Howard Zinn, Paradigmatic People’s Historian, Dies at 87

Howard Zinn, the historian who translated his pioneering vision of the past—seeing it from the perspective of ordinary people—into progressive and radical political action, died of a heart attack on Wednesday, January 27, 2010, at the age of 87.

In his most famous book, A People’s History of the United States, Zinn sought to answer as it were, Bertolt Brecht’s “Questions from a Worker Who Reads,” for the United States, taking the view that the past needed to be understood from the viewpoint of ordinary people. Living up to its title not just in its inspiring retelling of what had been until then a master’s narrative, but even in its lucid and accessible style, the book, more than a million copies of which were sold, compelled readers to look at American history in an entirely different way, and became a paradigm for historians in many lands.

In one sense, Howard Zinn was the archetypal “worker who reads,” born as he was to working-class parents (his immigrant father, Edward, was a waiter, and his mother, Jennie, was a homemaker, as the obituary notice in the Boston Globe records). He himself worked in various menial jobs after he had served as a bombardier in the U.S. Air Force during the Second World War. But he took advantage of the GI Bill to get a degree from New York University and then went on to get his MA and PhD degrees from Columbia University. His dissertation, which received an honorable mention in the 1958 competition for the Albert J. Beveridge Award of the American Historical Association, was published for the AHA as LaGuardia in Congress by Cornell University Press. That first book already showed Zinn’s intellectual concern for the people without a presence in the traditional history books and presaged his lifelong commitment to constructing a new narrative about the past from a progressive perspective. As Zinn put it, it was the “obscure and ordinary people, farmers and small businessmen, white-collar workers and manual laborers, who beheld the glittering spectacle [of the Gilded Age] but were never quite part of it,” that people like LaGuardia were concerned about, and Zinn himself came to focus upon.

Zinn began his teaching career at Upsala College and Brooklyn College before moving to Spelman College in Atlanta, where he inspired generations of students including such distinguished alumni as Alice Walker and Marian Wright Edelman.

As Eric Foner, the Dewitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University and a former president of the AHA, put it in an e-mail message today, “Over the years I have been struck by how many excellent students of history had their interest in studying the past sparked by reading Howard Zinn.  That’s the highest compliment one can offer to a historian.”

Perhaps because of his new reading of American history, his own humane worldview, and his belief that a historian cannot ignore his or her civic responsibilities as a citizen, Zinn became an activist, first in the civil rights campaign (during which he served on the executive committee of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and then in the protests against the Vietnam War.

Zinn eloquently expressed his views about the historian as a citizen in an exchange with AHA President John K. Fairbank in the pages of the AHA’s newsletter following a dramatic business meeting in which Zinn had introduced a resolution against the war in Vietnam (described in the February 2010 issue of Perspectives online): “If all Americans, in all the thousands of assemblies that take place through the year, insist on keeping out of politics because neither war nor racial persecution nor poisonous vapors coming in through the library window, affect them as historians, chiropodists, clerks, or carpenters—then “pluralist” democracy is a facade for oligarchical rule.”

From Spelman College, Zinn moved to the political science department at Boston University, where he continued to inspire and mentor countless numbers of students (his classes sometimes had hundreds enrolled) with his teaching and his activism. Even after he took early retirement from the university in 1988, Zinn kept speaking and writing about the issues that were at the heart of his political self, which, for him, was never separate from his intellectual being. He produced a series of books, including the autobiographical You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times; Disobedience and Democracy: Nine Fallacies on Law and Order; Declarations of Independence; three plays, Emma (about Emma Goldman), Marx in Soho, and Daughter of Venus; and different editions of People’s History, of which the most recent was a graphic book version. He was also a prolific writer of essays, some of which have been collected into anthologies.

Zinn was expected to be at the AHA’s 121st annual meeting held in January 2007 in Atlanta, to chair a session that was titled —most appropriately for him—“The Historian in a Time of Crisis: Staughton Lynd, Yale University, and the Vietnam War.” Unfortunately he could not come to the meeting because of the illness of his wife, Roslyn. (She died in 2008.) Zinn had agreed to take part in a panel being organized by Carl Mirra and Staughton Lynd for the AHA’s 2011 annual meeting in Boston, but which, if included in the program, must now be bereft of Zinn’s iconic presence.

Just a few months before his death, Zinn appeared in a History Channel production, The People Speak, in which film, stage, and TV personalities read and performed extracts from his work or other related pieces and thus paid tribute to a historian who crossed the traditional boundaries of his discipline and perhaps even of his profession, to set an example that will always remain impossible to emulate. He was truly a historian of the people and for the people.

—Based on information in the AHA office, the Boston Globe obituary notice, and the web site, www.howardzinn.org.

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