Defending Zinn

Over at History News Network, Jesse Lemisch, Staughton Lynd, and Robert Cohen respond to David Greenberg’s review of Martin Duberman’s Howard Zinn: A Life on the Left.  Lemisch and Lynd attempt to set the record straight about some of the factual errors in Greenberg’s review.  See our coverage of the review here.

Here is a taste of Lemisch’s response:

David Greenberg is confused and, finally, just plain wrong, about what happened at the 1969 meeting of the American Historical Association when he writes: “Jesse Lemisch, a leading activist, ran for association president on an insurgent ticket.” In fact, contrary to Greenberg, I did not run for any office. We members of the AHA Radical Caucus nominated historian Staughton Lynd for president of the association as a protest against many things, including Soviet-style elections of AHA officers without opposition. And, unhappy with the governance of the Association, we were also deeply opposed to the war in Vietnam. (Lynd had been evicted from his position in the Yale History Department for having done his Quaker duty on a dangerous peacemaking trip to Hanoi.) I’m proud to be confused with Lynd.

Here is a taste of Lynd’s response:

Greenberg sets up a supposed contrast between :”good” New Leftists like Eugene Genovese who did not let their politics influence their writing of history, and “bad” New Leftists like Howard who “sympathized with the NLF.” I was on the speakers’ platform with Genovese at a Vietnam War teach-in at Rutgers University. I heard him say that he hoped the NLF would win. I am not aware of any similar statement by Howard. In any event, Greenberg’s article does not provide such evidence.

Cohen calls attention to the impact that Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States has had on future historians and Bruce Springsteen:

Historian Eric Foner notes having “long been struck by how many excellent students of history first had their passion for the past sparked by reading Howard Zinn.” Student and teacher letters in the Zinn papers at NYU attest that his book engaged them with a radical view of the American past that contradicted their stultifying, triumphalist textbooks. Zinn put the history of workers, racism, class inequality, imperialism, and sexism front and center, something unheard of in popular histories, and even more remarkably his leftist A People’s History became a best-seller in the Reagan era. Yes, the book has flaws, and these are noted by Duberman, but it broke new ground for many readers, including Alice Walker, who termed it “the first true history of the United States. It is called A People’s History because, at last, we are all there!” Greenberg’s polemic is useless for those of us seeking to understand Zinn’s impact and the transformative power of his history for many readers, like Bruce Springsteen, who told Rolling Stone:

Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States had an enormous impact on me. It set me down in a place that I recognized and felt I had a claim to. It made me feel that I was a player in this moment in history, as we all are, and that this moment in history was mine, somehow, to do with whatever I could. It gave me a sense of myself in the context of this huge American experience and empowered me to feel that in my small way, I had something to say, I could do something. It made me feel a part of history, and gave me life as a participant.

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