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

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Setting

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Chronologically, A People’s History of the United States covers a significant span of time. It begins in 1492, with what has long been considered by popular histories the first encounter between Europeans and inhabitants of North America: Columbus’s “discovery” of America. Zinn moves briskly through the initial periods of exploration and colonization, and then methodically discusses American history from the formation of the new nation through 2001 and the war on terrorism. Technically, Chapter 23, “The Coming Revolt of the Guards,” extends this time span even beyond the Bush years because Zinn extrapolates popular political activity into a hypothetical (and utopian) future.

Geographically and physically, the setting varies widely in location, focus, and density of detail. As the work's title suggests, Zinn’s history focuses on the people of America; comparatively little attention is thus given to the country's geography and natural resources, or how these factors shaped American lives. Instead, Zinn touches on geography and natural resources when they play major roles in mainstream political events or when they are the sites of key populist activity or suffering. For example, Hispaniola as a region is described, though briefly; far more attention is instead given to the geopolitical maneuverings of Columbus’s time. Likewise, interactions between colonists and Native Americans at Jamestown are described, but almost no attention is given to the actual physical geography of Jamestown. In Chapter 3, “Persons of Mean and Vile Conditions,” and in Chapter 4, “Tyranny is Tyranny,” the setting is spoken of in terms of political and economic importance: what drove people from England to North America, where wealth was distributed in the colonies, and so on. This distinction continues throughout the volume. As a result, although the book is a people’s history, it is a curiously abstracted one: events happen to people, but the people themselves live almost without material context, and there are almost no descriptions of what houses, shops, and so on would have been like in specific periods.

There are some exceptions. When the land itself meant something of great emotional and cultural importance, especially in traumatic instances, considerably more attention is given. An example of this can be seen in Chapter 7, “As Long As Grass Grows or Water Runs.” The chapter focuses on the treatment of Native Americans, and descriptions of setting become denser in several directions. First, Zinn quotes Indian writings and speeches on the meaning of the land. Second, he describes the ongoing forced transformations of the land by armed raids, treaties, and imposition of European models of property. Third, he describes the actions and context of the Indian Removal Act, during which Native Americans still living in the eastern United States were forced to move west of the Mississippi.

Similarly dense description is dedicated to accounts of working-class labor and housing. For example, in Chapter 10, “The Other Civil War,” the marches related to the Dorr Rebellion (1842) are vividly sketched, and the period accounts of the Flour Riot (1837) are quoted at some length. Working conditions under the “Lowell system” are described clearly, and the daily politics of local geography can be seen in strikes by New Hampshire mill workers to prevent a particular elm tree from being cut down for another mill. The greatest detail is devoted to accounts described in Chapter 13, “The Socialist Challenge,” where Zinn focuses on twentieth-century labor strikes and mass actions led by the IWW, socialists, and anarchists. Zinn again quotes at length from organizers’ and reformers’ accounts of the ugly reality of child labor and of the subhuman conditions under which garment and other factory workers labored. Racial struggles...

(This entire section contains 954 words.)

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are awarded a similarly detailed and evocative description in Chapter 17, “Or Does It Explode,” where the lives of black Americans in the mid-twentieth century are situated within a coherent and meaningful political setting. Native American movements receive similarly vivid descriptions in Chapter 19, “Surprises.” Although Zinn is open about his political leanings, these chapters make both his loyalties and sympathies not just clear but persuasive. His descriptions also make a strong ethical appeal for the sort of nation Zinn wishes America were.

The other settings described in dense detail document the sort of America Zinn regrets his country is: an aggressive military power that profoundly affects other countries. The descriptions begin in Chapter 8, “We Take Nothing by Conquest, Thank God,” where Zinn discusses the Mexican-American War. There the marches, the bombings, and the slaughter are described. Zinn returns to this focus when discussing the Spanish-American War and the American treatment of the Philippines in Chapter 12, “The Empire and the People,” but in comparatively moderate detail. Where he truly brings his setting to sympathetic life is in his discussion of the 1960s. In Chapter 18, “The Impossible Victory: Vietnam,” Zinn vividly documents the extensive devastation American bombardment brought to Vietnam and what this did to the lives of Vietnamese peasants. The chapter also evokes the protest movement on the domestic front, describing the transformation of American life as U.S. citizens protested the war in great numbers.

The description of how American bombings changed Afghanistan in the 2000s is markedly shorter and weaker, as are most of the descriptions of American historical settings after 1970. These foci and shifts in descriptive density communicate a great deal about Zinn and his history. He is most intimately formed by and dedicated to the struggles of the labor classes, women, African-Americans, and Native Americans; and he is most eloquent in discussing their suffering and the suffering of foreign countries from 1840 to 1970. One unintended result, however, of Zinn's having a minimal focus on the settings of daily life throughout the work is that the people tend to disappear unless they are suffering or protesting; there is little sense of where or how they lived day to day.

Bibliography

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Aliprandini, Michael. 2005. Howard Zinn Database: MasterFILE Premier.

Foner, Eric. "Majority Report." New York Times Book Review. March 2, 1980, pp. BR3-BR4.

Foner, Eric. "Zinn's Critical History." Nation. February 22, 2010, Vol. 290, Issue 7, p. 6.

Kazin, Michael. "Howard Zinn's History Lessons." Dissent. Spring 2004, Vol. 51, Issue 2, pp. 81-85.

Kimball, Roger. "Professor of Contempt: The Legacy of Howard Zinn." National Review. February 22, 2010, p. 29.

Phelps, Christopher. "Howard Zinn, Philosopher." Chronicle of Higher Education. February 1, 2010.

"The Reader Replies." American Scholar. Vol. 50, Issue 3, p. 430.

Weiss, Mark. "A People's History of the United States." The Nation. September 21, 1992, Vol. 255, p. 299(2).

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