Blogs > Cliopatria > Michael Kazin on Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States ...

Mar 24, 2004 12:40 am

Michael Kazin on Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States ...

My post here about Michael Kazin's critique (yes, Chun, that's spelled c-r-i-t-i-q-u-e) of Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States provoked an interesting discussion there and an incidental comment by Penn's Bruce Kuklick here.

In this note, Kazin responds to the discussion here:

First of all, thanks to Ralph for posting my screed/critique/essay on Zinn's big, bad book and to all who responded. I'm quite mystified by Greg, who considers me an"elitist" based on no evidence whatsoever and seems to think I wrote an entire study of the language of populism in order to discredit it. On page six of The Populist Persuasion (second edition, 1998), I state my ambivalence about the subject and make clear that American leftists can neither live comfortably with the notion of a virtual, united"people" nor dispense with it. Perhaps Greg only got to page five?

Perhaps his myopia about my work is one reason he sees little problem with Zinn's. I'm all for well-written, clearly argued, politically relevant history – and try hard to do my part (and it is hard!). But A People's History is simply not credible history. Instead of the husky realities of power and resistance in the past, Zinn gives us moralistic propaganda. It may seem liberating to students who've never encountered such a viewpoint. But once they read serious histories of any period Zinn covers, the book must seem like a leftist comic-book, and without any pictures.

Perhaps the worst thing about A People's History is that, as Timothy mentioned, it's remarkably boring – the same pattern of evil elite and defeated masses appears in nearly every chapter, while the exciting context and narratives of cultural, social, and political change are almost completely absent. Only the names have been changed, as the narrator on"Dragnet" used to intone, to protect the innocent (and further damn the guilty).

And I must say that I'm appalled that the Organization of American Historians is honoring Zinn with a night of his own this coming Thursday at our convention in Boston.

To conclude with perhaps the best comment about left history ever written, from Prosper Lissargay's The History of the Commune of 1871:"What was the Commune?...The child has the right to know the reason of the paternal defeats, the Socialist Party the campaign of its flag in all countries. He who tells the people revolutionary legends, he who amuses them with sensational stories, is as criminal as the geographer who would draw up false charts for navigators."

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Ralph E. Luker - 3/26/2004

It amuses me in a way that you begin by making popularity in the marketplace as the touchstone for measuring talent. You and I know many shams which are marketing successes. Most folk on the left have questions about the market as the measure of merit. Many folk on the right don't.
I have no doubt that Zinn is empassioned. I have almost reached a point of seconding Yeats's "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity." In many ways, passion is no adjunct to what we ought to be doing. We are all subject to becoming impassioned and act on passion, only to look back on the disgrace we have committed and wonder how we could have gotten so caught up in it.
That is why I think that Foner and, yes, Genovese are preferably to Zinn -- because we ought to celebrate that which makes us think -- not that which moves us to act precipitously. I agree with Tim Burke's distinction between the person of the historian and the work of the historian. I've known most of these historians, some much better than others. Some, as persons, I don't care for; but the issue is quality of work and clearly, it seems to me, at least, Zinn falls short -- for many of the reasons that Kazin and Burke, in his earlier incarnation, indicated.
What sort of class analysis fails to ask what the American masses have pretty consistently bought into the American dream of upward mobility? What sort of class analysis makes the marketplace the test of quality?

Jonathan Rees - 3/25/2004


Seriously, how should we measure talent? Howard Zinn's People's History is #466 over at right now, twenty-four years after it came out. And Zinn has managed this success even though his politics aren't just left, they're about as far outside the political mainstream as you can get. To me, making his politics popular takes enormous talent.

I actually came to his book late - graduate school, actually. I went to see him speak in Madison and was blown away by his eloquence and passion. I starting reading the book the next day. As I've said before here, I don't agree with everything (or perhaps most) of what Zinn writes, but he sure made me think about history differently than I did before I heard him and read his work.

I don't want to disparage anyone you mention, but in this department there's no comparison. Eric Foner's work makes me think, but (with the notable exception of the historiographic Introduction to Reconstruction) it doesn't inspire passion like Zinn or Herbert Gutman can. You can probably guess what I think of Genovese by looking at the end of my last sentence.

Attack Zinn's politics if you like, but attacking his talent is an implicit attack on his readers. You don't have to be a Marxist to think that class analysis is a valuable tool for understanding American history, even if that makes history seem to go in patterns. They said the same kinds of things about Charles Beard and look how history has remembered him.


Ralph E. Luker - 3/25/2004

Mr. Taylor, This discussion alone might suggest alternative readings to you. If you are talking about books on American history, there are those by Eric Foner, Michael Kazin, Eugene Genovese, .... I could go on and on. Historians on the left are hardly lacking. Zinn is among the least talented of them.

Sam Taylor - 3/25/2004

I bought Zinn's "History" a few years back when probably at or over age 65. (Zinn and I are rough chronological contemporaries.) It provides a point of view that while in my judgement is less than perfect, is in Zinn's absence, essentially non-existent in the US. This is a country without a "left", at the very least in popular or semi-popular published works. If colleges and universities want to provide readable alternative views, I don't know where else they would go. (Happy to receive suggestions.)

I'm not even sure that Zinn would qualify as a "leftist" except in the US.

Sure his history is less than perfect. Sure he is an idealogue. Nevertheless, given those in second place, he qualifies for an atheistic "God Bless Him" and roundly deserves recognition from his peers.

Sam Taylor

Ophelia Benson - 3/25/2004

Nope, it's not just you. There's a reason Hofstadter and Foner are in easy reach on my bookshelves and Zinn is - no longer there, actually.

Name Removed at Poster's Request - 3/25/2004

In the last message, "much percentage" should have been "much higher percentage"

Name Removed at Poster's Request - 3/25/2004

I never knew that Zinn's book was taught in the classroom until I read it here. The book is very popular among Americans far over on the Left, so I'm sure a much percentage of copies are read than might be the case for most textbooks.

As for the reasons to honor Zinn, I wonder how many people became interested in history by first reading his book? I developed my interest through my left politics. It wouldn't have happened if I'd only had Arthur Schlesinger available to me!

Ralph E. Luker - 3/24/2004

It's a stretch to assume, as Jonathan seems to, that a million books sold are a million books read. But if you're primarily concerned about sending junior to college, whether the book is read is a secondary consideration. I know a little something about catechisms and I've never read an exciting one. As for honoring Zinn, it seems to me that the burden is on those who support honoring him to show why that should be done. Should Zinn be singled out from among all of those who _might_ be honored -- why? For distinguished work? Probably not. There must be other reasons at work.

Michael Kazin - 3/24/2004

OK- maybe it's just me who finds Zinn a boring read, because it's so predictable. One key to its popularity is that Zinn has written one long Jeremiad- which Sacvan Bercovitch and others have argued been a basic trope of religious and political discourse since the Puritans. Simple tales of moral declension always sell better than more complex, nuanced ones. But that's no reason for the major organization of people who teach and write about American history to give the author his own evening at its convention. I'd reserve that honor for the truly great historians -- the Hofstadters, Woodwards, Foners, etc.

Michael Kazin

Timothy James Burke - 3/24/2004

I think it's appropriate for the OAH to honor Zinn. I want to get past thinking the mode of thinking that says a criticism of someone's work necessarily extends to thinking ill of them professionally. Zinn has been an important presence in the profession, and there's no reason to rewrite that out of existence.

I also disagree that the book is boring. It's quite readable: I was looking at it again last night. I simply think it chooses to tell a story which comes to resemble a catechism, to the point that if Zinn stopped the book in 1920, any one of us could continue the book from where he left off in a way that perfectly reproduced its cadences. As I've said, I have enormous problems with this choice, and I think in some ways it actually ends up being far less radical than it pretends as a result.

Jonathan Rees - 3/24/2004

So let me get this straight, the People's History of the United States is "remarkably boring" yet incredibly popular, selling like hotcakes for over two decades. Who are these masochists reading the book for all these years? Have they read the book or do they all just use it to impress Matt Damon with their liberal credentials? How can I learn to write in this boring manner so that I can afford to send my kids through college?

Perhaps the term "People's" applies better to the book's audience than it does its subject.

Jonathan Rees