Gerald Sorin, a professor of history and Jewish studies at SUNY New Paltz, has just released a biography of Howard Fast, a writer and face of the Communist Party cultural scene during the 1940s and 1950s. “Howard Fast — Life and Literature in the Left Lane” has been published by the Indiana University Press.
As a child growing up in a Brooklyn Jewish neighborhood, Sorin was introduced to Fast’s books by a left-leaning older cousin. “I think I teethed politically on Howard Fast’s books,” said Sorin. “I learned a lot, nothing of which I was being taught at school. Fast was a historical novelist, which is different than a historian. His works were based on real events, but like any novelist he dramatized certain elements to make a point.”
Fast’s is a Horatio Alger-type story. He grew up as a street kid in a rough-and-tumble neighborhood. One of five children of Eastern European immigrants, he lost his mother in 1923, at age nine. His unemployed father was less than ambitious. The young Howie, as he was known through most of his life, began to work odd jobs at ten to be able to feed himself and his siblings. He recalled swiping bread and milk from front steps of brownstones and pants and shirts from clothing lines.
Despite not having time for school, Fast became a voracious reader. At 18 he published his first of 100 books, innumerable magazine articles, short stories and screenplays, including his ground-breaking novel “Freedom Road” (1944),the infamous “Citizen Tom Paine” (1943), “Spartacus” (1951) and “The Immigrants,” a series of six novels that turned into a hit television series and sold more than ten million copies altogether.
A compelling sense of injustice
Sorin was intrigued in his coming-of-age years by the stories Fast told. “At 19 he wrote The Last Frontier about the removal of the Cheyenne Indians from their homeland to a reservation and then their subsequent escape to Oklahoma with a posse of white vigilantes after them led by a sheriff. It was one of the most thrilling pieces of literature I’d read, and taught me so much more about our indigenous people than I’d ever learned at school.”
Sorin found the author’s sense of the wickedness of injustice compelling. Fast believed that human beings could be better, whether dealing with class systems, racial inequality or genocide. His historical novels focused on aspects of American history in a way that Sorin felt had never been told before.
Despite his rise as a famous author of notoriety and increasing wealth, that wasn’t enough for Fast. In 1943 he joined the Communist Party and became the literary face of that party. He faced criticism for straying from the Communist Party line and served jail time in his native country for “un-American” acts.
Sorin, a huge fan but a historian himself, got a bad taste in his mouth from Fast joining and staying with the Communist Party for 14 years. This combination of admiration and disgust led him to dig deeper. He mined the various archives. He examined the troves of Fast’s personal office at his home in Connecticut, interviewing Fast’s second wife, his daughter and his son. Having researched everything on Fast he could, Sorin wrote the biography.
Sorin examined Fast’s political ambitions. “The Communist Party, despite all of its Stalinist-leaning atrocities,” concluded Sorin, “provided Fast with the things he desired, fame, worldwide connections with other famous politicians and artists, women, and a sense of belonging.”
Though two to three million Americans enrolled in the Communist Party in the 1940s and 1950s, few stayed very long. “At their greatest height they had 80,000 members,” he said. “Why did Fast stay, and stay for 14 years?”
Yes, Fast met Picasso and other famous figures. Yes, he became more notorious as the literary face of the American Communist Party. Yes, he went to jail for several months. In the end, however, according to Sorin, his imagination suffered greatly.
“He wrote his greatest pieces of work prior to entering the Communist Party and then after leaving the Communist Party,” said Sorin. “While he was there his work was stifled, clumsy, catering to a party line, and no matter what he wrote he got a wrist-slapping from the cultural commission of the party. I’ve come to believe that they could not do without one another. Fast craved their approval. They denied it. Yet they would not let him go because he was such a cultural icon that represented their party.”
As Stalin’s excesses became more recognized, the Cold War brought political polarization. The American Communist Party shriveled. Yet Fast stayed on until the mid-1950s.
Rigid ideologies starve the artist
“Why? That’s a critical part of my biography,” said Sorin. “The party fed so many needs for him and his social life and his desires and his ego. Once you’ve stayed in the party for several years, they’re your only friends, family, network. He and his wife had severed all ties with those not in the party. It became hard to leave.”
In the end Fast did leave. The most recognized of hiw work were Spartacus, which was turned into a film, and The Immigrants.
Sorin began teaching history at SUNY NP in 1965. He served as departmental chair and later director of the Jewish Studies Department. In 1989 he became the founder and director of the Louis and Mildred Resnick Institute for the Study of Modern Jewish Life, a post he held for more than two decades. Each year he brings in guest writers, speakers and filmmakers who have had an impact on modern Jewish history. The institute’s spring Holocaust remembrance lecture has drawn the biggest speakers and names in the field.
Though he retired from classroom teaching several years ago, Sorin says that being director of the Resnick Institute has been one of his greatest joys. “She [his wife Myra of 51 years] and I get to meet and learn about some of the most fascinating people and then bring them and their passion, expertise to SUNY New Paltz, where they can reach a large audience. It’s a pleasure and an honor and something I greatly enjoy.”
While his Fast book is receiving acclaim, Sorin says the most important lesson he took away from the experience was the knowledge that “rigid ideologies starve the artist of their creativity, imagination and independence.” He saw the price that Fast’s political commitment extracted from his writing.
“He was a voracious reader, writer, compassionate underdog, so talented,” said Sorin, “but joining the Communist Party did many things for him, quenched his human desires, but also stagnated his writing. Only before then and when he left did he hit his amazing literary stride.”
Sorin hopes that readers will gain an understanding of the lure that ideologies hold over creative artists. But he also hopes they will gain greater compassion for what it is to be human and what it is to be Jewish.
Sorin’s own eight books are available at Inquiring Minds in New Paltz, where he just had a reading, and also at the Elting Memorial Library, the Sojourner Truth Library, and online.