Many historians are essentially paid hacks who write “history” to favor the rich and powerful. Unfortunately, these magicians with the facts have skewed our nation’s history books and the perceptions of events for millions of Americans.
Then there was Howard Zinn, the author, teacher and political activist whose book—A People’s History of the United States—became a million-selling alternative to mainstream texts. Zinn wrote history from the viewpoint of ordinary people, not the wealthy elite.
A People's History was published in 1980 with little promotion and a first printing of only 5,000 copies. By 2003, it had sold over a million copies. Adopted by individual teachers against the wishes of the establishment, the book now is taught in high schools and colleges throughout the country.
Needless to say that Howard Zinn had enemies among mainstream historians. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. once said: “I know he regards me as a dangerous reactionary. And I don’t take him very seriously. He’s a polemicist, not a historian.” Others had much harsher things to saw.
However, Howard Zinn acknowledged that he was not trying to write objective history, and saw A People's History as a response to traditional works. “There’s no such thing as a whole story; every story is incomplete,” Zinn said. “My idea was the orthodox viewpoint has already been done a thousand times.”
Actors, filmmakers and even Bruce Springsteen, whose Nebraska album was inspired in part by A People’s History, celebrated Zinn. I last saw Howard Zinn on May 13, 2009 at the 92nd Street Y in New York at an actor’s reading from the new young people’s edition of A People’s History.
One of Zinn’s final public writings was a brief essay on President Obama in the Nation. “I’ve been searching hard for a highlight,” Zinn wrote, adding that he wasn’t disappointed because he never expected a lot from the president.
“I think people are dazzled by Obama’s rhetoric, and that people ought to begin to understand that Obama is going to be a mediocre president—which means, in our time, a dangerous president—unless there is some national movement to push him in a better direction.”
As usual, Howard Zinn was dead-on accurate. Men of his caliber are far too few. His alternative views in this culture-for-money will be sorely missed.