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Howard Zinn Bio Finds Career as Contested as Legacy

January 11th 2013

Howard Zinn

Howard Zinn. Martin Duberman. New Press. 2012. 400 pp.

Howard Zinn’s academic career was as contested as his legacy. While teaching at Spellman College and Boston University, Zinn was in constant conflict with university administrators, pursuing an activist role with the civil rights and antiwar movements. Beloved by his students, Zinn attempted to model a relevant history which employed the past to shed light upon the present and promote a progressive agenda that would foster a more equitable society. Blending activism with scholarship, Zinn produced such books as SNCC: The New Abolitionists (1964), Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal (1967), and The Politics of History (1970), but he is best known for A People’s History of the United States, which was originally published in 1980 and has sold over two million copies. A People’s History is employed by many teachers as an alternative text and has helped launch the Zinn Education Project, which develops lesson plans based upon Zinn’s concept of viewing American history from the bottom up and privileging the working class, labor, racial minorities, and reformers. On the other hand, many professional historians denigrate Zinn’s history, noting, as Stanford’s Sam Wineburg argues, that A People’s History is based on secondary sources and projects an ideological approach which undermines creative thinking in the history classroom.

The conclusions of Wineburg and the historical profession in general -- in a 2012 survey by the History News Network, A People’s History was selected as the second least reliable history book in print -- is challenged in a new biography of Zinn by Martin Duberman, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at the CUNY Graduate Center and the author of Paul Robeson’s biography in addition to pioneering work in gay and lesbian history. As an activist on the political left, Duberman concedes that he tends to agree with Zinn’s historical and political perspectives. However, Duberman’s biography, while generally sympathetic to Zinn, is certainly not uncritical when it comes to analyzing Zinn’s scholarship. Duberman also laments that he is not better able to present Zinn’s personal life. Zinn was more comfortable discussing political rather than personal issues, and in this vein before his death Zinn went through his archival material located in New York University’s Tamiment Library and removed most sources relating to his personal life. Accordingly, Duberman has attempted to fill in the gaps through interviews with Zinn’s family, friends, and colleagues, who were also willing to share with Duberman their personal correspondence from Zinn.

Duberman’s narrative essentially follows Zinn’s life as outlined in his autobiography, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train (2002), which also fails to delve into the historian’s private life in a self-reflective manner. Zinn was born August 24, 1922 in New York City. Both parents were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who struggled economically and had little formal education. Nevertheless, the family did encourage their son’s reading habits. Duberman observes that while the poverty of the hard-working Zinn family raises serious questions about the American dream of social mobility, Howard rarely referred to his family background in his class analysis of American society.

Howard was eager to join the World War II global struggle against fascism and volunteered for the Army Air Force, where he was trained to become a bombardier. He initially subscribed to the popular notion that the Second World War was the “good war,” and Howard believed that he was fighting for democracy against the forces of fascist totalitarianism. After the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Howard began to question the notion of a just war and become an antiwar activist, leading the FBI to open a file on his activities.

During the war, Howard married Roslyn (Roz) Shechter, who remained his wife until her death in 2008. Taking advantage of the GI Bill, Howard enrolled at New York University before pursuing graduate studies in history at Columbia University. Reflecting his interest in insurgent American politics, Howard’s master thesis focused upon the 1914 Ludlow Massacre, while his dissertation chronicled the Congressional career of New York progressive Fiorello LaGuardia. The dissertation was later published by Cornell University Press, although Duberman notes that one weakness of the volume was the lack of attention paid to LaGuardia’s personal life. The feminist notion of the personal as political was somewhat alien to Zinn.

In 1956, Howard accepted a position teaching history in Atlanta at Spellman College, a conservative predominantly black women’s institution of higher education. Duberman chronicles Zinn’s growing involvement with the civil rights movement, in which the historian engaged in civil disobedience and served as an instructor in the SNCC Freedom Schools. This social activism and Zinn’s championing of student rights drew the ire of Spellman’s President, Albert Manley. The growing antagonism led to Manley’s dismissal of Zinn in June 1963. After initially challenging Manley’s actions, Zinn eventually dropped his case and found employment at Boston University. Duberman uncovered that Manley accused Zinn of involvement with a Spellman student, although the alleged incident occurred several years before Zinn’s dismissal. Duberman was unable to confirm this allegation, but he did discover that Howard was unfaithful to Roz. This caused considerable strain in the marriage, for Roz had sacrificed her career to support the family. Duberman concludes that Roz was more introverted than Howard, but she was better able to develop intimate friendships. Of Howard’s personal relationships, Duberman writes “While it’s true that Howard mostly kept his inner feelings to himself, that isn’t the equivalent of being afraid of closeness. His, it seems, was a generational male style of avoiding talking about intimate matters, not of avoiding feelings of intimacy” (196).

Zinn taught at Boston College from 1964 until his retirement in 1988 at age sixty-four. In the mid-1960s, Zinn’s political activism increasingly focused upon opposition to the Vietnam War, and in February 1968 Zinn journeyed to North Vietnam with Dan Berrigan to receive the release of three captured American pilots. Although Zinn was in demand as a national speaker, he devoted considerable time to his teaching duties, and enrollment for his classes sometimes exceeded 400 students. Zinn’s contributions, however, were not appreciated by John Silber, who assumed the presidency of Boston University in 1961. Duberman devotes considerable detail to the confrontation between Zinn and Silber, whom the author describes as a “tyrannical reactionary.” Silber accused Zinn of encouraging student unrest, and the college president denied promotions and salary increases approved by the university’s political science department in which Zinn taught.

But during his retirement, Zinn was beginning to earn considerable royalties on A People’s History, in addition to maintaining a busy speaking schedule. Howard opposed the Reagan administration’s involvement in Central America as well as the Persian Gulf War and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan in response to 9/11. Following the death of Roz in 2008, Howard began to slow down, dying on January 27, 2010 from a heart attack while visiting family in California. Of Zinn’s legacy, Duberman concludes, “What will certainly come down to future generations is Howard’s humanity, his exemplary concern for the plight of others, a concern free of condescension or self-importance. Howard always stayed in character -- and that character remained centered on a capacious solidarity with the least fortunate” (318).

Certainly one of the most interesting aspects of this biography is Duberman’s evaluation of Zinn as a historian. Duberman acknowledges that Zinn did not enjoy spending time in the archives and that most of his writing was based upon personal experience or secondary sources, as was the case with A People’s History. On the other hand, Duberman rejects the charge that Zinn was an ideologue, insisting that Howard was a scholar who took his craft seriously. Duberman expresses frustration that revisionist historians are always described as promoting an ideological slant, while scholars who support the status quo are perceived as in some way being objective in their approach to the past. But Duberman agrees with Zinn’s detractors that A People’s History does not incorporate all of American history. Yet, he argues, “Howard’s work has played a crucial role in providing a corrective to the traditional accounts that omit discussion of the lives of ordinary people or of those who protest against the status quo” (117). Zinn was interested in groups left out of traditional textbooks, but even his focus could be a little narrow. Duberman observes that Zinn concentrated upon issues of class and race, particularly the black freedom struggle. Nevertheless, a book such as A People’s History provides little coverage of women, Latinos, Asians, gays, lesbians, and trans-gendered individuals. Duberman certainly does not mean to suggest that Zinn was in any way prejudiced, but that he was somewhat influenced by his experience and age in coping with issues of sexuality and sexual orientation.

Duberman's engaging biography will not likely alter the perception of scholars regarding Zinn’s contributions to the field of American history. But outside of the academy, Zinn’s work continues to wield considerable influence. Duberman examines the life of an activist scholar who certainly had his human frailties, but who, nevertheless, attempted to live his life according to the principles he championed in his writing.

Ron Briley reviews books for the History News Network and is a history teacher and an assistant headmaster at Sandia Preparatory School, Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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