The Insubordinate Historian: The Life and Legacy of Howard Zinn

By Michael KammenNovember 29, 2012

Howard Zinn: A Life on the Left by Martin Duberman

IN 1943-45 HOWARD ZINN SERVED as bombardier for a U.S. Air Force B-17. Initially, just 21 years old in the service, he found himself in transit to Europe in charge of a mess hall on the Queen Marythat served more than 15,000 men twice a day in four shifts. The armed forces were still segregated, and black soldiers were relegated to the fourth shift. After a few days a “mix-up” occurred — perhaps no accident — and black troops poured in while white troops were still eating and sat down wherever they saw empty seats. A white sergeant with a southern accent pointed to the black soldier sitting next to him and called out to young Zinn: “Lieutenant, will you ask this soldier to move from this table?” Zinn, briefly flustered, collected himself and replied: “You fellows are going overseas in the same war. Seems to me you shouldn’t mind eating together. Sergeant, you’ll have to sit there or just pass up this meal. I won’t move either of you.” The sergeant hesitated, and then picked up his fork and began eating.          

Why is Howard Zinn sufficiently significant to warrant a full-scale biography, this splendid one actually being the second? (A lesser one by Davis D. Joyce appeared in 2003.) Because he was one of the most outspoken radicals of his generation concerning issues of race, class, and opposition to American intervention overseas. His anti-war rallies drew hundreds if not thousands and helped to mobilize many activists. Working with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), he was a principal organizer of the March on Selma and the Mississippi Freedom Summer training schools in 1963. His People’s History of the United States (1980) has gone through multiple editions and been adopted as a text at countless schools for a full generation.

At great personal risk he sheltered Daniel Ellsberg’s Pentagon Papers in his home during the winter of 1970-71 just before The New York Times published them. (Zinn was already under FBI surveillance. His telephone was later tapped.) He was a remarkable polemicist, producing numerous political tracts and essays spanning half a century, eventually harvested wholesale as The Zinn Reader: Writings on Disobedience and Democracy (Seven Stories Press, 1997). Most recently there is also The Indispensable Zinn: The Essential Writings of the “People’s Historian” (New Press, 2012) edited by Timothy Patrick McCarthy with a foreword by Noam Chomsky.

His causes were just. His heroes are instructive because they too were insubordinate, like him. They included the farmers of Shays’ Rebellion in 1786, “the black abolitionists who violated the law to free their brothers and sisters, the people who went to prison for opposing World War I, the workers who went on strike against powerful corporations, defying police and militia, the Vietnam veterans who spoke out against the war, the women who demanded equality in all aspects of life.” Along with Bernard Fall and Frances FitzGerald, Zinn was one of the earliest critics of U.S. policy in Vietnam.

He could not be more fortunate in his amicable biographer. Martin Duberman is a distinguished historian and biographer with impeccable credentials for this project. His expansive studies of Charles Francis Adams (1961), James Russell Lowell (1966), Paul Robeson (1988), and Lincoln Kirstein (2007) are thorough, thoughtful, and gracefully written. When Paul Robeson, Jr. invited Duberman to write his father’s biography and gave him unfettered access to the papers, he answered the question, “Why me?” by explaining that he admired Duberman’s “nuanced prose.” Robeson also knew that he was a man of the left who had done revisionist work on the abolitionists.

Like Zinn, Duberman has written several plays “on the side,” and like Zinn, he has been an activist for many decades on behalf of African Americans, as a critic of U.S. foreign policy, as well as achieving high visibility on behalf of gay rights and feminism. Even so, this book is not merely judicious. It is laudatory where praise is warranted yet critical in many respects, too. In Duberman’s book Left Out (2002) he calls himself a “tempered optimist” and frequently notes Zinn’s inherent optimism, even when causes seemed lost. In an essay written a decade ago, Duberman asked, “What are the essential qualities in a given biographer that heighten the chances for understanding a given life?” He has those qualities in spades for this particular life and times. Moreover, he is unduly modest. At one point he has occasion to mention a documentary play, In White America (1963), but doesn’t bother to mention that he is the author.


Howard Zinn (1922-2010) grew up amidst poverty in Brooklyn, New York, and became the family bookworm. He read Karl Marx as a teen and by 1937 felt indignation at the glaring gap between wealth and want in the United States. An encounter two years later with police in Times Square radicalized him, though he never made a commitment to any specific ideology and did not join the Communist Party. As with Duberman, anarchism eventually intrigued him. After serving in World War II he became intensely anti-war and soon entered New York University on the GI Bill, continuing on for his PhD in History at Columbia University. From 1956 until 1963 he taught at Spelman College in Atlanta, an elite school for African-American women, where his classes included everything from American to Chinese history. He was soon joined at Spelman by another bright young activist, Staughton Lynd, and the letters from their friendship help supply significant material for this book — Zinn having inexplicably destroyed much of his own archive during his later years.

Early on, Zinn was deeply involved in the civil rights movement and became an advisor to students at Spelman, including Alice Walker who has called him “the best teacher I ever had.” His engagement with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) — partaking in sit-ins to protest desegregation, Freedom Rides, and the March on Selma — enraged the conservative black president of Spelman, who fired him in 1963 for insubordination, even though he was a full professor and by then chairman of his department. Essentially, he was thrown out for civil rights activism. Having to resign from a black college under such circumstances reaches beyond ironic. It’s bizarre. Those years make for some of the most compelling reading in the book, a scintillating reminder of intense times. The same can be said about Zinn’s first harrowing trip to Hanoi with Dan Berrigan in 1968 in order to bring American POWs back from North Vietnam.

He also began publishing pieces in The Nation and The New Republic about abuses of civil liberties and never really stopped. At the end of his life he still wrote a monthly column for The Progressive. In 1964 Boston University offered him a position as associate professor of political science and he promptly launched his role as a polemicist and speaker at rallies opposed to the war in Vietnam. Eventually that would lead to his own 17-year war with John Silber, the authoritarian and repressive president of BU. Silber never tried to fire Zinn but repeatedly froze his salary in an effort to drive him away, especially after 1973 when Zinn also began writing radical columns on a regular basis for the Boston Globe.

He took teaching very seriously, so that when he retired from the classroom in 1988 he still had 400 students in his lecture course. Yes, he did give good grades readily, but that was not the primary reason for his popularity. Undergraduates are attracted to iconoclasm and lecturers who speak with moral authority. Moreover, he held forth fluently without notes and in a very relaxed manner.

Because he had such a sunny disposition and tried to avoid personal conflicts and confrontational situations, “everybody likes him,” said a departmental secretary. Cynicism was not his métier. His warm smile was ever ready. Zinn stood more than six feet tall but weighed a willowy 155 pounds with a great mane of dark hair that turned snow white in his later years. (The Davis Joyce biography has splendid photos of Zinn with the Lynds and with the MIT linguist Noam Chomsky, a very close friend and ally.)

Aside from his civic activism and polemical writing, Zinn will be best remembered for A People’s History of the United States, which has sold more than two million copies and spawned all sorts of offspring, such as Voices of a People’s History (a huge book of sources created in cooperation with Anthony Arnove, published in 2002) and even a documentary comic book by David Cogswell, titled Zinn for Beginners (2009). His goal in A People’s History was to call attention to all sorts of folks and events customarily overlooked in traditional surveys. He rejected Henry Kissinger’s notion that “history is the memory of states.” For Zinn it was the memory of ordinary people and their causes.

A major reason for the History’s success was his determined goal of using the past to illuminate the present. His approach, he wrote later, was to “find wisdom and inspiration from the past for movements seeking social justice in our time.” Even though he began with a now famous chapter critically devoted to Columbus, disproportionate space is devoted to the 20th century. The work is unabashedly guilty of what less partisan historians denigrate as the “Whig fallacy,” namely, seeing the past in the light of present concerns. If that feels like a fatal flaw, Duberman puts it this way: “His intent was to write an alternate not a comprehensive history.” But he also acknowledges that at times the book “lacks nuance, with the world divided into oppressors and oppressed, villains or heroes; the history of the U.S. is treated as mainly the story of relentless exploitation and deceit.” By failing to fully recognize the pastness of the past, to appreciate it on its own terms, the Whig cannot appreciate the radically different alternatives the past presents to the present.

In 1980, at the time of publication, Zinn wrote to Frances Fox Piven, a distinguished historian and close friend, explaining the project that had energized and occupied his time for three full years. “What I tried to do,” he told her, “was more emotional than analytical, to throw at people enough instances of people continuing to fight despite repression, despite containment of reform, to suggest that the energy is there for even more.” Zinn’s many letters to Piven are critically important for Duberman because they reveal quite candidly his sense of purpose and personal life.

One of Zinn’s major goals was to include a great deal of material usually left out of standard accounts of the American past. As he explained, “It became clear to me that the really critical way in which people are deceived by history is not that lies are told, but that things are omitted. If a lie is told you can check up on it. If something is omitted, you have no way of knowing it has been omitted.” Part of Duberman’s achievement involves the attention he pays to a lack of balance in A People’s History, what Zinn omitted and the resulting disproportions. Throughout the biography, Duberman’s critique is informed by up-to-date attention to current scholarship.

A People’s History received mixed reviews at the outset. Many academic historians at the time critiqued the imbalances in periods covered and the moralistic interpretations, but teachers, especially at the high school level, liked assigning it, either because they agreed with the relentless emphasis on exploitation or because they wanted to teach against it. In 1997 Matt Damon (who grew up as Zinn’s next-door neighbor) actually mentioned the book in the film Good Will Hunting (the soldier boy says, “that book will fucking knock you on your ass”), and soon after that it was cited in an episode of The Sopranos. So this book got genuine boosts into American popular culture and has held steady ever since.

After the publication of A People’s History, Zinn, age 58, became much less productive in print and even somewhat less involved in the public sphere than he had been. He never became an archive-based scholar, but continued to produce timely essays, even into his ninth decade. He remained very much in demand as a speaker on college and university campuses and accepted invitations compatible with his classes at BU. He also gave countless interviews in his 70s and 80s — reliable as a source of provocative remarks about government policies at home and abroad, but also devoted to people and causes that he felt had been neglected. In 1993 he wrote a thin memoir that many mainstream publishers rejected, but Beacon Press eventually brought it out in 1994 as You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times.

When Zinn became critical of historians, scholars, and writers, he usually targeted liberals like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. He rejected George Kennan, who opposed a “moralistic approach” to historical writing. And Zinn explicitly targeted what he called “aggressive liberalism,” by which he meant foreign policy initiatives that took the form of “beneficent imperialism,” saving the world by meddling overseas and expanding American power. Some have argued that too often Zinn viewed liberals, rather than conservatives and reactionaries, as the real enemy of the good society.

One of his sharpest conflicts involved historian Eugene Genovese, a man with very similar origins who also became a prominent radical during the 1960s but eventually swung to quixotic manifestations of conservatism. In 1999 Genovese told a reporter that Zinn’s ideology “slants the facts […] it basically transforms history into a good guys-bad guys view of the world.” Zinn responded indirectly in The Progressive: “I would not have become a historian if I thought it would become my professional duty to never emerge from the past, to study long-gone events and remember them only for their uniqueness, not connecting them to events going on in my time.”

It’s not as though Zinn was oblivious to the potential conflict between his values and his vocation. Looking back he wrote, “I was by profession a historian, by choice an activist, and the tension between the two was something I thought about constantly,” Duberman puts it very well in his pivotal chapter “Writing History.” Zinn’s insistence on looking to the past for inspiration:

In the fight against misery and alienation did contain a number of missteps and simplifications, but it raised the big questions regarding historical study and its potentially instrumental use in the fight against inequality and suffering. ‘History cannot provide confirmation,’ he once wrote, ‘that something better is inevitable; but it can uncover evidence that it is conceivable.’ Few historians of his generation or any other were willing to stick their necks out or risk rebuke to the same extent.

As the biography proceeds, the values and voices of these two writers increasingly merge, especially in chapter 11, devoted to “The Nineties.” The work contains countless dividends for the general reader: sufficient context for understanding the civil rights movement and the push for desegregation in the South; the genesis of protest against the U.S. role in Vietnam; some pages devoted to the success of long-term marriages, occasioned by Zinn’s infidelities (treated with discretion); a clear explanation of what black power meant when it emerged in the later 1960s, and also the tensions between older and younger blacks involving SNCC, the SCLC, the NAACP, the Urban League, and CORE.

All told, this is biography at its best, written by a master of the craft and a man who has lived the activist life and combined that with serious scholarship and innovative teaching. In 1966 at Princeton University, where Duberman taught initially, eyebrows were raised when he chose to teach not only a seminar devoted to the history of American radicalism, but sought permission from the president to give no letter grades. That really rocked the boat. For Zinn and Duberman, doing so became standard practice.


Michael Kammen’s books include two biographies: The Lively Arts: Gilbert Seldes and the Transformation of Cultural Criticism in the United States (1996) and Robert Gwathmey: The Life and Art of a Passionate Observer (1999).

LARB Contributor

Michael Kammen was the Newton C. Farr Professor of American History and Culture (emeritus) at Cornell University, where he taught from 1965 until 2008. In 1980-81 he held a newly created visiting professorship in American history at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes in Paris. He was an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and served in 1995-96 as President of the Organization of American Historians. In 2009 he received the American Historical Association Award for Scholarly Distinction. His books include People of Paradox: An Inquiry Concerning the Origins of American Civilization (1972), awarded the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1973; A Machine That Would Go of Itself: The Constitution in American Culture (1986), awarded the Francis Parkman Prize and the Henry Adams Prize; Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (1991); A Time to Every Purpose: The Four Seasons in American Culture (2004), Visual Shock: A History of Art Controversies in American Culture (2006), and Digging Up the Dead: A History of Notable American Reburials (2010).

He wrote prolifically for the Los Angeles Review of Books before passing away in November 2013. He will be missed.


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