Deaths Elsewhere

Deaths Elsewhere

March 13, 2003

Howard Fast, 88, whose best-selling historical fiction often featured the themes of freedom and human rights, elements in his own tumultuous political journey through the blacklisting of the 1950s, died yesterday at his home in Old Greenwich, Conn.

Mr. Fast was one of the 20th century's busiest writers, turning out more than 80 books - plus short stories, journalism, screenplays and poetry - in a career that began in the early 1930s.

With novels like Citizen Tom Paine (1943), Freedom Road (1944) and Spartacus (1953), he won popular acclaim.

Mr. Fast's fiction was always didactic to a degree, opposed to modernism, engaged in social struggle and insistent on taking sides and teaching lessons.

"Since I believe that a person's philosophical point of view has little meaning if it is not matched by being and action, I found myself willingly wed to an endless series of unpopular causes, experiences which I feel enriched my writing as much as they depleted other aspects of my life," he said in a 1972 interview.

Despite the international popularity of historical novels like Paine, which glorified the professional revolutionary, and the huge commercial success that Mr. Fast's well-paced narratives achieved, his work tended to succeed or fail as art to the extent that he distanced himself from ideology.

At his best, in a novel like The Last Frontier (1941), about the flight in 1878 of the Cheyenne Indians to their Powder River home in Wyoming, he achieved powerful effects through imaginative objectivity. At his less successful, in novels like Clarkton (1947), about a textile-mill strike, and Silas Timberman (1954), about an academic victim of McCarthyism, he was sometimes faulted by reviewers as being drawn toward propagandistic sentimentality.

His output was slowed but not entirely interrupted by the blacklisting he endured in the 1950s after it became known that he had been a member of the Communist Party and then refused to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee. He served three months in a federal prison in 1950 for contempt of Congress, a charge arising from his refusal to produce the records of the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee.

Mr. Fast joined the party in 1943. He left the party in 1956, disillusioned by the Soviet Union's stunning revelations of Stalin's terror and the spread of anti-Semitism there.

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