This Day in Jewish History

1914: Communist U.S. Author of Spartacus Is Born

Howard Fast’s political bent didn't stop him from serving in the U.S. army, but after an arrest he was anathema, for a while.

Tuesday is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Howard Fast, a prolific and popular novelist who spent a good part of his career on a blacklist because of his affiliation with the American Communist Party. Fast kept writing even when he was out of fashion and worse, and set up his own press to publish his own books.

Howard Melvin Fast was born November 11, 1914, in New York, and grew up on the Lower East Side and, later, in Washington Heights. His father, Barney Fast, had immigrated to the United States in 1878 from the Ukrainian village of Fastov. His mother, the former Ida Miller, was Lithuanian-born.

Fast later wrote about his father that he was “a good, decent dreamer of a man who always had both feet planted firmly in midair.” Barney Fast was employed as an iron worker and in the garment industry, but after his wife’s death, in 1923, he was also often out of work, and his three sons frequently had to fend for themselves, even stealing when necessary.

While attending George Washington High School, Howard worked at the Harlem branch of the public library, and took advantage of the job to read prolifically. He had already begun to write stories, but didn’t manage to sell any for publication until his boss at the library explained that no magazine would accept a handwritten submission. Howard rented a typewriter for three months, and in 1932, saw his first piece published in Amazing Stories magazine.

Once Fast began writing, he never stopped. Initially, he held factory jobs to pay the bills, and also spent a brief period traveling around the American South – which inspired his first novel, “Two Valleys,” published in 1933, when he was only 18 – but by 1937, he was able to support himself with his writing. That was also the year he married Bette Cohen, an art student.

Conceived in liberty indeed

Two years later, Fast published “Conceived in Liberty,” a novel centered on Valley Forge during the American War of Independence. It sold a million copies.

During World War II, Fast served in the Office of War Information, writing for the Voice of America. He also joined the Communist Party in 1943 – and didn’t see a contradiction between that and his war service. That same year, he wrote “Citizen Tom Paine,” a novel about the colonial American radical whose tracts helped inspire the Revolutionary cause. That was followed by “Freedom Road,” about a black man in Reconstruction-period South Carolina who rises to the U.S. Congress, before being brought down when racism and the Klan are allowed to prevail.

In 1950, Fast, whose Communist sympathies, if not membership, were well known (he wrote regularly for the Daily Worker), was subpoenaed by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. When he refused to appear, he was sentenced to three months in federal prison. That’s where he began writing “Spartacus,” about a slave revolt in the ancient Roman empire. (In 1948, he also wrote a novel about the Maccabees, “My Glorious Brothers,” which was popular in newly independent Israel.)

Because no publisher would bring out “Spartacus,” Fast set up his own company to publish it, in 1951, and sold some 48,000 copies.

Nine years later, Stanley Kubrick’s film version of “Spartacus” was released, with a screenplay by Dalton Trumbo, another blacklisted writer. This marked the beginning of Fast’s rehabilitation.

By then, Fast had quit the Party, and, in the wake of Nikita Khrushchev’s 1956 revelations about Joseph Stalin, had written a book disavowing Soviet communism. From Fast’s point of view, it was communism that had betrayed him, not the opposite.

Ultimately, Fast wrote more than 80 books, and wrote for TV and for screen as well. When journalists noted, late in his life, that the former communist, a resident of tony Greenwich, Connecticut, seemed to be living pretty well, he responded that he had made “Not a penny in unearned wealth. Just the sweat of my own labor and some Treasury notes.”

Howard Fast died on March 12, 2003, at the age of 88.