I just got word that Howard Zinn, the political activist and popular writer about the American past, died today at the age of 87. He will be remembered for his book A People’s History of the United States, which has sold over one million copies.
Zinn used the past to promote his left-wing agenda. His A People’s History became wildly popular among high school teachers around the country. I remember several years ago lurking on a discussion list devoted to teaching Advanced Placement United States History and was amazed at how many people were using his book in their classes.
According to his obituary in today’s New York Times, Zinn’s book has found its way into American popular culture on multiple occasions. Ben Affleck and Matt Damon called attention to the book in their Academy Award winning movie Good Will Hunting. Bruce Springsteen’s album Nebraska was inspired by the book. Tony Soprano’s son A.J. held a copy of the book in an episode of “The Sopranos.” Oliver Stone claimed to be a fan.
I have read A People’s History several times and have always been impressed with the moral purpose in which Zinn wrote. When I have criticized Zinn it has been because I do not think he should be considered a historian. He was never interested in an honest reconstruction of the past. Instead, he used it to advance a political agenda. And he admitted as much.
Arthur Schlesinger Jr. once said in regards to Zinn: “I know he regards me as a dangerous reactionary. And I don’t take him very seriously. He’s a polemicist, not a historian.” Schlesinger was right when he said Zinn was not a historian. But he was wrong when he said that he should not be taken seriously. Zinn’s books have prompted many people to study history who otherwise would never have cracked the spine of a traditional history textbook. Joseph Palermo, a history professor at Cal State-Sacramento, is not alone when he says that Zinn inspired him to be a historian.
So whatever your politics happens to be, I hope you will join me today in remembering a man who ignited an interest in the past in a way that scholars have never been able to do. I am sure that tomorrow the blogosphere and traditional print will have much to say about his life and legacy. Rest in peace.
Well, the prolific commentators over at American Creation have managed to distract me from my quiet evening in front of the television watching the Pitt-Villanova game. This morning I wrote a post on this blog criticizing Howard Zinn and questioning his identity as a “historian.” Brad Hart at American Creation wrote a post about my post and it has opened up a real hornet’s nest in the comments section of his blog.
My post on Zinn comes on the heels of another heated debate at American Creation that centers around whether or not Christian nationalist David Barton is or isn’t a “liar.” Barton gadfly Chris Rodda has put together a YouTube lecture series showing, quite convingly I might add, how Barton has a tendency of manipulating primary sources to make his dubious argument that America is a Christian nation. (I showed the first two parts of these lectures to my Religion and American Founding class yesterday. I think they got a kick out of the whole debate).
Some commentators at American Creation are unwilling to accept my comparison between Zinn and Barton. (With the exception of Brad Hart, who seems to be one of the lone defenders of my post. Thanks for taking the heat Brad!). They are arguing that Zinn is different from Barton because Barton deliberately “lies” about what the sources say and Zinn does not. While I am not sure I would go as far as some in calling Barton a “liar,” it does seem that he has distorted the truth of the documents he uses. (Zinn may do the same thing, but I have not had the time or inclination to check it out thoroughly). The argument of some of the American Creation commentators thus goes something like this: Since Barton “lies” about the evidence and Zinn does not, this makes Zinn a legitimate historian and make Barton a fraud.
Fair enough. A historian, of course, must tell the truth. If they consciously or unconsciously misrepresent documents they are bad historians. But this is not the criteria I was using when I said that Zinn was a bad historian. My critique of Zinn was based on his presentist agenda–using the past to prove a political point. I strongly suggest that you read my many posts on historical thinking and you will understand what I mean by this. (Look especially at my posts on books by Sam Wineburg and Gordon Wood).
By cherry picking from the past things to support his activism, Zinn is just as guilty as Barton (even when Barton IS historically accurate on the facts) in failing to provide a complete picture of American history. In other words, both Zinn and Barton are activists who have convinced a lot of people that they are historians.
I should also add that the Michael Kazin article I reference is noteworthy because Kazin himself is a man of the left.
Over the last couple of weeks the topic of Howard Zinn has come up in my seminar, “Religion and the American Founding.”
In this course we have been reading some of the writings of those who defend the notion that America was founded as a “Christian nation,” including the works by David Barton and Marshall and Manuel. (We have also read Mason Locke Weems’s Life of Washington–a 19th century work of Christian nationalism). I have tried to make the argument that these writers are really more political activists or theologians than they are historians. Yet, their writings often pass as history to thousands of conservative Christians and are used as history textbooks in Christian schools and among Christian homeschoolers. (I have at least one student in my course who had a high school American history teacher assign Marshal and Manuel to prepare for the AP Exam).
A few weeks ago one of my students asked me privately if there are writers on the left who are comparable to these Christian nationalist writers. Howard Zinn immediately came to mind. I am always amazed at the popularity of Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Several years ago I decided to lurk on an internet forum for Advanced Placement U.S. History teachers and found that Zinn is used by many of them as the primary textbook in their classes. Last month I was talking to a group of history majors at a big university and they all wanted to know “what I thought of Howard Zinn.” Many of my more lefty students at Messiah College read Zinn–his books work well with the kind of social-justice Anabaptism one finds at such an institution. As I write, A People’s History is ranked #543 at Amazon.Com. Not bad, especially since The Way of Improvement Leads Home is currently ranked 764,861 . (Come on faithful readers, let’s lower that number!).
Zinn writes well and is quite inspiring, but his book is bad history. In fact, I would not even call it history. A People’s History of the United States is a political tract that uses the past to promote a presentist agenda. It is basically, to paraphrase the words of Bernard Bailyn, political indoctrination by historical example. Now I have no problem if Zinn wants to use the past to advance his leftist agenda. In fact, there is a lot I can agree with in Zinn’s criticisms of his country. But please don’t call this history and pass it off to students as a model of how to write history. Zinn’s book violates virtually every rule of good historical thinking.
The best thing I have read about A People’s History is Michael Kazin’s review of the book. It is definitely worth a look.