- Howard Fast's American Revolution
Howard Fast wanted to set the record straight about the American Revolution. He spent over a half century trying, but with what success it is hard to say. As a novelist, he used fiction to correct what he feared the reading public erroneously accepted as fact. "The more I studied the American Revolution," he explained to me in 2000, "the more I realized that most of what has been written about it are lies."1 A year later he was no less emphatic. Most history—as academic historians write it—is a lie, he repeated, and what those historians have written about the revolution "is the biggest lie of all."2 An academic historian by trade, I was neither surprised nor offended by his view and could at least take solace that I was not a literary critic. "A critic is a eunuch working in a harem. He watches it, but he can't do it," Fast once huffed. As if that characterization were not dismissive enough, he added that "critics are very often failed writers and, like failed priests, they hate religion."3
When commenting on academic historians and literary critics, Fast stayed true to form: passionately irascible when he felt that is what it took to make his point. The reaction of most academic historians and literary critics has been to either belittle Fast as an indiscriminately prolific hack or ignore him altogether.4 It is a response at once peevish and parochial: peevish, because Fast was once widely read, with perhaps one hundred million copies of his books translated into a dozen languages floating around the world—more than virtually any academic historian or literary critic can claim; and parochial, because Fast's writings tell [End Page 85] us something important about the shaping of historical memory as well as the danger of moralizing about the past.
Fast treated historical "facts" as grist for his populist mill. The truth, as he told it, could not be contained within the documentary bounds that confined historians. By the time Fast died in 2003, he had produced over eighty books, some under a pen name, and hundreds of short stories, essays, plays, screenplays, commentaries, and reviews. Among those are nine novels, one work of nonfiction, and various briefer pieces set in the American revolutionary era, the first appearing in 1933, the last in 1994. Over those six decades Fast's view of the revolution —what Fast deemed the true revolution, that is—changed very little, hardly at all, compared with his own personal political odyssey that carried him into the Communist Party and then back out again. He was convinced that what he saw as the ultimate justification for American political independence remained invisible to Americans of his generation. For them, the passage of time had smoothed over rough edges, minimizing the pain and suffering of those who sacrificed their all in the great cause. Fast wanted to recover the lost passion, the human reality of a nation at war, the tragic no less than the glorious.
He tried to connect the revolution to higher American ideals, implicitly to stress that founding a nation had to be the means to an end, not an end in itself. Political independence needed to bring with it a social leavening so that the quest for the American dream would not become a nightmare for the poor and dispossessed. His readers, he realized, might have had some vague sense of the greatness of George Washington, a greatness in which he too believed. But for him the most important story lay with faceless, nameless common folk, heroes and heroines whose tales were forgotten if ever recorded, and, more often than not, were never recorded at all.
He created fictional characters and placed them in historical settings, individuals as archetypes to teach lessons to what he deemed a historically ignorant nation. There was nothing florid in his imagery, nothing flowery in his prose. His characters spoke plainly, the vernacular of Fast's own age projected back into the eighteenth century. Though his heroes and villains did not divide neatly along class lines there was still something more...