Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States published in 1980, passed away several weeks ago. And while I’ve had the chance to hear him speak several times, it’s not like we were that close.
But it’s still a bit of a shock.
Zinn, like him or not, changed the way we do history, how we think about and write about history. And the world is worse off because he’s gone.
Zinn was an author, professor at Boston University and Spelman College in Atlanta, civil rights activist, historian and a World War II Army Air Force bombardier.
He wrote many things including You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train but it was A People’s History for which he is most well-known. With only a 5,000 print first run, A People’s History probably seemed odd at first. It wasn’t the normal sort of book for 1980.
In a 2008 interview with BigThink, Zinn said that he wanted to
be remembered as somebody who gave people a feeling of hope and power that they didn’t have before.
Traditional histories of the time focused on “dead, white guys” with a top-down, political and military perspective. Zinn’s approach was bit different. He chose not to write about treaty signings, political debates and Founding Fathers. Instead, Zinn wrote about poor and hungry farmers, unionists, women, those who resisted slavery and folks who struggled against both big business and big government.
As a senior attending a western Kansas high school at the time, I . . . um . . . didn’t get to the book till later. Much later. (There are probably some in western Kansas who still haven’t heard of it. And if they have, refuse to read it. If you’re from western Kansas, I say this with love.)
But I did eventually get to it, as did many others. A People’s History has sold over two million copies. And it wasn’t that Zinn was necessarily the first to write from a social, “underdog” perspective that made his books intriguing to so many. It was the manner in which Zinn used that perspective to create a narrative tying major events together that made A People’s History popular.
“What Zinn did was bring history writing out of the academy, and he undid much of the frankly biased and prejudiced views that came before it,” said Sean Wilentz, a professor of history at Princeton University. “But he’s a popularizer, and his view of history is topsy-turvy, turning old villains into heroes, and after a while the glow gets unreal.”
That criticism barely raised a hair on Mr. Zinn’s neck. “It’s not an unbiased account; so what?” he said in the Times interview. “If you look at history from the perspective of the slaughtered and mutilated, it’s a different story.”
Zinn’s work has encouraged others to continue thinking about and writing history from a variety of perspectives. A People’s History is
an example of how coming at a familiar set of historical facts from a different angle can completely change what we know about them. And today, historians of all stripes are applying that lesson in new and fascinating ways. These scholars are not the heirs of Zinn, politically or intellectually, but their work shares his conviction that we can and should see the past anew.
It’s this legacy of “seeing the past anew” that Zinn leaves behind.