Howard’s Zinn’s "Influential Mutilations" of American History

Today I finished teaching Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s marvelous Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750 in my British colonial America course.  The book is now over thirty years old, but Ulrich’s lucid prose and clear argument make it a joy to teach. My undergraduates love it.

What I particularly like about the book is the way Ulrich’s complicates the progressive narrative of American women’s history.  At the end of the book she writes:

The story of female experience in America is not to be found in a linear progression from darkness to light, from constricted to expanding opportunities, from negative to positive valuation (or vice versa), but in a convoluted and sometimes tangled embroidery of loss and gain, accommodation and resistance.

If only Howard Zinn had learned Ulrich’s lesson about convolution, entanglement, loss, gain, accommodation, and resistance, his A People’s History of the United States might have been a better work of history.  It might not have sold over 2 million copies, but it would be a better work of history.

Over at The New Republic, David Greenberg of Rutgers University reviews Martin Duberman’s Howard Zinn: A Life on the Left.  Greenberg calls Zinn’s A People’s History as a “pretty lousy piece of work.”  Here is a taste:

What I didn’t realize was that the orthodox version of the American past that Howard Zinn spent his life debunking was by the 1980s no longer quite as hegemonic as Zinn made out. Even my high school history teacher marked Columbus Day by explaining that the celebrated “discoverer” of America had plundered Hispaniola for its gold and that, in acts of barbarism that would later be classified as genocide, Columbus’s men had butchered the native Arawaks, slicing off limbs for sport and turning their scrotums into change-purses. (This last detail stuck vividly in the teenage mind.) That Mr. MacDougall was conversant with radical scholarship such as Zinn’s suggests that much had changed from the days when Zinn himself had imbibed uncritical schoolbook accounts of the American story. True, in the popular books and public ceremonies of the 1980s, you could still find a whitewashed tale of the nation’s past, as you can today; and many cities around the country shielded their charges from such heresies. But as far as historians were concerned, the sacred cows that Howard Zinn was purporting to gore had already been slaughtered many times. As Jon Wiener noted in the Journal of American History, “during the early seventies … of all the changes in the profession, the institutionalization of radical history was the most remarkable.”

Greenberg praises Duberman, a friend of Zinn who shared his politics, for trying to write “fairly and dispassionately,” but he also chides Duberman for ignoring some of Zinn’s “more outrageous or obtuse political positions.”

Here is another taste:

Upon its publication, A People’s History won some kind words from critics praising its author’s effort to transmit the new academic arguments of the 1960s and 1970s to wider audiences. But on the whole the reviews were not kind. The cultural historian Michael Kammen called the book a “scissors-and-paste-pot job” and deemed the book’s “bottom up” history to be “as unsatisfactory as ‘elitist’ history.” He pointed out that it was not too much to expect a book of 600 pages to include America’s “grandeur as well as tragedy, magnanimity as well as muddle, honor as well as shame.” In the New York Times, Eric Foner, something of a radical historian himself, explained why Zinn’s bugaboo of “balance” was a red herring: historians are obliged to explore the viewpoints of elite actors, however unattractive, not to parcel out sympathy in proper proportions, but to show, in a faithful account of the past, the interconnectedness of the rulers and ruled, and of all strata of society, and how one group’s experiences influence another’s. But Zinn reduced historical analysis to political opinion. He assessed a work of history by its author’s partisan loyalties, not its arguments about causation, influence, motivation, significance, experience, or other problems he deemed “technical” in nature.
Despite his soft spot for Zinn personally, Duberman doesn’t flinch from rehearsing these and other flaws. “Sometimes A People’s History lacks nuance,” he writes (ever so gently), “with the world divided into oppressors and oppressed, villains or heroes.” Not only did this division devolve quickly into Manichaeism; it also trivialized Zinn’s own heroes by depicting their labors as ineffectual. “The history of the U.S.,” Duberman notes, “is treated as mainly the story of relentless exploitation and deceit.” Even the civil rights movement is regarded in A People’s History as little more than a brief surge of activism that ended in burned-out ghettos, persistent inequality, continued racial conflict, and white indifference. 
Yet when it comes to Zinn’s demand for history to be judged for its political utility, Duberman is finally too indulgent. He can never bring himself to say that the fatal flaw of Zinn’s historical work is the shallowness, indeed the fallaciousness, of his critique of scholarly detachment. Zinn rests satisfied with what strikes him as the scandalous revelation that claims of objectivity often mask ideological predilections. Imagine! And on the basis of this sophomoric insight, he renounces the ideals of objectivity and empirical responsibility, and makes the dubious leap to the notion that a historian need only lay his ideological cards on the table and tell whatever history he chooses. He aligns himself with the famous line from the British historian James Anthony Froude, who asked rhetorically if history “was like a child’s box of letters, with which we can spell any word we please. We have only to pick out such letters as we want, arrange them as we like, and say nothing about those which do not suit our purpose.” Froude made this observation in the middle of the nineteenth century….

3 thoughts on “Howard’s Zinn’s "Influential Mutilations" of American History

  1. You know, we historians are not entirely fair. When we are sympathetic to people, we always “see them within their context.” Oh, Paul the Apostle didn't MEAN to be misogynist when he said that women need to shut up in church and listen to their husbands at home. Within his context…. etc. George Washington had slaves and talked about liberty, but WITHIN HIS CONTEXT these things weren't so contradictory.

    But, when Howard Zinn does some very very needed oversimplifying to make a point about American History, conservative historians have no qualms about judging his work by presentist standards. It is so so easy, in light of the institutionalization of social history in the 70s and 80s, to talk about how Zinn's work oversimplified and created false dichotomies (which, of course, are fair critiques).

    But, why can't we see him within his context? Schoolkids were raised with very patriotic textbooks, told to glorify US involvement in wars, and told that the only people whose leadership in this country REALLY matters are white male leaders in the elite class. Zinn did an excellent job at speaking to those untruths. He spoke of the underside of war, of the achievements of non-white-males, and of the problems with blind nationalism. I read this book in high school but didn't fall in love with it until I listened to the whole thing on audiobook soon after I finished my dissertation (in social history).

    It is fair to say that many of his arguments are dated and exaggerate to make a point. But, why can't we let Zinn be a hero within his own context?


  2. I wonder how much silver accrues to Greenberg for that hit piece…


    Do you know that the Declaration of Independence charged King George with fomenting slave rebellions and attacks from “merciless Indian Savages”?

    Straight from the DoI:
    He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

    That James Polk started a war with Mexico as a pretext for annexing California?

    During his presidency, many abolitionists harshly criticized him as an instrument of the “Slave Power”, and claimed that spreading slavery was the reason he supported annexing Texas and later war with Mexico. ~Sam Haynes, *James K. Polk and the Expansionist Impulse*

    That Eugene Debs was jailed for calling World War I a war of conquest and plunder?

    “Conquest and plunder” are the exact words in his speech(es) that led to his arrest and imprisonment.

    Perhaps you do, if you are moderately well-read in American history. And if you are very well-read, you also know that these statements themselves are problematic simplifications.

    Simplifications? Really? Especially in comparison with all of the other “simplifications” that patriotic/jingoistic history has employed?

    Not that Zinn is above legitimate criticism, but all that I see fired his way is shoddy and bereft of any meaningful substance whatsoever.


Comments are closed.