Sadly, it was a story about a historian destroying history. In 2008, the infamous 86-year-old historian and activist Howard Zinn scoured his personal archives for any document that related to his personal life. Then he burned them.
In his new biography of Zinn, “Howard Zinn: A Life on the Left,” professor and playwright Martin Duberman tried to tell Zinn’s story without these vital records. Duberman acknowledged in the introduction to his book that the story of Zinn’s life would be palpably lacking because of the absence of the personal, but it is worth dwelling for a moment on what we lost.
Howard Zinn was one of the most influential historians in American history. (We’ll get to that in a moment.) But he was also a husband, a father and a friend. He had an affair. He fought in a war. He got fired. He got arrested. And because of the plethora of records lost, we’ll never definitively know how he felt during any of this. According to Duberman, Zinn destroyed his records because he wanted any story of his life to be “about political, not private, matters.”
Zinn’s political life and ideology were remarkable. He was born to a poor family of Russian refugees, and lived the iconic childhood of the Jewish Brooklyn working class at this time: He struggled through high school (the only one of four brothers to graduate), fought in World War II and then returned home to attend college on the G.I. Bill. It took Zinn six years to earn his bachelor’s degree, as he was working the whole time. Eventually, he achieved his doctorate from Columbia, writing a highly influential dissertation about New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia.
Zinn’s service as a bombardier during World War II is particularly interesting, as Zinn later vociferously denounced war. He did this as a lifelong academic, first at Spelman College in Atlanta, then at Boston University. Spelman was (and is) a historically black college for women, and Zinn chose to teach there during the heart of the civil rights movement (from the mid-1950s until 1963). Zinn was a popular professor and wrote prolifically, yet he was incredibly politically involved, getting arrested several times and picking fights with his school’s own administration over the freedom they allowed the “young ladies” to join in the protests. Zinn was controversially (and perhaps illegally) denied tenure, and took a job at Boston University.
There, his run-ins with school officials and his political activity only escalated. Zinn protested against the Vietnam War and segregation, American intervention and nuclear weapons. He also wanted to give the students more of a voice in decision-making, pushing this to the point of endangering his job once again.
As a professor, Zinn wrote prolifically. He is best known, of course, for his epic 1980 history text, “A People’s History of the United States,” which presented a biography of the country from the bottom up. It highlighted the struggle of the working class and the poor, the Natives, African-Americans, socialists, rioters, women, laborers, populists and slaves. Along with many other works, “A People’s History” defines Zinn’s legacy — radical and unabashed, using the past to influence the future.
As Duberman notes (and reviewer Samuel Thrope dwells on in more detail), lack of interest in the personal permeated Zinn’s life and works. He was as uninterested in preserving the feelings of historical figures as he was of his own, and his works are sometimes derided for presenting flat characters (i.e., selfish capitalists, principled socialists). Zinn sought to make himself one of his subjects, disconnected from the personal — that “trivial or esoteric inquiry,” as he put it in 1969. To Zinn, actions (especially political actions) were all that mattered.
I have one true complaint about “Howard Zinn: A Life on the Left,” and I am hesitant to bring it up at all. I shouldn’t, really; I was forewarned. In the introduction, Duberman wrote that he and “Howard” (as he always called him) “largely shared political values,” and that Duberman also shared Zinn’s skepticism of “so-called ‘objective’ history.” Yet Duberman’s biography strikes me as especially unobjective. Duberman would give his own incredibly radical opinions as facts, without adequately presenting the other side of any argument. Passages about political criticisms of Zinn are imbibed with incredulity, as if most people don’t disagree. I identify as someone who is with Zinn on most issues, and at times I found myself nodding and nearly voicing “Amen” while reading this book. Yet at other times the overt politicality seemed unprofessional. And Duberman’s often excessive admiration for Zinn also diverts from the story.
“Howard Zinn: A Life on the Left” is well-worth a read. Unbalanced and lacking in the personal, it nonetheless paints a much-needed picture of one of the great iconoclasts of the 20th century.