Study Guide

A People's History of the United States

by Howard Zinn

A People's History of the United States Themes

Themes

 

Some historians strive for complete objectivity, and as such might reject the idea of themes running through their work. Others might argue that any themes found in their work derive from the character of the people or period studied. In the first chapter of A People's History of the United States, Zinn sets forth his approach to history, and it is clear that he would distinguish himself from both positions indicated above. Historians, Zinn argues, always practice "selection, simplification, emphasis," but should be upfront about their purposes in doing so. He uses the analogy of the cartographer, with history being parallel to a map. All maps distort their territories, but they should do so to serve useful, specific, and specified purposes. In a like manner, all historians distort their histories, but should do so to specific ends, and should announce those ends in their work. Therefore, it is wholly appropriate to seek themes in Zinn's history of America. Indeed, tightly interwoven themes make Zinn's work—clumsy though it can be on the stylistic level—highly literary in structure.

Situated Perspectives / Lack of Objectivity

Unsurprisingly, the first theme running through Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States is that of the situated perspective. Zinn rejects the ideal of objectivity, arguing both that it is not possible and that most texts which claim to provide objective perspectives on reality, especially on American history, do so by leaving out unwanted perspectives and failing to mention specific details that might disrupt their desired representation of the world.

Zinn defines his own situated perspective in Chapter 1: rather than telling the history of the United States from the statist point of view (the history of a state), or from that of a minority ruling class, Zinn's work is the history of the people who make up that nation. As a result, there is a far less emphasis on the standard victories and achievements of the "founding fathers" or the bankers, investors, and explorers whose names repeat throughout America. Instead, Zinn emphasizes the experience of the numerous "minority" groups who together make up the numerical majority: the working class, the poor, Native Americans, slaves, women, and so on.

While Zinn's goals in exploring this perspective are numerous (justice, truth, etc.), Chapter 23 lays out his overarching goals: through the people becoming self-aware, they can create a new and better society. In that way, Zinn's historical map is like that of the early American explorers: it is not just for reference; it is to guide travelers to a new world.

Inclusion and Exclusion

A closely related second theme is that of inclusion and exclusion. To be specific, Zinn argues that the experience of "the people" has been left out of most history books, as well as the dark or shadowy side of history. These two are often linked for Zinn, as the people have often suffered in that darkness, with crimes against them left unmentioned. Zinn therefore moves through American history doing three things: pointing out that which has been excluded...

(The entire section is 1307 words.)

Ed. Scott Locklear