Fewer Great Men, More People


Somewhere in the Auburndale, Massachusetts home of American historian, playwright and social activist Howard Zinn rests a folder marked simply, "Never Again". Sealed inside are papers and medals commemorating Professor Zinn’s service as a bombardier flying missions over Europe with the American Army Air Corps during World War II. 

Horrified by the stories of the survivors of Hiroshima after returning home, Zinn bundled up the legacy of his participation in the unthinking mechanical brutality of modern war and concluded that "wars don’t solve any fundamental problems … they poison the minds and souls of everybody on both sides." 

It was this deep regard for the essential value of all humanity that would distinguish his life and work up until his sudden death at 87 of a heart attack on 27 January 2010.

Zinn was best known for his masterwork A People’s History of the United States. First published in 1980 with a print run of just 5000 copies, the book’s influence spread by word-of-mouth and it has become an enduring best seller. To date it has been reprinted numerous times, run to five editions and sold close to two million copies.

A People’s History was an unabashedly revisionist account of America’s past that reached back ambitiously from the first term of the Clinton presidency to the arrival of Columbus. Zinn constructed a compelling counter-narrative to traditional American history. He told the story of America’s westward expansion from the perspective of massacred and dispossessed Native Americans; he drew attention to the struggles and achievements of African Americans, women, and workers; wrote with warm respect of the civil rights and anti-war movements, and cut against the grain of historians fixated on the Founding Fathers and other "Great Men" of American memory.

A People’s History was criticised by some for its fragmented narrative and lack of objectivity. Both accusations held a certain degree of merit, but were tempered by Zinn’s unashamedly subjective approach to history. He neither strove for, nor sought to produce complete works of cold academic objectivity. In a 1998 interview with the Associated Press, he told an interviewer "there’s no such thing as a whole story; every story is incomplete. My idea was the orthodox viewpoint has already been done a thousand times."

As an educator, he approached his teaching and writing as a natural extension of his activism. As he explained in his 1994 autobiography, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, "from the start, my teaching was infused with my own history. I would try to be fair to other points of view, but I wanted more than ‘objectivity’; I wanted students to leave my classes not just better informed, but more prepared to relinquish the safety of silence, more prepared to speak up, to act against injustice wherever they saw it."

This passion had a profound impact on his readers, students and friends.

Alice Walker, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, poet and activist was a student of Howard Zinn’s in the early 1960s at Spelman, an all black women’s college in Atlanta. She remembered Zinn as "one of the funniest people I have ever known", a teacher who loved his students and showed that love by supporting and attending student sit-ins in segregated restaurants. Zinn was subsequently dismissed from the college for "insubordination".

He had many other famous admirers. Bruce Springsteen’s beautifully stark album ‘Nebraska’ was inspired in part by A People’s History. Springsteen confided in actor Josh Brolin that it was a "childhood dream come true … spending the day with Howard Zinn". Noam Chomsky remained a life-long friend and recently recalled, "I can’t think of anyone who had such a powerful and benign influence, his historical work changed the way millions of people saw the past."

His significance for Australian intellectuals is more difficult to measure. Certainly the research of historian Henry Reynolds and others into the frontier violence, massacre and dispossession of Indigenous peoples that characterised the colonisation of Australia has parallels with Zinn’s interpretation of early American history. Revisionist American history continues to be published and taught widely in the major Australian universities. It is journalist John Pilger though, who is most closely identified with Zinn’s intellectual legacy. Pilger has praised Zinn as "the great people’s historian" and continues to use Zinn’s work to analyse problematic contemporary applications of US power.

Zinn was born on 24 August 1922 in New York City. He grew up in an immigrant working-class family in a rundown area of Brooklyn. His father Edward Zinn worked as a waiter, his mother Jenny as a housewife. His exposure to injustice and the misuse of power came early. At 17, encouraged by some young Communists in his neighbourhood, 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," he told the Associated Press. "I couldn’t believe that. 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."

His formal education began much later. He entered New York University as a 27-year-old freshman on the GI Bill. Zinn, who had married Roslyn Shechter in 1944, worked nights in a warehouse loading trucks to support his studies. He received his bachelor’s degree from NYU, followed by a master’s and a doctoral degree in history 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 and the University of Paris.

Professor Zinn retired in 1988, fittingly ending his class 30 minutes early so he could spend his last day of class on the picket line with students in support of an on-campus nurses’ strike. He continued to lecture at schools, write essays and appear at rallies and on picket lines. Besides A People’s History, he wrote many other books, including The Southern Mystique and LaGuardia in Congress. He also wrote three plays that were performed around the world.

His wife and longtime collaborator, Roslyn, died in 2008. He leaves a daughter, Myla, a son, Jeff, three granddaughters and two grandsons.

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