If you’re old enough to remember the Soviet Union, you’ve probably wondered why so many young people today seem attracted to socialism. One influence is Howard Zinn, who published “A People’s History of the United States” in 1980, the year before the first millennials were born.
The book “continues to be assigned in countless college and high-school courses, but its commercial sales have remained strong as well,” the Chronicle of Higher Education reported in 2003, on the occasion of its millionth copy sold. It kept selling after Zinn died in 2010: The Zinn Education Program website now claims more than two million sales.
Historian Wilfred McClay aspires to be the antidote to Zinn, whom he accuses of “greatly oversimplifying the past and turning American history into a comic-book melodrama in which ‘the people’ are constantly being abused by ‘the rulers.’ ” Mr. McClay’s counterpoint, which comes out next week, is titled “Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story.”
He says he doesn’t mean his new book as “some saccharine whitewash of American history.” But he’s seen too many students drawn to Zinn because the standard textbooks are visionless and tedious. “Just as nature abhors a vacuum,” Mr. McClay says, “so a culture will find some kind of grand narrative of itself to feed upon, even a poisonous one.”
A lousy story is better than no story at all: “We historians have for years been supplying an account of the American past that is so unedifying and lacking in larger perspective that Zinn’s sweeping melodrama looks good by comparison. Zinn’s success is indicative of our failure. We have to do better.”