Throughout A People's History of the United States, Howard Zinn blends critical approaches. The book's twenty-five chapters move from the European discovery of North America through the year 2000, evoking American history in a roughly chronological sequence. However, each chapter also has a topical focus, which allows Zinn to trace distinct but intersecting lines of historical influence. Zinn uses these intersections of time and topic as a combination of springboard and platform: he inserts extended meditations on key themes where they grow logically from the narrative of the people's history. For example, Zinn's first chapter discusses the general relationship between Europeans and Native Americans, but Zinn also analyzes larger-than-life historical figures—Christopher Columbus in this case—and their role in American history.
Almost every chapter performs a set of interwoven functions central to Zinn's project:
- First, he revisits the major events of American history.
- Second, he retells them, emphasizing the role of the people by including details often left out of or minimized in mainstream histories.
- Third, he makes an interpretative claim about how the powerful elite worked to solidify or maintain their control.
Chapter 1: Columbus, the Indians, and Human Progress
Chapter 1 begins Zinn's process of shifting history's focus from that of the European conquerors and resulting power elites to that of the people. The chapter opens from the perspective of the Arawak Indians who met Columbus. He describes them and their similarities to other indigenous people of the continent, and he then puts Columbus's explorations into historical, political, and economic context. Zinn emphasizes the relative peacefulness of the natives (from Columbus's own account) and the cruelty Europeans exercise in their quest for gold. Next, he documents how the Indians' numbers dwindled away due to enslavement, violence, and disease.
This in turn leads to the introduction of Zinn's central premise, a meditation on the nature of history and what it means to leave key details (such as Columbus's character and the Indians' suffering) out of a...
(The entire section is 4463 words.)
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