Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States changed my life.
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. 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. All of this history education was very traditional—all Presidents, bloodshed, and American Exceptionalism. 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. 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.
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. The thing is, over the years, I’ve soured on A People’s History of the United States. 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. 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. 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. 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. He repeatedly stresses that many of his analytic debts are not to his fellow “professional historians” but to common people and semi-mythic outsiders. 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.” 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. Zinn with his wish-washy anti-historian historical posture undermines this project. 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. Would a history by a more traditional-minded scholar have appealed to teenage-me? 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. Should I deny the insights I’ve garnered since?
 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).
 Military history was my childhood love. At seven or eight, I dug a battlefield trench to be just like the American soldiers at Yorktown.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 For Zinn’s attitude on the “objective question,” see Zinn, A People’s History, 683-684.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 Ibid., 686, 689. “Professional historians” quotation on p. 689.
 Ibid., 686. If you add “religious intolerance” to that list you have a big part of my agenda as a teacher-scholar.
 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).
 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.
 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.
 Of the four books listed above (footnote 15), teenage-me would have likely appreciated Holton’s Unruly Origins.
 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.