A People’s History of the United States

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Howard Zinn died yesterday. I read A People’s History of the United States when I was in high school and was very impressed. Pretty soon after, I came to grasp the essence of the point that Michael Kazin makes in his 2004 Zinn takedown article for Dissent, namely that the People’s History is neither good history nor good politics, offering basically nothing in terms of ways to think about solutions to the problems of the world.

More recently I’ve come to think that this misses the point. Scott Eric Kaufman recounts what happened when he met Zinn in college and told him how much he loved People’s History:

“My little book has served its purpose,” he told me. “Perhaps it’s time you started on the bibliography.”

He smiled and was about to say something else when he was whisked away by some other sycophant eager to bend his ear, but after talking to other people who had very similar conversations with him, I think I know what he was going to say: namely, that his “little book” was meant more as a point of departure than a destination. Treating it the way Matt Damon’s Good Will Hunting character did (and every newly-minted hipster firebrand does) violates the spirit of its polemic, because the book isn’t meant to replace traditional histories so much as supplement them.

To be frank, the one time I met the guy he didn’t come across as nearly that humble or sensible. But irrespective of what the book may or may not be “meant” to do, I think this is the function it serves. It’s an entry-point, it raises important issues, it provokes useful inquiry, most of the best people seem to have read it at some point, and all that’s a pretty impressive achievement. Certainly much more than the vast majority of us writers ever manage to do.