Saturday, January 30, 2010

Farewell To The People's Historian

Howard Zinn died on Wednesday at the age of 87. He was a shipyard worker, a World War II veteran, a professor, an activist, and an author. He was probably best known for writing A People's History of the United States, which was first published in 1980 and was most recently edited to cover events through 2003. More than one million copies of the book have been sold. A People's History is unabashedly leftist. Zinn said that he wanted to present a history from the point of view of ordinary people, because previously history was written from the point of view of the powerful. Instead of a "great-man history" focusing on kings, presidents, generals, and the titans of industry, A People's History focuses on farmers, slaves, Native Americans, middle class families, feminists, and miners--the 99 percent of the population that are largely ignored in traditional histories. When times were bad, it was these people who suffered most. And when change happened, it was these people who drove it.

A People's History of the United States inspired a whole series of "People's History" books--A People's History of...the Third World, the American Revolution, the Vietnam War to name a few. I just started reading A People's History of the World, by Chris Harman. On the first page of the book is a poem that I think captures the spirit of Zinn and the people's histories.
Questions from a Worker who Reads
by Bertold Brecht

Who built Thebes of the seven gates?
In the books you will find the names of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?
And Babylon, many times demolished
Who raised it up so many times? In what houses
Of gold-glittering Lima did the builders live?
Where, the evening that the Wall of China was finished
Did the masons go? Great Rome
Is full of triumphal arches. Who erected them? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Had Byzantium, much praised in song
Only palaces for its inhabitants? Even in fabled Atlantis
The night the ocean engulfed it
The drowning still bawled for their slaves.

The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Did he not have even a cook with him?
Philip of Spain wept when his armada
Went down. Was he the only one to weep?
Frederick the Second won the Seven Years War. Who
Else won it?

Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors?
Every ten years a great man.
Who paid the bill?

So many reports.
So many questions.
When I heard that Howard Zinn had died, the word irreplaceable came into my mind. Then I thought how ironic it is that many of us now consider Zinn, the people's historian himself, as a "great man" of history. But the difference between Zinn and most of the "great men" from whom he recaptured history, is that Zinn used his influence almost entirely to empower others. It's strange that it took a great a man to say, for the record, that we don't need "great men" to save us. We can change the world ourselves.

Near the end of his life, Zinn said, "I want to be remembered as somebody who gave people a feeling of hope and power they didn't have before." That's exactly what his writing did for me.

1 comment:

Camp Papa said...

A Peoples History of the United States is a must read for anyone who wants to get beyond a naive mythological understanding of our history.