A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn

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What happens in A People's History of the United States?

A People's History of the United States retells American history with a focus on the stories that don't typically make it into mainstream historical accounts. In this way, author and political scientist Howard Zinn radically alters the way we think about American history.

  • Beginning with Christopher Columbus and gradually moving into the present day, Zinn uncovers the side of history most people don't see: the hidden class struggles, the racist agendas, and the fight to replace a broken political system.

  • Zinn subscribes to the philosophy of "follow the money." He looks at the actual economic underpinnings of the Revolutionary War, in which American elites wanted to overthrow the British in order to consolidate their own power.

  • Zinn also looks at the Civil War, the Vietnam War, and the anti-war movement in order to understand how the general public's opinion of war has changed over time.

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Introduction

Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States has been highly influential since its initial publication in 1980. It spawned adaptations for young readers (a two-volume adaptation by Rebecca Stefoff: A Young People's History of the United States) and The People Speak, a History Channel documentary based on Zinn's work. Zinn himself remains a heroic figure to many, especially for this book and for his ongoing teaching and social activism, which were directly related.

A People's History of the United States was praised from the moment it appeared on shelves. A 1980 Library Journal review called it "brilliant and moving" and said it was well-designed to appeal to both historians and general readers. However, the volume was not without its criticisms. Some of these critiques align with party lines. Roger Kimball's review in the conservative National Review labeled Zinn a "Professor of contempt" and dismissed the work as the ultimate in "anti-American history," a patchwork of leftist clichés. Oscar Handlin's review for The American Scholar dismissed both Zinn's approach to history and the actual content of the work, citing a number of Zinn's claims as fallacious.

Some criticisms of the work carried more intellectual weight and addressed the quality of Zinn's reasoning directly. Bruce Kuklick's review of the book for The Nation suggested that A People's History of the United States was essentially a textbook for the left, and as such it shared many of the weaknesses of textbooks: overly simplified issues, lack of nuance, and a willingness on Zinn's part to repeat easy answers.

In the end, A People's History of the United States continues to be read and to influence thousands of readers because it was groundbreaking in many ways. It told stories left out of mainstream history books, and it spoke for the voiceless. It rejected the false objectivity that colors too many textbooks, and it openly declared its ethical and political allegiances. If it was clumsy at times, its sweeping energy cleared the ground for later generations of scholars to explore these issues in more detail.

Extended Summary

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...

(The entire section is 4,803 words.)