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….