A Word on Howard Zinn

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.

18 thoughts on “A Word on Howard Zinn

  1. Mark October 13, 2015 / 12:22 pm

    >> 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.

    That is true of so many people Brooks. 🙂

  2. Al Mackey October 13, 2015 / 3:00 pm

    I enjoyed Zinn’s book because I found it a completely different perspective and it got me to think about my own perspective. While I disagreed with much of what Zinn had to say, I found it useful to assess my own perspective as a result.

    • Charles Lovejoy October 14, 2015 / 10:29 pm

      Question? Should a book or a work of art encourage an assessment or our own perspective? Push us to question are perspective?

  3. John Foskett October 13, 2015 / 4:09 pm

    I think that Greenberg has nailed some essential truth in his concluding paragraphs – which is why I prefer to read history which appears to deal with events and facts through a clear, rather than a colored, lens. i say “appears” because everybody has “biases” and “slants”, but I differentiate those from an agenda. That in itself may be a fantasy, of course.

  4. Jimmy Dick October 13, 2015 / 4:29 pm

    I like to use Chapter One of A People’s History of the United States for the shock value in the fast moving survey course. I have to preface the reading by explaining who Howard Zinn was and why he evokes up so many opinions. Zinn’s book is definitely a one-sided exercise in polemic scholarship, but at the same time he hit the target audience dead on. What I really like about Zinn is that he makes people think and look for more. Historians are constantly complaining about the
    public not reading their works and not being interested in history.

    Zinn proved that they will read history and are interested in it. Historians just need to write for the public and not the Ivory Tower. Some of the attacks on Zinn are motivated from pure jealousy, but that is natural. Better books exist, but they don’t have the impact that his did. By using Chapter One and an essay assignment with other sources I am able to move the students into seeing history in a different light, one in which they are open to engagement.

    That said, I have decided not to use Zinn in any other history courses. There are better works to use.

    Eric Foner
    Columbia University, “Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction”

    The idea that historians have to be neutral about everything they study is the death of history. Every historian has beliefs and feelings about what they’re studying. Howard made them very explicit. The teachers you remember are the ones with a passion for history who made it clear what they thought. They were not polemicists. They respected the canons of historical scholarship, as Zinn did, but they cared deeply.

    That’s why the whole subject of objectivity is a bit of a misnomer. If objectivity means you balance all of the evidence and weigh it, that’s absolutely correct. If objectivity means you have no opinions of your own, what kind of person is that? Who wants to hear from them?

    There are many grounds to criticize many of the things he wrote. I reviewed “A People’s History of the United States” for the New York Times Book Review when it came out in 1980. I gave positive and negative points of view about it, but the point is, this was a passionate interpretation of American history.

    The way he inspired people, to me, is his legacy, rather than his interpretation of the Jacksonian era or the Gilded Age or the New Deal. Those can be debated and will be debated. But he deserves more than just people saying this is a biased historian. He really was an important figure in the public vision of history.
    From: http://articles.latimes.com/2010/feb/01/opinion/la-oe-miller1-2010feb01

    • Jimmy Dick October 13, 2015 / 4:30 pm

      The part from Eric Foner on down is Eric Foner’s quotation. That didn’t look good when I hit post comment.

  5. Sandi Saunders October 13, 2015 / 7:36 pm

    I don’t know where it is written or what oath is taken to be “an historian”, but almost any issue that you study in depth will leave you with a perspective and opinion (not to mention the perspective you bring to it) so I see where ALL “polemics” are born. I expect teachers to make every effort to show the truth fairly but I think we ask too much for people to leave their bias out of any narrative. Bias alone is not bad, bias based on BS or shoddy research is what is hard to forgive and what damages credibility in the end.

    • John Foskett October 14, 2015 / 10:07 am

      Unfortunately, I think some don’t make the effort to try to fence off their political slant. We have too many examples.

      • rcocean October 15, 2015 / 12:40 am

        Yep. For example, its sad that so many who view MacArthur negatively can’t “fence off their political slant”.

        • John Foskett October 15, 2015 / 10:11 am

          Same, unfortunately, is true of those who blindly worship at the Dugout Doug altar. It requires them to ignore a number of things, including December 8. Of course, that’s probably all orchestrated by the Brereton family.

  6. Rcocean October 14, 2015 / 1:45 pm

    I enjoyed A People’s History and Mein Kamp because I found it a completely different perspective and it got me to think about my own perspective. While I disagreed with much of what Hitler and Zinn had to say, I found it useful to assess my own perspective as a result.

  7. Charles Lovejoy October 14, 2015 / 10:16 pm

    I always found myself in agreement with Howard Zinn on a lot of issues over the years, so his book and my own perspective have a lot in common. But, I tend to see it as more an alternative on history than a history type text book. I don’t believe any one historian has the corner on historic interpretation. His book to me was more his historic views. Far as perspective , I have always admired those in the 20th century as Eugine V Debs, Woody Guthrie, Che Guevara and Malcolm X, I have always felt they saw the world as it really is. I think Howard Zinn did too, I defiantly class Zinn as a progressive thinker.

  8. Lyle Smith October 15, 2015 / 8:09 am

    The idea that Howard Zinn, once upon a time, was something of a folk hero, in the faculty-filled suburbs west of Boston, is definitely something to marvel about.

    • Mark Snell October 16, 2015 / 5:02 pm

      My youngest son (now 29) graduated from Gettysburg H. S. in 2004. When he was a junior he took the Advanced Placement U.S. History course. His teacher assigned Zinn’s book as the text. That, in itself, is not a problem, but the teacher took Zinn’s work as gospel, without presenting the other side. And with such young minds in his class, the majority of the students swallowed Zinn’s theses hook, line and sinker. When my son confronted the teacher, he was taken aback that a student would challenge him. Within a day, Howard Zinn actually emailed my son to ask him why he disagreed. My kid said the book should have been titled “A Victim’s History of the United States.” To Professor Zinn’s credit, he complimented my son for questioning him and told him that he should major in history. Unlike his dad, he didn’t, and instead majored in management. He is now gainfully employed . . . .

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