Howard & Me

Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States changed my life.[1]

People's History

My personal copy of the 2003 edition of A People History of the United States. Also featured: my cat Marshall.

I grew up in very historically minded family. My recollections of my boyhood and tween years are filled with sweaty summer memories of traipsing with my mother and sister through every Revolutionary and Civil War battlefield between the mid-Atlantic and Upper South—from Gettysburg to Yorktown.[2] We regularly took the Orange Line into Washington to go to the National Museum of American History. The History Channel, when we had cable, was a regular fixture on our television.[3] All of this history education was very traditional—all Presidents, bloodshed, and American Exceptionalism.[4] My understanding of American history only became more traditional once I entered a conservative Catholic high school.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Zinn’s A People’s History was such an intellectual shock to my pudgy-sheltered-white-boy teenage-self when I encountered the book during my senior year of high school in 2003.[5] Columbus killed how many Indians? The Founding Fathers weren’t really about freedom but about their own economic interests? World War II wasn’t “the good war”? The whole sweep of Zinn’s narrative of the struggles of average Americans—white, black, free, slave, female, male—carried me away and pushed my sense of history and politics in new directions.

The book became my intellectual teddy-bear. I took it everywhere—to class (where I surreptitiously read it during lessons), in the car (where I read at red lights), out with my friends, and even to parties (where I received weird looks). There was no going back. Once I’d finished Zinn’s classic, a month or two out from graduation, I knew that I would major in political science or history.

The greatest intellectual legacy of my first reading of A People’s History of the United States, besides a bone-deep dislike of Christopher Columbus, is that Zinn taught me the political nature of history. My childhood historical education taught me that there was a History out there, just waiting for us to uncover. Zinn shockingly disabused me of that notion and hammered home that history was an interpretative enterprise. Historians have a point of view, a politics, that deeply shapes how they explain the past, which actors they place on the historical stage, and the conclusions they reach in their work.[6]

I’ve been recently reflecting on Zinn’s A People’s History, since the book is back in the news—what with revelations of Mitch Daniels’ wonderfully open-minded attempts to ban it, the paperback release of Martin Duberman’s biography of Zinn and the tidbit from last year that History News Network’s readers nearly voted it the Worst American History book.[7] The thing is, over the years, I’ve soured on A People’s History of the United States.[8] When my activist friends say they’re reading the book, or have recommended it to their friends or colleagues, I wince. The reasons for this are multiple.

One objection to Zinn’s classic is that while I was once but the learner, now I am the master.[9] Zinn taught me that history is political and I’ve come to believe that Zinn’s conception of the arc of American history is not a useful one to promote progressive political change. Here I follow Michael Kazin’s classic critique of A People’s History—Zinn’s narrative of American history as a constant, failed struggle of the People against Power discounts the times in which average Americans did organize politically to promote change in favor of their interests. That Zinn largely discounts religion as a factor in American radical politics is one of the central failures of his assessment of the American experience. Religion often provides the intellectual, cultural, and ritual space for common Americans to make sense of their grievances and organize to combat them.[10] There is an utterly hopeless quality to Zinn’s account of political struggle in the United States which reads, to this older version of myself, as dispiriting rather than encouraging.[11] The power of the Powerful comes off as the only theme of American history.

My problems with A People’s History go further than my political disagreements with Zinn. My central concern is that Zinn’s narrative is more polemic than history. A People’s History is not a narrative synthesis of the entirety American history, like textbooks like Eric Foner’s Give Me Liberty or Alan Brinkley’s The Unfinished Nation, or of specific periods of history, like Alan Taylor’s American Colonies or David Kennedy’s Freedom From Fear. Zinn is not particularly interested in any of that. Where it is useful for him, Zinn freely throws the standards and practices of his profession overboard.[12] He repeatedly stresses that many of his analytic debts are not to his fellow “professional historians” but to common people and semi-mythic outsiders.[13] At the same time Zinn freely trades on his years of teaching and accreditation as a professional scholar to bolster his credibility. This creates some cognitive dissonance—are historians the problem, as Zinn repeated suggests, or are they part of the solution?

This is not an objection to politicized history or historians who work “to awaken a greater consciousness of class conflict, racial injustice, sexual inequality, and national arrogance.”[14] We should, I’d suggest, engage in political scholarship through the tools of the professional historian—above all citation and verification. Professional standards are, in the Age of David Barton and Glenn Beck, the only things which allow historians to clearly demarcate good history from bad. The fact that historians openly build on and critique each other’s work is a big part of what gives us even slightest bit of authority. There are many works by historians operating in this professional mode who make key political interventions.[15] Zinn with his wish-washy anti-historian historical posture undermines this project.[16] If we knock down all of the walls, in the end, what will keep out the cold?

I wonder, however, if any of these objections would have meant anything to my chubby-teenage self. Part of the appeal and shattering impact of A People’s History of the United States on my consciousness was Zinn’s direct, overheated prose and his posture as an outsider.[17] Would a history by a more traditional-minded scholar have appealed to teenage-me?[18] I’m left wondering.

My intellectual debts to Howard Zinn run deep—reading (and rereading) A People History of the United States helped mark my transition from intellectual childhood to adolescence. By denouncing this book am I denying others the same opportunity? At the same time my collegiate and graduate education has marked my transition from intellectual adolescence to adulthood.[19] Should I deny the insights I’ve garnered since?

[1] The edition of Zinn I’ve read and owned is: Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, 1492-Present (New York, NY: Perennial Classics, 2003).

[2] Military history was my childhood love. At seven or eight, I dug a battlefield trench to be just like the American soldiers at Yorktown.

[3] This was back when the History Channel actually had, you know, history programing. Sad to say, my childhood was not filled with Ice Road Truckers.

[4] It was also very Southern. The most shameful fact from my childhood is that I dressed up as Mosby for a fourth (or fifth?) grade history presentation. Sadly, I am referencing this Mosby, not the kind-hearted hopeless romantic.

[5] How I came across Zinn’s tome is lost to the haze of my high-school memories. I believe I may have picked up a recommendation somewhere in the steady diet of left-liberal Bush-era political blogs I was consuming after school.

[6] For Zinn’s attitude on the “objective question,” see Zinn, A People’s History, 683-684.

[7] For Duberman’s biography of Zinn, see Martin Duberman, Howard Zinn: A Life on the Left (New York: The New Press, 2012). The nine HNN voters who saved A People’s History from being declared a worse book than Barton’s The Jefferson Lies are true heroes of the Internets. If JFK was writing Profiles in Courage today, he should bump Edmund G. Ross in favor of those nine brave souls.

[8] Despite this, Zinn’s classic remains the only book I’ve taken with me to every place I’ve lived, from high school to graduate school.

[9] I am not a master, but I couldn’t miss the chance to make a Star Wars joke. Note: I understand this casts me as Darth Vader to Howard Zinn’s Obi-Wan.

[10] Strangely Zinn also mostly ignores the darker side of religion in American history—the long history of religious coercion in the United States. He only briefly mentions the growing protection for religious liberty in the Revolutionary state and federal constitution. Zinn does briefly discuss anti-Catholic controversies and obliquely mentions anti-Jewish ones as well. Religious bigotry, however, does not appear to be a key problem for the People by his account. See Zinn, A People’s History, 83, 99, 221, 226, 265, 538.

[11] The hopeless quality of A People’s History is quite understandable. The first edition was published in 1980 and Zinn repeatedly issued update editions through the 1990s and into the early Bush years. That period is not known as a high point for the American Left.

[12] That the following sentence appears in Zinn’s bibliography is deeply disturbing to this graduate student: “Where you cannot tell the source of a quotation right from the text, you can probably figure it out by looking at the asterisked books for that chapter.” See Zinn, A People’s History, 689.

[13] Ibid., 686, 689. “Professional historians” quotation on p. 689.

[14] Ibid., 686. If you add “religious intolerance” to that list you have a big part of my agenda as a teacher-scholar.

[15] In my field of the early American republic here are four easy examples: Woody Holton, Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution (New York: Hill and Wang, 2007); Rosemarie Zagarri, Revolutionary Backlash: Women and Politics in the Early American Republic (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007); Saul Cornell, The Other Founders: Anti-Federalism & the Dissenting Tradition in American, 1788-1828 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999); Seth Cotlar, Tom Paine’s America: The Rise and Fall of Transatlantic Radicalism in the Early Republic (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011).

[16] Here I follow Thomas Haskell in stressing the need for professional standards to buttress historians’ analytic judgments. See, especially, Thomas Haskell, “Justifying Academic Freedom in the Era of Power/Knowledge,” in Objectivity Is Not Neutrality: Explanatory Schemes in History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 174–224.

[17] Through my late-teens, I was also a huge admirer of Hunter S. Thompson. I also wore a lot of Hawaiian shirts. Both of these facts are endlessly embarrassing.

[18] Of the four books listed above (footnote 15), teenage-me would have likely appreciated Holton’s Unruly Origins.

[19] That nearly every book which is fundamental to my personal and intellectual development is virtually only works of non-fiction says a lot about me. Other highlights include: Francois Furstenberg, In the Name of the Father: Washington’s Legacy, Slavery, and the Making of a Nation (New York: Penguin Press, 2006) [inspired me to apply to graduate school]; Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989) [set my scholarly agenda]; John L. Brooke, The Heart of the Commonwealth: Society and Political Culture in Worcester County, Massachusetts, 1713-1861 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989)  [what I would like my dissertation to look like]. One of the few works of fiction I can credit for really shaping my personal development would be Grant Morrison et al., New X-Men, 3 vols. (New York: Marvel Comics, 2001-2004). I am a big giant dork.

21 responses

  1. I never cared for Zinnn. Now, if you tell me that he’s responsible or has influenced people to write not from the top down but from the bottom up, then he is owed a debt. Although authors do bring a point of view, I don’t think most are overtly political as he was. If I wanted that, I suppose I could read Das Kapital or something from the right to fill the bill.

    • Didn’t E. P. Thompson encourage us to write history from the bottom up far earlier than Howard Zinn, far more effectively, and with far better scholarship?

      • Thanks for the comment, Richard!

        You are right that Thompson did a much better (and rigorous) job advocating for “bottom up” history. I wonder, though, if someone had given teenage-me “The Making of the English Working Class” I would have found it as shocking or inspiring as Zinn’s “A People’s History”?

        The jolting quality of Zinn’s polemic is one of the things I was trying to explore in this post. Does the consciousness raising elements of “A People’s History” outweigh its obvious flaws as a work of history?

  2. Nice post. My relationship with Zinn’s book has followed a similar trajectory. Though I still hope he continues to be widely read and turns people away from Founders hagiography to more academic work (such as all the secondary sources his book cites and is based on, despite his anti-academic-establishment stance).

  3. Really enjoyed this post. My first encounters with Zinn came at similar time in my life. I was an obsessive Pearl Jam fan in high school, still am. There is a line in a song called Down that I thought was pretty cool: “you can’t be neutral on a moving train.” My introduction to Zinn’s work came after finding out that PJ yoinked this line, quite consciously, from Zinn. I never read all of People’s History,, never actually bought it, and certainly never took it to parties (sorry Roy). But partly because I thought any historian that was friendly with my favorite band must be cool, I embraced Zinn and the narrative he put out there. Intellectually, I outgrew Zinn. But I’ve not yet lost my love of Pearl Jam. Shortly after Zinn’s death, I was at PJ concert in Boston and they said a little bit about him and then dedicated a song to his memory. I was sure at least a few people in the audience would go seek out some of Zinn’s work after this. On the one hand, I had a lot of misgivings. On the other, this was the summer before I entered graduate school to become a “serious historian,” and couldn’t help but wonder if Zinn had something to do with that.

    In short, you nailed this one Roy.

    • Mark, thanks for the comment & kind words! We both share an affection for Pearl Jam. When ever one of their songs comes on I’m drawn back to the many times I sat around in my neighbor’s dorm room talking politics, Harry Potter, and labor radicalism.

      I often say to my students when they are waffling analytically that “As Howard Zinn once said, ‘you can’t be neutral on a moving train.'”

  4. I picked up Zinn’s classic years ago, but as soon as it started speculating on the number of Native Americans killed, in what seemed like inflated numbers that could never be verified, I put it away. It seemed to me like Zinn was thinking, “Wouldn’t it be great to say Columbus killed XXX thousands” and then he just typed that in. I did the same thing with Page Smith. As soon as he wrote (in the first paragraph of his first page!) that William III was from the German principality of Orange I never went farther. I suppose it is unfair to judge so quickly, but one unprovable claim or factual mistake like that taints the whole effort.

  5. I too read Zinn as a very late teenager. I was already a history addict (or fiend, depending on your point of view). I remember appreciating the labor history which I hadn’t yet run into. But when I went back to it years later after having spent much of that time reading a lot of academic early American history, I was shocked and dismayed at how bad (as history) the book is through the colonial period and into the early Republic. As an undergrad, I wrote a 15-page paper basically demolishing his arguments regarding the Revolution that got me an A+ so I can’t say the book wasn’t useful to me.

    Huzzah to Roy for writing some of the bravest footnotes I have ever read!!

    • Michael, thanks for the kind words. Flipping through the early republic sectors last night really made me wince. There is so much better scholarship on the subject that makes more politically useful points – Cornell, Holton, etc. Even within the New Left scholarship (from which Zinn draws) there is much better material than what’s in “A People’s History.”

      As for the footnotes, I am of the opinion that historians should be open about their prespective, politics, and biography. It leads to better history, I think, and people are more willing to trust you. With my students, the more I explain where I am coming from the more they seem to accept my conclusions and arguments.

  6. Great post, Roy! I’m no friend of Zinn but I found your account here quite poignant as I thought about my own intellectual influences over the years.

    That being said, I enjoyed John Gianvito’s (admittedly problematic) movie, “The Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind,” which was inspired by Zinn’s work. It has no dialogue but serves as a general meditation on American radicalism, and I think it’s far more inspiring than Zinn’s text since it lets the viewer fill in the blanks. ((NY Times review here: Have you seen it? If so, what did you think?

  7. I think Howard Zinn wrote a great book for the right time and the right audience. While some wish to attack Zinn for writing a book that wasn’t aimed at academics, they should understand why he wrote it and who he wrote it for. They also need to recall the context in which he wrote it which I think they do, but at the same time they tend to neglect that as well.

    Zinn was on the cutting edge of the fields of history we take for granted today. He blazed a new path for us along with other historians in breaking up the moribund mindset of history for the general public. I really think many historians are overlooking something very important in that regard. He did not write for an academic audience and in that regard he did an outstanding job.

    We tend to see polemic garbage from the Becks and Bartons presented to the mass audience. We see some of the best selling histories being written recently by non-historians. Why is this? Why are academic historians not writing for the general public? How do we expect to reach the larger audience if we do not write for that audience? Zinn targeted a market. He wasn’t perfect and it wasn’t the great history book it could have been, but it served a purpose.

    You read it. It influenced you. Zinn reached you. You’ve taken it from there and become a historian. I would say Zinn met his goal and is still doing so through you.

    • I totally agree that Zinn served an important role by popularizing history from the bottom up, but he was never cutting edge. His work wasn’t based on new research or discoveries, he just synthesized what other academic historians were publishing, and did so with less nuance or balance.

    • I’m in agreement with what Nic says above.

      Zinn’s work really doesn’t do justice to the New Left – New Social History historiography that he was largely influenced by. Works by folks like Jesse Lemisch, Gary Nash, Eugene Genovese, etc. etc. are much more complicated and nuanced (but still radical!) than Zinn’s tome.

  8. Great post. I also have a troubled love/hate relationship with Zinn. Knowning and having many activists in my circle of friends, they often use it as a form of bible as if to say, “Zinn says this, so it must be true,” which disgusts me. Also whenever they get upset with someone who is using historical narrative to illustrate a point they disagree with, they have a Good Will Hunting moment where they yell at that person to “read Zinn!”

    At the same time, he was instrumental in awaking my intellectual curiosity and his work has helped me learn to think critically while reading.

    I still have high regards for Dr. Zinn, but I really honor him more for his activist than as a historian. In that light, his work is important, in my opinion, but needs to be put into context. I continue to think it belongs in history classrooms, but wouldn’t recommend it as the sole text.

  9. This is a fantastic post! I remember reading Ch. 5 of a People’s History and wincing when he cited Charles Beard without any sort reference to the 1950s and 1960s “Neo Whig” (Borrowing a term from Gordon Wood) revolution in American History. Seeing how his book was written in the 80s, he completely ignored this and went with a very Progressive interpretation, a misleading move. Anyway, I see you referenced some more systematic and balanced textbooks on American History, which one would you say is your favorite?

  10. I was given the book as a gift by the pastor of my Catholic church when I was in 8th grade. A strange gift from a priest, I know, but he knew I liked history and presumably wanted to challenge some of my beliefs. It served its purpose. I didn’t agree with many of Zinn’s arguments, other than the fact that Columbus was a jerk, but he demonstrated that history is largely a matter of perspective and memory. This made the subject even more intriguing to me because there was no longer a single truth to discover but many. Looking back now, Zinn may have had a little bit to do with me selecting history as a major in college and grad school. So I’ll give him that.

    BTW, I work with Roy Sr. I look forward to having drinks with you guys some time. Good article.

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