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 are awarded a similarly detailed and evocative description in Chapter 17, “Or Does It Explode,” where the...
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