- The Second Worst History Book in Print? Rethinking A People’s History of the United States
Judging by the History News Network’s online vote conducted in 2012, many American historians loathe Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. More than 600 historians who participated in this vote pronounced Zinn’s radical history the second “least credible history book in print.” Comments by participants in the HNN vote suggest that this negative verdict on A People’s History had an ideological dimension. Zinn’s “viewing American history through a Marxist lens is a painful exercise in tortured reasoning” complained one online critic, while another denounced A People’s History as “absolutely atrocious agit-prop.” Such comments led The New York Times to conclude in July 2012 that, though “the political direction of the country may be up for grabs until” after November’s presidential race, with the anti-Zinn landslide “the right has scored an interim victory” in the historical profession.1
Zinn-bashing is by no means a new phenomenon. Soon after its publication in 1980, prominent historians who were ardent foes of radical history, such as Oscar Handlin, expressed outrage over both A People’s History’s “idyllic” view of African and Native American life and of “the topsy-turvy quality” of Zinn’s narrative, which dispensed with the traditional view of enlightened Europeans civilizing the Americas and led readers to believe instead that, in Handlin’s words, “it was downhill all the way” after “the destructive white strangers arrived.” Handlin denounced A People’s History as a “deranged . . . fairly tale.” The late Michael Kammen termed as “single minded and simple minded” Zinn’s depiction of America “not as a land of liberty but a land of relentless exploitation and hypocrisy.” Alluding to Zinn’s role as a prominent antiwar and civil rights activist in the 1960s whose radical mindset the text reflected, Joseph Conlin dismissed Zinn as “one of the maximum gurus of the ‘Movement’ of the 1960s,” and called the book “a museum piece of that period, like LSD on a sugar cube.”2 [End Page 197]
Historians’ attacks on of A People’s History have not emanated solely from the Right. In fact, the first Zinn-bashing quote HNN posted above the online comments on the anti-Zinn vote was from an essay by Michael Kazin that initially appeared in Dissent magazine in 2004. It pronounced A People’s History “bad history” that “reduces the past to a Manichean fable.” Kazin panned Zinn’s “painful narrative about ordinary folks” whose struggle for democracy and equality “are always defeated,” a cynical history in which workers come across as “bobble-headed dolls in workshirts . . . always about to fall on their earnest faces.” Of the long list of flaws historians cite in Zinn’s work, the most commonly mentioned has been that, instead of convincingly reimagining American history, he simply turns the story’s traditional heroes into villains and villains into heroes.3
It would be a mistake, however, to judge A People’s History only or even primarily on the basis of such criticism. Historians rarely engage in empirical classroom research and often seem incapable of remembering how readers new to history experience the reading of introductory texts. So, for example, where Kazin and other historians read Zinn as telling a demoralizing story of labor’s defeat (because such historians are so familiar with the strikes Zinn describes, they focus not on the struggle but on the defeat), readers for whom the story of these strikes is new and unfamiliar perceive Zinn’s account as he intended it—as an exciting tale of heroic struggle. They come away inspired by the resistance, not demoralized by the outcome.4 Although Zinn wrote A People’s History not for historians, but for students and other novice history readers to introduce them to a radical view of the American past, this introductory function is rarely recognized by historians who attack the book...