Fast was born in New York City. His mother, Ida (née Miller), was a British Jewish immigrant, and his father, Barney Fast, was a Ukrainian Jewish immigrant whose name was shortened from Fastovsky upon his arrival in America. When his mother died in 1923 and his father became unemployed, Howard's youngest brother, Julius, went to live with relatives, while he and his older brother Jerome worked by selling newspapers. He credited his early voracious reading to his part-time job in the New York Public Library.
Fast began writing at an early age. While hitchhiking and riding railroads around the country to find odd jobs, he wrote his first novel, Two Valleys, published in 1933 when he was 18. His first popular work was Citizen Tom Paine, a fictional account of the life of Thomas Paine. Always interested in American history, Fast also wrote The Last Frontier about the Cheyenne Indians' attempt to return to their native land, which inspired the 1964 movie Cheyenne Autumn, and Freedom Road, about the lives of former slaves during Reconstruction.
The novel Freedom Road is based on a true story and was made into a miniseries of the same name starring Muhammad Ali, who, in a rare acting role, played Gideon Jackson, an ex-slave in 1870s Virginia who is elected to the U.S. Senate and battles other former slaves and white sharecroppers to keep the land that they tended all their lives.
Contribution to constitutionalism
Fast is the author of the prominent "Why the Fifth Amendment?" essay. This essay explains in detail the purpose of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America. Fast effectively uses the context of the Red Scare to illustrate the purpose of the "Fifth."
Fast spent World War II working with the United States Office of War Information, writing for Voice of America. In 1943, he joined the Communist Party USA and in 1950, he was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities; in his testimony, he refused to disclose the names of contributors to a fund for a home for orphans of American veterans of the Spanish Civil War (one of the contributors was Eleanor Roosevelt), and he was given a three-month prison sentence for contempt of Congress.
While he was at Mill Point Federal Prison, Fast began writing his most famous work, Spartacus, a novel about an uprising among Roman slaves. Blacklisted by major publishing houses following his release from prison, Fast was forced to publish the novel himself. It was a success, going through seven printings in the first four months of publication. (According to Fast in his memoir, 50,000 copies were printed, of which 48,000 were sold.)
He subsequently established the
Blue Heron Press, which allowed him to continue publishing under his own name throughout the period of his blacklisting. Just as the production of the film version of Spartacus (released in 1960) is considered a milestone in the breaking of the Hollywood blacklist, the reissue of Fast's novel by Crown Publishers in 1958 effectively ended his own blacklisting within the American publishing industry.
In 1952, Fast ran for Congress on the American Labor Party ticket. During the 1950s he also worked for the Communist newspaper, the Daily Worker. In 1953, he was awarded the Stalin Peace Prize. Later that decade, Fast broke with the Party over issues of conditions in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
In the mid-1950s, Fast moved with his family to Teaneck, New Jersey. In 1974, Fast and his family moved to California, where he wrote television scripts, including such television programs as How the West Was Won. In 1977, he published The Immigrants, the first of a six-part series of novels.
Fast died in Old Greenwich, Connecticut.