plays and screenplays.

As the writer of more than 80 books -- works that have sold in excess of 80 million copies worldwide -- he earned a reputation as one of the most widely read authors of the 20th century.

Fast's breakthrough was "Citizen Tom Paine" (1943), a fictionalized biography about the revolutionary pamphleteer that, in the words of well-known critic Malcolm Cowley at the time, "restores a great figure to our mythology."

More recently, book critic Michael Harris described Fast as a rousing storyteller who "wrote of history's titanic struggles, always from the point of view of the underdog."

Fast's 1941 novel "The Last Frontier" dealt with the 1878 attempt of the Cheyenne Indians to return to their native lands; his 1944 bestseller "Freedom Road" chronicled the struggles of former slaves during Reconstruction.

Translated into 82 languages and praised by black leaders, "Freedom Road" won the Schomburg Award for Race Relations in 1944. It later became a 1979 TV miniseries starring Muhammad Ali and Kris Kristofferson.

While "Freedom Road" was being praised by readers from Eleanor Roosevelt to W.E.B. Du Bois, Fast was under FBI scrutiny.

He had spent World War II with the U.S. Office of War Information, writing for Voice of America broadcasts to occupied Europe and serving as a war correspondent in the China-Burma-India theater.

But he also had been active in anti-fascist causes for a number of years before formally joining the American Communist Party in 1944.

In his 1990 memoir, "Being Red," Fast explained that he had discussed joining the party with his artist wife, Bette, beforehand:

"Finally we came to the conclusion that if the anti-fascist struggle was the most important fact of our lives, then we owed it to our conscience to become part of the group that best knew how to conduct it."

Later called to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Fast refused to disclose the names of contributors -- one of whom was Eleanor Roosevelt -- to a fund for maintaining a home for orphans of veterans of the Spanish Civil War.

In 1950, after various appeals and having been under constant FBI surveillance, he was imprisoned for three months on contempt charges.

Blacklisted by mainstream publishers after his release, Fast was forced to assume various pseudonyms, including E.V. Cunningham, under which he wrote a series of popular detective stories whose hero, a nisei detective named Masao Masuto, was a member of the Beverly Hills Police Department.

Fast also started his own small publishing house, Blue Heron Press, which published what may be his best-known novel, "Spartacus," in 1951. The story of a slave revolt in ancient Rome, "Spartacus" was reprinted in paperback after it became a successful 1960 movie starring Kirk Douglas.

Fast had been inspired to write the novel in prison. It was a time, he once said, when he "began more deeply than ever before to comprehend the full agony and hopelessness of the underclass."

Despite continued FBI surveillance, Fast did not let up on his political activities.

He ran unsuccessfully for Congress on the American Labor Party ticket in 1952. He also joined the staff of the Communist Party newspaper, the Daily Worker, for which he had written columns for many years.

In 1954, Fast was awarded the Stalin International Peace Prize.

But by 1957, after revelations of monstrous conditions in the Soviet Union under Stalin, Fast had broken with the party.

"I was a part of a generation that believed in socialism and finally found that belief corroded and destroyed," Fast said in a 1981 interview. "That is not renouncing communism or socialism. It's reaching a certain degree of enlightenment about what the Soviet Union practices."

Fast's social conscience was forged on the mean streets of New York City.

The grandson of Ukrainian immigrants, he was born Nov. 11, 1914. His factory worker father and British mother struggled to make ends meet. But life became even more difficult after his mother died in 1923 and his father was frequently unemployed.

His father sent his youngest son, 4-year-old Julius, to live with relatives, and 9-year-old Jerome and 8-year-old Howard sold newspapers, begged and stole food to survive.

But Fast was also a voracious reader, and he began writing at an early age.

"I invented a better world for myself, where life was easier, by conjuring up poems and stories," he told The Times in 1978. "Writing became a lovely way to escape my environment."

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