Wednesday, July 16, 2014
A People’s History of the United States: 1492–Present by Howard Zinn
A chronicle of tyranny and dissent
Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States was originally published in 1980. Subsequent editions have been released since then, with revisions and additions. I am reviewing the ebook edition of 2009, based on the 2003 print edition, which contains an extensive chapter on the Clinton administration and a brief discussion of the events of 9/11 and their aftermath.
Zinn’s objective in writing A People’s History is to tell the story of our nation from the perspective of the common people. His work stands in direct opposition to the traditional textbooks on American history that most of us studied in school, in which the history of America is determined by a succession of famous leaders and patriotic heroes. Zinn has little patience for such romantic constructs, and he lays waste to myths of American righteousness wherever they crop up. While the prevalent narrative of American history tells us that this country was founded on the principles of equality and liberty, Zinn argues that the American government was tailored to protect the interests of wealthy white businessmen. Furthermore, it continues to serve that function to this day, at the expense of the vast majority of the nation’s citizens. In Zinn’s view, no American President ever performed a noble act without an ulterior motive. Lincoln freed the slaves to prevent black rebellion. FDR gave us the New Deal to curb the rise of Socialism. Since 1492, any true progress toward life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness has been made by oppressed groups fighting for their rights. Zinn at long last gives voice to the Native Americans, Blacks, women, workers, pacifists, and other dissenters who struggled against the system, either to win a small but vital triumph or to be crushed beneath the iron heel.
While the message of this book is extremely valuable, the way it’s expressed is not always entirely satisfactory. Zinn’s research is astounding, but his writing often leaves much to be desired. Most chapters focus on a common theme (slavery, the massacre of Native Americans, the fight for women’s rights) or time period (various wars, the 1960s, the Reagan Era). Under each such category the book often reads like merely a laundry list of incidents fired off in rapid succession. While the sheer multitude of data implies a trend in a certain direction, Zinn rarely steps back and elaborates on the ramifications of these myriad events, allowing the reader to see the forest for the trees. When he does, as in Chapter 23, which in a prior edition was likely the book’s conclusion, he is quite eloquent and incredibly inspiring. Though the view of history it provides is startlingly alternative, this people’s history too often suffers from the same fault as so many traditional textbooks: too many dates and figures and not enough humanity.
If you’re not liberally inclined, you’re probably not going to like this book. If you are, then you’re likely to love it. Either way, there is much to learn, whether you enjoy it or not. Even those who consider themselves quite history-savvy will find reading A People’s History an eye-opening experience. It brings to light so many important episodes that were never even mentioned in your high school history class. The picture it paints of America may not be a pretty one, but it is an important one. This book should be taught in America’s schools right alongside the traditional textbooks with their sanitized vision of an America that can do no wrong. Likely the truth falls somewhere between the two, but if I had to choose sides, my money’s on Zinn. He’s the ultimate devil’s advocate of American history, and every citizen owes it to himself and his country to give a listen to his remarkable perspective.
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