My wife and I recently moved into the first floor of an old rectory in a Chicago neighborhood full of turn-of-the-century churches and mansions. In addition to apparently being haunted, the apartment also has much less shelf space than our previous apartment. The two-bedroom unit has eight individual rooms all separated by doorways and long hallways that leave very little open wall space for bookshelves.
Forced by the Victorian era’s penchant for a well-ordered world to thin my unwieldy personal library, I packed up several boxes of books for storage and kept only the texts I considered essential to complete my dissertation in American history. It was easier than the average bibliophile might expect. The frantic efforts to finish graduate school often encourage a mindset among aspiring scholars that views nearly everything as extraneous. The Cornel West Reader? Interesting—but it does not contribute to my arguments. Leon Litwack’s Been in the Storm So Long? Important—but it’s well outside my field. Upton Sinclair’s Boston? Dead weight. It was in this mindset that I also packed Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States for my ghostly basement. The book was important, to be sure, but in my narrowed focus I could not find its relevance.
Zinn’s reputation has fallen within the broader academic community as well. A widely recognized historian in a country that does not lavish much attention on its chroniclers, Zinn’s popularity as an author, activist, and leftist political commentator has cost him a measure of credibility with his colleagues. He styled A People’s History as the antithesis to standard history textbooks. Over presidents and politicians Zinn had working people, trade unionists, feminists, pacifists, environmentalists and radicals of every stripe drive his historical narrative. The formula proved a success. Though published in obscurity in 1980, the book has sold over a million copies, spawned children’s books and graphic novels, received favorable mentions in Good Will Hunting and The Sopranos, and even provided inspiration for Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska album. Much of the historical profession, however, remained unimpressed. “I don't take him very seriously,” Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., the Harvard historian and former special assistant to President John F. Kennedy, once remarked, “He's a polemicist, not a historian.”
It had not always been so. Zinn’s LaGuardia in Congress, his first book based on his 1958 doctoral dissertation from Columbia University, was considered to be such a “model scholarly study” in political sociology that the American Historical Association awarded the manuscript its Albert J. Beveridge Award and oversaw its publication with Cornell University Press. The book, quite frankly, is traditional in its methodological approach and even a bit conservative in its biographical style.
But Zinn’s focus on the Congressional career of Fiorello LaGuardia does illuminate a concern with the political power of the dispossessed that would eventually come to dominate Zinn’s personal life and professional career. A second generation Italian-American who drew upon the power of New York City’s immigrant communities to champion progressive legislation throughout the first half of the twentieth century, LaGuardia resonated with the young historian. Zinn himself was born to impoverished Jewish immigrants in New York on August, 24 1922 and eventually found himself working in the Brooklyn Navy Yards as a teen. There, Zinn discovered Karl Marx and became involved in the shipyard’s violent labor struggles. Following the outbreak of World War II, Zinn joined the Army Air Corps, but upon his return home he placed all of his medals in an envelope and scrawled “Never Again” across its seal. With funding from the G. I. Bill, Zinn attended New York University and then Columbia where he researched and wrote about his hometown hero.
Zinn’s earliest professional activities, then, emerged from deeply political sources. The latter would increasingly overwhelm the former throughout the remainder of his career. Appointed professor of history at Spelman College in 1956—a historically black college for women in Atlanta—Zinn aided his students in their efforts to challenge segregation. He advised and served as historian for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and marched in their demonstrations. At the same time, Zinn’s writings began to take on the cast for which he would become known. Though cultural criticism and political treatises at their core, both The Southern Mystique (1962) and SNCC: The New Abolitionists (1964) betrayed their author’s deep sense of the region’s culture, history, and place in the nation’s imagination. This formula, the enrichment of political discourse with historical argumentation, would become the hallmark of Zinn’s writing.
For continually encouraging its female student body to engage in “unladylike” protests, Spelman dismissed Zinn for “insubordination” in 1963—a charge Zinn proudly admitted was true. After he joined Boston University’s political science department the following year (an important disciplinary shift), Zinn immediately began organizing teach-ins and protests against the Vietnam War. For the rest of the radical sixties Zinn’s activism overshadowed his writing. In 1968 he and Daniel Berrigan traveled to Hanoi and successfully negotiated the release of three American POWs, the first imprisoned combatants released by the North Vietnamese in the conflict. In 1972 Zinn, along with Noam Chomsky, was also central to the publication of The Pentagon Papers, which exposed the government’s internal planning and rationale for escalating the Vietnam conflict. Zinn also completely departed from the writing of history. His books, many collections of Zinn’s essays that appeared in the popular press, were explicitly and polemically political, arguing for withdrawal from Vietnam abroad or demanding social justice at home. When Zinn turned toward writing A People’s History at the end of the 1970s, it was, in many respects, his return to history.
By 1980, however, over two decades had passed since the publication of Zinn’s scholastic biography of LaGuardia. By that point not only had Zinn’s tendencies as an author changed, but also his personal and professional identity. Zinn wrote, first and foremost, as an engaged citizen—an activist whose leftist politics were infused and enhanced by his understanding of the past. His Ph.D. lent him credence—and he readily employed it as a form of cultural capital—but Zinn was never writing for the academy. In countless interviews, Zinn acknowledged he had never set out to write objective, balanced, or scholarly history. “It’s not an unbiased account,” Zinn admitted in an interview with the New York Times, “so what?” The dismissive tone is revealing.
Zinn retired from teaching in 1988. He ended his final day of class early so he could join a picket line of striking Boston University employees. Even at the end, politics trumped professionalism. Retirement, moreover, almost seemed to be a move targeted to free Zinn to focus on his political work. He remained unceasingly active in leftist circles and built upon A People’s History’s fame. For a time Zinn even turned to theatre, composing a handful of plays that featured anarchist Emma Goldman or had Karl Marx as a main character. But for the rest of his life, A People’s History defined Zinn. It became the sum total of not just his political efforts, but also his academic work. When he died last month from a heart attack while vacationing in California, the flurry of obituaries, blog posts, and commemorations all centered in some form on the contributions—or consequences, depending upon your perspective—of that one book. “[H]e’s a popularizer,” recently remarked Princeton historian Sean Wilentz with a tone that characterizes much of the academic disapproval of Zinn’s work, “and his view of history is topsy-turvy, turning old villains into heroes, and after a while the glow gets unreal.”
Ultimately, however, to hold Zinn to a set of academic standards he never intended to follow not only misrepresents the intent of much of his writing but also unnecessarily mars his professional career. The Zinn of the award-winning LaGuardia in Congress and the Zinn of A People’s History are in many respects two different authors. And while Zinn’s work on the former certainly influenced his writing of the latter, to assume that the opposite occurred is not only unfair but wrong. Sure, A People’s History is silent on how change occurs over time, slights the racism and nationalism of its exalted working class, and ignores a plethora of social, cultural and religious issues. But Zinn always viewed his later work as a series of political acts more than academic contributions. The fact that the book has been widely adopted in college courses across the country says more about the historical profession generally than about Zinn himself.
To view Zinn as an activist academic, radical historian, or dissenting doctorate ultimately obscures Zinn the impassioned citizen whose concern for peace, justice, and equality was so great it warped all of his other identities around it. In many respects, Zinn challenges academics to stop viewing the world through the lens of their disciplines to engage it as people, not professionals. It is a lesson well worth remembering. A lesson that drove me into my haunted basement where, to my wife’s chagrin, I tore through boxes of books until I found my copy of A People’s History of the United States. It’s back on my bookshelf—one of the few that I still have.