Eric Foner: Zinn's Critical History





[Eric Foner, a member of The Nation's editorial board, is DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University and editor of Our Lincoln, a collection of essays recently published by W. W. Norton and author of Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction.]

Friedrich Nietzsche once identified three approaches to the writing of history: the monumental, the antiquarian and the critical, the last being history "that judges and condemns." Howard Zinn, who died on January 27 at 87, wrote the third kind. Unlike many historians, he was not afraid to speak out about the difference between right and wrong....

I have long been struck by how many excellent students of history first had their passion for the past sparked by reading Howard Zinn. Sometimes, to be sure, his account tended toward the Manichaean, an oversimplified narrative of the battle between the forces of light and darkness. But A People's History taught an inspiring and salutary lesson--that despite all too frequent repression, if America has a history to celebrate it lies in the social movements that have made this a better country. As for past heroes, Zinn insisted, one should look not to presidents or captains of industry but to radicals such as Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony and Eugene V. Debs....

A few years ago, I lectured at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota (the hometown of the late, lamented Senator Paul Wellstone). Zinn had been there a few days before, and across the top of the student newspaper was emblazoned the headline Zinn Attacks State. I sent Howard a copy. We laughingly agreed that he could not have a more appropriate epitaph.

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