Remembering Howard Zinn


Joseph A. Palermo is Associate Professor of History at California State University, Sacramento. He blogs for the Huffington Post.

I was deeply saddened to see on the front page of The Huffington Post that Howard Zinn passed away today at 87.  I know that I am not alone among my colleagues in saying that Howard Zinn is the reason I became a historian. 

Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when I was a volunteer writer for a nuclear freeze news monthly in Santa Cruz, I used to send Howard my articles seeking his praise and encouragement.  He was always so generous and gracious and he took the time to write to me and comment on my little obscure articles.  I've kept one of his letters to me in a dog-eared copy of A People's Historyof the United States on my bookshelf.  It's from April 21, 1991, and Howard was commenting on an article I sent him about the Persian Gulf War. 

"Your article," he wrote in a little note batted out on a manual typewriter, "'An Unsanitized Look at the War' is on of the very best I have read on the events in the Gulf -- vivid, passionate, factual, and written with admirable clarity.  It is a powerful indictment of the war and it pulls together the basic facts about the violence we have done to human beings in that war.  Thanks for sending it to me.  Best, Howard Zinn"

That single letter from Howard inspired me to carry on what I was doing more than any other correspondence or comments I've ever received from any quarter.  

Later, when I was accepted at Cornell to pursue a doctorate in history, I wrote Howard seeking his advice.  I'll never forgot what he said and it served me well.  He said to keep the "nitpickers and super-scholars" off my Ph.D. committee and to choose a dissertation topic that is "doable."  I followed his advice.  Some years later I met him at a reception at Cornell and the first words that came out of his mouth after I introduced myself were:  "Oh, yes, you wrote some wonderful articles, I hope you're still writing."  He was so kind to me and really gave me the sense that he valued my work as a historian and commentator on current events. 

I saw Howard speak in Ithaca and in Santa Cruz and his talks were always so emotionally powerful and sensitive to human suffering and injustice.  But he could also be hilariously funny, with a comedian's sense of timing.  And he had the most developed sense of irony -- and the ability to convey irony -- as anyone I've ever seen or read.  That quality alone made him my all time favorite historian.  His commitment to social activism and keeping the record straight when it came to American history -- with all its blemishes -- was truly extraordinary.  His experiences with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee at Spellman College in the early 1960s and his seminal work on the civil rights movement, The New Abolitionists, gave him a first-hand grasp of the engine of historical change.  His 1968 trip to Hanoi with another mentor I hold dear, Father Daniel Berrigan, gave him the direct experience of being under the aerial bombardment from his own country.  He also understood what it was like to participate in war as a bombardier in World War Two and to work with dirty hands for a very low wage -- two qualities often lacking in academic historians.   

In our more recent email correspondence he was just as gracious and generous and thoughtful as he had been since before I was even a grad student.  After I started writing for The Huffington Post I would periodically receive some pretty hateful emails.  I asked Howard how he deals with that kind of thing and this was his response (January 4, 2008):   

"Joe, I am an experienced recipient of such mail.  I ignore it. To reply is to invite a round robin of stupidity.  There are some letters which are critical and where you feel you might have something to teach that person (I received something like that recently from a GI angry at my lack of patriotism, and I responded and he responded and each time he came down more from his initial anger.)  But some people are obviously incorrigible nuts and don't deserve a response."

Howard inspired me my entire adult life, more than any other single scholar or mentor.  His writing ability always keeps me in awe as I often return to many of his works.  I've read them all and re-read many.  In fact, A People's History has been the unofficial background text for every history course I've ever taught.  Few people have Howard's profound sense of social justice and a deep understanding of the human forces at work in making history. 

Today is my birthday and I was looking forward to watching President Obama's State of the Union Address tonight.  Hearing the news today of Howard's death was quite a blow.  He was my teacher and mentor, the perfect role model of the compassionate citizen-activist-historian-journalist.   I was happy when I received my copy of The Nation in the mail yesterday and saw that he had penned a short comment on Obama's first year in office.  I thought to myself, "I'm glad that Howard is alive and well."  I hadn't heard from him since his wife died not too long ago.  I've dreaded this day because when people like Howard go, there's really nobody to replace them. 

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Thomas Boyd Bartlett - 1/31/2010

Where did Mr. Zinn believe our rights come from? Did he believe that they came from God or government?

Lewis Bernstein - 1/30/2010

His personal demeanor was a reflection of his scholarship. In his case style was the man. With the exception of his book on La Guardia most of his work was tendentious and presentist in the worst possible way. He was, I suppose, a shining beacon to those who think the past is filled with easily identifiable heroes and villains. Howard Zinn knew exactly who his were and was never swayed by contradictory evidence or by examining context. I would paraphrase Shakespeare on good being interred with one's bones, while the evil men do lives on, one can get the general drift of my thoughts.

Susan M Reverby - 1/29/2010

I spent more time with Howard Zinn on a picket line than in reading his work. I spoke to him in the mid 70s for the first time when I made the decision to go back to graduate school at Boston University where he taught (exiled to political science not history). I was warned by the historians not to take courses with him or to put him on my dissertation committee. For survival I took their advice. But I loved working with him as we struggled for rights for both the faculty and the staff against the poisonous regime that John Silber ran.
I went back to graduate school to become an historian because I came to hate polemical history and the politics that come out of it. Too many years in the Civil Rights movement, the anti-war movement and the women's movement had made me question simple answers and my undergraduate training by a wonderful historian (Gerd Korman) left me too talmudic for simplicity.
Howard made a fabulous leader on a picket line, an inspiration to be with, and constant reminder of putting your body on the line. He paid the price for all of this at BU where Silber refused to give him raises and tried to fire him. I will miss him as an inspiration of how to act politically and how to use history. While I always shared his concerns, I never wrote like him or found the truths to be so "self-evident."
I will miss seeing him at rallies, on the beach on Cape Cod, or hearing his clear voice. May he be remembered for the passions and struggles for justice he inspired even if it led us to question exactly what he wrote and to try and write a different kind of "left" history.

Susan Reverby
Wellesley College

Kevin Eric Kennedy - 1/29/2010

Many professional historians have unpleasant personalities. Like all people, they can be self-centered, vain and even "boorish". But that doesn't detract from their academic achievments. Zinn himself admitted his books were not unbiased. They need to be read critically and considered alongside the works of those who disagree with him. But he still provided an invaluable service by uncovering the perspectives of those previously excluded from the traditional narrative of American history.

Kevin Eric Kennedy - 1/29/2010

Howard Zinn didn't hate America. He was a patriot in the best sense of the word. He cherished the values the United States were founded on and despised those who violated those values in the name of power and profit. Again and again the economic interests who have traditionally dominated the American political system have denied the rights they claimed to uphold to women, workers, blacks, native Americans, gays and lesbians, as well as countless innocent people across the globe. Zinn gave the victims of American capitalism and imperialism a voice in the historical narrative. His portrayal of their struggles showed that has always been another, a better America.

Lewis Bernstein - 1/29/2010

I met Howard Zinn twice and both times he proved to be boorish. The first time was 1969 in Boston at an Association for Asian Studies meeting. He made a spectacle of himself by criticizing a fellow scholar for concentrating on a topic in Central Asian history instead of devoting his time to ending the war in Vietnam. He would not engage in conversation only monologue. His point of view was the only valid one. His slander of his erstwhile colleagues as irrelevant was grotesque and self centered.

I next met him in Boise, ID when a student organization invited him to speak. He showed up and mounted his Americanist hobby horse - that only the losers in history were worth studying. I had a more personal interaction with him later and found him to indulge in monologues and be dismissive of opinion that was not in agreement with his own. Personally I found myself criticized as an Asian specialist who did not share his love of Asian radicals.

While anyone's death is a sad occasion for the family involved, Howard Zinn ought not be mourned as a great scholar - he was not. He was a vulgar popularizer of a half-baked historical point of view. the shame is that the reading public was/is so easily gulled. One might say the same for many of his colleagues. The advice he gave Professor Palermo is something he should have gotten from his academic advisor and is a truism in the academic world.

Bill Heuisler - 1/28/2010

Howard Zinn hardly ever passed up an opportunity to condemn the country that sheltered his parents and gave him immense prosperity. As historian he had very little good to say about this country. Mr. Palermo recalls how Zinn opposed the 1991 Gulf War and condemned the "violence we have done to human beings in that war". It seems to me Howard Zinn believed the U.S. took pleasure in killing. Why?

Zinn was often seen with the likes of Angela Davis and others who hated the U.S. Does anyone understand why he disliked the United States so much?
Bill Heuisler

John Connally - 1/28/2010

Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. once said: "I know he (Zinn) regards me as a dangerous reactionary. And I don't take him very seriously. He's a polemicist, not a historian."

I'm sure Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Oliver Stone will be eulogizing Zinn for months. And let's not forget all the fawning academics, who believe Zinn was the greatest thing to hit the field. "Remember kids, history shows that America is the biggest blight on civilization."

Kevin Eric Kennedy - 1/28/2010

I think HNN should devote a special issue to the life and work of Howard Zinn. This powerful voice of reason in the service of the people and their rights will be sorely missed. Especially at this moment, it is vital to recall Zinn's constant reminder that America should be a nation dedicated to preserving the rights of its citizens, not the profits of its corporations and banks. And we must not allow the rich and the powerful to manipulate the rage of the oppressed, inciting them to attack minorities instead of fighting social injustice.

Kevin Kennedy
Potsdam, Germany