Howard Zinn was a breath of fresh air.

28 01 2010

I must be doing something right as a historian since my e-mail box started filling up with Howard Zinn tributes before I even saw the news that he had died.

I went to a Howard Zinn speech before I ever read one of his books. It was Madison in the early-1990s and I must have been the only history grad student in the audience who had never even heard of A People’s History of the United States. I distinctly remember my reaction, though: I couldn’t believe he was saying such things. I had simply never encountered an all-out assault on the Heroic Master Narrative of American history before. I didn’t agree with everything he said, but the notion that one could even contemplate mounting such an attack was absolutely exhilarating

Running into Zinn’s actual scholarship, I was less impressed. I loved A People’s History the first time I read it, but the more I learned about American history in general the more I realized its flaws. I think of it as a book to give precocious 15-year-olds who think that history is boring. Hopefully, it can then serve as a gateway to better-researched stuff.

To me Zinn’s best book is his autobiography, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train. Besides the fact that the title is the best metaphor for discussing historical bias that I’ve ever encountered, it is much easier to enjoy without qualms as you can’t expect him to be objective when he tells his own story. Lifting a sentence from it quoted in the Boston Globe‘s obituary:

“From the start, my teaching was infused with my own history. I would try to be fair to other points of view, but I wanted more than ‘objectivity’ ; I wanted students to leave my classes not just better informed, but more prepared to relinquish the safety of silence, more prepared to speak up, to act against injustice wherever they saw it. This, of course, was a recipe for trouble.”

As I remember it, he argues that since kids grow up with the Heroic Master Narrative of American history their whole lives, he doesn’t need to give that side of the story. We all already know it far too well.

I think this perspective is why his books have sold so well. People who don’t know anything about history from the bottom up are probably just as surprised by his arguments as I was when I first heard him. He will always be a breath of fresh air to people who pick up his works for the first time.




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