By Don Jolly
“You don’t fuck with Coca-Cola.”
— Unnamed American Serviceman
The woods were deep, the crowd was tense, and there would be no concert.
The Lakeland Acres picnic ground was located a few miles outside of Peekskill, New York. Tensions between the east coast leftists who spent their summers there and the town’s conservative locals had been simmering for years. In 1948, the picnic grounds had played host to a concert by the singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson. Two kids from Peekskill had pelted the stage with apples, and were quickly ejected from the show. About a year later, in the August of 1949, Robeson had returned, along with folk singers Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie and the historical novelist Howard Fast. The would-be concert goers found themselves surrounded by a mob of small-town anti-communists, ostensibly a “patriotic parade” organized by Peekskill’s veterans association. The only trail leading in and out of Lakeland Acres was blocked by “about 300” protestors, Fast reported to the A.C.L.U., cutting off the majority of visitors from the stage. A “handful” – Howard Fast included – were trapped inside.
“There were twenty-five or thirty of us, I suppose,” he recalled in his 1991 autobiography, Being Red. “We ran up on the entrance, and as we appeared [the protesters] poured onto us from the road, at least a hundred of them with billies and brass knuckles and rocks and clenched fists.” The violence lasted for hours, with the concert-goers suffering most of the day’s injuries. In the chaos of the melee, Fast took command. “I had agreed to be chairman [of the concert],” he wrote, in his autobiography, “and it seemed that this was the kind of concert we would have, not with Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger singing their lovely tunes of America, but with a special music that had played its music out in Germany and Italy.” Chin music, in other words.
The confrontation lasted for hours. Books and chairs were burned. The police were dispatched. A wild concert usher, photographed just feet from Fast, sunk a knife into a young veteran on the protestor’s side. Soon after, Fast claimed that the stabbing was nothing but a frame-up – an attempt to discredit his virtuous side. In Being Red, he recalls the real tactic that stopped the men of Peekskill dead:
“We began to sing,” he wrote. “They saw a line of bloody, ragged men, standing with their arms locked, standing calmly and singing in a kind of inspired chorus, and they stopped. They couldn’t understand us.”
On September 11th 1949, the communist newspaper The Daily Worker warned that Peekskill was proof of a “carefully organized effort to impose police state terrorism in the U.S.A.”
In the aftermath of the concert, signs were posted around the town: “Wake up America. Peekskill did!”
Accounts vary, of course. Our only memory of the event is a copy of a copy of a copy, a story transmitted by partisans and propagandists whose earliest accounts have long since vanished. By leaning the various interests against each other, however, a rough picture of the insurrection begins to emerge.
In the year 167 B.C.E., in ancient Judea, the Seleucid ruler of the land, Antiochus IV, decreed the religious tenants of then-contemporary Judaism illegal. In its place, he proposed an alternate system of observance. For years, Jewish life had been undergoing a process of Hellenization, adopting societal practices and social mores drawn from the culture of Greece and evangelized by Alexander the Great. These changes were either tolerated or embraced by the people of Judea, until that decisive year – 167.
Scholar Jonathan Goldstein has proposed that Antiochus’ denial of Torah may have been an attempt at social control modeled on the Roman suppression of Bacchanalia. Antiochus may have claimed that Biblical Judaism was an unnatural offshoot of a more agreeable theology – a protean, polytheistic cult with a significant military following.
Whatever the truth of his proposed reforms, the plan was a disaster. Important ritual observances were outlawed, holy writings burned. On December 6th, according to Goldstein, the “abomination of desolation” was installed in the Temple at Jerusalem. This, he speculates, was “a framework containing three meteorites representing the three gods of the imposed cult.” Or it may have been a statue of Jupiter.
Around this time, a Jewish patriarch named Mattathias (who may or may not have been nicknamed “Maccabaeus”) whipped his family and other sympathetic Jews into open rebellion against the Seleucids. Using guerilla tactics (such as fighting on the Sabbath), Mattathias’ insurrection harried Judea’s rulers for years. In 165, Mattathias died, and leadership of his rebellion passed to his sons: Jonnan, Simon, Eleazer, Jonathan and Judas – whose surname was certainly “Maccabaeus.” It meant something roughly equivalent to “hammer.”
These brothers, the Hasmoneans, eventually won a degree of religious independence for Judea. For a short time, their family ruled as both priest and king.
Roughly fifty years later, a propagandistic account of the brothers’ rebellion and the establishment of their subsequent dynasty was composed to shore up the right of rulership possessed by the priest-king Alexander Jannaeus. It is this heroic, militaristic and pro-Hasmonean text which survives today as the apocryphal book of First Maccabees. By design, it casts Judas and his relatives in the best possible light – noting their skill in battle, their priestly background and, above all, their unshakeable piety. Whatever truth it contained failed to win security for the Hasmoneans. Rome conquered Judea, time passed. New messiahs came along.
Shortly after the composition of First Maccabees an alternate account was written, threaded through with miracles and predicated on a firm belief in the resurrection. It survives today as the book of Second Maccabees. In its rendering, Judas alone is treated as a figure of respect. His brothers are dismissed as untrustworthy or wicked.
There were other versions. The story survived.
Howard Fast released My Glorious Brothers, his thirteenth novel, in 1948. In it, he provided his own take on the story of the Maccabees. The revolt, Fast explained, was “the first modern struggle for freedom,” a conflict that “laid a pattern for [the] many movements that followed.” His book was well received.
“Whatever is good in the telling [of this story],” Fast explained, “I owe to the people who march through these pages, those wonderful people of old who, out of their religion, their way of life and their love for their land, forged that splendid maxim that resistance to tyranny is the truest obedience to God.”
In a letter to Daily Worker, quibbling with some points in their review of Brothers, Fast expanded on this point. “All who fought in freedom’s cause, since first man began, are our brothers,” he said. “All, whether they fought against slavery, serfdom or capitalism, lifted a brick for that eventual socialist structure which all of mankind will achieve.”
Howard Fast was, by the late 1940s, a highly visible and massively successful American writer. His books focused, for the most part, on dramatizing a liberalized version of American history. In 1943, he took this approach to one of his country’s founding fathers. Citizen Tom Paine remains one his most popular works – and one of his most reprinted. During the war, the state department even reprinted it in a number of foreign languages, distributing Fast’s novel as a propaganda tool.
In 1944, he tackled the narrative of an ex-slave named Gideon Jackson in Freedom Road. In 1947’s Clarkton, Fast described the various pressures at work in a labor strike (“To understand Clarkton is to understand the responsibility of the American dream,” said the dust jacket of its first edition). He was reviewed in Newsweek, the Atlantic, and the New York Times.
My Glorious Brothers earned more than his usual share of garlands. The book “outstrips anything Fast has ever done,” wrote Edmund Fuller, in the Saturday Review. “I have felt him to be guilty, usually, of oversimplification,” continued the critic. My Glorious Brothers, however, featured passages of real “complexity and penetration.”
Fast, in his autobiography, saw this reception as a political necessity. “To trash a novel about the Jewish struggle for freedom in 1948 was,” he wrote, “a little sticky.”
In less than a year, he would be in Peekskill.
It is no longer 1948. We can trash the book now.
My Glorious Brothers is a deeply credulous novel. From its central premise, equating the Maccabean revolt with Fast’s utopian ideals, the book proceeds to sketch a world divided between clear and definable absolutes of political morality. The Syrians and the Romans, in Fast’s conception, were slave societies, predicated on the bondage of the human spirit. His militant Jews, driven by a single, simple maxim (“once we were slaves in the land of Egypt”), represent the inverse – a classless society of infinite liberty, patience, and respect.
His Maccabees are, for the most part, idealized American revolutionaries equipped with smocks, sandals and pocket editions of the Communist Manifesto. In Brothers, the ambiguous title of “Maccabee” becomes a political designation, a Marxist modification of such Biblical “judges” as Samson and Samuel.
“There is only one Maccabee,” Fast wrote, in the voice of the Roman Legate Lentulus Silanus. Although this office is, in some respects, one of leadership and power, “the lowliest beggar can halt him, dispute with him and talk to him as an equal.” And why not? For Fast’s imagined Jews, God is so abstract a concept that readers come to understand it as less of a deity than an ideal of human liberation.
An early passage depicts Lentulus questioning Simon, the last surviving son of Mattathias, as to his peoples’ religious system:
“And is it true,” the Roman asked, “that in your Temple here on the hill, there is no God that a man can see?”
Simon answered in the affirmative. To the Roman, who Fast depicts as wholly concerned with the weight and measure of strength, this answer is beyond comprehension. He mistakes Simon’s intelligence for superiority. “What do you worship Simon Maccabeus, what do you respect?” he asks. “In all the world are there no other men of worth than the Jews?”
Simon’s answer is whispered. “All men are of worth,” he says. “Of equal worth.”
These brave pronouncements litter the novel, and again and again Fast depicts those who oppose them as too dense and evil to understand what they mean. The courage of his protagonists soon becomes a fraud – a papery approximation of idealism that never admits the reality of any view of things beyond itself. The human drama between Fast’s “glorious brothers” falls flat as well – collapsing into the kind of masculine voodoo and melodramatic Freudianism that Charlton Heston would have really sunk his teeth into had he been tapped for a film adaptation.
Fuller, in his Saturday Review notice, compliments Fast on his treatment of the origin of anti-Semitism – a historical evil that, the book implies, came about as a result of various oppressor classes’ inability to grasp the full-measure of Judaism’s commitment to liberty and the rights of men. It’s a complimentary idea – but nowhere near a legitimate theory of human behavior.
“So persistent and diabolical is this strange and flagrant Jewish democracy that one must look upon it as a disease from which no land is immune,” Lentulus concludes, in Brothers’ final section.
Alexander Jannaeus would be glad to hear it.
Fast was a Jew himself, although his family was never particularly observant. For him, the political was the ultimate expression of human life. My Glorious Brothers, then, freely substitutes the difficult zeal of its subjects with something that seemed more reasonable to Fast. Politics were, for him, a kind of religion – the ultimate arbiter determining a person’s relationship to humanity and each individual’s responsibilities to the universe at
Fast joined up, officially, with the Communist Party of the United States in 1943. He was living in New York, and the war was on. The whole town was painted red. Most of his comrades, however, drifted away from the party in less than a decade. Fast remained until 1956 – a decision that lead to his imprisonment for contempt of congress, forced him to testify before Senator Joseph McCarthy and won him the Stalin Peace Prize for 1953.
“When, even for a moment, the tissue of lies and slander erected between this land of ours and the Soviet Union […] is brushed aside, we see […] a monumental force for the peace of mankind,” he said, in his acceptance speech. He amplified these comments in his first autobiographical book, The Naked God, published in 1957. To Fast, from 1943 to 1956, the Communist Party and the Soviet Union represented “an edifice dedicated singularly and irrevocably to the ending of all war, injustice, hunger and suffering – and to the goal of the brotherhood of man.” His commitment to the cause was beyond ardent – it was millennial.
Like his Maccabees, Fast seemed to exist in world where “good” and “right” were certainties. People either “understood” them, or they didn’t. To him, the whole world was either saved or doomed.
During the war, Fast was employed by the Office of War Information, or O.W.I.. Part of his job was scripting Voice of America broadcasts – multi-lingual propaganda transmissions intended for friendly ears across the lines. Fast “had something the no one else in America had,” he recalled, in Being Red. “A voice into that dark, sad land of occupied Europe, and each day as I tapped it out, my skin would prickle.”
“Even today, forty-eight years later, my eyes fill with tears at that wonderful line: This is the Voice of America,” he continued. “This is the voice of mankind’s hope and salvation, the voice of my wonderful, beautiful country, which will put an end to fascism and remake the world.”
Howard Fast may have been a communist for thirteen years, but he was an American for life. His literary output, from Citizen Tom Paine to the Immigrants series that defined his later years, sparkles with articulate patriotism. Before the end of the Second World War, it may be assumed, there were many American patriots who were communists as well – especially among the artistic and theatrical types staffing the O.W.I. Fast was just more vocal and intransigent than they were.
Fast’s rhetoric may be high-flown, but his actions were largely practical. In 1953, for instance, Fast was called to appear before a senate subcommittee investigating communist infiltration at the Voice of America. Face to jowl with Wisconsin’s honorable Joseph McCarthy, Fast found himself afflicted with an acute amnesia. He forgot practically everything – except the text of the Fifth Amendment.
“Did you do any work for the Voice of America, the VOA?” McCarthy asked at one point.
“You mean the OWI?” Fast inquired.
“No, the Voice of America, the VOA?”
“I can’t seem to remember any,” the author said.
In the 1950s, when his communism became scandalous, Fast found himself blacklisted from his usual publishing houses. The situation didn’t keep him out of the game for long. His most famous novel, Spartacus, was written in 1951 and, initially, self-published. Like My Glorious Brothers, it was a tale of ancient warfare preoccupied with the struggle between “freedom” and bondage. Unlike Brothers, it was made into a highly successful Kirk Douglas vehicle.
“Howard Fast is rich,” wrote Ken Gross in a profile for People Weekly in 1991. But “not filthy rich, like the plutocrats he has denounced in such left-leaning novels as Freedom Road and Spartacus,” he clarified. “[Fast] just has a portfolio of a million or two.”
“Government bonds,” the old author told him. “Not a penny in unearned wealth. Just the sweat of my own labor and some Treasury notes.” His ideal life, Fast continued, would have been spent “on the third floor of a tenement in a run-down neighborhood, surrounded by left-wing lunatics.” Sadly, his exit from the communist party – and his considerable financial success – made such a dream impossible. A life of affluence and minor celebrity was, he concluded, a “form of exile,” the pain of which was eased by the occasional visit from William F. Buckley Jr. They were neighbors.
My Glorious Brothers was, in many ways, the perfect successor to the ancient text that served as its model and inspiration. In it, Fast reconfigured some version of the past to fit a millennial model of the future – proposing a world where redemption can be won by the proper skirmishes in the proper order. His recollection of Peekskill is practically a sequel. And so it goes, on and on – violence becomes righteousness becomes history, then violence again.
Fast may have seen himself as a revolutionary, or an artist, or a public intellectual. But a significant portion of his output is propaganda, pure and unconscious – the writing of a man whose political commitments are deep, bold, and uncomplicated by nuance. America may never have a more honest voice.
An elderly woman, who saw him in action at the picnic ground that night in 1949, provides us with perhaps the clearest portrait of the author. “Don’t you go and say anything bad about Howard Fast,” she demanded. He’d been in thick of it – and he’d done more than sing. According to his witness:
“I saw him … with a Coke bottle in each hand, fighting back.”
You can read earlier installments of The Last Twentieth Century Book Club here:
Don Jolly looks human but isn’t. His work has appeared on Boing Boing, the Los Angeles Review of Books and The Ampersand Review.