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.