Howard Zinn 1922‐-
American historian, essayist, autobiographer, editor, and playwright.
The following entry presents an overview of Zinn's career through 1999.
Zinn is an outspoken political activist associated with a variety of social justice, peace, and minority rights issues. He has written a number of books on history and political science and is considered an expert on the history of civil disobedience in America. Zinn is known for A People's History of the United States (1980), an alternative account of historical events from the perspective of minorities and members of the working class; the book is often used as a textbook in high schools and universities.
Zinn was born in New York on August 24, 1922, to Edward Zinn, a waiter, and Jenny Rabinowitz Zinn, a Russian immigrant. He grew up in Brooklyn where he began reading Dickens as a boy of ten. He took a job as a laborer in the Brooklyn Navy Yard and at the age of twenty, joined the army. From 1943 to 1945 he served as a second lieutenant in the Army Air Force as a bombardier, earning an Air Medal and a number of battle stars. In 1944 Zinn married Roslyn Shechter, with whom he had two children, Myla and Jeff. After the war he attended New York University on the G.I. Bill, graduating with a bachelor's degree in 1951. He earned a master's degree in 1952 and a Ph.D. in history from Columbia University in 1958. He has taught at a number of colleges and universities. From 1953 to 1956, while completing his doctorate, he taught at Upsala College in New Jersey and served as visiting lecturer in history at Brooklyn College. In 1956 he took a position as chair of the history and political science department at Spelman College, a school for black women in Atlanta. It was at Spelman that Zinn became involved in the civil rights movement along with many of his students. Despite having tenure, he was fired from his position at Spelman in 1960, and the family moved to Boston where Zinn took a history fellowship at Harvard and wrote two books on his experiences at Spelman. In 1964 he joined the faculty of Boston University as a professor of political science; his classes there were always filled to capacity by students who admired his devotion to such liberal causes as peace and civil rights. He remained at BU until his retirement in 1988, despite the best efforts of the university's neoconservative president, John Silber, to oust him in the 1980s. Zinn has also served as visiting professor at both the University of Paris and the University of Bologna and has won numerous awards including the Beveridge Prize, the Thomas Merton Award, the Eugene V. Debs Award, the Upton Sinclair Award, and the Lannan Literary Award. His best-known work, A People's History of the United States, earned the New England Book Award for nonfiction and was nominated for an American Book Award. Zinn is currently professor emeritus at Boston University and resides in Auburndale, Massachusetts, with his wife.
Zinn's first book, awarded the Albert J. Beveridge Prize from the American Historical Association, was based on his doctoral dissertation and published as La Guardia in Congress in 1959. This was followed in 1964 by two contemporary histories, both growing out of his experiences teaching at the predominantly black Spelman College. The first, The Southern Mystique, addresses the black struggle for civil rights in the South and the white resistance to the changes effected by that struggle. The second, SNCC: The New Abolitionists, covered Zinn's experience as faculty advisor to the newly formed Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. In 1968, Zinn published Disobedience and Democracy, his response to “Concerning Dissent and Civil Disobedience,” a pamphlet issued by Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas. Two years later, in an effort to inspire historians “to earn their keep in this world,” Zinn wrote The Politics of History, in which he challenged his fellow historians to document injustices in the American system. In 1973, he published Postwar America: 1945-1971, a work of cultural and political history wherein he attempted to expose inconsistencies in America's most cherished ideological beliefs.
Zinn's most famous work is his alternative history A People's History of the United States, often referred to as history written from the bottom up—that is, from the perspective of Native Americans, slaves, women, immigrants, and members of the working class. Originally published in 1980, the work was revised, updated, and reissued in 1999 as A People's History of the United States: 1492-Present. Zinn's 1994 autobiography, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times, concentrates on his involvement in the civil rights and anti-war movements.
In addition to his nonfiction writings, Zinn has written three plays: Emma (1976), based on the life of Emma Goldman; Daughter of Venus (1985), produced at the Theatre for New City in New York; and Marx in Soho (1999), which imaginatively transports Karl Marx from London's Soho district in the nineteenth century to New York's Soho district in the present day.
Zinn's position as a respected scholar as well as a political activist has given him a unique perspective on many of the events he covers in his books. Martin B. Duberman claims that Zinn's ability to combine theory and practice in his chronicles of the 1960s civil rights movement results in books that “are personal without being egotistical, are authoritative but free of pedantry, are passionate without being suspiciously agitated.” Erwin Knoll (see Further Reading) believes that Zinn's wide-ranging experience—not only as an activist, but also as a blue-collar worker and a World War II bombardier—“contributes to the depth of his perception in Postwar America: 1945-1971.” On the other hand, some critics have suggested that Zinn's involvement in the movements he writes about results in sentimentalism and romanticism. Margaret O'Brien, for example, believes Zinn overvalues SNCC's potential as a force for change: “It would be nice, but SNCC is not going to save the world. By suggesting it could, Zinn places SNCC's true greatness in a possible (but very doubtful) future; and he needn't have.” In his review of Postwar America: 1945-1971, Peter Michelson echoes that criticism, claiming that “the book suffers finally from political romanticism, the sort of wishful thinking that reveals the frustrating dilemma of American radicalism.” Similarly Simon Lazarus, who believes that Zinn romanticizes “the virtues of confrontation for its own sake,” questions the effectiveness of civil disobedience whose main purpose is to insult or offend majority values—a strategy he claims Zinn encourages in Disobedience and Democracy. In his review of Justice in Everyday Life: The Way It Really Works, Terry M. Perlin (see Further Reading) contends that the book “suffers from considerable naiveté,” and concludes that it is “a utopian tract, suffering from all the beauties and dangers of that format.” Some critics, however, see that naiveté in a more positive light. Harvey Wasserman, for example, refers to Zinn's “characteristic innocence” in his review of The Zinn Reader, claiming that although Zinn's book does not necessarily provide all the answers, it is “a healing read” that will make readers “feel restored, even hopeful.”
Although Zinn's books have been popular—particularly among young college students eager to hear an alternative to the sanitized versions of history taught in many high schools—they have not been favorably reviewed by most scholars. His most famous book, A People's History of the United States, is often dismissed as a fairly unsophisticated record of relentless exploitation of the downtrodden. Luther Spoehr [see Further Reading], for example, claims that Zinn's book “has no notion of process or complexity, no sense of how the terms of argument and weapons of battle have changed over time.” Michael Kammen finds that A People's History is “a synthesis of the radical and revisionist historiography of the past decade, incorporating many of the strengths and most of the weaknesses of that highly uneven body of literature.” Bruce Kuklick, meanwhile, considers the book a radical textbook and asserts that, as such, “its comprehension of issues is stunted; its understanding of materials is unnuanced,” just as they are in most textbooks. Still, the work has gone through numerous printings, was revised and reissued in a twentieth-anniversary edition in 1999, and continues to appear in a large number of high school and college classrooms. Mariel Garza accounts for the book's phenomenal sales figures by suggesting that “A People's History is a great example of product differentiation, entering underserved markets, and giving people what they want.”
La Guardia in Congress (history) 1959
SNCC: The New Abolitionists (history) 1964
The Southern Mystique (essays) 1964
Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal (essay) 1967
Disobedience and Democracy: Nine Fallacies on Law and Order (essay) 1968
The Politics of History (essay) 1970
Postwar America: 1945-1971 (history) 1973
Justice in Everyday Life: The Way It Really Works [editor] (essays) 1974
Emma (play) 1976
A People's History of the United States (history) 1980; revised as A People's History of the United States: 1492-Present, 1999
Daughter of Venus (play) 1985
Declarations of Independence: Cross-Examining American Ideology (essay) 1990
Failure to Quit: Reflections of an Optimistic Historian (memoir) 1993
You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times (autobiography) 1994
The Zinn Reader: Writings on Disobedience and Democracy (essays) 1997
The Future of History: Interviews with David Barsamian (interviews) 1999
Marx in Soho: A Play on History (play) 1999
Howard Zinn on History (essays) 2000...
(The entire section is 183 words.)
SOURCE: Ellison, Ralph. “If the Twain Shall Meet.” Book Week (8 November 1964): 1, 20, 22-5.
[In the following review of The Southern Mystique, Ellison praises Zinn for providing a constructive blueprint for solving the civil rights crisis in the South.]
Howard Zinn's The Southern Mystique is yet another reminder that American history is caught again in the excruciating process of executing a spiral—that is, in returning at a later point in time to an earlier point in historical space—and the point of maximum tortuosity is once again the South.
It would seem that the basic themes of our history may be repressed in the public mind, but like corpses in mystery dramas, they always turn up, again—and are frequently more troublesome. Yes, and with an added element of mystery. “To hit,” as the hunters say, “is history, to miss is mystery.” For while our history is characterized by a swift and tightly telescoped continuity, our consciousness of history is typically discontinuous. Like quiescent organisms in the blood, our unresolved issues persist, but with our attention turned to other concerns we come to regard the eruption of boils and chancres that mark their presence with our well-known “American innocence.” Naturally, this leaves us vulnerable to superstition, rumor, and the manipulation of political medicine men.
(The entire section is 4805 words.)
SOURCE: Brockway, Allan R. “Modern Abolitionists.” Christian Century 81, no. 48 (25 November 1964): 1464.
[In the following review of SNCC: The New Abolitionists, Brockway praises Zinn's hopeful account of the activities of the young leaders of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.]
Social revolutions result from a complex mixture of factors combining at a particular point in history to force change toward ends that, for all their immediate concreteness, often reach far beyond themselves. Such is the case with the Negro revolution today. And such is the case with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced “Snick”), one of the most vocal, “radical” and activist manifestations of that revolt.
Howard Zinn has lived with SNCC as a teacher of some of its leaders, as an observer and, to some extent, as a participant. His book is filled with personal accounts of these young fighters in the revolution's front line. It is the closest thing to a history of SNCC yet to appear, although Zinn is correct in preferring to call it a “glimpse of SNCC people in action” that suggests “the quality of their contribution to American civilization.”
To portray the Negro SNCC field secretaries—predominately young and coming from poor, working class southern families—would be difficult without transmitting something of their courage,...
(The entire section is 720 words.)
SOURCE: Duberman, Martin B. “The Fire This Time.” Partisan Review 32, no. 1 (winter 1965): 147-51.
[In the following review, Duberman contends that Zinn's two 1964 books on the civil rights movement are informed by his dual roles as scholar and active participant in the events being covered.]
Now, boy, you go to writing and write up a new day.
—Mama Dollie, Lee County, Georgia
Radicalism is returning to American life. It owes its initial rebirth to the civil rights movement, but men like Bayard Rustin and others less well-known, are now moving beyond the race problem to broad social criticism. These new radicals increasingly see racism as but one symptom of our social malaise, a symptom which itself can never disappear until a broader attack is launched against the value structure which maintains it—against the preference for order, compromise and cliché over justice, principle and reality, against all that has turned us from a revolutionary outpost into a conservative bulwark.
The new radicals do not pretend to have any long-range strategy or detailed ideology; they are undogmatic, unsentimental and unhysterical. Despite their anger and disgust at the banalities and evasions of American life, their tone is one of quiet confidence. They are optimistic not only about the country's potential,...
(The entire section is 1455 words.)
SOURCE: O'Brien, Margaret. Review of SNCC: The New Abolitionists, by Howard Zinn. Commonweal 81, no. 19 (5 February 1965): 616-17.
[In the following review, O'Brien maintains that Zinn overestimates SNCC's potential to effect major changes in America unrelated to racial issues.]
From February 1, 1960 when the first sit-ins occurred in Greensboro, North Carolina, to Spring, 1964, young members of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee moved across the South, organizing sit-ins, freedom rides, and voter registration drives. Their efforts put them on intimate terms with cattle prods, jail cells, and a cast of law enforcement officials whose style of rule would warm the heart of—maybe Ivan the Terrible.
This book is built on the personal accounts of these young men and women. It is journalism; it is “human interest”; and it is valuable. We remember that behind “strategy” and “power structure” and “backlash” are people; that there are parts of our nation where people who work for equal rights—and not “strategies” or “power structures”—are defeated and sometimes killed.
Howard Zinn records the SNCC workers' early realization that the terrorized Negroes of the South would never cooperate unless the workers proved themselves willing to make a long-term commitment; problems were sure to multiply for the local Negro community...
(The entire section is 828 words.)
SOURCE: Gauthier, David P. Review of Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal, by Howard Zinn. Canadian Forum 47 (November 1967): 182-84.
[In the following review, Gauthier contends that Zinn makes a well-argued case for immediate withdrawal from Vietnam, a position many critics of the war privately support.]
The most considerable merit of this critique of American involvement in Vietnam is that it presents a clearly argued case for what most critics of the Vietnamese war believe but will not say—that America should withdraw now. Howard Zinn, a Professor of Government at Boston University, rejects the so-called realism of those who muffle their criticism, calling for de-escalation, negotiation, or other half-way measures. Against them he quotes Wendell Phillips—“We must ask for the whole loaf, to get the half of it” (p. 119). The argument that withdrawal is not politically feasible rests on a misunderstanding of the decision-making process. What is possible depends on interests; if enough people demand withdrawal, then political leaders can come to have a sufficient interest to support withdrawal.
But why should withdrawal be demanded? Zinn develops his argument in three stages. First, he attempts to enlarge our perspective of the war, by viewing it from the position of an outsider—the Japanese, and an alienated insider—the American Negro, and from the historical...
(The entire section is 1305 words.)
SOURCE: Cohen, Carl. “Civil Disobedience: Moral or Not?” Nation 207, no. 19 (2 December 1968): 597, 599-600.
[In the following review, Cohen praises Zinn's Disobedience and Democracy as an insightful book that should be widely read and discussed, although he challenges the bases for many of Zinn's arguments.]
Civil disobedience has become one of the most puzzling and provocative issues of the times. There are two kinds of reasons for this. First, those who have recently been engaging in disobedient demonstrations have done so, most usually, to register vehement protest against laws, acts and conditions that cry out for remedy, while remedy continues to elude us. The barbarity of the war in Vietnam; the cruelty of racism at home; the maldistribution of wealth and power; and, above all, the apparent unwillingness or inability of our national institutions—Congress, the courts, private enterprise—to deal effectively with injustice, frustrates and angers all decent citizens, and forces us to ask ourselves how changes we know to be essential can be brought about. Those who practice civil disobedience seek to provide at least a partial answer to this question, often breaking new ground at considerable risk to themselves. Most often we find ourselves in strong sympathy with such disobedients, knowing their intentions honorable and their cause just. Even so, many remain in genuine doubt about the...
(The entire section is 2693 words.)
SOURCE: Lazarus, Simon. “Perspective on Dissent.” New Republic 159, no. 23 (7 December 1968): 32-3.
[In the following review of Disobedience and Democracy, Lazarus charges Zinn with romanticizing the politics of civil disobedience and confrontation.]
In his widely distributed pamphlet, Concerning Dissent and Civil Disobedience, Mr. Justice Fortas condemned civil disobedience on the ground that America's formally democratic political system makes social change possible through legal means. This version of law-and-order liberalism is not invulnerable. Unfortunately, Howard Zinn's reply to Fortas succeeds mostly in inverting Fortas's principal difficulties.
Zinn agrees with Fortas that the propriety of civil disobedience depends on its relationship to the democratic principle. But whereas Fortas assumed, with little discussion, that American government offers adequate popular choice as well as social progress, Zinn considers it axiomatic that government can be treated as analytically separate from the people and hostile to their interests. He shares Fortas's tendency to confound the Law with the Right; but whereas Fortas asserted that virtually all that is not legal is ipso facto immoral, Zinn makes the more implausible suggestion that all acts intended to do Right should be considered lawful and receive full judicial protection. Fortas contends that defiance of...
(The entire section is 1072 words.)
SOURCE: Davis, Saville R. “The Morality of Dissent.” Christian Science Monitor (16 January 1969): 11.
[In the following review of Disobedience and Democracy, Davis describes Zinn's reasoning as “intricate and sometimes contorted.”]
One would not look to Supreme Court justice Abe Fortas for guidance on civil disobedience, nor to author and teacher Howard Zinn, a passionate advocate of disobedience, for direction on how to preserve the American system of law. But let each one define his position and then lean toward the other, and the occasion is instructive. It is also going to make partisan readers on each side more uncomfortable. This is not a bland subject at a time when it has been argued out on the streets for five tumultuous years with the result, in the Nixon years ahead, still acutely uncertain.
In Disobedience and Democracy Mr. Zinn presents “nine fallacies on law and order” which he finds in the recent Fortas booklet “Concerning Dissent and Civil Disobedience.”
As the two books pass by each other, connecting only at points, the citizen is at a disadvantage. The law is a sophisticated subject, and Mr. Fortas, defending the existing order in a period of sometimes heroic and nonviolent challenge which he approves, and of sometimes violent or ugly challenge which he does not approve, sounds extremely plausible. Disobedience and its...
(The entire section is 726 words.)
SOURCE: Sheldon, Courtney R. “An Urgent Plea to Historians.” Christian Science Monitor (30 July 1970): 5.
[In the following review of The Politics of History, Sheldon suggests that the strength of Zinn's convictions is reminiscent of those of the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison.]
Millions of Americans ask plaintively, even desperately, why the unnerving turmoil and strife in a land of such great promise?
The answer of Howard Zinn, professor of political science at Boston University, has the searing conviction of Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison who erupted in 1831:
On this subject (slavery) I do not wish to think or speak or write with moderation. No! No! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her baby from the fire into which it has fallen—but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present.
The middle America of comfortable suburbs and homogeneous small towns and cities can best try to understand the Howard Zinns by listening to their words directly:
“One needs,” the professor points out, “to put aside on occasion first-rate newspapers, quality magazines, and other respectable sources of news...
(The entire section is 720 words.)
SOURCE: Stone, Ralph. “Humanistic History.” Progressive 34, no. 9 (September 1970): 49-50.
[In the following review of The Politics of History, Stone finds that Zinn provides valuable advice to historians on making their work more relevant to the contemporary political situation.]
Howard Zinn is a radical historian. The order is important, for Zinn's perception of the present consciously shapes his outlook on the past. He argues in this book that more historians should do the same. In other words, there should be more politics in history. If so, more people might read what historians are writing. Integrating their history and their politics would also help historians reduce some of that disjointedness they feel between their career and the rest of their lives. Zinn would hope that in the process much of the new history would be radical. But he would settle for conservative scholarship as long as it sought to be relevant. At least such history can be debated; it is living, something that can't be said of most of what is written today.
Zinn begins with the assumption that the only real justification for studying history is to advance man toward the solution of current and future problems. He does not exclude truly artistic works which rely on imagination and flashes of insight to illuminate the past. But few historians are capable of such writing, and few even attempt it. What...
(The entire section is 893 words.)
SOURCE: Green, Philip. Review of The Politics of History, by Howard Zinn. American Political Science Review 64, no. 4 (December 1970): 1281-83.
[In the following review, Green discusses Zinn's rejection of the possibility of achieving objectivity in historical writing.]
The purpose of Howard Zinn's excellent collection of essays on history and historiography is to draw attention by both analysis and precept to “the consequences in action of historical writing. The meaning … of a writer will be found not just in what he intends to say, or what he does literally say, but in the effect of his writing on living beings.” (p. 279) “The Politics of History,” then, is a literal title, referring not to political events in time past but to the current activities as historians (and social scientists) themselves, Zinn's own included. For in a world, as he puts it, “where children are still not safe from starvation or bombs,” it is willy-nilly a political act to engage one's sympathies with or withhold them from the actors who have made the present and are making the future, and who are the objects of our study; indeed, the very choice by academics of a subject matter itself is also a political act. Thus Zinn rejects the canon of so-called objectivity in research, for since all social studies whose interpretation bears on our assessment of our own condition are ipso facto political,...
(The entire section is 1245 words.)
SOURCE: O'Neill, William L. “Optimistic Activist.” Progressive 37, no. 6 (June 1973): 57.
[In the following review of Postwar America: 1945-1971, O'Neill contends that there is little that is new in Zinn's revisionist history of the postwar years.]
This book demonstrates how important timeliness is to a polemic. Few readers of The Progressive are likely to disagree with political scientist Howard Zinn's description of American foreign policy, or his denunciations of racism, sexism, militarism, and assorted other blights. But neither are they likely to find much that is new to them. The revisionist histories such as those by Gabriel Kolko and Lloyd C. Gardner have made us familiar with the often sordid motives underlying American diplomacy. Thanks to Gar Alperovitz and many others we know that even if the decision to use nuclear weapons against Japan was right (which Zinn disputes), it was arrived at wrongly. And what literate person can now escape knowing that the poor, the black, and the disadvantaged all have reason to feel mistreated and neglected?
Five or six years ago Zinn's remarks might have been news to some. But at this late date to announce breathlessly that in a capitalist country capitalists have unfair advantages is to make even the sympathetic reader feel embarrassed for him. Zinn has left no moderately radical cliche unmolested, which is exasperating...
(The entire section is 506 words.)
SOURCE: Michelson, Peter. “Armchair Revolution.” New Republic 169, nos. 4 & 5 (28 July 1973): 24-6.
[In the following review of Postwar America: 1945-1971, Michelson praises Zinn's critique of liberalism, but ultimately finds his account of postwar politics a romanticized version of events.]
If it is true, as one wit said, that a liberal is a radical with a wife and two kids, then that tells us a whole lot about the millstone around the neck of American radicalism. Picture the liberal of the last few weeks. He gets home from his ＄20,000 a year job, kisses his wife, plays ball for 10 minutes with his kids, eats dinner, and then tunes in the PBS “gavel to gavel” rebroadcast of the daily Watergate circus. Somewhat condescendingly and a little self-righteous, he watches Stans, Magruder, Dean & Co. with a faint but distinctive flutter of hope. Maybe, he thinks as he sits and sips his middling good scotch, maybe they will, maybe they can get Him. His fantasies soar: indictment? impeachment? resignation? News flash: Cambodian compromise; the President promises to abide by the Constitution, in 45 days. Thump, back down: a pack of thieves. He sits. He watches. Maybe he writes his congressman. He hopes.
What does he hope for, this right-minded man with a wife, two kids and a mortgage? Does he hope for a society of just and equitable distribution of wealth,...
(The entire section is 2134 words.)
SOURCE: Patterson, James T. Review of Postwar America: 1945-1971, by Howard Zinn. The Journal of American History 60, no. 2 (September 1973): 513-14.
[In the following review of Zinn's account of the postwar era, Patterson faults Zinn for neglecting various aspects of social and cultural history, among them issues involving women and families, religious developments, ethnic conflict, and urban problems.]
No self-respecting publishing firm these days can hold up its head unless it tries to capture the college market (students, that is) by promoting a series of short books on American history. Howard Zinn's book is part of such a series, billed as the History of American Society. The editor of this venture, Jack P. Greene, says that the volumes will “outline in broad strokes … the main thrust of American economic, social, and cultural development and the interaction between that development and American political and public life” (p. x).
Zinn, an activist who makes no pretense of objectivity, does no such thing. Instead, he starts with a New Left critique of American foreign policy and follows with sharp assaults on American political and judicial institutions. He concludes by calling for a humane new socialism, the demise of the nation-state, the abolition of prisons, and the end of authoritarianism in personal and familial relationships. Though he is ambiguous about the...
(The entire section is 582 words.)
SOURCE: Kammen, Michael. “How the Other Half Lived.” Washington Post Book World (23 March 1980): 7.
[In the following review, Kammen finds A People's History a largely unsuccessful attempt to synthesize the body of revisionist historiography of the 1970s.]
Howard Zinn has earned his medals as a radical academic and social activist. He served nobly in the civil rights movement during the 1960s and subsequently became an outspoken critic of our tragic involvement in Vietnam. He is now in the news because the president of Boston University, where Zinn is a professor of political science, is trying to fire five tenured faculty members who led a strike last fall against the president's authoritarian policies. Howard Zinn is one of the “B.U.5.”
Most of his previous publications have dealt with American history in the 20th century, especially southern and black history, our Vietnam fiasco and related aspects of injustice in the United States. His collected essays, The Politics of History (1970), accused his fellow historians of “elitism,” and pleaded for a new approach to history, history from “the bottom up”—a more egalitarian history that would de-emphasize the role of great white men and give adequate attention to workers, women and minorities.
A People's History of the United States takes such an approach and seeks to fill that need....
(The entire section is 1061 words.)
SOURCE: Kuklick, Bruce. “The People? Yes.” Nation 230, no. 20 (24 May 1980): 634-36.
[In the following review, Kuklick claims that while A People's History is a radical textbook, it exhibits many of the problems common to textbooks in general.]
Howard Zinn admits that “a people's history” is not the best description of his work, and I've tried to understand it by figuring out what would be the best description. The book is clearly about the oppression of the people: there are eloquent renditions of the destruction of Indian culture and rich analyses of the torment of the slaves, their revolts and their degradation after the Civil War. There are long explorations of the misery of the working class, its attempts to avoid becoming cannon fodder in American wars, and its struggles to form unions. Much time is also devoted to the study of left and radical politics. Finally, Zinn writes of the subjugation of women, although here I was struck by the brevity of his treatment, as if he were a relative latecomer to feminism who hadn't fully integrated its views into his own.
At the same time, Zinn has almost nothing to say about the daily texture of the social life of the people and, what is more surprising, there is no discussion of the people's religion—surely a central aspect of American experience in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and an important element in much of...
(The entire section is 1014 words.)
SOURCE: Handlin, Oscar. “Arawaks.” American Scholar 49 (autumn 1980): 546-50.
[In the following review of A People's History, Handlin refutes the accuracy of many of the historical facts presented in Zinn's book.]
This is a book about Arawaks.
Once upon a time, people remarkable for their belief in sharing and for their hospitality lived blissfully without commerce; they relied exclusively on the natural environment for sustenance. They valued the arts, and accorded each sex freedom and dignity. Ages before the Arawaks, the Mound Builders, also devoted to the arts, had occupied the same continent. And from across the ocean came blacks out of such idyllic communal groups that they hardly needed law; even slavery was benign. Then the destructive white strangers arrived—and after that it was downhill all the way.
Such is the story Zinn purports to unfold. He ascribes the topsy-turvy quality of his description to its perspective—the Constitution viewed by the slaves, Andrew Jackson by the Cherokees, the Civil War by the New York Irish, the Spanish-American War by Cubans, the New Deal by Harlem blacks, and the recent American empire by Latin-American peons. Alas, he can produce little proof that the people he names, from slaves to peons, saw matters as he does. Hence the deranged quality of his fairy tale, in which the incidents are made to fit the legend, no...
(The entire section is 1493 words.)
SOURCE: Glass, Charles. “The Other US.” New Statesman 100, no. 2588 (24 October 1980): 27.
[In the following excerpted review, Glass claims that despite its limitations, A People's History provides information on groups omitted from standard textbooks.]
A People's History of the United States, … attempts, in its author's words:
to tell the story of the discovery of America from the viewpoint of the Arawaks, of the Constitution from the standpoint of the slaves, of Andrew Jackson as seen by the Cherokees, of the Civil War as seen by the New York Irish, of the Mexican war as seen by the deserting soldiers of Scott's army, of the rise of industrialism as seen by the young women in the Lowell textile mills, of the Spanish-American war as seen by the Cubans, the conquest of the Philippines as seen by black soldiers on Luzon, the Gilded Age as seen by southern farmers, the First World War as seen by socialists, the Second World War as seen by pacifists, the New Deal as seen by blacks in Harlem, the postwar American empire as seen by peons in Latin America.
Thus, in his first chapter, Professor Zinn promises to relate the familiar episodes of American history from at least 13 different points of...
(The entire section is 435 words.)
SOURCE: Knoll, Erwin. “Down to the Roots.” Progressive 55, no. 2 (February 1991): 40-1.
[In the following review of Declarations of Independence, Knoll praises Zinn for offering new ways of thinking about issues of social and political justice.]
Howard Zinn is a radical in the true sense of that much-abused word. In discussing the most important issues of public policy, he gets down to the roots, deep down to the bedrock questions: Why do we believe what we believe? How much of what we believe is true? Why are things the way they are? Whose interests are served? How should things be changed to serve the common interests of suffering humanity?
A decade ago, Zinn's splendid A People's History of the United States ignored the conservative conventions of historiography to disinter parts of the past that had been buried alive or mutilated beyond recognition. Declarations of Independence is a worthy successor to that modern classic.
Zinn's purpose here is to challenge “the old orthodoxies, the traditional ideologies, the neatly tied bundles of ideas … so that we can play and experiment with all the ingredients, add others, and create new combinations in looser bundles.” He perceives that we desperately need new, imaginative approaches to the problems of our time.
Zinn, a professor emeritus of political science at Boston...
(The entire section is 951 words.)
SOURCE: Scialabba, George. “U.S. History: By the People, For the People.” Christianity and Crisis (13 May 1991): 155-56.
[In the following review, Scialabba dismisses Declarations of Independence as “mostly authorial commentary.”]
The erudite essayist Walter Benjamin once proposed writing a book that would consist entirely of quotations. Fifty years later, in 1980, the earnest activist Howard Zinn actually wrote something approximating such a book. But while Benjamin envisioned an exquisite collage, cunningly composed and intricately ironic, Zinn produced an immense, ingenuous epic, a monumental saga of human brutality and bondage: A People's History of the United States.
I don't know how Benjamin's book would have turned out, but Zinn's beyond praise, a masterpiece of social criticism. In form, it is a national history narrated from the viewpoint of the victims: Indians, slaves, workers, women—not an entirely original idea, even in 1980. Its materials are standard, or at any rate easily accessible, secondary sources. But its scope and momentum are overwhelming. The appalling statistics, the heartbreaking voices of the dispossessed and exploited, the violence and bias of the state, the moral blindness of ruling elites and their apologists, the indignation of contemporary rebels and reformers, the fiercely sardonic or fatuously complacent judgments of historians:...
(The entire section is 1435 words.)
SOURCE: Zinn, Howard, and Jack McEnany. “The Politics of War.” Humanist 53, no. 1 (January-February 1993): 13-17.
[In the following interview, originally conducted in the summer of 1991, McEnany questions Zinn on American participation in various wars throughout history, from the Revolutionary War up to and including the Gulf War.]
The following extracts are from an interview with Howard Zinn … professor emeritus of history at Boston University. The interview was conducted in the summer of 1991 by Jack McEnany as part of a video project entitled The Gulf War: Is This Any Way to Run an Empire? (See note at the end of the article for further details on this project.)
[McEnany]: Professor Zinn, recurrent in your book, A People's History of the United States, are examples of working-America fighting wars that it had no personal stake in. Was this true of the Gulf War?
[Zinn]: Oh, yes, the Gulf War fits that pattern. War seldom, if ever, has a particular or personal stake in it for the people who do the fighting—the working classes. In fact, most soldiers' only stake in war is that their lives are in danger and they will be the ones who suffer the casualties. It's an old story and, unfortunately, it takes a while for the people who are the victims of war to catch on to it. Sometimes there is an immediate reaction; sometimes there's...
(The entire section is 4013 words.)
SOURCE: Kazin, Michael. Review of Declarations of Independence, by Howard Zinn. Journal of American History 78, no. 3 (December 1991): 1034-35.
[In the following review, Kazin praises Zinn's exposure of the fallacies associated with conventional historical truths despite the weakness of some of his arguments.]
Howard Zinn writes the type of history scholars are supposed to disdain. “For me,” he writes, “history could only be a way of understanding and helping to change (yes, an extravagant ambition!) what was wrong in the world.” This book is the committed radical's latest attempt to scour the past for lessons to instruct those who might transform American society. Declarations of Independence is organized as a series of passionate moral arguments with the normative assumptions of contemporary politics—that some wars are just, that “Machiavellian realism” is a proper basis for foreign policy, that the legal system serves just ends, that capitalism rewards hard work, etc. Zinn's conclusions flow directly from his pacifist and anarchist (of the collectivist variety) beliefs. These days, many traditionalists charge left-wing academics with writing “polemical” history. Zinn never pretends to be doing anything else.
But that should not devalue his achievement. Splendid and squalid polemicists alike have always drawn on historical examples to drive a point home...
(The entire section is 636 words.)
SOURCE: Graber, Mark A. Review of Declarations of Independence: Cross-Examining American Ideology, by Howard Zinn. Political Science Quarterly 107, no. 1 (spring 1992): 187-89.
[In the following review, Graber calls Zinn's book successful in terms of its critique of American ideology, particularly in the sections on U.S. foreign policy.]
Thomas Jefferson thought that the tree of liberty needed to be watered with blood every so often. Only through intermittent reenactments of the revolution, he believed, would American ideals retain their vitality. Howard Zinn's latest book offers a valuable alternative for a nuclear age. “Whatever in the past has been the moral justification of violence,” he points out, “must now be accomplished by other means” (p. 289). Zinn's remedy for “an obedient, acquiescent, passive citizenry,” a disease he correctly considers “deadly to democracy” (p. 5), is a vigorous interrogation of the ideas that implicitly structure mainstream American thought. His work promises “declarations of independence from all nations, parties and programs—all rigid dogmas” (p. 8).
For the most part, Zinn conducts a successful cross-examination of American ideology. His chapters on American foreign policy, in particular, should intrigue both students and professors. Declarations of Independence will challenge anyone to explain how repeated examples...
(The entire section is 632 words.)
SOURCE: Buhle, Paul. “He Shall Not Be Moved.” Nation 259, no. 17 (21 November 1994): 623-25.
[In the following review of Zinn's autobiography, Buhle asserts that You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train is not Zinn's best work, but insists that it is nonetheless an engaging and entertaining book.]
I have always imagined that historian Howard Zinn somehow took part in the multitudinous radical movements of the 1840s-50s, campaigning for abolition, women's rights, dress reform and nonviolence. A rare Jew among Yankees and African-Americans, he would have commanded the platform with figures like Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass, held his own against hostile audiences and broadcast the prospects for universal freedom. Something about Zinn's style and bearing suggests the prophetic profile so common to radicals in those days and so rare in our own.
Actually, Zinn grew up in a blue-collar Brooklyn family in the 1920s and '30s, son of a waiter named Eddie and a hard-pressed immigrant mother from Irkutsk, Siberia. At the ripe age of 10, Howard bought a cheap set of Dickens with newspaper coupons, and came to understand poverty in new ways. Almost accidentally he found himself at an antifascist demonstration in Times Square, like Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times picking up a red flag and seeing thousands fall into step behind him. In real life, New York's finest rushed the...
(The entire section is 1613 words.)
SOURCE: Rothschild, Matthew. Review of You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train, by Howard Zinn. Progressive 59, no. 1 (January 1995): 37-8.
[In the following review, Rothschild contends that Zinn's autobiography presents an eloquent record of his activism in the civil rights and anti-war movements.]
Here's a personal favorite. This autobiography by the great activist and historian (who wrote the pioneering multicultural history. A People's History of the United States, long before the term “multiculturalism” was in vogue) provides an eloquent, personal account of the struggles for civil rights and against the Vietnam war, and a universal paean to protest and resistance.
At bottom, Zinn, like all humanitarian radicals, has nurtured throughout his life “an indignation against the bullies of the world, those who used wealth or military might or social status to keep others down,” he writes.
Zinn defies chronological and autobiographical order and jumps right into the action. In the first part of the book, “The South and the Movement,” Zinn discusses his days as chair of the history department at Spelman College in Atlanta, and his eventual firing for encouraging his students—including Alice Walker and Marian Wright—to participate in civil-rights protests. He follows his involvement in the movement to Albany, Georgia; Selma, Alabama; and...
(The entire section is 956 words.)
SOURCE: Isserman, Maurice. Review of You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train, by Howard Zinn. Journal of American History 82, no. 2 (September 1995): 834-35.
[In the following review, Isserman calls Zinn's autobiography “lucid and unpretentious.”]
Howard Zinn arrived at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, in August 1956 to take up duties as chair of the department of history and social science. He tells us in his memoir, You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train, that he had not sought out a job at a “Negro college,” and he certainly had no sense that he was arriving in the Deep South just in time to witness the beginnings of the civil rights revolution. But the match between man and moment proved fateful:
The events of my life, growing up poor, working in a shipyard, being in a war, had nurtured an indignation against the bullies of the world, those who used wealth or military might or social status to keep others down. And now I was in the midst of a situation where human beings, by accident of birth, because of their skin color, were being treated as inferior beings. … I was open to anything my students wanted to do, refusing to accept the idea that a teacher should confine his teaching to the classroom when so much was at stake outside it.
In the next seven years Zinn welcomed the chance to move from...
(The entire section is 527 words.)
SOURCE: Zinn, Howard, and David Barsamian. “Howard Zinn.” Progressive 61, no. 7 (July 1997): 37-40.
[In the following interview, Barsamian questions the 75-year-old Zinn about his social and political activism, his teaching career, and his writings.]
Howard Zinn is a model of the activist scholar. His classic work, A People's History of the United States, has sold more than half a million copies and is widely used in college and university classrooms. A project to develop A People's History into a TV series is under way.
Zinn grew up class-conscious in a poor immigrant family. “We were always,” he recalls, “one step ahead of the landlord.” There were no books or magazines at home. The first book he remembers reading was Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar. He found it in the street, the first ten pages ripped out. But it didn't matter to him. When his parents discovered his interest in books, they took advantage of a newspaper offer and ordered the complete works of Charles Dickens. Later they got him a used Underwood No. 5 typewriter. The rest is history.
Even though he earned a Ph.D. from Columbia. Zinn learned of the Ludlow Massacre in Colorado only by hearing a Woody Guthrie song about the event. That omission in his education taught him a lot about what is included and excluded in conventional textbooks.
Zinn is an...
(The entire section is 4286 words.)
SOURCE: Wasserman, Harvey. “Radical Mensch.” Progressive 62, no. 3 (March 1998): 43-4.
[In the following review of The Zinn Reader, Wasserman applauds the hopeful tone of the essays in Zinn's collection.]
Howard Zinn, with characteristic innocence, introduces his pathbreaking essay The Southern Mystique, about breaking the color line in Atlanta in the 1950s, like this:
“I did not deliberately seek employment in a black college. I was only vaguely aware such an institution existed. …”
To say that Zinn is unique in the panoply of American writer-teacher-activists is to vastly understate his importance. “National treasure” comes closer to the truth. His People's History of the United States remains the most important leftwing narration of America's story yet published, with sales in the range of 225,000 and, after twenty years, still climbing.
Zinn's gentle style, evident throughout this welcome new compendium, is to present his case for radical change in terms of self-effacing human decency and understated common sense.
“Isn't it obvious,” he seems to ask, “that these things are wrong, and that we have to change them?” And isn't it equally obvious, he then adds, that the evils of racism, war, and class injustice will sooner or later fall away under the evolving power of nonviolent action?...
(The entire section is 788 words.)
SOURCE: Garza, Mariel. “Alternate History.” Reason 31, no. 3 (July 1999): 15-6.
[In the following review of the twentieth-anniversary edition of A People's History of the United States, Garza describes the phenomenal sales record of Zinn's alternate history and the support it has received from rock stars and movie actors.]
One of the ironies of capitalism is that socialism sells, especially when plugged by millionaire movie stars and rock idols. That helps explains surging sales for A People's History of the United States: 1492-Present, a leftist chronicle by Boston University professor emeritus Howard Zinn. Originally published in 1980 and revised in 1995, the book has sold more than 500,000 copies—a total that is climbing rapidly due in no small part to a prominent product placement in the popular 1997 film Good Will Hunting. Matt Damon, who co-wrote and starred in the movie, and Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder are among the celebrities who have publicly touted the book to their youthful fans.
As a result, the book has become standard fare not only at left-leaning independent bookstores throughout the country, but also at mall-style chain stories. Of course, glitterati advocacy alone can't account for such success—and certainly doesn't explain the weekly additions to the list of reader reviews found on Amazon.com (where the book maintained a sales ranking of...
(The entire section is 396 words.)
Knoll, Erwin. “No More Cheers.” Washington Post Book World (15 April 1973): 3.
Reviews Postwar America: 1945-1971, contending that Zinn's experiences—as a blue-collar worker, as an Air Force bombardier, as a civil rights activist, and as a leader in the opposition to the Vietnam War—all contribute to his history of postwar America.
McGill, Ralph. “Race: Results Instead of Reasons.” Saturday Review 48, no. 2 (9 January 1965): 52.
Suggests that Zinn's two books on the civil rights movement in the South suffer from over-generalization and sentimentalism.
Perlin, Terry M. “Getting Justice.” Dissent 22 (summer 1975): 297-98.
Reviews Justice in Everyday Life: The Way It Really Works, asserting that although Zinn accurately presents case studies of the injustices common to modern life, the book as a whole “suffers from considerable naiveté.”
Spoehr, Luther. Review of A People's History of the United States, by Howard Zinn. Saturday Review 7, no. 3 (2 February 1980): 37.
Dismisses Zinn's alternative history as a simplistic record of exploitation.
Additional coverage of Zinn's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Contemporary Authors, Vols....
(The entire section is 181 words.)