Simply to mention Howard Zinn is sure to bring one into controversy. His view of history had its followers and its critics, neither of whom can view his work with any sense of detachment. As someone who went to graduate school at an institution known for its radicalism (although it was not nearly as radical as it professed to be, least of all in the Department of History, where posturing competed with principle and philosophy), I could not avoid brushing shoulders with Zinn’s supporters, although as a hockey player I knew that brushing shoulders often led to other forms of contact.
Many people have read Zinn’s most popular book, A History of the People of the United States; many more, including me, own it, but found what was inside either tough going, excessive, or both. It was history as polemic; one need not reject out of hand the insights and contributions of radical history to conclude that Zinn was something else altogether. Nevertheless, those who like their history as left-of-center revelations about the shortcomings of American political leadership, democracy, and capitalism will find much to satisfy them in a version of the American past that traces the growth of the evil empire.
I found that as an American historian that I could safely set Zinn’s thick opus aside–and I mean thick in multiple ways–and go about my business, satisfied that I was already hearing what was worthwhile about his message filtered through other, more reliable sources. Moreover, given where I was positioned in the world of graduate school politics in the 1980s, no one would have mistaken me for a radical left liberal Marxist socialist, especially as one who cited Burkean notions of representation in a dispute over aid for graduate students (radical students who had been at Wisconsin for some time sought to receive more aid at the expense of their less senior colleagues, a debate that turned political philosophy on its head). However, in a world where kneejerk conservatism paints nearly all historians as activists propagating a political agenda (note that these critics are rarely candid about being guilty of doing exactly that themselves), Zinn is cited as being a foe to truth and an example of what’s wrong with American historical understanding (as if that was all there was to it). Once this debate is presented in such a polarizing and extreme fashion, with no one willing to listen to reason, many of us just walk away from such noisy claptrap, secure in the knowledge that it is intellectually unproductive even as the fear lingers that the result, whatever it is, will come at the expense of understanding and teaching history.
It is in this context that I recommend reading this review of a new biography of Zinn by Martin Duberman, himself no foe of radical history, but an accomplished scholar whose biographies of Charles Francis Adams and James Russell Lowell remain important (and have informed my own work). I will in turn read the biography itself, but the review is useful as a glimpse into the intellectual and political world of scholarship into which I entered when I became a professional historian.
I often marvel at what people think about the academic world and the scholars who inhabit it. I guess it makes them feel better about themselves. Forgive us if we don’t recognize ourselves in your projected fantasies … and forgive us, too, if we suggest that those fantasies tell us so much more about you than about us.