Saturday Tangent: Historian Howard Zinn, author of “People’s History of US”, dies at 87


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Hi Blog. It is with great sadness that I write to you about the death of one of my personal heroes, Howard Zinn. A person who departed from historical orthodoxy to write history books from the minority point of view. His “People’s History of the United States” is a must-read.  Good man. Already missed. Obits below.

That’s one less of the ideological lions out there who have made an impression on me, speaking up for the little guy as much as possible, and narrating against the grain with tireless activism no matter how ripe the age. Including Noam Chomsky, Chalmers Johnson, Ralph Nader…

Arudou Debito in Sapporo


FILE – This 2006 picture shows Howard Zinn in New York. Zinn, an author, teacher and political activist whose leftist “A People’s History of the United States” sold millions of copies to become an alternative to mainstream texts and a favorite of such celebrities as Bruce Springsteen and Ben Affleck, died Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2010. He was 87. (AP Photo/Dima Gavrysh) (Dima Gavrysh, AP / June 26, 2006)
HILLEL ITALIE AP National Writer
January 27, 2010

Howard Zinn, author of ‘People’s History’ and left-wing historian, dies at 87 in California

Howard Zinn, an author, teacher and political activist whose leftist “A People’s History of the United States” sold a million copies and became an alternative to mainstream texts and a favorite of such celebrities as Bruce Springsteen and Ben Affleck, died Wednesday. He was 87.

Zinn died of a heart attack in Santa Monica, Calif., daughter Myla Kabat-Zinn said. The historian was a resident of Auburndale, Mass.

Published in 1980 with little promotion and a first printing of 5,000, “A People’s History” was — fittingly — a people’s best-seller, attracting a wide audience through word of mouth and reaching 1 million sales in 2003. Although Zinn was writing for a general readership, his book was taught in high schools and colleges throughout the country, and numerous companion editions were published, including “Voices of a People’s History,” a volume for young people and a graphic novel

At a time when few politicians dared even call themselves liberal, “A People’s History” told an openly left-wing story. Zinn charged Christopher Columbus and other explorers with genocide, picked apart presidents from Andrew Jackson to Franklin D. Roosevelt and celebrated workers, feminists and war resisters.

Even liberal historians were uneasy with Zinn. 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.”

In a 1998 interview with The Associated Press, Zinn acknowledged he was not trying to write an objective history, or a complete one. He called his book a response to traditional works, the first chapter — not the last — of a new kind of history.

“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.”

“A People’s History” had some famous admirers, including Matt Damon and Affleck. The two grew up near Zinn, were family friends and gave the book a plug in their Academy Award-winning screenplay for “Good Will Hunting.” When Affleck nearly married Jennifer Lopez, Zinn was on the guest list.

“He taught me how valuable — how necessary dissent was to democracy and to America itself,” Affleck said in a statement. “He taught that history was made by the everyman, not the elites. I was lucky enough to know him personally and I will carry with me what I learned from him — and try to impart it to my own children — in his memory.”

Oliver Stone was a fan, as well as Springsteen, whose bleak “Nebraska” album was inspired in part by “A People’s History.” The book was the basis of a 2007 documentary, “Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind,” and even showed up on “The Sopranos,” in the hand of Tony’s son, A.J.

Zinn himself was an impressive-looking man, tall and rugged with wavy hair. An experienced public speaker, he was modest and engaging in person, more interested in persuasion than in confrontation.

Born in New York in 1922, Zinn was the son of Jewish immigrants who as a child lived in a rundown area in Brooklyn and responded strongly to the novels of Charles Dickens. At age 17, urged on by some young Communists in his neighborhood, he attended a political rally in Times Square.

“Suddenly, I heard the sirens sound, and I looked around and saw the policemen on horses galloping into the crowd and beating people. I couldn’t believe that,” he told the AP.

“And then I was hit. I turned around and I was knocked unconscious. I woke up sometime later in a doorway, with Times Square quiet again, eerie, dreamlike, as if nothing had transpired. I was ferociously indignant. … It was a very shocking lesson for me.”

War continued his education. Eager to help wipe out the Nazis, Zinn joined the Army Air Corps in 1943 and even persuaded the local draft board to let him mail his own induction notice. He flew missions throughout Europe, receiving an Air Medal, but he found himself questioning what it all meant. Back home, he gathered his medals and papers, put them in a folder and wrote on top: “Never again.”

He attended New York University and Columbia University, where he received a doctorate in history. In 1956, he was offered the chairmanship of the history and social sciences department at Spelman College, an all-black women’s school in then-segregated Atlanta.

During the civil rights movement, Zinn encouraged his students to request books from the segregated public libraries and helped coordinate sit-ins at downtown cafeterias. Zinn also published several articles, including a then-rare attack on the Kennedy administration for being too slow to protect blacks.

He was loved by students — among them a young Alice Walker, who later wrote “The Color Purple” — but not by administrators. In 1963, Spelman fired him for “insubordination.” (Zinn was a critic of the school’s non-participation in the civil rights movement.) His years at Boston University were marked by opposition to the Vietnam War and by feuds with the school’s president, John Silber.

Zinn retired in 1988, spending his last day of class on the picket line with students in support of an on-campus nurses’ strike. Over the years, he continued to lecture at schools and to appear at rallies and on picket lines.

Besides “A People’s History,” Zinn wrote several books, including “The Southern Mystique,” ”LaGuardia in Congress” and the memoir, “You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train,” the title of a 2004 documentary about Zinn that Damon narrated. He also wrote three plays.

One of Zinn’s last public writings was a brief essay, published last week in The Nation, about the first year of the Obama administration.

“I’ve been searching hard for a highlight,” he wrote, adding that he wasn’t disappointed because he never expected a lot from Obama.

“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.”

Zinn’s longtime wife and collaborator, Roslyn, died in 2008. They had two children, Myla and Jeff.

Howard Zinn dies at 87; author of best-selling ‘People’s History of the United States’
Activist collapsed in Santa Monica, where he was scheduled to deliver a lecture.

By Robert J. Lopez, Los Angeles Times,0,5610858.story

Howard Zinn, a professor, author and social activist who inspired a generation on the American left and whose book “A People’s History of the United States” sold more than 1 million copies and redefined the historical role of working-class people as agents of political change, died Wednesday. He was 87.

Zinn apparently had a heart attack in Santa Monica, where he was visiting friends and scheduled to speak, said his daughter, Myla Kabat-Zinn. He lived in Auburndale, Mass.

Zinn’s political views were shaped, in part, by his experiences as a bombardier for the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II.

“My father cared about so many important issues,” Kabat-Zinn said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “I think the one he was really most eloquent about is that he thought there was no such thing as a just war.”

Indeed, in a 2001 opinion piece published in The Times, Zinn wrote about being horrified by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and equally horrified by the response of U.S. political leaders, who called for retaliation.

“They have learned nothing, absolutely nothing, from the history of the 20th century, from a hundred years of retaliation, vengeance, war, a hundred years of terrorism and counter-terrorism, of violence met with violence in an unending cycle of stupidity,” he wrote.

“A People’s History” was published in 1980 and had an initial printing of 5,000 copies. But largely through word of mouth, the book attracted a major following and reached 1 million sales in 2003.

The work, which hails ordinary Americans such as farmers and union activists as heroes, accused Christopher Columbus of genocide and criticized early U.S. leaders as proponents of the status quo. “A People’s History” has been taught in high schools and colleges across the nation.

The book was the basis for a History Channel documentary called “The People Speak” that aired in the fall.

The executive producer was actor Matt Damon, who was raised in Boston near Zinn.

“From the moment we had any influence in this town, we’ve been trying to get this project off the ground,” Damon told reporters in July. “It demonstrates how everyday citizens have changed the course of history.”

Zinn was born in 1922 to a working-class family in Brooklyn, N.Y. He was one of four sons whose father worked as a waiter, window cleaner and pushcart peddler.

In his 1994 memoir, “You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train,” Zinn recalled that his parents used discount coupons to buy the complete works of Charles Dickens. The novelist “aroused in me tumultuous emotions” about wealth, class and poverty, Zinn wrote.

Zinn received his doctorate from Columbia University.

He was a professor emeritus at Boston University, where he was a familiar speaker at Vietnam War protests. He also taught at a number of institutions, including Brooklyn College, the University of Paris and Spelman College in Atlanta in the late 1950s and early ’60s as the civil rights movement was taking hold in the South.

Former California state Sen. Tom Hayden recalled meeting Zinn while he was at Spelman, then an all-black women’s school.

“He was basically integrating himself into the world of black students,” Hayden said Wednesday.

Hayden said Zinn became actively involved in the movement as an advisor and leader. The two later protested the war in Vietnam and worked on other social justice issues, Hayden said.

“He had a profound influence on raising the significance of social movements as the real forces of social change in our country,” Hayden said. “He gave us our heritage and he gave us a pride in that heritage.”

Zinn was scheduled to speak Feb. 4 at the Santa Monica Museum of Art for an event titled “A Collection of Ideas . . . the People Speak.”

On its web page, the museum said that it was “deeply saddened” by Zinn’s death and that the event would go on as a tribute to Zinn’s life as a social activist.

Paramedics responded to a 911 call about 12:30 p.m. Wednesday and took Zinn to Santa Monica UCLA Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead, said Santa Monica Police Sgt. Jay Trisler.

Zinn was in a hotel when rescuers arrived, according to his daughter.

In addition to his daughter, Zinn is survived by his son, Jeff Zinn, and five grandchildren, according to his family. His wife Roslyn died in 2008.


3 comments on “Saturday Tangent: Historian Howard Zinn, author of “People’s History of US”, dies at 87

  • At least the first chapter should be read by everyone before their compulsory history education begins. I actually don’t remember most of the book, but the real point of it as I see it, that no history book can ever be unbiased because they all have to include some facts at the expense of others, has stuck with me.

  • I lent my copy of “A People’s History of the United States” to a young American friend seven or eight years ago. After she finished reading it she told me how surprised she was that “all of the good things the government did was because of the Communists and the Socialists”. It is a definite must read for all those from the USA and those who want a better understanding of it.

    He will be missed.


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