[Editorial note: Once again, it’s lizzie b pinch-hitting with a review of Howard Fast, the first in a series of three reviews on books that deal with McCarthyism that I read, or made others read, over vacation.]
He had spent most of his life with people who read books and newspapers and had ideas, even if the ideas were stale and often stupid.
Howard Fast, The Pledge
And if you should die explainin' how the things that they complain about are things they could be changin', who do you think's gonna care?
Satan, as quoted by Kris Kristofferson, "To Beat the Devil"
What’s a vacation if it doesn’t involve nosing around for and becoming absorbed in some surprisingly good fifty-cent paperback that you never knew existed? Buster pressed just such a battered volume into my hands at the discarded book table outside the quirky branch of the Los Angeles County Library on Catalina Island.
I was immediately struck by Howard Fast’s The Pledge, a swashbuckler with a stunning cover that must have looked at home in any airport gift shop when it came out in 1988. Fast is one of Buster’s pet causes (another old lefty to be rescued from obscurity) and a critical section of the novel is set in 1944 Calcutta. Of course, Buster thought it would make for perfect material for lazy afternoons spent reading aloud on the porch of Zane Grey’s old home on Catalina.
Soon, however, I was so gripped by the exploits of alliteratively-named hero (“protagonist” would be understatement by half) Bruce Bacon—journalist, crusader for truth and innocent victim of McCarthyism—that I was reading ahead.
As the novel opens, it's just after V-E Day and Bruce has been reassigned from the European theater to Calcutta, a war-time backwater where members of the foreign press corps sit out their days at the hotel bar waiting to rewrite the next government press release. But our hero has arrived with higher journalistic aspirations. There's a famine in Bengal. Peasants are streaming into Calcutta, where they are dying in the streets by the thousands. And Bruce wants to know why.
According to the rumor he's chasing, the British are responsible. Stores of rice sit locked in Bengali warehouses, but the owners won't sell at locally prevailing rates. The British colonial powers could seize the rice, pay the dealers, and distribute it to the starving, but they won't. "This isn't Russia," the apologists tell Bruce. But even more important than protecting the purity of capitalist principles is protecting the existence of the British Empire. If the Japanese invade, healthy able-bodied Indians may greet them as liberators, and join them to fight off British imperialism.
Bruce starts asking questions because it's his job, and Bruce Bacon always does his job. A Communist GI introduces himself to Bruce when he hears that Bruce is nosing around. (Thought experiment: try imagining a Communist serving in Iraq today. Weird, right?) He confirms that the colonizers are responsible, then introduces Bruce to some Bengali Communists, who give him a window on the experiences of everyday Indians.
Shortly, however, Ashoka Majumdar, the editor of the local Communist newspaper who took Bruce on a tour of villages where peasants gathered hear him read the news aloud, has disappeared to a British prison, and Bruce himself is hauled before a U.S. Army Intelligence officer for questioning. When Bruce learns that thanks to his own government, his career and even his life may be in danger if he stays in India, he returns promptly to New York.
But his eyes have been opened, and he can't turn back to being his uninitiated self. His Indian experiences comprise only the short first chapter of the novel, but their repercussions fuel the rest of the plot. Bruce takes a leave from his newspaper job to write a book about his wartime experiences, including a substantial section on the Calcutta famine. In the meantime, he falls in love with a woman who writes for the Daily Worker (just as Fast did in the 1950s), and McCarthyism begins to brew. By the time the manuscript is finished, no publisher will return his calls, and he discovers he's been blacklisted.
Thus is the rise and fall of a Communist sympathizer, as presented by Fast.
Even more than this plot, wondering about the author’s state of mind at the time of the writing took me in. All the more so as our travels to used bookshops around southern California revealed more Fast paperbacks on every clearance rack. At the time of the book’s publication, Fast had already written 42 other novels and three non-fiction books in addition to his prolific journalistic output. He had been in and out of the Communist Party, and on and off blacklists. At 75 years old, living in Reagan’s America, he was presumably a little tired. How did this guy keep going, and what exactly was he trying to get across to the readers of this mass-market paperback?
The Pledge is a fairly minor member of Fast's oeuvre, though with a total of 51 novels, most of them are minor, I suppose. His most popular books were historical fiction, including, most famously, Spartacus. But with its action set just forty years before its publication, The Pledge barely qualifies as historical. Instead, the novel seems to be a warm-up of sorts for Fast's autobiography, Being Red, published two years later.
Like Fast, Bruce Bacon was a young foreign correspondent during World War II and ends up blacklisted after the war. Also like Fast, Bacon refuses to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and spends some time in federal prison. In certain passages as Bruce deliberates on or defends his choices, you get the sense that Fast is transcribing conversations he either had or wished he had.
But there are some critical differences between the two men. Fast joined the Party, whereas Bacon remains at arm’s length from organized politics. While Bacon marries a conflicted CP member who writes for the Daily Worker, she urges him not to get involved with the Party. In addition to this political differentiation of author and character, there’s also a sharp distinction in terms of their background. Bruce is an upper-middle-class, Upper West Side WASP and Fast was a poor downtown son of Jewish immigrant workers. In other words, Bruce Bacon is a clean, innocent sympathetic hero for a mass audience.
In the novel, Bruce is loved by nearly all those who meet him, or at least read him. The men around Bruce express their affection for him and frustrations with the world (the two states seemingly inextricably tied to each other) with manly appeals to heaven and hell: “I’ve watched you for a year now. I respect you and I like you – but God Almighty, Bacon, I am only the warden of a tiny prison.” Later in the story, the warden explains why he is making special exceptions to the work rules for Bacon:
Now let me tell you why I'm telling you all this. To begin, I read you every day in the New York Tribune. I had a subscription then to the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Tribune, and I read every dispatch you wrote right through the war. I had a son in the service, a rifleman who was killed on the fourth day after the Normandy landings, and during that time, there were sixty Quakers in this jail, religious pacifists, and I had to make my peace with that. I think you helped me. What you wrote was different from what the others wrote. I don't know exactly how, but it was different.
As a former small-town newspaper reporter, I may be projecting a little bit. But part of the joy of reading juicy genre paperbacks are such guilty simplistic emotional indulgences. For me, the three different hero-journalists were a treat, to meet, if only in my imagination, writers with complicated, leftist views of the world, who keep on telling, no matter the obstacles or the seeming indifference of the populace. Writers, I suppose, like Fast.
Except the populace couldn't have been completely indifferent to Fast, right? They sure bought a lot of his books. And when I see these tattered paperbacks at the bookstores, I like to imagine their presence like bread crumbs, marking a trail of influence through the unlikeliest forests of American opinion.