Rolling Up the Red Carpet : BEING RED : A Memoir <i> By Howard Fast (Houghton Mifflin: $22.95; 370 pp.) </i>
Howard Fast published his first novel in 1933 at age 18. He was part of a generation of up-from-poverty writers who came of age in the 1930s, working a multitude of odd jobs while they read their way through the library stacks. It seemed almost inevitable that he would also join the Communist Party.
Fast’s first great successes were in historical novels that looked at American values from the vantage point of the rebel, the outsider and the slave. They reflected the revisionary view of what was truly “American” that animated both Popular Front politics and the then-embryonic academic interest in American history and literature, “Conceived in Liberty” (1939), “The Unvanquished” (1942), and “Citizen Tom Paine” (1943) recounted in Fast’s plain-spoken passionate prose his story of the American Revolution.
The story of “The Last Frontier” (1941) was the desperate Cheyenne march from Oklahoma to their native lands on the Yellowstone. The hero of “Freedom Road” (1944) was a freed slave and of “Spartacus” a Roman gladiator. And when Fast wrote a novel called “The American,” his central character was not some Jamesian American abroad but John Peter Altgeld, the governor of Illinois who freed the anarchists accused in the Haymarket riots in Chicago.
In 1957, after Khrushchev’s revelations at the 20nd Party Congress, Fast left the party and wrote “The Naked God” to describe his disillusionment as a Communist writer. Since then, his writing has been as prolific as before. His series of novels about the immigrant Lavette family brought him to the best-seller list several times (although perhaps no single book of his has sold as well in the United States as did his brother Julius’ “Body Language”).
But as far as his new memoir, “Being Red,” is concerned, the years since 1957 have been primarily a lengthy postscript to his life in a movement and at a time when moral commitment and political engagement really counted. “We are romantics,” he says, “like a priesthood,” and a good deal of his attitude evokes the sustaining feeling of being embattled for a good cause, what Fast at another point calls “the burden of morality,” that was assumed by so many party members, confirmed in their beliefs in part because of their persecution by the obviously fiendish and evil. As Fast remarks later, he would not mind leaving his FBI report behind as a testament for his grandchildren of his commitment to human rights.
The image of himself that Fast presents in “Being Red” is that of a heterodox and independent writer who believed in the Communist vision of a better future at the same time that he chafed under party discipline. As the most prominent American writer who remained a party member during the hard days of the blacklist, he was allowed a certain latitude, although he recounts being attacked for his “I Write as I Please” column in the Daily Worker by John Howard Lawson and here, as in “The Naked God,” he details the attacks made on his novels by party functionaries for their doctrinal deviations.
The issue of artistic independence was always a vexed question, especially for the writers in the party. In memoirs and other books about the period, Fast often appears as a staunch defender of the party’s political authority over errant artists. But by his own account, he is just as frequently a victim. In one incident, he is threatened with expulsion for his refusal to change “boys and girls” to “youths” in a passage describing a group of black and white teen-agers. Yet, when he complains about the CP’s tyranny over artists and praises the moral conscience of Albert Maltz (with whom he was in prison in 1951), the reader has no way of being reminded (except by omission) that in 1946 when Maltz complained in the New Masses of the aridity and constriction of party artistic life, Fast attacked him roundly a few weeks later for his “reactionary” point of view.
Fast made an anguished apology in “The Naked God” for the attack on Maltz. But despite his growing misgivings, Fast remained in the party until Khrushchev’s speech. His general disaffection from the party leadership and his disillusionment over the increasing evidence of Soviet anti-Semitism drove him out. Unlike many who recanted their old allegiances, Fast never named names, and even now he carefully avoids incriminating those who might still wish to be anonymous.
On the whole, his account of the faults and virtues of American Communism is more balanced than it was 23 years ago in “The Naked God.” But the basic question still remains: What was the bargain that Faust had struck with his own demons and his ideals that allowed him to stay in the party so long as its most prominent apologist in the arts, and then to leave with an equally strenuous denunciations?
Some aspects of Fast’s political history will need a historian’s care to verify and interpret. He recounts, for example, how in 1949 he carried to the Paris Peace Congress a formal charge of anti-Semitism brought by the Communist Party of the United States against the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. According to Fast, the charge was summarily rejected by Alexander Fadeev, the head of the Soviet Writer’s Union, the same man who a short time before (in a story told fully in “The Naked God” and only alluded to here) had assured Fast and others that Soviet Jewish writers were flourishing, when they had in fact been tortured and executed.
It’s hard not to see Fadeev as a kind of Soviet doppelganger for Fast--the writer as political operative. But, while Fadeev coolly offered up historical necessity in place of truth, Fast’s own commitment to the party line held a precarious rein on his passions. With Khrushchev’s revelations, Fadeev committed suicide. Fast, the American literary commissar, curiously compounded of totalitarian and anarchist impulses, left the party.
But in general there is a peculiarly disjointed quality to Fast’s view of himself in “Being Red.” Like the revolutionary heroes in his best novels, Fast has more gift for action than for introspection. There are gestures toward his personal psychology (he remarks that his childhood was so tormented that he has been virtually unable to write about it), but they are largely abortive. The little fragments of personal psychology and peevishness and over-explanation that might help the reader to put together a picture of him are there, but it is difficult to make a meaningful mosaic.
We never really learn what writing means to him beyond a way of getting out of the ghetto. Nor do we finally understand what the party meant to him, and why by the early 1950s he “was steadily and sometimes obsessively destroying a career that had started off only ten years earlier as one of the most promising of the time.” His books were selling by the millions abroad, while they were being banned from libraries at home (he had to publish “Spartacus” on his own). But finally both the lionized Communist hero and the despised Communist traitor were equally unreal to him.
In essence, “Being Red” is exactly what its title says. It is a memoir of his political nature and its involvement with American Communism, where the political and the personal always had uneasy commerce. Although Fast’s wife, her cooking, her sculpture and their children do get mentioned, along with a few enigmatic arguments, “Being Red” is less an autobiography than a moral testament, an implicit self-exoneration with enough mea culpa to keep away the shadows but not enough light to dispel them.
Perhaps it is the testament that he hopes he will leave to his grandchildren--like his FBI file. But another version of himself seems equally valid:
When Fast is in prison, he works on a fountain sculpture of the famous Prince of Essen, the lost young boy who is immortalized as he is discovered urinating. Others will have to sift through the facts of the history of American Communism and decide how “Being Red” contributes to them. But for Fast, who wore his politics on his sleeve while his heart remained more hidden, the Prince of Essen may be his own sardonic emblem.