diverse group of people with an image of the United States superimposed on a large part of the group

A People's History of the United States

by Howard Zinn

Start Free Trial

Critical Overview

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States has received sharply focused critical attention since its first appearance, and that attention has continued or been revived. It has been nominated for and/or received awards both domestic (it was runner-up for the National Book Award in 1980) and international (the French version of the book won the Prix des Amis du Monde Diplomatique in 2003).

The book's reception, however, has not been uniformly positive or, indeed, uniform in any fashion. Upon the recent occasion of Zinn's death, historian Eric Foner (who had reviewed the book when it was first published) reflected on Zinn's critical legacy. Foner praised Zinn's work as a rare variant on "monumental history" for its focus on the common man rather than on great men or great events, noted how often Zinn led fine students of history into the field through his passion for justice, and criticized Zinn for his oversimplified moral reading. This is a gentler version of the review Foner had published in 1980, in which he praised the book's passion and style but specified a number of elements and people Zinn had overly simplified and/or failed to fully integrate into his account of history. Christopher Phelps, also writing on occasion of Zinn's death, found cause for Zinn's success in that very simplification paired with his passion for justice. The result, more than one reviewer noted, was a historian who appealed to nonhistorians. As one might perhaps expect from a historian classified this way, several professional historians found Zinn's work lacking along more than one axis. Praise for Zinn's accomplishments mixed with correction of his focus marked several of the reviews.

The most negative criticism came from those who opposed Zinn on ideological grounds. Roger Kimball, writing in the National Review, accused Zinn of reproducing "every left-wing cliché" that academic intellectuals had ever employed, flatly accused Zinn of representing American history dishonestly, and said that the book's success was due to the fact that there is no place for "reasoned argument" in American culture. Kimball is a conservative and the author of Tenured Radicals, a critique of leftist influence on higher education, so his objections to Zinn are unsurprising.

Kimball praised an earlier, highly negative review of Zinn by Pulitzer Prize–winning Harvard historian Oscar Handlin. Handlin, reviewing Zinn's book for The American Scholar, was at least as brutal to Zinn but more substantive in his critiques. Handlin has praised the ideal of objective history in his writing and is a scholar of both immigration and liberty, two topics Zinn addressed throughout A People's History of the United States. When Handlin argued that Zinn offered "little proof" for his claims about the nature of American history and pronounced Zinn's volume "deranged" and a "fairy tale" for its disregard of "factual accuracy," the charges carried considerable weight. Handlin's litany of Zinn's weaknesses as a historian continued: he is biased, and his representations of history "falsify events." That Zinn's work had stung Handlin—and that he was responding on a personal as well as a professional basis—are visible late in the review, where he wrote of Zinn's book as marked by "hatred of humanity" in its tone. Zinn responded to Handlin's criticisms in a letter to The American Scholar (and Handlin to him in turn), but from several decades' distance it is clear that whatever validity Handlin's criticisms may hold on specific historical details, the emotional storm the two produced underscores Zinn's contention that history is not objective but, rather, ideological and partisan.

However, the left is not at ease with Zinn either. An example of this can be seen in Michael Kazin's 2004 critical review. After wondering about the extent of Zinn's success, Kazin critiqued him for failing to address a question central to the left: "Why have most Americans accepted the legitimacy of the capitalist republic in which they live?" Zinn's analysis is, Kazin argued, lacking, and it results in a work that misrepresents both the people and the system under which they labor. Kazin concluded that Zinn's volume serves almost no one because it anchors political reality where it is without providing tools or understanding.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access