An Historian’s History of Howard Zinn

Or, Still Starting in on the Bibliography

I never spoke to Professor Howard Zinn, though I did hear him lecture once, in college.

It was a disappointment; I felt I had grown since getting fired from my first job at fourteen for reading The People’s History at work (his books among others, hiding in a stopped elevator between floors), but that he had not grown with me. His arguments were still the same, the world still very simple.

Even more boring were the sad attempts at rhetorical fireworks my fellow audience members made, kowtows with nine syllables instead of nine bows. I’ve only grown further apart from his work as I’ve continued to hoe my own row in history, for reasons that Michael Kazin’s 2004 piece on it in Dissent, which many have cited this week, explain better than I could.

But that doesn’t mean his work — especially A People’s History — isn’t important, either to me or to the profession or to the American public. If you’ll excuse my borrowing yet another writer’s words to explain myself, I think Scott Eric Kaufman’s take is entirely the right one. Zinn’s book “…isn’t meant to replace traditional histories so much as supplement them.” Kazin’s right in a thousand ways, but despite his strident totalizing tone, Zinn is really only one ingredient in a big stew; at least, he explained himself in those terms occasionally.

Furthermore, A People’s History:

…represents a stage in one’s intellectual development.

It was never intended to arrest it.

Unlike, say, Ayn Rand.

And that — even more than the content of the work itself, though that too is important, if incomplete — is what makes Zinn such a great writer of history, to me and so many others.

Rest in peace, Prof. Zinn. And thank you.

Image cite: Austin Kleon, “‘If you don’t know history…’,” Flickr, CC License