Historian Howard Zinn would have turned 90 today. Upon his death in 2010, Obit-Mag ruminated on the ways he shook up our views of history. Originally published January 2010 on Obit-Mag.com.
German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche identified three distinct ways of writing history in his 1873 work, On the Use and Abuse of History for Life. The first, Monumental History, tracks history as the progress of great men and great ideas (think David McCollough). His second, Antiquarian History, aggregates the minutiae of the past (like Tom Standage's A History of the World in 6 Glasses). The third, Critical History, posits that “man must have the strength to break up the past; and apply it too, in order to live. He must bring the past to the bar of judgment, interrogate it remorselessly, and finally condemn it.”
By Nietzsche’s definition, Howard Zinn was a critical historian. Zinn died on Wednesday, January 27th at the age of 87. He served in World War II, received his PhD from Columbia, taught at Spelman College and Boston University and participated in numerous campaigns of activism.
This Jan. 9, 2008 file photo shows author Howard Zinn, during a visit in Boston at Emerson College. Zinn died in Santa Monica, Calif., Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2010. He was 87. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
His best known achievement was A People’s History of the United States, which over the 30 years since its first publication has become an essential text for those interested in an alternative view of America’s rise to prominence.
Notably, there is no forward to the work. No introduction, no preface, no prologue. Rather, Zinn plunges into his discourse without explaining his purposes, goals or methodology.
Within the first few pages, his central concept becomes clear: America’s foundational mythology is deeply flawed, overly monumental and blind to the hidden struggles that, as much as the actions of kings and presidents, contributed to the formation of the United States. Further, he concedes, Thomas Hobbes’ quip that the life of pre-civilized man was “nasty, brutish and short” extends into civilized man as well and their relations.
The process of constructing America was not the manifestation of Providence on Earth but the result of social movements (labor, civil rights, women). These ideas were not new, but Zinn's was perhaps the most compelling application to date.
In this way he was a movement historian, an intellectual engagé, who fought for causes while studying the historical roots of those struggles. And he took his lumps from the Academy. He was called a polemicist, not a historian. But these labels had little effect on Zinn's reputation as a champion of liberal and progressive politics who inspired generations of students to advocacy, activism or at very least an alternative historical perspective.
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