January 28, 2010
Howard Zinn, Historian, Dies at 87
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Howard Zinn, historian and shipyard worker, civil rights activist and World War II bombardier, and author of “A People’s History of the United States,” a best seller that inspired a generation of high school and college students to rethink American history, died Wednesday in Santa Monica, Calif. He was 87 and lived in Auburndale, Mass.
The cause was a heart attack, which he had while swimming, his family said.
Proudly, unabashedly radical, with a mop of white hair and bushy eyebrows and an impish smile, Mr. Zinn, who retired from the history faculty at Boston University two decades ago, delighted in debating ideological foes, not the least his own college president, and in lancing what he considered platitudes, not the least that American history was a heroic march toward democracy.
Almost an oddity at first, with a printing of just 4,000 in 1980, “A People’s History of the United States” has sold nearly two million copies. To describe it as a revisionist account is to risk understatement. A conventional historical account held no allure; he concentrated on what he saw as the genocidal depredations of Christopher Columbus, the blood lust of Theodore Roosevelt and the racial failings of Abraham Lincoln. He also shined an insistent light on the revolutionary struggles of impoverished farmers, feminists, laborers and resisters of slavery and war.
Such stories are more often recounted in textbooks today; they were not at the time.
“Our nation had gone through an awful lot — the Vietnam War, civil rights, Watergate — yet the textbooks offered the same fundamental nationalist glorification of country,” Mr. Zinn recalled in a recent interview with The New York Times. “I got the sense that people were hungry for a different, more honest take.”
In a book review in The Times, the historian Eric Foner wrote of the book that “historians may well view it as a step toward a coherent new version of American history.” But many historians, even those of liberal bent, took a more skeptical view.
“What Zinn did was bring history writing out of the academy, and he undid much of the frankly biased and prejudiced views that came before it,” said Sean Wilentz, a professor of history at Princeton University. “But he’s a popularizer, and his view of history is topsy-turvy, turning old villains into heroes, and after a while the glow gets unreal.”
That criticism barely raised a hair on Mr. Zinn’s neck. “It’s not an unbiased account; so what?” he said in the Times interview. “If you look at history from the perspective of the slaughtered and mutilated, it’s a different story.”
Few historians succeeded in passing so completely through the academic membrane into popular culture. He gained admiring mention in the movie “Good Will Hunting”; Matt Damon appeared in a History Channel documentary about him; and Bruce Springsteen said the starkest of his many albums, “Nebraska,” drew inspiration in part from Mr. Zinn’s writings.
Born Aug. 24, 1922, Howard Zinn grew up in New York City. His parents were Jewish immigrants, and his father ran candy stores during the Depression without much success.
“We moved a lot, one step ahead of the landlord,” Mr. Zinn recalled. “I lived in all of Brooklyn’s best slums.”
He graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School and became a pipe fitter in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where he met his future wife, Roslyn Shechter. Raised on Charles Dickens, he later added Karl Marx to his reading, organized labor rallies and got decked by a billy-club-wielding cop.
He joined the Army Air Corps in 1943, eager to fight the fascists, and became a bombardier in a B-17. He watched his bombs rain down and, when he returned to New York, deposited his medals in an envelope and wrote, “Never Again.”
“I would not deny that war had a certain moral core, but that made it easier for Americans to treat all subsequent wars with a kind of glow,” Mr. Zinn said. “Every enemy becomes Hitler.”
He and his wife lived in a rat-infested basement apartment as he dug ditches and worked in a brewery. Later they moved to public housing and he went to college on the G.I. Bill.
He earned a B.A. at New York University and master’s and doctoral degrees at Columbia University. In 1956, he landed a job at Spelman College, a historically black women’s college, as chairman of the history department. Among his students were Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund; Alice Walker, the novelist; and the singer and composer Bernice Johnson Reagon.
Mr. Zinn served on the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and marched for civil rights with his students, which angered Spelman’s president.
“I was fired for insubordination,” Mr. Zinn recalled. “Which happened to be true.”
Mr. Zinn moved to Boston University in 1964. He traveled with the Rev. Daniel Berrigan to Hanoi to receive prisoners released by the North Vietnamese, and produced the antiwar books “Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal” (1967) and “Disobedience and Democracy” (1968).
He waged a war of attrition with Boston University’s president at the time, John Silber, a political conservative. Mr. Zinn twice organized faculty votes to oust Mr. Silber, and Mr. Silber returned the favor, saying the professor was a sterling example of those who would “poison the well of academe.”
Mr. Zinn’s book “La Guardia in Congress” (1959) won the American Historical Association’s Albert J. Beveridge Award. “A publisher went so far as to publish my quotations, which my wife thought was ridiculous,” Mr. Zinn said. “She said, ‘What are you, the pope or Mao Zedong?’ ”
Mr. Zinn retired in 1988, concluding his last class early so he could join a picket line. He invited his students to join him.
Mr. Zinn wrote three plays: “Daughter of Venus,” “Marx in Soho” and “Emma,” about the life of the anarchist Emma Goldman. All have been produced. His last article was a rather bleak assessment of President Obama for The Nation. “I’ve been searching hard for a highlight,” he wrote.
Rosyln Zinn died in 2008. Mr. Zinn is survived by a daughter, Myla Kabat-Zinn of Lexington, Mass.; a son, Jeff Zinn, of Wellfleet, Mass.; and five grandchildren.
Mr. Zinn spoke recently of more work to come. The title of his memoir, he noted, best described his personal philosophy: “You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train.”
A staff obituary by The New York Times will appear later.
January 30, 2010
A Radical Treasure
By BOB HERBERT
I had lunch with Howard Zinn just a few weeks ago, and I’ve seldom had more fun while talking about so many matters that were unreservedly unpleasant: the sorry state of government and politics in the U.S., the tragic futility of our escalation in Afghanistan, the plight of working people in an economy rigged to benefit the rich and powerful.
Mr. Zinn could talk about all of that and more without losing his sense of humor. He was a historian with a big, engaging smile that seemed ever-present. His death this week at the age of 87 was a loss that should have drawn much more attention from a press corps that spends an inordinate amount of its time obsessing idiotically over the likes of Tiger Woods and John Edwards.
Mr. Zinn was chagrined by the present state of affairs, but undaunted. “If there is going to be change, real change,” he said, “it will have to work its way from the bottom up, from the people themselves. That’s how change happens.”
We were in a restaurant at the Warwick Hotel in Manhattan. Also there was Anthony Arnove, who had worked closely with Mr. Zinn in recent years and had collaborated on his last major project, “The People Speak.” It’s a film in which well-known performers bring to life the inspirational words of everyday citizens whose struggles led to some of the most profound changes in the nation’s history. Think of those who joined in — and in many cases became leaders of — the abolitionist movement, the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the feminist revolution, the gay rights movement, and so on.
Think of what this country would have been like if those ordinary people had never bothered to fight and sometimes die for what they believed in. Mr. Zinn refers to them as “the people who have given this country whatever liberty and democracy we have.”
Our tendency is to give these true American heroes short shrift, just as we gave Howard Zinn short shrift. In the nitwit era that we’re living through now, it’s fashionable, for example, to bad-mouth labor unions and feminists even as workers throughout the land are treated like so much trash and the culture is so riddled with sexism that most people don’t even notice it. (There’s a restaurant chain called “Hooters,” for crying out loud.)
I always wondered why Howard Zinn was considered a radical. (He called himself a radical.) He was an unbelievably decent man who felt obliged to challenge injustice and unfairness wherever he found it. What was so radical about believing that workers should get a fair shake on the job, that corporations have too much power over our lives and much too much influence with the government, that wars are so murderously destructive that alternatives to warfare should be found, that blacks and other racial and ethnic minorities should have the same rights as whites, that the interests of powerful political leaders and corporate elites are not the same as those of ordinary people who are struggling from week to week to make ends meet?
Mr. Zinn was often taken to task for peeling back the rosy veneer of much of American history to reveal sordid realities that had remained hidden for too long. When writing about Andrew Jackson in his most famous book, “A People’s History of the United States,” published in 1980, Mr. Zinn said:
“If you look through high school textbooks and elementary school textbooks in American history, you will find Jackson the frontiersman, soldier, democrat, man of the people — not Jackson the slaveholder, land speculator, executioner of dissident soldiers, exterminator of Indians.”
Mr. Zinn would protest peacefully for important issues he believed in — against racial segregation, for example, or against the war in Vietnam — and at times he was beaten and arrested for doing so. He was a man of exceptionally strong character who worked hard as a boy growing up in Brooklyn during the Depression. He was a bomber pilot in World War II, and his experience of the unmitigated horror of warfare served as the foundation for his lifelong quest for peaceful solutions to conflict.
He had a wonderful family, and he cherished it. He and his wife, Roslyn, known to all as Roz, were married in 1944 and were inseparable for more than six decades until her death in 2008. She was an activist, too, and Howard’s editor. “I never showed my work to anyone except her,” he said.
They had two children and five grandchildren.
Mr. Zinn was in Santa Monica this week, resting up after a grueling year of work and travel, when he suffered a heart attack and died on Wednesday. He was a treasure and an inspiration. That he was considered radical says way more about this society than it does about him.