Howard Fast papers
Held at: University of Pennsylvania: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts [Contact Us]3420 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104-6206
This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the University of Pennsylvania: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in their reading room, and not digitally available through the web.
Overview and metadata sections
Howard Melvin Fast (1914-2003) was a best-selling and prolific American author of historical fiction, mysteries, and science fiction, known for his books on themes of patriotism, social justice, and the immigrant experience. He wrote nearly 100 books and more than 150 short stories, as well as numerous screenplays, stage plays, and newspaper columns. He was a member of the Communist Party of the United State of America (CPUSA) from 1944 to 1956 and was forced to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1946 and the McCarthy Hearings (Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI)) in 1953. He spent three months in prison in 1950 for Contempt of Congress and was blacklisted from publishing in the United States during the late 1940s through the 1950s. He renounced his Communist Party membership in 1957 and was able to publish again, continuing to write well into his 80s.
Howard Fast was born November 11, 1914 in New York City, the fourth of five children of Barney and Ida Fast. Barney Fast came to the United States at the age of nine in 1878 from the Ukrainian town of Fastov, which immigration officials shortened to become the surname Fast. Ida Miller was of Lithuanian descent and grew up in England. She came to the United States at the age of fifteen in 1897, her passage paid for by Barney, who had fallen in love with her through a photograph. Their five children included one girl and four boys: Rena, Arthur (who died, age six, in 1912), Jerome, Howard, and Julius. When Howard was only eight years old his mother Ida died of pernicious anemia.
The family lived in severe poverty in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan. Barney held a series of low-paying jobs including iron worker, cable car motorman, tin worker, and garment worker, but frequently he was on strike or unemployed. Howard remembered, "So profound and so complete was the poverty of my childhood, that to this day I can recall it only with feelings of utmost terror and sorrow." Fast's older sister Rena left home to marry when Howard was just ten, leaving Barney to raise his boys alone. Julius was sent to live with his maternal grandmother, and Howard and Jerome took to stealing bread, dairy products, and clothing from neighbors to get by.
Beginning at the ages of ten and eleven, the two boys worked as daily newspaper delivery boys, while continuing to attend school. Other jobs followed for the young Howard, including stints working for a butcher shop, cigar factory, hat maker, and dress factory. Then he landed a job as a page in the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library. There he discovered the writings of Jack London (The Iron Heel) and George Bernard Shaw (The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism), two works which would become important in the development of his beliefs in socialism and communism.
Graduating from George Washington High School (P.S. 46) in 1931, Howard continued to work to help support Jerome's attendance at college, and spent a year on scholarship at the National Academy of Design in New York City. By this time Howard had begun writing in earnest, the family agreeing to rent a typewriter for him for $1.75 a month. Three months later he had his first story, "The Wrath of the Purple," a science fiction piece published in the magazine Amazing Stories. It was also around this time that he met a young Communist leader named Sarah Kunitz. Howard fell hard for her, but she rebuffed him, and discouraged him from joining the party at such a young age.
After only a year at the Academy, and feeling rejected by Sarah, Howard with his friend Devery Freeman embarked on a "walking tour" of the South. The young men worked a string of odd jobs such as laundryman, delivery boy, and construction worker to get from one economically depressed town to the next. During this time many of Howard's political ideas continued to form and he decided to become a full-time writer when he returned to New York City.
Fast's first two novels, Two Valleys (1933) and Strange Yesterday (1934) were published in quick succession, but they were barely noticed by the critics. Sarah Kunitz's response, however, was devastating. She characterized them as escapist fairy tales not worthy of his own working-class background, and she challenged him to use his own experiences to write in support of the people.
Fast's first big break was his short story, "The Children," which was published in the prestigious Story magazine in 1937. It contains Fast's harrowing memory from childhood of a Halloween lynching of a black boy by other children. The story was a sensation and was banned in seven New England cities including Boston, ensuring even greater notoriety. Also in 1937, Fast married Bette Cohen (1917-1994), having met on a blind date two years earlier. Cohen was originally from Bayonne, New Jersey, and attended the Parsons School of Fine Art where she studied drawing and sculpture.
Additional successes followed. In 1939, Fast published Conceived in Liberty, his first important and successful book. Taking place at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777-1778, it depicts the American Revolution at its lowest point, and was inspired by a trip to the then State Park by Howard and Bette in 1938. This was followed by The Last Frontier, published in 1941. Intrigued by a story he had heard of the arduous and bloody trek made in 1878 by the Northern Cheyenne from their reservation in Oklahoma Territory to their homeland in Wyoming and Montana, Howard and Bette took a trip out west in 1939. There they visited Indian reservations and met survivors of the saga, and learned about the area's history from experts at the University of Oklahoma and the Oklahoma Historical Society. In 1942, Fast published a third historical novel and the second to take place during the Revolutionary War. The Unvanquished takes place in 1776, and covers George Washington's army from the Battle of Long Island through the crossing of the Delaware.
With the possibility of being called to service during World War II (Fast had a low draft number), he decided to join the war effort by seeking a job in the Office of War Information (OWI) in 1942. There he was put in charge of writing dramatic radio programs which were broadcast through the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) to occupied Europe. This was the start of Voice of America (VOA) and Fast was extremely successful in this endeavour. However, by 1943, when VOA decided to move its operations to North Africa, Fast's left-leaning opinions and activities had come to the attention of the FBI and he was denied the opportunity to continue on in the OWI. Determined to get even closer to the action, Fast became a war correspondent for Esquire and Coronet magazines, covering North Africa, India, and Burma. It was around this time, too, that Fast finally joined the Communist Party (late 1943) and that he and Bette had their first child, Rachel Ann Fast (born in 1944).
Meanwhile, Fast published two more highly successful books: Citizen Tom Paine in 1943 and Freedom Road in 1944. Citizen Tom Paine tells the fictionalized story of the life of the important pamphleteer and financial backer of the Revolutionary War. Critically received upon its debut, the book became one of Fast's best-selling novels. During World War II the State Department had it published in pocket-size and widely distributed in at least eight languages. Freedom Road got its inspiration from Fast's connections to left-leaning African Americans Paul Robeson and W.E.B. Du Bois. Set in the South during Reconstruction, Fast infused the work with his own beliefs in racial justice and timely connections to the contemporary war against racism blanketing Europe. Again, this novel sold millions of copies and was translated into more than 80 languages.
In 1946, Fast served as contributing editor and then editorial board member of the American Marxist magazine, New Masses, and covered labor issues for the Communist Party sponsored newspaper, the Daily Worker. He was also summoned twice before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) that year. In his first appearance, Fast was questioned about his board membership in the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee (JAFRC). Charged with being a Communist front organization, the JAFRC had funded a hospital for Republican Army survivors who had fled Spain following the Spanish Civil War. Called before the House committee, the sixteen board members and the executive secretary of the JAFRC each refused to turn over the organization's donor records, and were cited with Contempt of Congress and Conspiracy.
In Fast's second appearance before the House committee that year, he was questioned about his 1944 book, The Incredible Tito: Man of the Hour, which suggested that the JAFRC had aided Yugoslavian Communist leader Josip Broz Tito. For the initial contempt charge, Fast received a three-month prison term and fine of $500. He was released on $1,000 bond. Fast and his colleagues of the JAFRC lost the opportunity to appeal when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear their case, Barsky, et al. v. United States of America, in 1950.
Once word of Fast's unconfirmed membership in the Communist Party spread throughout the media, he found himself on the losing end of a number of fights. His book Citizen Tom Paine, which had previously sold millions of copies and had been printed for troops during WWII, came under attack from the Board of Superintendents of the New York City Public School System, which recommended it be removed from all school libraries. Ostensibly singled out for its content, not the political leanings of its author, the book was banned by a vote of six to one among school board members, who characterized Fast as a "public representation of Communist totalitarianism" and the books as being "lewd and lascivious." Further bans on the book were attempted in Scarsdale, New York, where the notorious Committee of Ten attempted to have it and other books by Fast removed from the high school library.
In late 1947, because of his growing Communist reputation, Fast was banned from speaking at Columbia University. Bans from Brooklyn College and Hunter College soon followed. A year later, though, he appeared at New York University, and Columbia University reversed course and allowed him to speak as well.
Between 1946 and 1948 Fast published three books which met with modest success, The American in 1946, Clarkton in 1947, and My Glorious Brothers in 1948. The American is a biographical novel of John Peter Altgeld, the Governor of Illinois from 1893-1897, who pardoned three anarchist bombers involved in the Haymarket Riot of 1886. Clarkton concerns the labor issues of a contemporary Massachusetts mill town. And My Glorious Brothers tells a story of the Jewish struggle for homeland in the time before Christ. Fast's second child, Jonathan, was born in 1948.
In 1949, the civil rights activist and African American singer Paul Robeson was scheduled to perform a benefit concert for the Civil Rights Congress in Peekskill, New York. Fast, Robeson's friend, had driven from New York City to chair the concert. However, it was called off when mobs attacked the audience, threw rocks at Robeson's vehicle and shouted insults. A cross was burned and Robeson was lynched in effigy. Rescheduled for a later date with security organized by the trade unions, the concert itself took place without incident. But cars leaving the venue were once again pummeled with stones and rocks and some attendees were dragged from their cars and beaten. Fast wrote eloquently about the series of events in his 1951 book, Peekskill: USA.
Throughout his life, Fast was involved in a number of groups which were considered communist front organizations by anti-communists. These included the National Council of Arts, Sciences and Professions, the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship, the League of American Writers, and Jewish Writers and Artists, among others. In 1949, Fast helped organize the Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace which was held in New York City at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. Later that year he attended the First World Congress of Peace Partisans in Paris, France. He had hoped to attend the Second World Congress in Warsaw, Poland in 1950, but the State Department refused his request for a passport. A passport was refused again in 1953 when the Soviet Union awarded Fast the Stalin Peace Prize for Promoting Peace Among Nations.
In 1950, after exhausting all attempts at appealing the Contempt of Congress charge, Fast served three months in prison at the Mill Point Federal Prison in Pocahontas County, West Virginia. While in prison, Fast read Tolstoy's War and Peace and worked on the manuscript for what would become his novel Spartacus. Fast later said he became a pacifist while listening to prayers of men on death row.
After being released, Fast submitted his manuscript for Spartacus to his publisher, Little, Brown. Although it initially received praise from editor Angus Cameron, the book was soon rejected by the company, fearful of being taken as a Communist front. Other mainstream publishers would not touch it either so Fast decided to self publish in 1951 and began his own publishing company, Blue Heron Publishing House, in 1952. Blue Heron operated until 1957, publishing or republishing eleven books by Fast as well as works by other blacklisted authors including Edward Biberman, Stefan Heym, Walter Lowenfels, and Meridel Le Sueur. While Fast's efforts at running a publishing house were not terribly successful, he had a hit on his hands with Spartacus. The story about a Roman slave revolt sold 48,000 copies in 1952 and eventually sold millions. In 1960 it was turned into the now famous film of the same name starring Kirk Douglas and Laurence Olivier.
In 1952 Fast became a candidate for the 23rd congressional district of New York on the American Labor Party (ALP) ticket. His campaign, funded in large part from the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA), faltered and he finished last among a field of four candidates. Fast's only other significant involvement in electoral politics had been his efforts to help elect Henry A. Wallace for President on the Progressive Party ticket in 1948. That effort had also been thwarted by its association with Communist supporters like Fast.
In 1953, Fast was again summoned before Congress, this time in front of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Senate Government Operations Committee, known colloquially as the McCarthy Hearings, after its leader, Senator Joe McCarthy. Fast and several others were questioned about their employment by Voice of America (VOA) during the war and its association with the Office of War Information (OWI). As he had when questioned before the House Un-American Activities committee in 1946, Fast refused to answer any questions about his association with Communism, citing protections under the First and Fifth Amendments of the Constitution.
Novels published between 1953 and 1957 include The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti (1953), which Fast had clearly associated with the contemporary Julius and Ethel Rosenberg case, and Silas Timberman (1955) and The Story of Lola Gregg (1956), both of which deal with McCarthyism of the late 1940s and 1950s. Unsurprisingly, these novels did not get much traction at the time in the United States, but were praised in the Soviet Union.
In 1957, after learning about past atrocities committed by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, Fast officially and publicly abandoned the Communist Party. News of the former leader's abuse of power gradually made its way to the United States after being revealed by Stalin's successor Nikita Khrushchev in a secret speech delivered at the Twentieth Communist Party Congress in Moscow in 1956. Fast confirmed rumours that he had left the Communist Party in an interview in the New York Times in early 1957 and expanded on his views in an article he wrote for Masses and Mainstream the same year. Fast's explanation for his commitment to and eventual departure from the Communist Party is treated in two of his non-fiction books, The Naked God, published in 1957, and Being Red, from 1990.
After Fast's break from the Communist Party, he enjoyed continued success as a writer of historical novels and had a stint as a screenwriter in Hollywood. The highly successful April Morning (1961), a coming of age novel set at the Battle of Lexington during the American Revolution, went on to become assigned reading in many young adult social studies courses (showing that Fast's reputation had thoroughly rebounded since the days when Citizen Tom Paine had been banned in the schools). The Hessian (1972) also takes place during the Revolutionary War, and tells the story of a German drummer boy in service to the British who is put on trial over the death of a mentally challenged resident of a small Connecticut town. Fast also began writing mystery novels under the pseudonym, E.V. Cunningham. Twelve novels titled with women's names were published between 1960 and 1973, and an additional eight novels, some featuring a Japanese Zen Buddhist detective from Beverly Hills, were produced between 1969 and 1986, all under the Cunningham pen name.
From the late 1950s through the 1960s, Fast wrote screenworks for Universal Pictures and Paramount Studios, as well as for Pennebaker Films and Alfred Hitchcock. In the 1970s, Fast moved to Hollywood and continued to write screenplays for the studios. Besides the 1960 production of Spartacus, other films based on Fast's books include Rachel and the Stranger (1948), Cheyene Autumn (1964), Man in the Middle (1964), and Mirage (1965), in addition to adaptations of his E.V. Cunningham books, Sylvia (1965) and Penelope (1966). Fast also wrote or adapted several works for television including Freedom Road (1979), April Morning (1987), and The Crossing (1999).
Fast's best selling works of this time were those in the Immigrant series, a collection of six historical novels (The Immigrants, Second Generation, The Establishment, The Legacy, The Immigrant's Daughter, and An Independent Woman) chronicling the lives of an American immigrant family in San Francisco over several generations. The novels, published between 1977 and 1997, were a commercial success for Fast, selling over 10 million copies, and also led to a television miniseries.
Fast also wrote several plays which saw some success, including David and Paula (1982), about the Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion and his wife, and The Novelist, about the writer Jane Austen, which was written in 1976, but not produced until 1987. An earlier play, Thirty Pieces of Silver (1951), which featured as a main character Judas Iscariot, had enormous success in performances in Prague, Vienna, Berlin, and Warsaw, among other European cities.
Fast continued to write well into his eighties, penning a column called War and Peace in the New York Observer from 1989 to 1993, and a weekly Greenwich Time column from 1992 to 2001. His last novel, Greenwich, was published in 2000.
Fast's wife Bette died of colon cancer in 1994, two days before his 80th birthday. In 1999 Fast married his literary assistant, Mercedes (Mimi) O'Connor. Howard Fast died on March 12, 2003 at the age of 88.
(Sources: Internal; Gerald Sorin, Howard Fast: Life and Literature in the Left Lane (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012); Andrew Macdonald, Howard Fast: A Critical Companion (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996); Frank Campenni, "Citizen Howard Fast: A Critical Biography" (Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin, 1971); "Howard Fast: Comprehensive Bibliography & Texts," Stephen Trussell, last modified February 13, 2013, http://www.trussel.com/f_how.htm; "Howard Fast," in Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series 18 (1994): 167-187; "Fast, Howard (Melvin)," in Current Biography 52, no. 4 (April 1991): 17-22; email correspondence with Jonathan Fast, March 2016.)
There are ten series in the Howard Fast papers: "Correspondence," "Journals, appointment books, address books, financials," "Writings," "Promotion and reviews of Howard Fast's works," "Scrapbooks," "Biographies, profiles, chronologies, bibliographies, interviews," "Governmental and political files," "Vital records, personal documents, awards," "Photographs and artwork," and "Audiovisual materials." The papers were deposited at the University of Pennsylvania over the course of 45 years and represent nearly all facets of the writer's life.
The series of "Correspondence" is further divided into four sub-series: "Correspondent," arranged alphabetically; "Topic," arranged alphabetically; "Chronological," arranged by year; and correspondence transferred to the University of Pennsylvania from the University of Wisconsin--Milwaukee. Description of these sub-series may be seen in the Contents note at the series level.
Among all the correspondence subseries, letters both to and from Howard Fast are included together. Fast often kept carbon copies of his replies or used carbon paper to include his reply on the verso of the letter he received.
In correspondence from 1992 with the director of the University of Pennsylvania Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Fast wrote that "During the worst of the McCarthy period, I sent some material to Czechoslovakia, thinking the stuff would be destroyed if it remained here---correspondence and some original manuscripts." In a following letter he says "My original scripts are simply typed, by myself mostly. I have some. Others, at a time when I was sure they'd be destroyed, were sent to Czechoslovakia and Russia---as was some of the best correspondence." It is not clear where, exactly, he might have sent these materials, and his son Jonathan is not aware of any of his father's material going to the Eastern Bloc.
The series "Journals, appointment books, address books, financials" contains personal writings and documents of Fast and his family. There are five short travel journals penned between 1939 and 1978. Some of these are in the hands of both Fast and his wife Bette, who seemed to trade off writing about their travel together. A continuous run of appointment books exist from 1959 to 2003, the year of Fast's death. There are three files of names, telephone numbers, and/or addresses of friends, relatives and acquaintances of Fast. Finally there are several files of financial material, including those concerning the building of a home in Mt. Pleasant, New York in 1941 and 1942, a detailed income record for Fast between 1945 and 1953, and a grouping of financial holdings for the period circa 1984-1995, as well as a few additional files.
The series "Writings" is subdivided by genre and includes both the novels written under Fast's pseudonym E.V. Cunningham as well as those published under his own name, his non-fiction books, stage works, works for screen, and adaptations of Fast's works by others. Also in this series are story ideas and short stories, as well as short-form non-fiction works such as essays, newspaper articles, and pamphlet texts. Poetry by Fast round out his own writings and there is one file of poems to or about Howard Fast by others. The remainder of the series is comprised of writings--some by Fast, some not--which were collected by Fast into groupings which have now been labeled "Writings by Howard Fast in bound periodicals," "Monographs collected by Howard Fast" (that is, not by Howard Fast), and "Periodicals collected by Howard Fast" (again, not by Howard Fast). Throughout, the "Writings" series files have been described as fully as possible to indicate what state the writings are in ("draft," "galley," "printers proof"), whether they are in manuscript, typescript, or a published form, and for published works, full citations of both books and articles. For books, short stories, and short-form non-fiction, every attempt has been made to indicate if a work was published or unpublished during Fast's lifetime, however, no attempt has been made to indicate likewise for the production of stageworks or the release of works for screen.
The series "Promotions and reviews" includes material such as clippings, flyers, brochures, programs, and posters created to advertise Fast's works, as well as reviews of these works. It is organized by the title of the work. Several files at the end of the series include material on Fast's brother Jerry, his son Jonathan, as well as more general material on Fast and his works. The series "Scrapbooks," covering the years 1933-1978, similarly contains material advertising or reviewing Fast's works, as well as news service clippings on the appearance of Howard Fast's name. Several incidents in Fast's life are well documented through these clippings, including Fast's involvement in the labor movement, his membership in the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee (JAFRC), testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), bans against Fast on speaking at area colleges and universities, the banning of his books, and the riots at Peekskill, New York. Most of the contents of the scrapbooks are in English with some in a variety of foreign languages. There are also clippings of his columns in various newspapers. Many of the scrapbooks are in poor condition. Those which were most brittle have been taken apart and the contents foldered. As the scrapbooks are extremely fragile, researchers are asked to take extra caution when handling the material.
The series "Biographies, profiles, chronologies, bibliographies, interviews" contains published and unpublished documents on the life and works of Howard Fast. These are grouped by category and arranged in chronological order.
The series "Governmental and political files" contains Fast's voluminous FBI files (1944-1958), his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee (1946-1947) and subsequent appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court (1946-1948), and material on his American Labor Party campaign for Congress (1952).
The series "Vital records, personal documents, awards" contains such records as family birth, marriage, and death certificates, report cards, diplomas, identification cards, passports, and awards, including an honorary doctorate for Fast from Rowan University.
The series "Photographs and artworks" contains photographic portraits and other professional shots of Fast, as well as candid scenes of Fast, his family, friends, and associates. There are also photographs of book displays and productions of his works. Among the artwork included in this series are non-photographic depictions of Fast, comics, sketches by his wife Bette, and an oil painting of characters from his book The Immigrants.
The final series of "Audiovisual material" includes videotape from the television production of The Crossing and a laserdisc release of the movie Spartacus, as well as spoken-word audio of his works on cassette and sound disc (LP). Access to original audiovisual materials is restricted.
Gift of Howard Fast, 1964-1998; Gift of Mercedes Fast, 2009; Correspondence Box 13, Folders 1-18, transfer, University of Wisconsin--Milwaukee, 2006; Galley proofs of The Children, Box 29, Folder 1, purchase, David Holmes Autographs, 1994; Galley proofs and corrected edition of Citizen Tom Paine, Box 29, Folders 2-3, transfer, Princeton University, date unknown.
- Fast, Bette
- Nelson, Steve
- Izakov, Boris
- Polevoĭ, Boris
- Maltz, Albert
- Du Bois, W. E. B. (William Edward Burghardt)
- Robeson, Paul
- Fast, Howard
- Thomas, Gwyn
- Barsky, Edward K.
- Bloor, Ella Reeve
- Voice of America (Organization)
- United States. Office of War Information
- United States. Congress. Senate. Committee on Government Operations. Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations
- United States. Congress. House. Committee on Un-American Activities
- Communist Party of the United States of America
- Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade
- American Labor Party
- University of Pennsylvania: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts
- Finding Aid Author
- John F. Anderies
- Finding Aid Date
- 2016 May 16
- Access Restrictions
The collection is open for research use; however, access to original audiovisual materials (Series X) is restricted. The Kislak Center will provide access to the information on these materials from duplicate master files. If the original does not already have a copy, it will be sent to an outside vendor for copying. Patrons are financially responsible for the cost. The turnaround time from request to delivery of digital items is about two weeks for up to five items and three to seven weeks for more than five items. Please contact Reprographic Services (firstname.lastname@example.org) for cost estimates and ordering. Once digital items are received, researchers will have access to the files on a dedicated computer in the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center. Researchers should be aware of specifics of copyright law and act accordingly.
- Use Restrictions
Copyright restrictions may exist. For most library holdings, the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania do not hold copyright. It is the responsibility of the requester to seek permission from the holder of the copyright to reproduce material from the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts.